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Apple iPad: Toy or Weapon?

Originally posted April 7th, 2010, by rob-ART morgan, mad scientist

Now that the Apple iPad is shipping, I wonder if it is yet another techno toy for the Mac fanatic that has one of everything Apple makes? Or is it a truly useful weapon in the techno warrior's arsenal? Or is it the epitome of the human-computer interface?


(click for larger view)

HUMAN, MEET COMPUTER
I once heard Jean-Louis Gassee give a lecture in Boston where he discussed the various factors in the interface between the human and the computer. He stated that, ideally, it should be multi-modal -- visual, auditory, tactile, and gesticular. It seems to me the essence of the iPad is that it achieves that goal better than any product Apple has produced thus far.

The difference between using a MacBook and using the iPad is like the difference between taking a class on art history and a class in finger painting. It's like the difference between playing Chinese checkers and playing Twister. As a student of human interface design, I'm fascinated with the iPad on the purely theoretical level. So color me enthused.

Okay, I splashed cold water in my face. Now on to cold hard facts. Apple has positioned the iPad as a product that fits between the iPhone (or iPod Touch) and the MacBook (or MacBook Air). So taking their cue, I asked myself four questions:

1. What advantages does the iPad have over an iPhone 3GS?
The iPad's main advantage comes from the 9.7-inch LED-backlit IPS display. It has 8 times the "real estate" of the iPhone 3GS screen, but with many more Multi-Touch sensors -- over 1000. That (along with the enhanced apps) makes reading books or online publications more natural, sketching more precise, and gaming more realistic with more onscreen controls. The larger virtual keyboard means less typing mistakes. The iPad can display on one screen what the iPhone needs four screens to show. (For an illustration of this, see WeatherBug for iPad.)

It has a faster, more advanced processor.
It has has IEEE 802.11n WiFi. The iPhone has IEEE 802.11g.
It has a longer lasting battery for both WiFi and 3G usage.
Top model has more storage capacity.

2. What advantages does the iPhone 3GS have over the iPad?
It makes phone calls.
It does text messaging.
It has It has a camera that records stills and video (and can scan barcodes).
It has assisted GPS and cellular. along with digital compass and WiFi for location. (Only the WiFi+3G iPad has assisted GPS.)
It fits in your pocket. (It is smaller and weighs less.)

3. What advantages does the iPad have over the MacBook Air?
It has a touch screen instead of a touch pad.
It has more apps to choose from.
The WiFi model has a digital compass. The 3G model has assisted GPS.
Its battery lasts longer.
It weighs half as much.
It costs half as much.

4. What advantages does the MacBook Air have over the iPad?
It has a real, attached backlit keyboard rather than a virtual (mistake prone) keyboard or optional docking physical non-backlit keyboard. (Though a wireless keyboard can be ordered, it does not have iPad specific function keys. More on that later.)
It has an iSight camera.
It has a larger, higher resolution LED-backlit LCD display.
It runs OS X Snow Leopard. ("Real men" need multi-tasking.)
It has a faster processor.
It has more storage and more RAM.
It has an external SuperDrive option.
It has a mini DisplayPort that supports the 30" Cinema at 2560x1600.

SUGGESTIONS FOR iPAD "PRO"
The current two models are a great start but there are those of us who would pay more a "Pro" version that has:
1. An iSight camera so we can iChat (or put it on a pivot so it can take photos and video of someone besides me).
2. Multi-tasking (even if limited to a rotating cube of 4 apps)
3. Voice activated commands (like "find Pizza" or "copy selected to notes")
4. Cell phone capability on the 3G model (activation optional)
Those added features would move it closer to achieving the concept of the Knowledge Navigator.

SHOULD YOU GET THE WIFI or WIFI/3G VERSION?
We bought the WiFi "only" model primarily because we wanted to test it and report to you as soon as possible. But do you really want or need 3G? What if Apple offers a 4G model next year?
What if you could have a 4G iPad right now? Read on.

I decided to try pairing the iPad WiFi with the Sprint 4G Overdrive portable WiFi hotspot. Our first encounter with the Overdrive showed it to be as fast or faster than 3G on everything except the iPhone. Recently, a firmware upgrade fixed that. (See updated review of Overdrive.)

Long story short. the iPad WiFi averaged as high as 4500Kbps download speeds during our most connection speed testing using the 4G Overdrive. (Your speeds will vary depending on various factors such as signal strength, server speed, server load, etc.) The Overdrive is a compelling solution for situations where access to land based hotspots does not exist or is password protected. For example, yesterday we visited the Borders Bookstore with free, but very slow WiFi. Then we went to a restaurant with WiFi but they would not give us the password. In both cases, no problemo. We just whip out the Overdrive and rock'n'roll.

The Sprint 4G $60/mo service is more expensive than AT&T's 3G "unlimited" $30/mo plan for each iPad, but remember you are paying more for more speed. And the Overdrive supports up to 5 devices. That translates to $12/mo per device. CORRECTION: Sprint's 4G service is truly unlimited (no hidden quota). I'm told AT&T's 3G "unlimited" service is also without the reported 5G/month quota.

Though many of you are holding out for the iPad WiFi+3G, be warned that it is not a panacea. I had a situation recently where I could not get a good 3G signal on the iPhone 3GS nor was there a WiFI hotspot nearby. Overdrive rescued both devices. If I weaken and get the 3G iPad, I might just keep the Overdrive around as a "security blanket."

One side advantage of the 3G iPad is the cell tower assisted GPS. Though the WiFI iPad has only the digital compass and WiFi to find your position, my experience so far is that it works well. And if I want a "second opinion," I have a iPhone 3GS -- just like most of you.

COMING NEXT
What iPad native apps dazzled us. One such example is the "Camera for iPad" that makes the iPhone camera a Bluetooth slave device to the iPad.
What iPad accessories we have to have (including our favorite sleeves and folios).

RELEVANT LINKS
See Jony Ive, Scott Forstall, and Bob Mansfield talk about the design and engineering of the iPad.

Nine upcoming tablet alternatives to the iPad. (The most interesting is the rumored Google Nexus "Two.")

iPod Touch

iPhone 3GS

iPad

Macbook Air

Screen specs

3.5"
480x320
163 ppi

3.5"
480x320
163 ppi

9.7"
1024x768
132 ppi

13.3"
1280x800
113 ppi

Flash Memory

up to 64G

up to 32G

up to 64G

up to 128G

Sensors

Accel.
Proximity
Amb. Light

Accel.
Proximity
Amb. Light

Accel.
Amb. Light

n/a

Wireless Network

WiFi "g"

WiFi "g"
3G

WiFi "n"
3G

WiFi "n"

Location Aids

None

WiFi
Compass
Cellular
GPS

WiFi
Compass
Cellular (3G)
GPS (3G)

None

Battery Life (Video)

6 hrs

9 hrs

10 hrs

5 hrs

Battery Life (Internet)

n/a

9 hrs (WiFi)
5 hrs (3G)

10 hrs (WiFi)
9 hrs (3G)

5 hrs (WiFi)

Multi-Touch Display

Yes

Yes

Yes

No

Thickness

.33"

.48"

.50"

.76" closed
.37" open

Weight

4 oz

5 oz

24 oz

48 oz

Input/Output

Dock conn.
Audio jack

Camera
Dock conn.
Audio jack
Microphone
SIM card

Dock conn.
Audio jack
Microphone
SIM card (3G)

iSight Cam
Audio jack
Microphone
USB 2.0
Mini Display

WHERE TO BUY APPLE PRODUCTS like the iPad
USA readers can help us earn a commission by using this Apple Store USA link or by clicking on any Apple display ad. For UK readers, visit Apple Store UK.

WHERE TO BUY REFURBISHED iPADs
Apple Store USA has refurbished iPads with 12 month warranty.

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copyright 2010 Rob Art Morgan
"BARE facts on Macintosh speed FEATS"
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