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Is Apple’s New iPad the Greatest of Ease?

When I handed the iPad, Apple’s new tablet computer, to Jim Peterson, 79, I gave him the simplest instructions: “You touch something to make it happen. Don’t worry, you can’t break it unless you drop it.” Then I left Peterson and his wife, Barbara, 63, alone with it.

A minute or so later, Jim was happily navigating his way through his favorite websites. “It’s not difficult to use,” Jim observed, tapping away at the touchscreen. “It’s really pretty handy.”

Jim, a retired metallurgical engineer, describes himself as largely computer-illiterate, exaggerating his deficiency a tad. The Petersons have a desktop PC in their Tucson, Ariz., home, and he has learned to do the things he wants to on it—read newspapers online, check for books at the library, and a few other tasks. But he’s certainly no techie, and his learning curve on the iPad, a half-inch-thick, book-size slab that weighs only a pound and a half, was nearly effortless.

In the iPad, has Apple finally come up with a computing gadget so user-friendly anyone can use it? Does that make the iPad the best choice for those who have avoided computers so far? While 70 percent of those ages 50 to 64 use the Internet—close to the adult average of 74 percent—only 38 percent of Americans 65-plus are online, reports the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. For others, especially many working professionals, the question is probably whether the iPad is the smartest option for an on-the-go lifestyle.

To all of the above, Apple would like you to think the answer is yes. The company has been touting its latest piece of technological wizardry as a device so simple, so intuitive to use, that it’s “truly magical,” in Apple CEO Steve Jobs’ words. But in a week of testing the iPad, handing it to other people to try, and talking to computer experts, I discovered the answer is more complicated than that, and probably depends as much on the user as it does on the device.

Operating instructions

It’s true the touchscreen iPad does away with almost all computer hardware and procedures. There’s no mouse, no windows hidden behind other windows, no confusing commands. “If you see something, you just reach out and tap it; it’s completely natural. You don’t even think about it. You just do,” says Scott Forstall, an Apple senior vice president, in a promotional video.

But you can’t do anything right away. If you buy an iPad expecting to take it out of the box and just start using it, you’ll be disappointed. To get an iPad up and running, you have to “sync” it with a copy of Apple’s iTunes software on another computer, allowing you to download the applications, songs, videos, e-books and other goodies that make the iPad worth using. It’s not very hard to do, but the critical point is this: You have to own or have access to another computer to get started.

This isn’t an insurmountable problem, if you have a family member or friend who has a Mac or PC and is willing to set up your iTunes account and sync the iPad. Anyone who’s remotely tech-savvy will be able to handle the chore. But otherwise, the iPad is really a secondary device, not a main computer.

Unless you only browse the Internet in places with free wireless access like public libraries or coffee shops, you’re also going to want a wireless “wi-fi” network in your home because the iPad only connects to the Internet wirelessly. You can access any website, although a site’s specific application—or app—will make viewing easier.

Again, this isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker. Your cable TV or telephone company can almost certainly provide a wireless hookup for your home. But you definitely want this handled professionally—or by your very geekiest friend or relative.

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