Owning an iPad: My First Impressions

This weekend, I caved in and bought an iPad.

When it first launched in April, I was highly skeptical of its usefulness for somebody who already owns a laptop and a smart phone, and even more critical of the closed, limited nature of the platform. As the months went on, two things gradually warmed me up: 1) I got to play with one a few times and 2) I began to recognize a gaping void in my digital life: a dedicated device for reading, other than my phone.

Yes, I was tempted by the Kindle’s $139 price point and e-ink display, but I needed something that renders PDF’s exceptionally well and on which I can continue to use tools like InstaPaper and Google Reader.

Here are my initial thoughts:

In 24 hours, the iPad has already begun to revolutionize the way in which I consume information. The much-hyped Flipboard app alone is nearly worth the purchase of the device. Everything you’ve heard about Flipboard is true: It’s very cool and mind-blowingly well-designed.

Tired of waiting for the paperback, I bought the Kindle version of Jeff Jarvis’s “What Would Google Do?” and am already anxious to move onto other titles. I’m also loading all of the newspaper industry white papers and Web design books I’ve long had only in PDF format into iBooks, which renders them perfectly. I already get the impression that what I keep hearing is true: owning a device like this is going to substantially increase the amount of book-reading I do.

Whether I’m using the Kindle or iBooks (or Nook for that matter), it’s huge that the reading I do on my iPad can easily be picked up on my iPhone, which is on my person at all times. This kind of weaves the book-reading experience more directly my life, which I like.

The experience of reading on the iPad is less tedious than it is on one’s phone, yet without all the desktop distractions of 15 browser tabs and real-time notifications of emails, tweets and Facebook comments (I could enable push notifications on my iPad, but won’t). And of course being able to hold it in your hand makes it easy to sit on the couch with it and just read.

Somehow, the device has already established itself as a zone into which I can go to get some reading (and writing) done without distractions. To me, the app-based, limited ecosystem I initially hated the idea of actually kind of works in this context. It’s not without it’s disadvantages (more on that in a minute), but by and large the device fills the need I had for it.

While the bulk of my apps are geared toward reading (my home screen includes InstaPaper, Google Reader, iBooks, Kindle, Mashable, HuffPo, NYTimes and FlipBoard), I’ve also started playing with apps for services I use professionally, like DropBox and GoToMeeting
(which is pretty awesome), as well as some music-related apps, Netflix and others.

It’s also great for writing, especially if you happen to have an external keyboard for it; I was expecting Apple to force me to shell out for their proprietary iPad keyboard, but was delighted to learn that the Bluetooth keyboard I already owned works. I’m okay with using Notes and WordPress for writing, but would love it if Google Docs files were editable (Google’s fault, not Apple’s).

I don’t plan on overloading this device with apps. For me, its more about reading and productivity than games and social networking. I’m content with just a screen and a half of apps, plus the Web browser. Even the music I’m loading into the device is more conducive
to focusing: minimal, sometimes ambient music, some jazz, nothing with too many lyrics.

The iPad has its share of downsides and frustrations. It’s amazing for consuming content but, as many others have pointed out, is not so great at producing much beyond blog posts. Since I bought it primarily as an eReader, this isn’t the end of the world, but how awesome would it be if you could use a tablet computer like this to build Web apps, record and mix audio, shoot video and run something more powerful than Photoshop Express for graphics? Yes, there are some apps that enable creativity, but this is one area in which the desktop computer still excels dramatically.

Some other seemingly unnecessary annoyances:

  • It doesn’t have a camera
  • It doesn’t have a USB port
  • No mini-display port for watching on a larger screen or TV (Come on, guys.)
  • If I may get so nitpicky, I wish I could share items in Google Reader from any page in Safari, like I can in Firefox on the desktop.

There are a handful of little things that pop up from time to that are just easier to do on a laptop or desktop computer, but I imagine those things will improve with time.

Also worth noting: The iPad feels rather fragile, at least at first. Perhaps it’s because it’s a little heavy, and very portable by design. I know that if I accidentally drop it, there’s a very strong probability that the screen will break (something the warranty doesn’t cover). I’ve got a screen cover and protective skin coming in the mail, but in the meantime I’m a little hesitant to take the iPad with me to work or leave it anywhere where the cats could decide it’s something I bought for them.

As handy as the iPad and similar devices are for reading, I do not believe this is the death of print… yet. In the same bag that I brought the iPad home in, I also carried a few print magazines from Barnes & Noble. There’s still something to be said for reading a long article on paper, although I suspect owning an eReader will make this already rare event in my life occur even less frequently.

As far as books go, I look at it like music: 99% of the music I listen to is comprised of digital files or music streamed over the Internet. But I still buy my favorite records on vinyl, partially as a keepsake and partially because the sound is often superior to most MP3’s.

Similarly, I fully expect the vast majority of my reading to be done in a digital format, but I’ll always have a physical bookshelf in my house. It does seem inevitable that the economics of book publishing will one day favor e-books over printing, binding, shipping and storing physical books, at least as far as mass market books are concerned. (As a side note, there’s an excellent pair of posts by Richard MacManus over at ReadWriteWeb weighing the pros and cons of eBooks.)

This thing will suit my needs for now, despite its limitations. What I’m more excited about is seeing where tablet computers go in the next few years, especially as companies like Google, Microsoft and players yet to be born improve on what Apple has produced.

If you’re an iPad user, what must-have apps would you recommend?

One Response to Owning an iPad: My First Impressions

  1. Ted says:

    Download the Epicurious app, John, trust me. It is hands down the best cookbook you’ll ever have — or want. After you fire it up and use it, Faye will want to bear your children.

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