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iPad, what is it good for?

By now, if you dont know what an iPad is, you have been living under a rock. If you are thinking of getting one or you already have one, you may still be wondering what it is good for and why you should or should not buy one.

Please note this is my experience with an iPad 1. Since writing this, the iPad 2 is out, marginally thinner and lighter with a (not great) camera, it is also a bit faster with dual core processor but functionality is pretty much the same.

Here is my take on it after 4 months with an iPad. It has a place, but exactly what that place is is still a bit of a mystery. If you have a specific use in mind, it may be exactly what you need but if you dont have a use in mind, you may struggle to use it as anything but an expensive toy. There are plenty of other technical and non-technical iPad reviews out there, read around. Go to an Apple store and play with one but dont believe everything the “Genius’s” tell you. I started with IOS 3 but now have the latest IOS 4.3

iPad Good bits:

  • It is very quick to start, you can be online or reading email with your ipad in a fraction of the time of waiting for a desktop or laptop to start.
  • Long battery life (days instead of hours)
  • Quite well built, it is pretty robust and sturdy.
  • Out of the box, its email and internet is pretty good and ready to go.
  • Convenient easy email via 3G from pretty much anywhere
  • Built in GPS (on 3G model) *
  • My 3 year old can use it (perhaps not always a good thing).
  • On screen keyboard is very good

iPad not so good bits:

  • You need iTunes to do anything with it.
  • You need to buy a lot to make it even remotely useful, there is precious little good free software.
  • *Built in GPS not as accurate and reliable as I had hoped (when I needed it to be, ie I was relaying coordinates to marine rescue to come and get us after breaking down in a boat and it put us 1 nautical mile away from our actual position). It seems better on land with more mobile phone towers available to assist the satellites
  • The aluminium casing scratches incredibly easily (invisible shield a necessity, not a luxury), especially when it gets turned on a table with something hard like a salt or sugar crystal underneath.
  • It gets covered in fingerprints (again, get an Invisible Shield)
  • It is heavy (ok 730 grams is not particularly heavy but its weight means it is not useful for some things you would expect it to be good for)

Email: Email on the iPad is good and if you are looking for an email device with a decent screen, an iPad should be high on your list of suitable devices. Adding 3G means it goes anywhere and while it is not as small and convenient as a phone, it is not massive and will slip into bags and backpacks easily. Functionality is pretty much the same as an iPhone and integration with POP, IMAP, MS Exchange or GMail is simple and reliable.

Web: Web on the iPad is pretty good. I dont miss the lack of Flash, I hate Flash websites anyway. It is quick and easy, useful in the car when trying to find a phone number or address at the lights and there are rarely any compromises with the touch screen.

eBook reader: The iPad basically sucks for this. There are plenty of free books available and the usability is fine but the screen is not great to read on and your eyes get tired. The glossy screen reflects too much light and it is just too heavy. After holding it like a book for a while, your wrists and fingers ache.

Movie player: Out of the box, the iPad sucks for this too. Unless it is in iTunes, it doesnt play anything. I dont have anything in iTunes. VLC is available for free for the iPad but after a recent update it is too unstable to use (locks up every 5-10 mins). I bought CineXPlayer and have been pretty happy with it, it plays pretty much anything and is good for offline viewing. Unfortunately the only way to transfer files to it is via iTunes. I have since found a few limitations with CineXPlayer and have also installed “Azul” to play media that CineXPlayer can’t play (especially when playing HD). For media at home, I bought the Plex app for iPad which streams any content from my Mac mini Home Theatre PC (HTPC) over the wireless, and it does it very well. The Plex app can control the HTPC and any media played on the iPad can be transferred to the TV while playing. A Touchpad remote app allows me to control the Mac Mini as well although a lack of screen sharing makes it a bit less useful. The weight is also an issue, try holding it for two hours to watch a movie. The screen rotation lock is also no longer a physical switch, double click the button to find it. Needed for reading or watching movies in bed or it goes all over the place.

Business Software: The “Genius” at the Apple store told me that “Numbers” was the spreadsheet app required and that it was fully compatible with MS Excel spreadsheets. Rubbish, Numbers is basically useless unless you want to view simple one page spreadsheets. “Pages” is marginally better as a document editor but dont think you can ditch the laptop and use these apps, you just can’t. VPN connectivity is not great, especially with newer SSL VPN connectivity (could not get the Junos Pulse VPN client to work), there are some reasonably functional Remote Desktop clients available (I use one from Wyse) but they are no replacement for a laptop. Printing support is limited to 6 HP printers with “airPrint”. I experimented with a number of WebDAV clients to improve access to file shares with some success but the success was largely one way, I could open some things but trying to save them back to the network was painful. The best app for getting remote documents is the Dropbox iPad app which is how I now get pdf’s onto my iPad from my Windows laptop (without iTunes). The MS Powerpoint functionality is also poor, you may struggle to use it as a presentation device.

Games: the iPad is very good for games, there are lots around, some good, some not so good. The kids love it, and some of the games are very addictive, dont install “Angry Birds” unless you have plenty of spare time. There are lots of educational games available as well and many easy to use online games that are also good.

Photo’s: It is nice to show photos but they have to be sync’ed with iTunes and if you have large amounts, they may need a bit of work to be sorted in some form of usable navigation.

Overall, if you have some spare cash and want a nice toy, go for it. If you want it as a business tool and think it will replace your laptop, it wont. Get a netbook instead if you need light portability. There are definitely some good uses for it (all of which have custom development required) such as restaurant menus but these are neither free nor cheap. Personally I am looking forward to the Android Honeycomb tablets getting a foot in the door, lets see what the developers can do with an open platform. Not sure if I will buy one though, I dont really “need” a pure tablet form factor and really dont need two of them (although it would stop the kids fighting over one device….)

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