Apple iPad review

4 out of 5
$499

For

Watch movies, play games, read books, great screen

Against

Will cost you to fill it with useful stuff, can't multitask yet, limited to what Apple offers you

There are two ways I could write this Apple iPad review: the pessimistic way or the optimistic way. For a device that has polarised the gadget community as to whether it is the "second coming" or merely "sucks", the thing that both approaches have in common is a chance to cause a debate.

So is it worth the fuss? Will you be lured into buying the iPad and then after a couple of weeks never touch it again? By now, if you're really curious, you will have scoured the Internet and read numerous opinions on what the iPad, is, does, where and who it is for and probably a whole lot more. Now you've ended up here looking for the definitive answer.

To give you a quick background on where I am coming from on this one, I use a MacBook Pro for work, I have an iPhone, I am not an Apple fanboy. I use those devices because I believe they are the best devices on the market that empowers me to do what I need to do for my job.

What this review isn't either, is one that looks at all the apps available. With 3,500 already out and the number growing daily we could go on forever. Here we've focused on the device as it comes out of the box. Visit our iPad Apps homepage for the latest news and reviews.

So where does the iPad fit into all this? Well it's a facilitator. Put simply it's a sheet of glass and metal that allows you to do stuff that you can already do, just in a different form factor.

It's not a device that is designed to be bragged about from a hardware perspective. You just don't care about what processor it has got, or what RAM it has or what drives the graphics. You care about how much stuff you can store on it and whether it allows you to do the things you want it to do, be it surf the Internet or watch a movie.

So from a non tech-perspective it's pretty, shiny, and yet at the same time the design is incredibly vapid. The minimalist design really is just that. You'll get a volume switch, a screen locking switch (it stops it auto orientating), power and home buttons, as well as a headphone jack (strangely at the top when held in portrait mode with the home button at the bottom), a mic and little speaker which does surprisingly well. The iPad is connected to your computer (which you will need to activate it) via Apple's standard 30-pin dock connector. There is no SD Card slot, no USB or HDMI sockets to connect it to a camera or TV. An SD card accessory will be available from Apple at the end of April.

In the box you get a connector cable and power pack and that's it. 

Interestingly it's not a standalone device. You will need a computer to sync it with. This isn't just a case of buy this and nothing else. You will need a computer, an iTunes account, and even if you plan to dump that computer soon after you won't be able to get the OS 4.0 update promised until the Fall.

Out of the box and the 9.7-inch screen doesn't just dominate the front, it is the front. The back is brushed aluminium, the same as the MacBook range which between the two give it a sturdy, solid, and heavy feel in the hand.

At 680 grams (1.5lbs) it's certainly heavier than a Kindle or a Sony Reader and not one that we would like to hold one-handed for any real length of time (like 5 minutes). If you want to find out at home what that's akin to, it's less than a regular bag of sugar, more than a tin of beans.

The glass screen is tough, not to slam a nail into it, but akin to the iPhone. Scratching will be a problem if your iPad is going to meet the real world. We would recommend purchasing a case straight away.

Get outside and that viewing that glossy screen in the sun, and you might as well be holding a mirror. The web, with its predominately white background is fine, but a dark movie is going to be impossible to watch.

The OS is virtually identical to the iPhone. You get a home screen, a series of tiles with apps on them and that's it. There is no multitasking yet, that feature will have to wait until the iPhone 4.0 OS comes to the iPad in Autumn 2010, and if you've seen an iPhone (who hasn't?) then you'll be right at home. Like the iPhone and iPod touch there is a thin bar at the top of the screen that lets you see your Wi-Fi strength, the time and battery status.

On the Wi-Fi front we've not experienced the Wi-Fi problems found by others on the Internet, using it on three different networks at our own home and at others. Wi-Fi performance appeared to be similar to the MacBook.

As for the battery life it's impressive. We managed two full days of messing around with it (yes we slept in-between) before needing to charge. It should certainly allow you a trans-Atlantic flight before giving up the ghost. Compare this to a laptop and most will give you around 5 hours with a portable DVD player likely to die mid-flight.

Input to the device is via the touchscreen or an optional Bluetooth keyboard. On the iPad you get a massive on-screen keyboard that works in both portrait and landscape modes. In portrait mode the keyboard is just a little too big to use holding it in both hands using your thumbs to type, in landscape mode to type effectively you have to rest it against a desk or your legs and use your fingers. You can get some way to picking up speed in landscape mode (we managed a speed of 37wpm), but to be honest for the kinda stuff you'll be typing it's fine. Interestingly when you are running an iPhone app you get the iPhone keyboard and when you're in an iPad app you get the iPad keyboard.

Out of the box and you get a handful of apps installed. Calendar, Contacts, Notes, Maps, Videos, YouTube, iTunes Store, Safari, Mail, Photos, iPod and of course the most important one of all: a link to the App Store.

The apps all do what you would expect, and if you've used an iPhone, essentially they are the same. If you're not familiar with the apps, the calendar does just that, but takes advantage of the screen size so you get more of a traditional paper diary appearance and can scroll through different templates to give you either the day, week, or month at a glance. There is a list view as well for the super busy.

Whether you've used an electronic calendar before or not it's incredibly straightforward and easy to use with the ability to sync calendars you may already be running with Google, with your Mac, with Outlook or with an Exchange server. Contacts too takes more of an address book approach to its design and like Calendar is very easy to use.

Where you start to gain a sense of what is possible and how to impress your friends is with Google Maps. It's as you would expect, it is a big map that lets you scroll around the world looking up places, getting directions and generally interacting with the mapping software with your hands. Pinch and zoom lets you zoom into the map while a swipe of your hands will let you cover the world in a flash. Lovely.

The Video app lets you access your movies, and whether you've bought them from the iTunes store or imported them from your own sources will depend on what meta information is provided - that's basically details like who's in it, what's it about, etc. If you don't have them don't worry, there is an app for that. The screen's 1024 x 768-pixel resolution display is good enough to make any movie look spectacular, bringing that HD tag with it. So far we've watched movies that we already had and ones that we've downloaded from iTunes and they all look great.

There are streaming apps in the US - Netflix for movies and Pandora for music as well as a bundle of apps that will let you stream content from a hard drive or another Mac (like StreamToMe $2.99). In the UK check out http://iphone.tvcatchup.com/ that once signed in will let you stream all the Freeview channels to your iPad full screen.

YouTube's offering will keep you entertained, although you'll soon get annoyed if the content isn't available in HD. It's not that it is unwatchable, but it doesn't have the impact that you want. You'll find yourself demanding higher quality.

Then there are photos, and yes this will double as a photo frame when it isn't in your lap, if that's what floats your boat. Photos on the device can be viewed in a slideshow to music if you've got music on the device and you can forward individual photos as email attachments. There is no editing function (there is a separate app for that) and the only way to get images into the device is either to have received them via an email or to side-load them in via your computer and iTunes. No, there isn't a camera on the device (but there is also an app for that).

So what about the two big apps Safari and Mail? Well Safari is based on the iPhone Safari offering, not the desktop one and that means a number of things. On the most basic level you can't find text within a document, or upload a file to your blog for example. You will be able to bookmark pages, review your history and run multiple pages, just not within a tab system.

You should also expect to have a rather erratic surfing experience as different sites try to determine what kind of device you're using. Some will presume that you are on a mobile phone and push you to their mobile service while others think you are on a desktop.

Because you can't force it to behave like one or the other you are left frustrated. Take the BBC iPlayer for example. On the iPhone it automatically detects you're on the iPhone and allows you to get videos on demand. On the iPad it thinks you are coming from a desktop browser so insists you have Adobe Flash installed. Trouble is, you can't install Flash.

It is therefore a potluck scenario as to whether or not the website you visit regularly will be iPad friendly or not. While Apple could claim it's the web's fault, an option to make the browser behave as one or the other like you can the BlackBerry browser would be nice. We are sure that time will improve this experience as more sites detect the iPad and serve up the appropriate format, and we'd expect the BBC to organise iPad support relatively swiftly as they have with other mobile platforms.

As for Mail, for light email use this is perfect. Depending on whether you are in landscape or portrait mode will depend on the view you get, but either way it is good, giving you a quick and clean interface. We've had no problem receiving and replying. Setup is easy, with support for most common email services. You could easily run personal and business email from it as long as you aren't one for multiple folders. 

The iBooks app, currently only announced for the US, isn't installed from the off so is the first lure into the App Store. It's free to download and comes with a free copy of Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne, probably not something you are interested in reading. You will be able to sample books before you buy and books are all stored on a wooden bookshelf. We downloaded Elizabeth Peters' A River in the Sky as a Sample and were treated to 44 pages (most of which are content) but it gives you an idea.

The iBooks store is coming to the iPhone too (this summer) as part of the company's iPhone 4.0 software update and Apple has confirmed that you'll be able to share titles with your iPhone as well as sync pages and bookmarks. It's a nice touch, but something that Amazon Kindle app (also available on the iPad) can already do.

Stored on a shelf, which is rather quaint, you have access to 60,000 books and counting (the Kindle bookstore has 450,000). Some like the classics (out of copyright) are free, others will cost you. Load up the book and it looks like a virtual book waiting for you to flick the pages back and forth. It's clear, crisp and of course colourful with illustrations jumping off the page. You can adjust the font, and the font size as well as search for words. You can also highlight words to bookmark, look up in the dictionary or search online with. Education is going to love it.

Perhaps realising that staring at a screen that is glowing back at you will kill your eyes, Apple has included a brightness setting right there at the top of the page that allows you to dull the screen - ideal if you are in bed late at night. That option does make it possible to read without the pain and when we showed it to a friend who deals in rare books he was rather giddy with excitement. We especially like that it tells you how many pages to go until the end of the chapter (sad we know).

Of course that's just the start of what is possible, those who've already got an iPhone can download their iPhone apps to the iPad as well. iPad apps aren't always synced with the iPhone, although we've noticed that some, like the Marvel app for instance, that having downloaded the iPad version also installed itself to the iPhone. The sparseness of the home screen and wide spacing of the apps is a clear indication that Apple is hoping that, having spent a bucket of cash on the device, you'll be keen to spend some more on apps.

As with the iPhone, there is basically an App for something/everything/nothing. Launch apps are in their thousands (currently 3,500) at the moment rather than hundreds of thousands (iPhone has 185,000), but this will change as momentum builds. That means for the most part you'll be left either empty handed wanting your favourite company to produce an iPad app or kinda bodging it and installing the iPhone app instead.

But wait, isn't the iPhone screen a lot smaller? Yes it is, so to get around this Apple allows you to "double down". What that means in plain English is that you can double the size of the app to fill the screen.

While for some apps that's not a problem, others, mainly where text is involved, it makes them look awful. The Sky+ app is a fantastic example of where it doesn't work iPad size, while SimCity from EA is a good example of how you can get away with it.

Verdict

So what's the score, what's the rub, and should you buy it?

We've used it all over the house and the office. As a desk companion it's great, on the sofa it is also good as long as you acknowledge that you are using what amounts to a laptop. It's not got the same stigma, but it's not something you can sneakily look at while Mrs Pocket-lint isn't looking. Whilst I am happy to check emails and tweet from the toilet on the iPhone, I wasn't convinced about taking the iPad with me.

In bed and it's a sure fire hit for watching television via the iPhone friendly Catchup TV service in the UK, or content we had stored on the device.

There is no doubting that the iPad is like using the future of computing today. Every sci-fi movie you've ever watched features a tablet computer of some sorts and that means you get to live that dream.

It dumbs down computing to a consumer level making the Internet, movies, information and most other things accessible to the world without having to have a knowledge or care about how any of this stuff works.

For many that is massively appealing. As part of our review process we showed it to a number of people from all walks of life to see what their reaction was. While the tech heads could only whinge as to what it didn't offer, those who weren't used to computers on a daily basis loved the simplicity of it all; they loved the instant gratification that those apps, useful or pointless, gave them, and loved the design.

What is certain though is that the Apple iPad is a device that will swing you between those heady highs and frightful lows, not through frustration of a device that doesn't work how it says it will, but because you'll need to keep feeding it with applications to get the most out of it and that means more money in the pockets of Apple until it does everything you want it to.

With the iPhone you have the fact that it's also a phone that lets you make calls, it has a core purpose beyond the diversification, but with the iPad, it's an emotional luxury that will need feeding with content to keep you entertained and justify its existence. This is just the start of the journey.