First Look: Apple iPad

Actually, it’s not the first look, but the first touch, which is important with the iPad. Sure, it looks just beautiful, and the screen, which we’ll come back to, is glorious, but it’s when you feel it in your hand that your heart races.

The glossy 9.7-inch screen is as inviting as the iPhone’s but it’s the anodised aluminium casing which is especially tactile and pleasing. Combine this with the super-light weight and, like a page-turning novel, you don’t want to put it down. That’s what Apple’s hoping for, of course, and it has aimed to create an experience as immersive and personal as a great book.

Checking off the spec list so we can get to the feel of the device in use, and it will come in six favours: 16GB, 32GB and 64GB with Wi-Fi and the same storage sizes with Wi-Fi and 3G. The Wi-Fi models will connect via Wireless b, g, and n, and you'll get Bluetooth in there as well.

Inside and the OS is very much Apple's iPhone offering with some tweaks to cope with the larger screen. Rather than turn to Samsung or Intel for the processor, Apple has created its own custom made A4 processor running at 1GHz and promising HD playback (720p) and enough speed to make it glide along with ease. Battery life is a quoted 10 hours (which we weren't able to test).

The tech specs aren't maxed out to the hilt as you might wish. There is no built-in camera for video conferencing via iChat or Skype for example, nor is there an SD card reader for transferring photos (that's an optional dongle). You can't multitask either just like the iPhone, which is a shame given the processing power on board. You will, however, be able to output the screen to an even bigger display, get giddy with the accelerometer and do virtually all the same things you can already do with the iPhone.

So let’s start with iBook. Steve Jobs made some play of the fact that unlike some ebook readers, the screen here is colour. That may not matter too much when you’re three chapters into "Wolf Hall", say, but it’s the details that are important.

You turn the page by tapping on the right side of the screen (left to go back). But you can also swipe your finger slowly across and an animated page will turn at exactly the same speed as your digit moves. This is as inviting and effective a transition as the first time you flipped through photos on the iPhone. Compare this to the slow and slightly alienating effect when you turn the page on the Kindle, when it flashes to a white-out-of-black image as the next page is formed and the iPad wins hands down. Of course, this needs to be considered alongside E Ink's passive technology, which is much more power efficient and is closer to reading off paper.

Video looks just lovely - even when you zoom in to full screen playback of movies like Star Trek, the result is crisp, sharp and gorgeous. Of course, purists will point out that the screen’s shape isn’t perfect widescreen so fullscreen loses part of the picture. There’s a widescreen viewing option but this leaves obtrusive black bars at the sides.

As for browsing, it's the same experience as on the iPhone, which means still no Flash although Adobe says they are working on a work around in the short-term. The difference of course is that you get the whole page at once without having to zoom in. The screen is 1024 x 768-pixel resolution at 132 pixels per inch (ppi) and that means you'll get to see most of your favourite websites like Pocket-lint without zooming when in landscape mode.

On the App front, the iPad is compatible with all the 140,000 apps already on sale in the app store with a button allowing you to scale them up to maximise the screen size. It's really clever and means you can tap into the vast array on offer. Of course there will be dedicated iPad apps as well, but it will get you started.

Unlike some LCD screens, the LED-backlit IPS technology display manages some convincing levels of contrast and deep, deep blacks. It also has a reasonably wide viewing angle so two people can watch together happily.

The processor speed is the next impressive element. It’s significantly faster than the iPhone 3GS, with instant app launches and quick responses throughout, whether you’re surfing the Net or deleting emails. Overall, the speedy responses make the iPad stand out and set the bar for other imitators to match.

Typing isn’t the greatest experience, with no haptic feedback and no way to guide your fingers without keeping your eyes on the screen. The accessory keyboard may be a necessity if you’re eager to use this as your main carry-around computer, especially if you plan to use Apple's new app iWork which brings word processing and Keynote to the device so you can roll up to a business presentation and wow them before you've even said anything.

Games are a real delight, and should be a winning element for iPad sales. Sure, it’s a pricey portable gaming device, but once you’ve got the hardware, the titles are cheap as all-get-out. And newly optimised games like Need for Speed played beautifully and intuitively. Extra features like the rear mirror view, not found on the iPhone version, could be a mark of things to come.

 

Verdict

So is the iPad a novelty or something you should invest in? There’s an awful lot of technology for your money and it’s going to be one of the cutest things you’ll own. It also has great potential - the new capabilities that genius coders will come up with for the larger screen may be as revolutionary as the way the App Store changed everything.

Expect the iBookstore to add real value to the iPad, as yet another way to download content (like the App Store and iTunes) falls, literally, into your lap.

The frustrations are always going to be there, no multitasking, no camera, no SD card, but these are small wants that we are sure they will fix in version 2 (let the rumours start). But then there are more significant drawbacks based around the concept. It isn't a fully-fledged tablet computer, it isn't an ebook reader, it isn't a netbook. It may do many more things and have the interface, but only time will tell whether it meets the demands that users have in this space.

The biggest catch of course is whether you really need it, especially if you've already got a TV, laptop and smartphone? Apple have pushed open a new category with the iPad and there is no denying that it looks very shiny, very shiny indeed, but some will struggle to justify it. 

The Apple iPad is expected to launch in March. We will bring you a full review nearer the time.



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