Before I launch into the review, I want to outline my parameters for the use of the ipad, my expectations and requirements.
My primary PC is a Linux powered Acer laptop. Whilst this is portable, it is hooked up to a monitor, CD drive, and other accessories, making unplugging it and plugging it back in a real chore. Also, I have never been a fan of track pads, and the laptop form factor doesn't work well for me away from my desk, so the iPad seemed like a good portable solution.
I run my own business sewing tactical products for shooters and contractors, so I spend a lot of time designing patterns and working with email, social networking sites and forums. I run a web store and blog, so I need the ability to admin both of these from wherever I am. I'm not much of a gamer, I have a select few PC games that I like but I have no real interest in the iPad as a game or entertainment machine.
My list of requirements therefore was:
The bottom line is this: Technology is a tool and should not get in the way of doing what I need to do. It should just work, and make tasks faster and more efficient than they were. The moment that is not the case, is the point at which it becomes useless.
- Portability - The ability to veg out in front of the TV, make notes, sketch ideas, read emails, browse the web and run my web store.
- Access to data - I wanted to be able to 2-way sync all my data, emails and bookmarks etc.
- Common applications - A 2-way sync is only worth having if the applications on the iPad can handle the file formats used on the laptop.
I am dividing this review up into three sections:
- The iPad itself, it's form and technology
- The OS
- The applications
1. The iPad
Make no mistake, this is a great little computer. Once you get past the excellent bright crisp screen, the first thing I noticed is that the battery life is awesome! Well of course it should be as it is all battery, but even so, I never worry about running the battery flat.
The form factor is nice, just about the right size for me, but I do find it a little difficult to grab sometimes. It can feel a little slippery. Instead of being convex, the back should have been concave, giving a gripping surface all the way around the unit.
The finish is nice, it feels well made and solid, but not heavy at all. I'm not a gamer, so the graphics performance is fine for what I do. More to the point, it seems to do what I want with ease.
The touch screen works well, but I do miss not having a mouse for some things. As far as the finger marks goes, I give the screen a wipe with a slightly damp microfiber cloth and all is well.
I think an SD card slot and/or USB port would have been an incredibly useful thing to have, but there are ways around this. In fact the lack of SD card slot forced me to rethink my entire computer use philosophy, but I will come to that later.
The other big plus for me is the instant-on - when I get an idea, or think of something I need to do, I want to just get it done or get it down 'on paper'. The instant-on is great for this - even a 10-20 second boot time for my laptop is too long in this regard, especially if I am doing this half a dozen times a night.
So in terms of form factor/hardware it scores well with me. I have found using the iPad to be easy (mostly), and that to me is the key.
2. The operating system and standard apps
I am currently using the new iOS 4.2.1 and it's ok, mostly. I don't have a large number of apps but even so, I like the folders.
The lack of cursor keys and file management, however, are an issue. I'm 45 and remember the bad old days of Windows 3.x and having files organized by application. Sadly, this is exactly what iOS does, so in terms of OS, I think we are about 15 years behind where we need to be. I'm not sure how useful multitasking is. I guess I'm not running enough apps (or the right apps) to notice it, but it's not made a jot of difference to what I do or need to do.
In the real world, we tend to organize data by project or subject, but the iPad OS won't let this happen (no file manager). It wouldn't be so bad if there was a desktop search function to find what I am looking for in the 17K+ files that I have, but alas, no search either. However, this gives us the opportunity for third-party file management products, and I like this idea because you are not then stuck with a neutered form of Apple's finder.
Tied into this issue is iTunes and the mechanism for getting data on and off of the iPad. Could they have invented a more torturous and gods-awful way of performing this function? I think not. My first issue is that as a Linux user, I really don't have a need for iTunes, and even if I did, there isn't a Linux version available. Ironic, considering Apple's OS is essentially BSD, so a Linux port of iTunes should be trivial to create.
My laptop is dual-booted with Win7, just in case I ever need Windows for anything. Getting the iPad enabled and updating iOS have been the only times I've used iTunes. Everything else I can do in Linux. Perhaps if I was a bit more Linux-savvy I could get iTunes running under Wine - I've tried but so far no joy.
Oh, what an awful browser. I can't find any positives to it in comparison with other browsers, but in terms of negatives:
It would also be really good if I could specify which browser was my default. (Class action suite on the horizon perhaps?)
- No bookmark import for those who don't use iTunes
- No Flash support. I know Apple's reasons for this, but this makes admin of websites difficult. My web store's admin interface uses Flash or XML, much like Wordpress sites do. This makes certain functions like editing text impossible. Wordpress have an app for this to get around this issue but none of the other packages I need to support do this, so I am unable to perform one of my primary functions.
I quite like the iPad email program, or at least I did until the upgrade. I get a lot of forum messages, email notifications etc. that I delete so that they don't clutter up my search results when looking for older emails. The old email had a delete button right there, nice and simple.
Now it has an Archive button instead, so I have to use edit > select email > move > select Trash. It's frustrating that such a simple thing has been grossly complicated. On the other hand, after messing about with the email setup again, I found that this is a default that can be switched back to my beloved delete button. Hoorah!
On the other hand, I am very happy to see threaded email support; now if only they were threaded like Gmail, so I see the actual conversation rather than just one side of it.
I do have to ask though, why do I have two inboxes in the email program now? I understand the Inbox list, with its global inbox, but then to have the same in 'Accounts' under that, makes no sense at all to me.
The keyboard works surprisingly well, and as long as you dont make any spelling mistakes or rethink what you are writing, everything is fine.
However, text manipulation is horrible:
The keyboard NEEDs a delete button. Trying to get the cursor in just the right place to backspace a character, with that damned bubble thing is a real pain, especially when editing forum posts - for some reason the text there is always smaller.
Selecting text is agony without cursor keys. My big sausage fingers either end up selecting everything or half of what I need to select. It takes far too long to select anything and it is far too inaccurate. Maybe if they made the bubble thing bigger?
The two-finger scroll is also horrible. It's a solution for a problem that did not exist. Scroll bars work just fine, especially if you have bigger fingers - at least give me the option of scroll bars, please?
I've heard a lot of chatter about this recently. I used the screen rotation lock all the time, and now I have to bugger about with a 5 step process to lock the screen for a few seconds and then go through the same process all over again to take it off. What a pain. As for the mute function, thats laughable - more like a 'sort of mutes only a few things' function! I would like to see the button at least software-definable, that way if you really want the 'almost mute' function, fine, but the rest of us can have our lock button back.
3. Third Party Applications
I'm not big on apps, I have just enough to get done what I need to get done and no more. I have 4 games I think, and I really don't play them any more.
The apps I use the most are Safari, Mail, Evernote, Goodreader, Dropbox, Popplet and Penultimate. I'm not going to write in-depth reviews of these, as others have already done this, but I will offer an overview of how I ended up with these apps.
Earlier in the review I said that because of the lack of file system, USB and/or SD card slot I had to rethink my entire approach to the way I use computers. It became obvious early on that I was not going to be able to use the iPad in a traditional manner with a file manager and data tranfser from a memory device or direct from the laptop. So how do I access and manipulate my data? The iTunes route wouldn't work; hell, iTunes wouldn't even recognize most of my data, and it would mean a total rewrite of my file structures.
The solution, to coin a phrase from a recent TV ad, was to go to the cloud! I've been a Gmail user for a few years now, so having stuff in the cloud didn't bother me, its just that I like to have my data available even if there is no network. I divided my data up into three blocks:
- Working files, archive and email
- TV and video
In total, this is about 500GB of data, but the actual working data is only about 20GB, the rest is music and video (I've ripped all my DVDs).
After some research I decided that a 50GB Dropbox account would be the way to go, to sync the music and video via Linux and not worry about getting that into the cloud. Dropbox has Linux, Windows and Mac ports as well as the iPad app, so it will work everywhere I need to work.
As a side note, Dropbox also effectively gives me offsite backup of critical data too. Moving my data there maintains my project based file structure, making things easy to find and work with, but there is a downside to it - no real offline mode for the ipad.
Dropbox really needs an offline mode! Currently, you can cache up to 1GB, but only on a file-by-file basis. How about we make the limit the free space in the iPad and allow me to select what to cache, based on folders as well as files? That would make much more sense. (I have a 32GB model, so my 20GB of data will fit, and still have room for some music)
As an aside here, I do encrypt my critical data. For this I use Truecrypt, because it has Windows, Linux and Mac flavors and a portable mode for USB drives. Great, except that there is currently no iPad app. Come on Truecrypt, we need an iPad app so I can open my encrypted containers.
I 'think' in two ways - sticky notes and mind maps. For the sticky notes I use Evernote, a great cross-platform application, except that there is no Linux port currently so I have to use it via the browser on my home machine. Not a big gripe, but I want to see a Linux port with a Tomboy plugin so I have local note storage for those times when the network isn't present. I don't use Evernote that much on the iPad, in fact I use it more on my iPhone, and there it appears to be very slow and buggy.
I like Goodreader; not only can I access my DropBox from this app, but I can also get to my Google Docs account from there. Now if I can only make it find my local network shared drives, I'd be in good shape.
Popplet is awesome. I love to create mind maps when I think, but often an idea doesn't always fit a simple mind map -- it's a little more complicated than that. Popplet, with its free-form structure, is a much better solution. The app is in its infancy, as is the supporting website (which uses Flash and can't be used with the iPad), but I'm sticking with this app and hoping for great things. I have iThoughtsHD installed as well, but now that I have Popplet, I never use iThoughts - Popplet is much quicker, easier and flows better.
I love Penultimate. I use it for sketching ideas and patterns. It's not accurate and its a little tricky to use sometimes, expecially for a complex drawing (and this is where a mouse would be much better than using your finger) but it works and it's quick. The downside is that I can't save the drawings to my file system. I have to email them to myself, and then back on the home machine, I have to file them.
There are some apps missing that I wish I had, including Open Office support. I use Open Office for word processing and spreadsheets, and currently there is no support for Open Office docs on the iPad. Again, Apple is shunning the open source community, which is a real shame.
I like the iPad a lot, despite my initial misgivings (of which there were many). You could almost say I like the iPad despite myself. However, I think this is the first and last iPad I will own. I passionately hate Apple's nanny approach to their hardware and apps, and with the lack of Flash support, video format support (all those DVDs I ripped cannot be viewed on the iPad), Open Office support and the lack of a proper file system make this a hard device to work with. I don't like the fact that I can't admin my web store and blog with it. I suspect I will use it until a similar device comes out with Linux on it, and at that point I will jump ship.