IPad Vs. Everything Else

What, precisely, is the iPad? Compared with its iconic ancestors, the iPod and the iPhone, that's a surprisingly tough question to answer. It runs the same operating system as the iPhone--but you can't make phone calls on it. It has been hailed as the gadget that may save the publishing industry--though its e-reader software, which isn't preinstalled, does not display magazines and newspapers. It features a bevy of games--but it's neither an Xbox 360-killer nor a handheld device like a Nintendo DSi.

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iPad skeptics are fond of slagging the tablet for being nothing more than a humongous iPod Touch. When it comes to playing music and movies, they have a point--the iPad does feel a lot like a Touch with a 9.7-inch display. That's not an entirely bad thing, however.

For many people--such as those who opt for the pinky-size iPod Shuffle--the iPad's heft alone is reason to eliminate it as an iPod replacement. A gizmo you can't slip into a pocket or strap to your arm is one you're not going to take on a stroll or to the gym. You can even make a case that the venerable Click Wheel on the iPod Nano and iPod Classic is superior to the iPad's on-screen controls for music navigation. (Oddly, the iPad's iPod app doesn't even have Apple's signature Cover Flow view for browsing through albums.)

But wait: With the exception of the Shuffle, all iPods have long done video as well as audio--and the iPad's comparative Jumbotron of a display makes it the best "iPod" for movie-watching yet. It's the first one that two or more people can comfortably watch together, at least if they're in close quarters, such as in adjacent airplane seats (and if they have the device nicely propped up). In fact, the iPad may be the best in-flight entertainment system ever designed, with enough battery life to keep you entertained from New York to Athens. And around the house, the tablet can serve as a sort of portable TV/boom box--its built-in speaker may be mono, but it's loud and clear.

When it comes to content, the iPad gives you everything that you can get on any iPod, plus more. And even if you don't feel like buying your entertainment from iTunes, a wealth of stuff to see and hear is available, thanks to impressive iPad apps from ABC, Netflix, NPR, and others.

VERDICT: The iPad is not an iPod substitute--it's really a different critter. But on its own terms, it's one of the most en­­tertaining entertainment devices since the original iPod.

Next: The iWork Suite

Does the iWork Suite Work? Not Yet

When Apple unveiled its tablet at a press event back in January, it also introduced three unexpected flagship applications: iPad versions of the Pages word processor, the Numbers spreadsheet, and the Keynote presentation package that make up its iWork office suite for the Mac. On stage, they looked irresistible, with ingenious interfaces that made finger-driven productivity look not just possible but also fun. And they were priced at a reasonable $10 each.

Interface-wise, the versions of the iWork apps that Apple shipped in April for the iPad remain standouts--once you've positioned an image in a document by slipping it into place with your fingertip, any other method is clunky by comparison. And while the list of features in the three apps doesn't rival that of Microsoft Office or the Mac version of iWork, that's not a huge issue given the relatively simple tasks you're likely to undertake on an iPad.

But Pages, Numbers, and Keynote all have one gigantic, overriding problem: Their support for document exchange with the non-iPad world is dismal. If you start a message in Mail, you have no way to attach an iWorks document. You also can't hook up your iPad to a computer via USB and simply drag documents back and forth. Instead, you must export documents from within iWork--as attachments, using iTunes as a conduit, or via the not-nearly-as-useful-as-it-sounds iWork.com.

All three apps claim to open Office documents, but some such documents appear garbled, and others--such as the multiple PowerPoint files I tried--produce only a cryptic error message. The programs strip out formatting that they don't understand; as a result, that formatting disappears if you try to move the file back to a desktop suite. And you might not even be able to do that: Pages can export Word files, but Numbers can't save in Excel format, and Keynote doesn't do PowerPoint. (If you happen to use iWork on a Mac, the situation is only slightly better.)

These issues are so ugly for iWork, and for the iPad in general, that it's hard to imagine they won't get fixed. But suite users may not have to wait for Apple: iPad versions of the Quickoffice suite for handhelds and DataViz's similar Documents to Go are in the works. Both of those mobile productivity packages have long histories of handling documents that were created elsewhere with panache. And they might turn out to be better options than the current version of iWork even if they aren't as elegant.

--H.M.

Next: iPad Applications

Our Eight Favorite iPad Applications

USA Today: USA Today's free app is the best of the daily-newspaper entries, with a layout that closely mimics the dead-tree version while adding cool interactive slideshows, graphics, and polls.

Netflix: Putting Netflix's im­­pressive stable of streamable movies on the iPad's brilliant screen is a no-brainer (you'll need a Wi-Fi connection). The app is free, but you must pay at least $9 a month for a Netflix account to stream movies.

Sketchbook Pro: If what you miss most from kindergarten is finger painting, then download this $8 app. The controls are easy to master, but are still sophisticated enough to create real beauty in the right hands.

IMDb: You'll find no better way to settle a barroom bet over which of the Baldwins was in The Usual Suspects (Stephen, BTW) than to turn to this free app, which allows you to dig deep into the well-known online treasure trove of cinematic trivia.

Magic Piano: Play traditional keyboard classics such as "Für Elise" and "Flight of the Bumblebee" through this $1 app's fun, Guitar Hero-like interface.

Marvel: This free app presents the adventures of masked avengers in a whole new way--it moves you automatically from frame to frame of an illustrated story with merely the flick of a finger.

Epicurious: If you don't mind a few sauce splatters on your iPad, the free Epicurious app is a near-perfect kitchen companion, and you can search through hundreds of recipes. The app puts together a shopping list for selected recipes and provides easy-to-read instructions.

Instapaper: Perfect for people with a Wi-Fi-only iPad. If you come across an interesting article, click Instapaper's 'Read Later' bookmarklet in your computer's browser. Instapaper ($5) strips out the ads and sends it to your iPad.

--Edward N. Albro

Next: iPad Gaming

iPad Gaming: Compelling--and Awkward

As a gaming device, the iPad has lots going for it. The display is large and gorgeous, the processor is snappy, and the multitouch interface allows for innovative ways to play. Plus, the App Store is a model of instant gratification: You can snap up relatively cheap games wirelessly. But don't toss out your Nintendo DS or Sony PSP yet.

The first question for iPad gamers is this: How the heck are we supposed to hold this thing? At 1.5 pounds, it might seem light, but holding it aloft for extended play sessions can be tiring. Trickier still is playing when you can't get a seat or are in a crowd: Try flailing your arms around to steer that sports car while you're standing on a packed bus.

And then there's the button issue. Steve Jobs hates them, but buttons are an important reason why the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP work so well: If you need to reload your weapon in a first-person shooter, your thumb can find that button easily while you concentrate on ducking behind a wall.

The iPad's controls are frequently just on-screen icons or arbitrary tapping patterns. It's no fun being fragged because your thumb is a half-inch off the trigger.

For some game genres, however, the iPad shines. The de­­vice is big enough to be shared, making board games like Scrabble feasible. Strategy and tower-defense games benefit from the large space; the interface makes it simple to place structures and issue blanket orders to large groups. Micromanagement is still tricky without a keyboard and mouse, but the iPad's implementation of such games is superior to anything that consoles--portable or otherwise--have attempted.

Verdict: The iPad is a game-changer for some genres, but most mobile gamers will still want to hold on to their DS or PSP.

--Nate Ralph

This story, "IPad Vs. Everything Else" was originally published by PCWorld.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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