Tech geeks love numbers. When discussing computers, they speak of gigabits and gigahertz, of RAM and ports. The more tech adept among them will even swap out the internals or write their own code. They are tinkerers extraordinaire, and are just as happy customizing their rigs as they are in using their machines for their intended purposes, be it work or pleasure.
Then there's everyone else.
I became a Mac user because I got tired of cracking my machine open to deal with hardware, and I got tired of fighting my software to get any work done. My work needs are simple: a browser, a word processor, and sporadic use of office productivity software (covered by Microsoft Office and Apple iWorks). With Google Docs, I use less and less of my desktop apps. I love cloud-based computing.
I was a PC gamer, but the current generation of dedicated gaming consoles took care of that. My Xbox, despite being made by Microsoft, is stable, fast, and runs my games perfectly. How could a company that gave us Windows build such a great gaming platform?
Because it was a closed system.
Able to control its hardware and software, Microsoft avoided the instability created by the endless hardware/software configurations found on PCs. Not only are users spared the pain of endless crashes, but they don't have to worry about hardware requirements when purchasing games. Rather than fret about whether one has enough Video RAM or processor speed, it's literally plug and play.
Of course, that kind of stability has a price. Microsoft requires Xbox developers to register themselves, and all games must be approved by the company before they can be sold to the public. Such rigidity limits the freedom of developers to write for the platform as they see fit, but it allows Microsoft to ensure that end users get the kind of enjoyable experience that keeps them buying Xbox games. Same goes for Sony and the PlayStation, and I'm sure for Nintendo and its Wii as well.
In the end, those closed gaming systems have been so effective, that they effectively killed PC gaming.
My Mac, while not perfect, is far more solid than my PCs of old. While the software isn't locked down, The hardware homogenization of Apple's lineup means fewer hardware-related crashes. And given how few third-party apps I run, my software-related crashes are kept to a minimum. The day HTML 5 fully kills off Flash will be the day that 95% of my infrequent crashes are eliminated. Currently, I reboot my MacBook Pro about once every 2-3 months (mostly after software updates), while I have applications crash maybe once every two weeks (mostly MS Word when working on huge files, or Safari/Chrome when I have too many windows open with Flash playing).
And my iPhone? It's even more stable than my laptop. It's crashed maybe twice in the last three years. The iPad is similarly solid. Why? Because these two devices use the same "closed" approach that has served the video game console makers so well.
Why the iPad?
I travel a fair amount, and lugging my MacBook Pro is a slog. It weighs almost 6 lbs, including adapter, must be taken out during security at airports, will run out of power in flight before I hit the opposite coast, and runs toasty on my lap. And while most people like to curl up to a book or magazine before going to bed, I lug my big-ass laptop to bed with me, for a final pre-sleep tour of my favorite non-political sites. I'm sure my wife loves that.
I wanted something more portable.
Why not the iPad?
The tech community is highly polarized over this machine, with many angry with the machine's closed system. Software for the machine must be approved by Apple (though with over 180,000 applications for the iPhone and iPad, it's not exactly tough to get that approval). People also complain about the lack of third-party multi-tasking (Apple apps can multi-task). Apple claims that multi-tasking compromises the stability of the platform while draining valuable battery life, something it says it has fixed with the forthcoming upgrade to their iPhone OS this summer (which the iPad will get this fall).
The iPad, like the iPhone, also doesn't do Flash. Apple claims Flash creates system instability and is a huge battery drain. It is right. Are those drawbacks reason enough to refuse it on their mobile devices? That is certainly open to debate. But one thing's for sure, Apple CEO Steve Jobs is out to kill Flash, and given how many major sites have started working on Flash alternatives on their sites, the process has at least begun.
On the hardware front, there are no user-upgradeable parts. Even the battery can't be serviced by users. And the lack of USB ports has many seeing red. You can get a USB port via adapter, but many assume USB is an integral part of any computing device and should be directly included.
For some, those are deal breakers, and lucky for them, the marketplace will offer alternatives. Personally, none of that bothered me too much.
I wasn't blown away at the iPad reveal in January (or was it February?), but I pre-ordered one anyway for one reason --the hope that I could leave my laptop at home when on the road. I got the device last Saturday, and spent three days in DC, Monday through Wednesday. The conclusion? I can use the iPad for about 90% of what I do on my laptop. As a travel machine, it was a huge success.
I put the iPad, ensconced in Apple's own case, along with the adapter and Bluetooth keyboard on my kitchen scale: 2.12 lbs (1.5 lbs from the iPad itself). I threw them into a small satchel, with a couple of magazines, and I was set to hit the road with barely a tug on my shoulder.
The lack of ports except for Apple's own proprietary adapter is mostly irrelevant to me. If I'm wired to something, I feel like I've failed. Still, I may be getting the VGA adapter at some point so I can power presentations from it. I may even present with it at Netroots Nation. And it would be kind of cool to be able to upload photos from my camera when on vacation, and that would require ... USB. So as annoying as dongles may be, I may end up with two of them. So maybe it would've been nice to have those two built into the machine.
The screen is beyond gorgeous, and if this thing emits any kind of heat, I couldn't feel it. Even my iPhone gets warm to to the touch, but this thing? Cool as a cucumber.
On Monday at SFO, I was asked to take it out when going through TSA's security screening. But by Wednesday on my way home at Dulles in D.C., the agency had sent official word to screeners that the iPad didn't generally need to be removed from its bag. Just like that, flying has gotten quite a bit easier.
But does it replace a laptop?
Like i said, I spent three days without my laptop. And like I also said, most of my work is either browser based, or Microsoft Office based.
On Monday, I took it out at my terminal at SFO and logged on. Spent the next hour catching up on news, mostly getting used to the interface. I hadn't played with the iPad over the weekend -- my kids claimed it almost immediately after it was delivered. While in DC I found some great artwork my 6-year-old had left on the machine, using a paint application I had downloaded for him.
The internet browsing experience was fantastic. The iPad doesn't display Flash, which is supposed to be bad, but I didn't notice. Apparently Flash isn't common on my favorite news sites. I also downloaded a couple more apps for later perusal, like the Netflix and Marvel Comics apps. I still haven't gotten around to playing with them.
I then got on the plane, and it being Virgin, I was able to get back online at 30,000 feet. I decided to catch up on email. I kept my Bluetooth keyboard in its bag so I could play with the onscreen software keyboard. I've gotta say, gmail on the iPad looks better than gmail on my laptop. Google's mobile gmail app is fantastic. And the onscreen keyboard was a cinch to use. In portrait mode you have to use thumbs to type, like an easier iPhone. But landscape, I could type on it as if on a physical keyboard. Now, it wasn't as easy as on a real keyboard. I like to rest my fingers on keys when they're not pressing down on them, and you can't do that on the multi-touch Apple screen. So my hands had to hover over the keys, which fatigued them quicker. All in all, I guesstimate that I can type about 30-40 words per minute on the iPad on-screen keyboard. I can type 90-100 words per minute on a physical keyboard. So, about less than half my usual output, but still definitely usable.
The biggest problem when typing on that on-screen keyboard is the lack of arrow keys. If I screwed up, it was hard to back up 2-3 words to make quick edits. I had to tap the screen where I wanted the edits made, a much slower process than simply tapping back on the keyboard. Even worse, there is no apostrophe on the first-level keyboard, you have to click on the number key to get to a secondary keyboard. Apostrophes are quite common, obviously. Much more common than the exclamation mark on that first level keyboard. Luckily, the iPad has the same auto-correct feature that the iPhone has, so most of the time, typing in the word sans-apostrophe is enough. But if you need to type "it's", typing "its" does you no good.
But those are minor quibbles. For quick emails and filling out forms, the on-screen keyboard was more than good enough. And I love the ability to get a period by hitting the space key twice. I wish I could do that on my physical keyboard. I didn't get a chance to do it, but blogging would be easy with that on-screen keyboard, and Twitter was a natural for it. In fact, I did quite a bit of Twittering that evening while flying out east.
Before I hit the sack on that red eye, I had two more tests for the iPad. I got a video from Jed that I needed to review. While Daily Kos TV still uses a Flash wrapper (which will change at some point in the near future), he sent a non-Flash version so I could review. The iPad had no trouble playing it. The thing is designed for (non-Flash) media. The other was a little bit more of a pleasant surprise. I was flying to DC for a board meeting of SB Nation, the other company I founded. The company's CEO emailed a copy of the powerpoint deck for the meeting. I clicked on the link, and Gmail spawned another browser window displaying the presentation perfectly via Google Docs. A button also asked if I wanted to open it up in Keynote (Apple's presentation app, which I had purchased earlier), and I did so. Keynote opened it up perfectly. If I was so inclined, I could edit the deck to my heart's content, and then email it back to myself.
I thought that was pretty cool.
In DC, I did little more than web surfing and check email. But on the way home Wednesday evening (with still 40% of juice left on the machine), I needed to work on a long document I was writing in Word. I had emailed it to myself before leaving on the trip, so it was waiting for me in Gmail. I clicked the link, and Google Docs opened it up for me. A button asked me if I wanted to open it up in Pages, Apple's word processor. I said I did, and I was suddenly faced with a 30-page document requiring heavy editing. Hmmm. The onscreen keyboard wasn't going to cut it here if I wanted to be efficient, and I did.
So I ignored the airline's prohibition against "any device that transmit signals, such as a cellphone or Bluetooth device", and fired up my Bluetooth keyboard. It synched up perfectly and the plane didn't crash. Success! I twittered my rule breaking so everyone knew I was such a rebel (did I mention how great Tweetdeck is on the iPad? Stellar!), and then got to work.
I propped up the iPad on the tray table, the keyboard on my lap, and got to work. And I've got to say, there was ZERO difference between the work I was doing, and doing it on my laptop. It was just as fast and efficient. The word processor worked great. Note, I wasn't doing fancy shit like version controls, track changes, adding footnotes, or things like that. This is not a full-fledged word processor, and had I needed that kind of functionality, I would've been SOL. But I didn't need those bells and whistles, so I was golden. BETTER than golden, because I worked on that machine the entire six-hour flight without having to worry about power, something that would've been impossible with my laptop.
My iPad scored big as my new travel machine. I needed it for basic word processing, downloading and viewing business documents (like the PPT presentation), web, and email. It did those tasks perfectly. The lack of third-party multi-tasking was at most a mild-annoyance, as I had no problem switching between Tweetdeck and whatever other task I was working on at the time. On my laptop, I can switch between apps near instantaneously. On the iPad, it might take 4-5 seconds, and that mild annoyance will be gone with the new OS upgrade this fall.
Will this work for you? Beats the shit out of me. It depends on what your job is, whether there are apps that fill your needs, whether you're happy or not with an on-screen keyboard, and whether you care enough about "open versus closed" systems to let Apple's heavy-handed control over the device's hardware and software bother you.
For me, all I care is whether a device makes my life easier. I could give a shit about whether the hackers love or hate it, or how much hype something has. The iPad filled my needs seamlessly, with only minor hassles. It was better than a laptop, allowing me to travel more efficiently.
Remember, if you don't like it, no one will make you buy it. Obama's ACORN goons aren't forcing you to an Apple store. There are alternatives that are "open" systems, if you like to tinker with your machine, blah blah blah.
But for me, this thing rocked.
At home, the iPad belongs to my kids. I've downloaded a bunch of educational apps, and the kids fight over the machine to either draw on it, or play. My six-year-old has already asked for one for his next birthday.
Update: On Twitter, someone pointed out that holding down the comma/exclamation point key on the iPhone/iPad's on-screen keyboard turns it into an apostrophe. I just checked it out, and it definitely works. So that one niggling annoyance has already been solved, if surreptitiously, by Apple.
Comments are closed on this story.