My First Impressions of the iPad

By Will Smith

The digital unicorn has finally arrived, but is it a magical revolution or simply another evolutionary step toward the post-PC world?

Well, it's finally here. The iPad arrived for the rest of us mere mortals yesterday, and with it, and while I've spent the last few hours testing the iPad, it's much too early to render a real verdict on the iPad. However, I do have thoughts.

the iPad feels really, really fast compared to an iPhone 3Gs. It's not as much about performance as the UI getting out of the way of what you're doing. The UI on the iPad jumps like a really fast PC or Mac, not like an Arm-powered toy netbook. I haven't done many direct performance comparisons yet, aside from some casual zooms and scrolls in Safari, but the iPad feels fast--faster than I expected it to.

The screen is much better than I expected from the speeds and feeds. It's relatively low resolution, at 1024x768, but it's crisp and colors are very bright. The LCD seems shallow in the device, and it's easy to see from even very shallow angles. The touchscreen feels very responsive, even compared to the iPhone 3Gs and the Nexus One.

The Apple-provided apps and the OS itself scale up well to the larger screen. After using this for a few hours, my iPhone feels tiny in comparison. A higher-resolution screen on the phone could change that some, but the iPhone feels last-gen in comparison. And, while the iPad native apps feel great, the iPhone resolution apps scaled up to iPad resolution look bad.

It's great in the lap. I love that the iPad doesn't get hot, even after hours of use. I love that I'm writing on the iPad right now, and I've been using it since 4PM nonstop, and I'm only down to 54% battery life.   
I haven't spent a lot of time with the browser yet, but Norm pointed out that lots of the iPad's apps are tied to the desktop paradigm, even Apple's browser. Despite the fact that your fingers are almost always rest at the bottom of the screen, all of the important window chrome--the interface elements you touch all the time--are at the top of the screen. The best apps today are optimized to work well with the natural position your hands take on the iPad, and many have ditched the old paradigms to try new things. 

At 1.5 pounds, the iPad is kind of an odd weight. It's a bit heavy for a single hand over a long period of time, but it's screen is a great size for web browsing and using apps. Lots of people are saying that it's a perfect size; I'm not sure I agree with that. It definitely takes new users a moment to figure out a good, comfortable way to use it. It's not comfortable to put it on a table and hunch over it, and it takes most people a moment or three to realize that it's best used leaning back, rather than leaning forward. 

There are some truly amazing apps out today. The quality of the best apps is much better than the best apps were at the iPhone App Store launch. Some of my early favorites are Epicurious, ABC, CBS, Twittelator, Netflix, and Marvel. Some of the other apps that could have been favorites were marred by crashing--notably The Elements and the New York Times app. Quite a few of the apps are broken in weird ways, most likely because they were built without any access to real iPad hardware. I'm sure this will improve with time.

The new App Store is a step backwards from the iPhone version, unless I'm missing something. There's no good way to browse all the apps in the store anymore, and the subcategories below the main categories seem to be gone, or at least I couldn't find them. There's a heavy focus on popularity and featured apps, without an easy way to drill down on the store. Search works great, so that's something, I suppose. I also didn't see any iPad-optimized fart apps, so that is a pretty big plus.

I'm not going to judge input yet, but I will say that I'm not thrilled with the software keyboard for real work. I recall there being a week or two learning curve on the iPhone as well, so I'll see how I feel after some more time passes. However, the experience isn't great with the hardware keyboard either. I need a dock or holder or something to hold it in the proper orientation while I manage the hardware keyboard. I doubt you'll be using the hardware keyboard on your lap. It's also really weird to use a device that doesn't have a traditional pointing device, but does have a hardware keyboard. Reaching out to touch the screen while typing an article feel really weird. Really weird. And, there's plenty of input weirdness with third-party apps when the hardware keyboard is connected.  
No multitasking is a drag for working. There's no swapping back and forth between apps and browsers to take screenshots or look something up. I don't see this really being a productivity device unless you can swap between apps. I don't get why core iPhone apps, like the Clock and the Calculator have been stripped from this device. Right now, the iPad is clearly a way to buy and consume content today. That could easily change as the tools improve and developers start getting crazy with the form factor.

I don't think that the iPad is a magical and revolutionary device today, but it definitely has potential to grow into one, with some updating from Apple and awesome third-party software. I will say that at the end of day one, I'm much more interested in the iPad as a dedicated Internet device than I am in a netbook running a desktop OS. The question is: would you rather have a multi-purpose device that lacks the horsepower to be truly multi-purpose, or a more specialized device that knows its limits, but is awesome inside them? I'll let you know where I fall after I spend some more time with the iPad. And, the more time I spend with the shipping software, the more sure I am that this is an interim release. I wonder if we'll see what the device is truly capable of until OS 4 is released.

Lead image courtesy of Flickr user korosirego.