The human touch
If you’re still game, the heart of the matter still looms: Once it’s set up and running, is the iPad really the effortless device advertised?
Among the dozen or so people I had try out the iPad, not one found it hard to master. If you can point and touch, you can operate an iPad. “This is pretty much the first computing device, besides the iPhone, that you can just pick up and use,” says Michael deAgonia, a computer consultant and technologist and a frequent contributor to Computerworld magazine. “It removes the barriers between the computer and the person. That’s a huge deal.”
It’s true that the iPad makes many things—browsing the Internet, flipping through family photos, loading and watching videos—almost completely effortless. You really do forget you’re at a computer. For me, the iPad is also a superior e-book reader to other devices. Its screen is bright and sharp and, unlike the Kindle, can handle color. Plus, Apple’s online bookstore is simple to use.
The e-mail program is nicely done, too, if you can adjust to using the virtual onscreen keyboard that pops up. The lack of physical keys has been reported as a real problem for some people, though the people I surveyed adjusted fairly quickly. If you plan to do much typing on the iPad, spend some time trying out the onscreen keyboard. Or you might consider purchasing a keyboard dock that attaches to the iPad and doubles as a charger.
Several other companies have released or are about to release their own tablet computers, most running a version of Windows software. For example, Microsoft has shown a prototype of its Courier, which folds in half to about the size of a paperback book. “If you’re a consumer, there’s a lot of interesting choices ahead,” says Lynne Gregg, a Seattle-based technology analyst.
But Bryan Gonzalez, technology specialist at the Entertainment Technology Center at the University of Southern California, doubts those choices will really challenge the iPad. “If you just put Windows 7 in another box, it doesn’t really change the experience,” he says. “The iPad is head and shoulders above the rest when you look at ease of use.”
Even so, computers can do much more, and many of the iPad’s critics believe it’s severely limited in some areas. “It’s a consumption machine. If you want to sit on the couch, browse the Web, watch a TV show and read a book, all with the same device, you can do that well,” says Jeff Jarvis, director of the interactive program at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. “But I think people of any age like to use a computer to create stuff.”
Here he feels the iPad is handicapped by its lack of a camera or physical keyboard and because you can’t load software except for the applications available through Apple’s iTunes store. In addition, online videos that use Adobe Flash Player won’t run on an iPad, although many sites are switching to an iPad-friendly alternative. There’s also no CD drive, and none of the slots and connections people use to insert memory cards or hook up printers and other peripheral devices.
There are other options, or ways around, almost all these limitations, but in its minimalist design, the iPad is likely to leave some people frustrated.
The mini-laptops known as netbooks make more sense for many consumers, Gregg says. They’re generally cheaper than the iPad, which starts at $499, and can do more. “I paid $325 for my Dell Mini 10, and it’s fully loaded,” she says. “If you’re talking about a computing device, you get more memory, a keyboard, and you have access to gazillions of applications.”
Of course, not everyone needs a gazillion applications. Debbie D’Amore, 51, chief deputy in the Pima County school superintendent’s office in Arizona, felt the iPad would fit well into her life, substituting adequately for a laptop. “I love that I could literally throw it in my purse,” she says. “It’s light and thin enough to not be a bother.”