I, Pad: The First Year

As the media trips over itself to review the iPad 2, I am finally ready to review the first one.

In the same spirit that Apple is emphasizing function and concept over than specs and ports, this is a review of the idea of the iPad too. Almost a year ago, I bought an iPad as soon as they were available in Canada, and it was instantly obvious that it was a game changer, even for a crusty old über geek like me with a heart full of regex and sudo. But novelty is a good disguise for utility, and I knew it would take several months to find out if the shine was coming from the pretty lights or from real value. An only-time-will-tell product.

My verdict is so in: the iPad’s appeal is substantive.

No device has ever been integrated into my life so meaningfully. Despite a few blemishes, limitations, and awkward consequences of the Mac ecosystem that make me cry a little inside — the iTunes umbilical, sigh — this machine is pretty much a box full of miracle. iPads, how do they @$!% work? ← meme allusion

But what’s it for?! Every doubter wants to know. And it took me months to figure it out myself.

Jobs was right: the darn thing really is kinda “magical.”

Talk about a reality-distortion field!

Many people “asked” me in the early days: “But what do you need it for? What’s it for?” A few were genuinely curious, but most were weak-minded fools who weren’t actually asking — they were making an anti-Apple statement for its own sake. These Apple-loathing hipsters were so irony-impaired that they were oblivious to the fact that their contempt for conformity was more conformist than actually buying an iPad, as bass-ackwards as a goth teen sneering about sheeple. Their allegation that my interest in Apple products is “fashionable” is laughable: I’ve been hosing Apple down with my disposable income, and my harsh language and criticisms, since way before iPods were a twinkle in the eye o’ Jobs.

The only honest answer to the usage question in the early days was, “I’m not sure. We’ll see.”

The iPad’s utility really was just unproven, indeterminate, like Schrödinger’s cat, and, given that my interest was earnest and technological in character — not just sycophantic tithing to Saint Steve — I couldn’t honestly defend the iPad without messing around with it thoroughly in real world conditions.

Based on the first few minutes of use, I had no problem imagining that it would probably be a winner, and that I wanted it to be a winner, and it has practically been a new piece of anatomy ever since, but it takes a lot of use to find out how something so different fits into my life, and there’s no doubt that there were many moments of mild if-only-it-could frustration in the first few months. A few times — for lack of an app, a software update, the right case — I really did wonder if it was ever going to amount to much.

And Marco Arment — publisher of the wildly popular and useful Instapaper app — recently made a good case that the best uses of the iPad are still unclear:

I still don’t think Apple has found the sweet spot for the iPad’s usage: the ideal role it fills in personal computing.

The “ideal” role? I agree, that has yet to be determined. And yet so many blanks are starting to get filled in …

Apps to the rescue

No apps, no iPad. A tablet without a robust selection of apps is like a sports car with a scooter engine. It tooks apps to jack up the utility of my iPad.

I now use the iPad extensively and enthusiastically as an ebook reader. The iBooks app has a place of honour on my home row, and its use probably accounts for half my iPad time. But the iBookstore didn’t open in Canada for months after the iPad launched here. So it took literally months for me to even get a chance to start using what was destined to become my most meaningful app.

Similarly, although I began using an RSS feed-reading app almost immediately on the iPad, it was months before River of News came along and significantly upgraded my reading experience and became my other most-used app.

Flipboard — which magazinifies your social media content — didn’t come out for a few months either, and didn’t get RSS capabilities for months after that. Now I use it daily.

And I’m writing this in the Evernote app, which wasn’t essential for iPad writing — there are many other serviceable writing apps, many of them actually better for writing than Evernote — but is certainly the one that integrates into my workflow the best. Before the Evernote iPad app, writing on the iPad seemed uncomfortably fussy to me, because I had to make a special effort to move the text to where I really wanted it. It was hardly a hardship to write in Simplenote, but Evernote is where all my writing and notes live, so there was always that extra step of getting Simplenotes copied over to their true destination. No more. Since the Evernote app launched, writing here feels normal and effortless.

This article was completely composed in Evernote.

So there has definitely been a (predictable) evolution from a device that certainly held my interest but lacked serious utility, to one that scratches most of my itches. And the apps, updates and accessories just keep coming, and I’ve been amazed how the right accessories can neatly solve problems that once seemed close to a deal-breakers.

And I can now easily defend the iPad from all critics. Not that I need to, of course. But it’s nice to know that I can. But apps aren’t the only useful thing that I had to wait for.

A case study

My wife and I often travel by ferry from Vancouver to Vancouver Island for family visits. It’s a 90-minute ride on a huge crowded boat, and it has become quite tedious over the years. It’s noisy and uncomfortable. We’re often travelling in the dark and the cold, the outer decks unappealing. That time can be hard to fill.

Enter the iPad.

The first time we tried to use the iPad to watch a movie on the ferry, it was a bit of a disaster. It did not bode. I didn’t have an audio cable splitter or a case to get the iPad propped up, and as we fidgeted the constantly shifting reflections of the bright overhead fluorescent lighting made it nearly impossible. And yet, after a few months and accessory acquisitions, the experience has become smooth and pleasing and altogether superior to the alternatives.

The right case — a simple, attractive, but cleverly designed leather folio — puts the iPad at the right angle in a single step, and it can pretty much stay put. It helps reflections, which are still annoying but much less so when you can get the screen into a halfway decent position and then leave it be. A splitter and two nice pairs of headphones jack us into the audio in seconds, and we are immersed in a “big screen” movie experience more comfortable and watchable than any in-flight movie. (Indeed, the iPad is an in-flight movie killer: why would I ever watch one again, really?)

Ferry rides have never been so good!

When Jobs presented the iPad, he made it clear that the device would fail if it wasn’t actually genuinely better at certain things than either a smart phone or a notebook computer. This is a fine example of it. I’ve been taking my Mac notebook computers on the ferry ride for years, but those expensive tools just never caught on as portable cinemas — which is interesting, because it sure doesn’t seem much different superficially, and certainly people do use net and notebooks that way. The MBP is not much worse than using the iPad, to be sure, but it definitely isn’t as good — and that’s all it takes. When you have the right tool for the job, why would you settle for almost right? Why tolerate nine steps to setup when you know you can do it in five? An advantage doesn’t have to be huge to be clear.

I never even really wanted to take the notebook on these trips at all: a little too heavy, a little too bulky, a bit more fragile, a lot more power hungry, a “touch” harder to control, and 95% of its awesome powers are simply not needed on the average weekend trip, even for an incurable workaholic like me who looks for every imaginable opportunity to squeeze in a little extra reading.

Apparently all those little differences add up, because the iPad feels way more appealing and gets used EVERY TIME, the notebook is getting left behind, and the idea of bringing the notebook and leaving the iPad at home has really just become silly.

That whole consumption/creation thing

All year long I’ve watched with bemused fascination as all those clueless apple-hating pundits make absurd and absurdly confident declarations about something they have absolutely no direct experience with: the iPad is “just” for consumption of media/Internet. I have two things to say about this:

  1. Ha ha ha ha ha!
  2. Even if it was true, who cares? Did Apple make some kind of big promise that the iPad was a creation machine? Did they set themselves up to be terribly embarrassed if it later proved to be useless for that purpose? No! No, they did not. Where did this standard come from, this premise that an iPad has to be good for making stuff in order to be considered worthy? Answer: from the naive hopes of critics who hoped the iPad wasn’t up to the challenge, and would look bad when it “failed.” It was as silly as declaring “well, the iPad might be good for media consumption, but sneer it’s obviously not a flying machine!”

(Maybe that wasn’t a good example: I’m really not sure it isn’t actually a flying machine, too. Just look at that ^%#$@ quadricopter thing. Or try one of the flight simulators, like X-Plane. Better yet, watch a five year old play with one of these things.)

Anyhoo: a year ago, it was impossible to contradict this asinine criticism empirically. Today it’s easy.

I use the iPad to produce content on a daily basis, and so do millions of other people, and its powers are clearly increasing. But, addressing the soul of the criticism, if the iPad was “only” good for content consumption, I would still love it and use it constantly.

There’s nothing “just” or “only” about that. Before the iPad, apparently I was basically starving for a better way to consume all kinds of media!

Ode to a battery

For as long as I’ve been using notebooks — since the origin clamshell iBooks — battery warnings have menaced my computing. We can put a man on the moon! But my notebooks have two states: just charged or nearly dead. It’s maddening. You never escape the mental math: can I do x before this power hungry beast kacks out? Flipping switches on draining processes has become second nature.

John Gruber, in his iPad 2 review says the battery life is

rather amazing, looking back at the pre-iPad era. I recall many times over the past decade when it seemed as though my MacBook (or, depending on the year, PowerBook) was in a race against time to finish a single DVD before the battery ran out during a long flight. Now, you can watch three full-length movies on an iPad and still have 60 percent battery life remaining on the device. It’s a portable computer you don’t have to worry about.


Apparently what made the iPhone revolutionary was that Apple had the miniaturization chops, from years of designing great notebooks computers, to build a phone that was “all battery” — and it had to be, to power all those powers. RIM insiders have reported that execs and engineers at that company (one of only a couple other companies even trying to build “smart” phones) were initially amazed by the iPhone because it seemed like it would need much more battery than they had ever imagined fitting into a handheld device. Rather than guessing that Apple had somehow made room for a crapload of battery, instead they tended to assume that the device would simply have deal-killingly poor battery life and that the product would go nowhere.

But of course Apple did make room for a lot of battery, and the device had both surprising qualities and battery life that was, if not amazing, at least much better than most critics assumed — it was enough.

The iPad took this even further, to the point where the proportions of its components seem strange: lots of battery and empty space, and tiny, tiny electronics. The result: a lot of power for more computing in a small space than has ever been possible before.

There are two impressions this made on me, long before I knew about that:

Its capabilities seem out of proportion to its size and shape. It gives the impress of being much larger on the inside than it is on the outside, as though there is far more “in” there than should be possible. We live in an era of electronic miniaturisation, but not like this, not until now. The iPad took significant leaps in both directions: more capable, but less big (and with fewer buttons).

More practically, the battery is so good that it virtually eliminated one of the most familiar and exasperating characteristics of all battery-powered gadgets: running out of juice. Assuming you start with a full charge, the iPad always makes it through the day, if not the week. It never lets you down, so it feels more trustworthy. Charging becomes a trivial thing in the background, done at night because that’s just what you do, not what you do because you were forced to do it by losing power at the wrong time.

It creates the impression that it almost doesn’t need power, that it’s above that, as though there’s a little generator in there.

A tablet with a crap battery life would seem to me so much more like ordinary electronics. I think its fair to say that the battery life of the iPad is responsible for much of the “magical” quality that Jobs touted on launch day, and which I enjoy every day.

Orson Scott Card did this to me

I’ve been dreaming of the iPad ever since the tablet computers of Ender’s Game. In that great novel, the title character does his homework at Battle School on a tablet computer they call a “desk.” But he also does much more with it.

It was an iPad. And that’s really why I wanted one. But it’s also why I’m keeping it, and using it every day.