The iPad Chronicles: Day One

I caved.

Despite my skepticism about the original iPad and unhappiness with its weight and bulk, as well as my scorn at the Apple groupies swooning over iPads 1 and 2 sight unseen, I'm now the proud (and slightly sheepish) owner of an iPad 2.

Why buy now? After the hysteria, hoopla and hype settled down a bit, it became tough to resist that gorgeous display, as well as access to all those apps. (My smartphone is a Palm Pre. You can't even get a Kindle or Netflix app on webOS). The new, sleeker form factor helped as well.

Friends were also a major factor -- including, not surprisingly, Mac enthusiasts. I'd have to agree with Pål Sundsøy of Norway's Telenor, who said researchers at his telecom company have found what they call "the tribe of Apple" that influences others' product purchase decisions.

Here's what pushed me from "strongly considering" to order placement:

1) Seeing and holding an iPad 2, which is noticeably thinner than the original -- although not, unfortunately, noticeably lighter. (Alas, what I really want is an iPad that weighs the same as a Kindle.) The display is stunning. And the Star Walks astronomy app an Apple store saleswoman showed me is the perfect blend of geekery and sleek design to trigger technolust -- a bit like the iPad 2 itself.

2) A friend whose opinion I deeply respect on all things technical -- an IT manager who's not an Apple enthusiast and who supports a fair amount of Microsoft platforms in the office. He told me he's using his iPad for work more often than his laptop, which led me to believe this was more than an expensive toy.

3) Being in the online publishing industry. Given the rising importance of tablets, I feel that I need to know how people consume information on them as well as on smartphones, laptops and e-readers.

So, while I refused to wait on a line at a store just for the privilege of ordering one, nor would I place an order online that would take a month or so to ship, when the backlog was down to a reasonable 1 to 2 weeks ... I joined the crowd.

After two weeks of eager anticipation, my iPad arrived last night -- despite ominous weather and a local tornado warning. And no, the irony wasn't lost on me that, after ridiculing those who stood online to get early iPads, I was tracking my order multiple times a day. ("It's been shipped!" "It's left China!" "It's going to be delivered by 10:30 this morning!" "It's 11 and it's not here yet." "UPS says they can't find the package! ARGH!")

Expecting to bond with my new tablet on sight, my first reaction was less "I love it!" and more "Why on earth did I spend $600 for this thing when I already have a laptop, a smartphone and an e-reader? Do I really need a pretty screen and access to the App Store that much?"

However, by the end of evening I was happily loading apps, surfing the Web and checking email. (By the way, email is a seriously underrated application on the iPad, probably because email hasn't been cool since about 1996. But I found the usually tedious chore of slogging through dozens of messages in multiple personal accounts surprisingly pleasant -- or at least less onerous -- on the iPad, thanks to both the elegant hardware and the email software UI.)

First impressions:

  • The display is as gorgeous as I remembered.
  • I still wish it were lighter.
  • It takes a bit of investment in time to learn how to use an iPad to its full potential.
  • Some apps are going to be lots of fun to use, others will be a disappointment.
  • It's going to take a lot of self-control not to junk the thing up with a whole bunch of apps I'll never use.

Easy doesn't mean obvious

The iPad has an elegant interface, no question. But everything isn't immediately clear without some instruction. In other words, there's a difference between "easy to learn" and "intuitive." Yes, using your fingers to scroll windows or zoom in and out is pretty natural to figure out. But no, having to 1) click home twice and 2) press an app icon until they all start wiggling before you 3) see the "X" that lets you close a running app is not something you're likely to stumble across on your own.

I'd agree that it only takes a few minutes to figure out how to do basic tasks like surf the Web or check email. But if you want to be more of a power user, you need to get some tips, either from fellow experts or by reading up. So, I read a few advice articles, downloaded the Macworld user guide and borrowed four -- yes four -- books from the library, enduring just a wee bit of ribbing from a colleague about making a beeline to dusty, dead-tree (printed) information to find out how to use my 21st-century mobile device.

Setup

Speaking of power using, there is some setup involved if you want your iPad to be more than an expensive Web browser (and even for that, you'll want to have your own bookmarks loaded in). It's not looking to be nearly as onerous as when I got my new desktop, but I spent a couple of hours figuring out what I wanted to sync up, setting up multiple email accounts and starting to download and set up a handful of the numerous apps on my wish list. And I'm far from done.

In addition, my iPad was unable to find my location at all (I've got Wi-Fi only, not 3G). It wasn't off by a few dozen or hundred miles, but simply wouldn't work, even though location services were turned on for both the device and apps. I finally fiddled around with initializing the compass (waving my iPad around in a figure 8 -- definitely not intuitive) and then finally shutting it off and restarting it. The iPad then found where I was almost exactly, but I wasn't all that happy that a reboot was needed to solve a problem on day one!

Keyboard

The main reason I don't have an iPhone, besides not wanting to be locked into AT&T (lone choice the last time my wireless contract was up), is its lack of a physical keyboard. On a device that small, physical-keyboard feedback is vital for me while I'm typing. I'd actually rather use the Pre's tiny keyboard than the cramped conventional one on our home netbook, as the latter teases that I can touch type on it, but the keys are just small enough that I can't.

I'm hoping the iPad's larger virtual keyboard will be less annoying than either an iPhone's or small netbook's. So far it's been fine typing in URLs, user names and passwords. It remains to be seen how I'll fare trying to write, say, a multi-paragraph email.

Meanwhile, I found a shortcut to solve one virtual keyboard annoyance, the need to switch keyboards between letters and numbers. I'm bugged all out of proportion by the extra effort needed to type a number: three keys just to enter a single digit in a password. You typically have to type a key to switch from alpha to number/symbol keyboard, a key for the number itself and then a key to go back to my alpha keyboard. It turns out that if you press the key to switch to numbers/symbols and then hold your finger down, sliding it to the number (or symbol) key you need, once you release your finger, the number/symbol will be typed and the keyboard switches back to alpha. This actually saves me zero time, since I have to be careful about holding and sliding, but somehow I'm less bothered. No, I can't explain it, and yes, I think I'll probably soon also just type the three keys again.

App attack

After living in the sparse world of webOS apps for a year and a half, the Apple App Store is a bit overwhelming. So many apps, so little time for acquiring knowledge of which ones I'd most enjoy.

Searching for apps without guidance can be an enormous time sink, as looking for keywords like "news" or "weather" will bring up more possibilities than I care to test. So I've started off partly with apps that have been recommended by friends or media I trust (but even that's a lengthy list), and especially with apps that I either already enjoy on my Pre (Evernote, Pandora) or long wished to have on my Pre but couldn't (Kindle, TweetDeck).

Results were mostly good but occasionally disappointing. For instance TweetDeck, my Twitter client of choice on the desktop, isn't any more useful than twitter.com on an Apple mobile device, and I couldn't believe that was one of the apps I'd been looking forward to on iOS. But it's nice to have the Kindle app available on the iPad (even though I also have -- and greatly enjoy -- a Kindle device), and the couple of weather apps I've tried out are both useful and fun.

More to come on my experience with iPad 2.

Sharon Machlis is online managing editor at Computerworld. Her e-mail address is smachlis@computerworld.com. You can follow her on Twitter @sharon000, on Facebook or by subscribing to her RSS feeds:
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