Apple IPad Delivers on Entertainment, but Lacks Productivity

The Apple iPad ushers in the era of tablet computing, with a slate-style handheld that looks nothing like a typical computer. in fact, the iPad is more reminiscent of an oversize iPhone than a laptop. But because the iPad's screen is three times larger than that of the iPhone/iPod Touch, you'll be tempted to use the iPad for activities you wouldn't consider doing with an iPhone. Innovative apps and content optimized for the spacious, high-resolution touchscreen make the iPad a treat to use. Nevertheless, the iPad's other limitations make it hard to recommend as a replacement for (rather than as a complement to) the devices you may be carrying around today.

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The photo app is fine for viewing images, but it falls short elsewhere. You can't view videos that are mixed into a photo folder, for example. And though you can view an image, e-mail it, turn it into wallpaper, or copy it, you can't move it to another folder or can you view the file name.

The e-mail app has also been cleverly redesigned to take advantage of the spacious screen. For example, in landscape mode, the e-mail app shows recent messages and a search bar at the left. The selected message appears on the right--an approach that isn't viable on the iPhone's smaller screen.

The Calendar app benefits greatly from the iPad's display. Calendar entries are more readable, and the day and weekly views look terrific, with more detail visible onscreen, and easier navigation to other days in a month. You can easily switch among different calendars for your household, or view a list of your events for a given month. Regrettably, however, you can't print it natively, nor can you e-mail entries to yourself or to others.

The highly visual iPod library looks very different on the iPad. You can easily see your library options (music, podcasts, audiobooks, purchased, and playlists) in a pane at left, and then see the content of each in a pane at right. The playback varies slightly from the iPod app on the iPhone: Here, the playback buttons are in the upper right corner, rather than at the bottom of the device.

The ability to edit playlists on the fly is a welcome addition, and it's extremely easy thanks to the extra screen real estate. You can play music in the background as you move around the devices, too; playback will end only if you activate a second app that requires audio.

Video playback takes advantage of the larger screen, too. Content can be segmented as TV Shows, Movies, or Music Videos. You click the thumbnail art to enter the content. The type of content determines how the iPad handles it: A music video will show a thumbnail, and information about the video (dimensions, size, length, release date, and codecs, for example), while a TV show displays the whole series under that header. For example, all episodes from Star Trek: The Original Series, Season 2, or NCIS, Season 7, will appear under that single header. The menu visuals look outstanding; and playback is solid, with few artifacts visible in the iTunes content I viewed. In landscape mode, 4:3 content fills the screen and has top/bottom black bars in vertical mode; it looks great.

The iPad as an E-Reader

Apple has been touting the iPad as an e-reader, but I have my doubts. Granted, Apple has perfected the retail digital download model with its iTunes store, and the company may succeed in enticing consumers to shop for digital books, too. Also to its advantage, the iPad is the only platform so far (other than a full-blown computer) that supports multiple e-book readers and stores, opening the door wide for variety and innovation.

But how well does the iPad--with its glossy, glary screen and slightly heavier weight--perform as an e-reader? Here, the iPad stumbles big time. Though I loved how easily I could turn pages with a light touch to the side of the book, my hands grew tired of holding the iPad after a few minutes. In addition, the screen's glare tired my eyes, and it was further marred by a slight but noticeable flicker in the background. Furthermore, if you adjust the brightness in iBooks (to ease the potential eyestrain), the brightness settings for the entire iPad change as well. Another glitch: The auto-brightness feature in settings appeared ineffective at launch.

The iPad does simplify shopping for books via iBooks, but you're limited to looking at those books on the iPad. Browsing your library full of books--as represented visually by colorful book covers--is easy, too. The iBooks app, in horizontal mode, lets you have two pages on the display at once. It even tries to mimic the experience of reading a book, right down to the visuals of additional pages on the left and right, and the darker area in the center, where the gutter between pages would be. I could easily scroll along the bottom of a book to jump to a specific page, with no significant delay when doing so. And I liked how the iPad showed the page number, the total page count, and niceties such as the number of pages remaining in the chapter.

Another plus: The iPad supports a variety of e-reader apps. If an app can be created, it can be used here. Amazon and Barnes & Noble are among the many sources of e-reader apps; and newspaper publishers are using the iPad as a bona fide multimedia publishing platform. The trouble is, if you buy a book from Amazon, for example, you can read it only in Amazon's Kindle app. So if you start buying books from different sources, you'll soon lose track of which book lives where.

The iPad's excellent visuals make it ideal for displaying illustrated books or graphic novels and comics. Comics and graphic novels, in particular, looked compelling, based on the IDW and Marvel apps I tried.

The Bottom Line

With the iPad, Apple is first to market with a tablet that may have mass appeal for viewing entertainment content--movies, TV shows, games, and the like. But delve a bit deeper, and the iPad feels like a first-generation device--complete with new-product hiccups--largely behaves like an iPhone (or iPod Touch) on steroids. Its lack of file-level control means that the iPad can't replace a laptop or netbook for core productivity activities. Nor is it a great candidate to be your primary e-reader. It's a great device for playing video and games, and for viewing photos, though--and for some consumers, that may be enough.

This story, "Apple IPad Delivers on Entertainment, but Lacks Productivity" was originally published by PCWorld.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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