The Underwhelming iPad

Yesterday was one of the most media-hyped tech days in recent memory.  Apple, makers of the ubiquitous iPod and popular iPhone, promised to unveil its newest creation yet.

For years, analysts had predicted that the company was working on a tablet computer, and it finally seemed that they would realize this dream.  In the weeks and days prior to this event, the media hit a frenzy as rumor after rumor leaked out about the nature of the tablet computer.  Every day, websites like Digg were inundated with submissions containing fan renderings of the product, musings on the functionality of the device, and rampant speculation of cost.

The endless hype turned out to be a double-edged sword for Apple however; it raised expectations too high.  When the curtains were pulled off the new iPad yesterday at Apple’s keynote, it was immediately (and largely) criticized by many.

And in my opinion, rightfully so.  The device isn’t ambitious enough, the cost is too high, and in the end, it just doesn’t fit in well with all the other gadgets people already enjoy using.  Here’s everything that I think is wrong with the iPad, and why it is already destined for failure.

The name

Let’s tackle the obvious first: “iPad” is a stupid name.  Steve Jobs likened it to a nickname for your home (aka, your “pad”), but internet spectators were quick to point out that it sounded more like a women’s hygiene product.  Many wondered if Apple even had any women working in their product development division, and it took no time at all for funny images to pop up all over the internet.

It probably didn’t help that MadTV did a skit some years ago featuring an “iPad” in a parody of the iPod.  And the fact that CNN picked up the story for an article this morning is a pretty good sign that the “iPad” name was truly a poor choice.

On-screen keyboard and form factor

Naming issues aside, there are usability concerns with the iPad, many of which center around the ergonomics of using a device its size (9.5 x 7.5 x .5 in. @ 1.5 lb.) for performing tasks you might normally do on a computer.  For browsing the internet, the idea works great – you can hold it upright in your hand, angle it as you sit at a table, or cradle it in your lap as you sit in a chair.

But what about using it to type a document or even when you simply need to punch in a URL?  Suddenly the iPad’s form becomes a huge issue.  Holding it in one hand while pecking out words with the other seems needlessly difficult.  Alternatively, I have serious doubts about how comfortable it will be to lay the device flat no table and hunch over it to use both hands for typing.

And that’s not to mention the caveats of trying to type on a touch-screen, a universally annoying experience.

You could use a Bluetooth keyboard, or dock the iPad on a special Apple-created dock that lets you plug in a keyboard, but these are impractical solutions for a product designed for mobility.

Gizmodo’s Adam Frucci had this to say about the on-screen keyboard:

“So much for Apple revolutionizing tablet inputs; this is the same big, ugly touchscreen keyboard we’ve seen on other tablets, and unless you’re lying on the couch with your knees propping it up, it’ll be awkward to use.”

Apple, in releasing their iLife software for iPad, seems to think that people should use the tablet to get real work done – but why would anyone bother when it is so much easier to do these things on your existing computer or laptop?

The bezel frame

As long as I’m complaining about the form, I’d also like to say that the bezel frame around the screen of the iPad is too large.  I understand that it was built this way so that you can hold the device without accidentally touching any controls, but it makes it look like you’re holding a digital picture frame, and it’s ugly.  This could have been better thought out and better executed.

Screen size

In the middle of that huge, ugly frame is the iPad’s screen, which sports a resolution that might give you some  feelings of nostalgia (1024 x 768).  I find it a bit strange that when the rest of the industry is moving toward widescreen displays, and has been for years, Apple would introduce a new device – a media-centric machine, no less – which brings us back, full circle, to the old 4:3 ratio.

They showed the iPad playing a widescreen version of Star Trek during the keynote, and literally half of the viewing area was black.  Half the screen.  It was almost as if Steve Jobs was daring the throng of fanboys not to buy one.

E-books, magazines, and fried eyeballs

One of the phrases a lot of people were throwing around before the iPad was unveiled was “Kindle killer”.  Referring to Amazon’s e-book reader, the Kindle, many saw this as Apple’s chance to grab hold of the digital book market much like they did with digital music so many years ago.  Some reporters even claimed that Apple would save the failing newspaper industry.

The practicalities of subscription-based news content is another argument for another day.  But if newspapers and magazines are hanging all their hopes on the success of the iPad as an e-book reader, I’m afraid the industry is doomed.

One of the main draws to the Kindle has been the implementation of a display that mimics actual print.  Specifically, the Kindle uses E Ink, a proprietary type of electronic paper that makes using the device more akin to reading an actual book, and consumes very little power to maintain a constant screen image.

For any device that proposes to be used as a replacement for your books or magazines, ease on the eyes is an absolute must, and I do not believe this is possible with the iPad’s backlit LCD screen.

I also hate that Apple has dubbed e-books on iTunes as “iBooks”.

Battery life

The other downside to using an LCD screen is the power usage.  The iPad has a 10 hour battery life for media viewing, which might be acceptable for watching a movie or two on a long plane ride, but for anyone serious about reading books or magazines, it’s pathetic.  The Kindle can operate continuously for a week on one charge, and of course, your normal books and magazines don’t need a charge at all.

The iPad has about as much charge as a laptop with a large battery, and nobody likes using those for reading extensively.  The fact that the iPad will constantly need to be tethered to your PC (or the wall) for charging seriously detracts from the whole point of making it such a mobile device in the first place.

A new gaming device?

As Kotaku’s Stephen Totilo noted, the iPad doesn’t bring anything particularly new to the gaming market either, unless you consider resolution-doubled iPhone games innovative.  It’s too expensive to compete with DS or PSP as well.  Totilo also asked the following of Apple:

“If your consumers still need a computer and a phone, needs which you already can fill, what room in their wallet, their bag and their life is there for a semi-portable, semi-desk-ready tablet computer? For gaming or otherwise?”

No expansion options

One of the biggest shockers of the iPad announcement was that the device, which tries in so many ways to be a netback / laptop replacement, has no expansion slots for storage media or input devices.

Not only are you stuck using the on-screen keyboard for typing, but without a slot for memory cards or discs, there’s also no convenient way to swap documents from the iPad to another device.  I’m assuming iTunes will be able to handle some of this functionality, as well as MobileMe (for the more expensive 3G models), but that’s just not good enough.

If Apple wants the iPad to compete with other small-scale computers, it needs to let go of the closed environment, and give users more freedom with their media.

App Store

Which brings me to yet another complaint – the App Store.  Again, Apple is trying to convince consumers that their new machine is better than using a netbook or a traditional laptop, but also again, the limitations the company places on the device render it gimpy and under-utilized.

With a netback or laptop, one can run any piece of software created for the OS they run, limited only by the capabilities of the hardware in their machine.  They can purchase software, download free software, and create their own.  It is entirely up to them, and it should be.

The App Store takes away that control, placing Apple between developers and consumers.  The result is a negligibly improved user experience at the expense of freedom to do what one wants with his hardware.  It’s not pretty, and it makes closed platforms like Windows look like a bastion of liberty.

Lifehacker’s Adam Pash had this to say on this subject:

“With the iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch, you’re trading choice and control in exchange for unsubstantiated promises.”

Following Apple’s recent obsession with content control, I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if OS 11 won’t allow software to run without it being reviewed, approved, and purchased from the App Store.

No multi-tasking

Another big shocker from the iPad keynote was that the device, much like its iPod / iPhone brethren, would not support multitasking.  In my opinion, this is really the biggest design mistake for the whole product.

Though other mobile platforms support running multiple applications at once, it still kind of makes sense for the iPod and iPhone to exclude this.  There’s no easy way to switch between apps while you’re running them, and battery life is important for phone / media playback.

When you take this idea to a more powerful machine with a larger screen however, it just doesn’t make sense.  The proprietary 1Ghz CPU inside the iPad should be plenty capable of running more than one app at once.  The screen also has a lot more real estate available, so showing / switching between multiple apps should not be an issue.  And finally, what is the use of a computer that doesn’t let you chat while you browse the internet?  Even the wimpiest netbook can accomplish this (and much more, of course).

The inability to run more than one program at once is a major detractor for anyone who might consider shelving their laptop or netbook in favor of the iPad, and a hard time seeing it making any serious inroads against these devices without this basic functionality.

It also doesn’t run Flash.  I’m no lover of Flash and all the horrible things it has unleashed on the internet, but not including it on a device that is touted as “the best browsing experience you’ve ever had” seems suspect to me.

Pricing

I know pricing is always an issue with Apple products, but I think it’s still worth mentioning here, especially when comparing the iPad with existing mobile computing solutions.

While I was watching the live blog unfold (via Gizmodo, unfortunately), I was surprised when the price, $499, splashed up on the screen.  I scrolled up a bit to see what else I had missed since the last update, and I found the model / price grid, which quickly explained the lower-than-expected price point.

That’s $500 for an iPad with 16gb memory and no 3G capabilities.  The lack of a sufficient amount of memory and built-in wireless hardware makes the low-end iPad more of a price point decoy than anything else.  For a more reasonable spec sheet (64gb memory, 3G), the iPad will set you back $830.  Not surprising, and not affordable.  And not exactly a huge amount of storage space either.

Some of the editors at Ars Technica, like Eric Bangeman, believe that the $500 iPad is still within reach for teenagers addicted to iPods and iPhones, but after Sony almost sunk the PlayStation brand with its $500 PS3, I have my doubts about that.

AT&T and data plans

Finally, I want to say a quick word about AT&T, and the proposed data plans for the 3G models.

The fact that, after all this time, Apple is still partnering exclusively with AT&T is mind-bogglingly stupid.  If New York is already at the peak for data usage bandwidth, what will happen with another load of similar devices?

The low-end data plan for the iPad ($15 / month for 250mb) is laughable.  After watching a handful of YouTube videos, downloading a few apps, and checking your email, you’d be over the limit and probably racking up huge overage fees.

The “unlimited” plan is twice the price ($30 / month) and is pretty much what you already pay for your cell phone if you have a data plan.  I’ve no idea if you can use the iPad with your existing mobile data plan, but if you can’t, the device is in more trouble than I thought it is.

Conclusion

Though many in the press and print industry still remain excited about the iPad, most of the comments I read from users on Digg, Twitter, and CNN have been negative.  The few positive things I’ve read have been in defense of the device as repeating the pattern of the iPhone; laughed at, but then a runaway success.

I don’t buy into this tired argument.  I think things could easily go quite differently for the iPad, simply because it really isn’t the “magical” device Steve Jobs claims it to be.  Almost everything that might have wowed people was introduced with the iPhone years ago, and the rest just isn’t that great.  Where the iPhone brought a lot of new and innovative things to the smart phone market, the iPad brings nothing new, and to a market somewhere in between phone and laptop, a gap that doesn’t need to be filled.

I think Ars Technica’s science editor, John Timmer, put it best when he concluded his brief review of the iPad with this:

“Apple looks like it nailed its target of creating a truly distinct device that’s somewhere in between the phone and the laptop. And, for precisely that reason, it doesn’t seem like it would be all that useful to me.”

There are many who believe that this product will be a success merely because of the insane popularity of the iPod and iPhone.  One Gizmodo member wagers they’ll have sold 10 million units by the end of next year.

I don’t deny the possibility of success, but for now, I doubt it strongly.  The iPad is nothing more than an expensive and underwhelming tablet computer that most people will have no practical use for due to its limitations.

And it still sounds like a feminine hygiene product.

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14 comments:

  1. Jenn - Over a year ago

    Great review. I was amazed to hear this would be “revolutionary” before it even came out. They must live in a box and not realize there are products that surpass this already. Aside from the Keyboard issue, check out the Archos 9 PCtablet. http://www.archos.com/products/nb/archos_9/index.html?country=us&lang=en

    It can multitask, has a USB connection, etc. We were going to get the Archos 5Android, until the Droid came out. However, this little tablet has a lot more capablity and is only $49 above the pad’s low price point! (I’m sure the Archos has it’s own limitations, but my point is simply that this concept was available and superior 4-5 months ago!)

    1. Martin - Over a year ago

      Ah, I’ve heard a lot about the Archos lately, Jenn – good find! I’m still not entirely sure where these tablets are supposed to fit in among everyone’s growing number of gadgets, but if it’s something you can find a use for, I think this (and others) are a lot better choice than the iPad.

  2. T-Bird - Over a year ago

    Really when you start ruling out all the people who this isn’t useful for you’re left with something that could be thought of as the Wii of the PC world. Very simple, very casual, very intuitive, with controls that are easy for grandma and grandpa to figure out. However it’s price is outside that market too.

    Perhaps it will be like the iPhone, which really didn’t hit it’s stride until it had a couple of iterations and alot of witty commercials. What I hope instead is that this inspires innovation in the portable computing world, just like the iPhone did for the smart phone industry which up until then was small and inconsequential. The potential behind a touchpad pc is enormous, the iPad just seems to fall short of all purpose.

    1. Martin - Over a year ago

      I partially agree with you T-Bird – there is potential there for a good tablet device… but frankly, the current market just doesn’t seem to have room for one. That’s partially why past efforts have failed, I think. There are plenty of times where I feel a tablet would be fun to play around with, but hardly no times when I feel like I would need one. And that’s where the iPhone (and other smart phones) part ways with the tablet – because there are many uses for smart phones. Probably one of the reasons why there isn’t much need for a tablet now.

  3. xot - Over a year ago

    Scathing and right on target. You pretty much hit on every problem I have with the device, and there are many. When I first looked at the spec sheet I was floored by how pathetic this thing is. Jobs has totally lost the plot on this one.

    The most baffling thing missing from this tablet is that you can’t write on it. That is the main reason I would want a tablet, so I can write my notes, draw diagrams, and have a digital copy. For the last nearly 20 years I’ve carried a clipboard almost everywhere I go. I’m always taking notes. A tablet computer is something that is a no-brainer for me, yet I find nothing compelling here. If I’m going to get a tablet, it better be made to take abuse. That’s not what I see here. It’s made of glass for crying out loud and it doesn’t even lay flat! It’s built to break. It’s also a disaster when it comes to it’s environmental limits. According to the specs I couldn’t even use it here in Florida half the year. Something like a simple Livescribe Smartpen completely owns this giant iPod.

    The other main reason I’d get a tablet is as an eReader. I’d love to be able to carry a large number of books in a convenient form factor. The display on this thing is extremely disappointing. Power hungry, very low resolution, back lit LCD is just silly for an eReader.

    As a multimedia device the screen is equally baffling, especially for a company that pioneered high res widescreen monitors. On the other hand, the original Mac line had a 1:1 aspect ratio, so they haven’t come full circle quite yet.

    Something else that blows my mind is the lack of cameras. This could be the ultimate augmented reality system. Give it a clamp and a swing-arm and spatial positioning and there is no shortage of techs and mechanics that would kill for this thing. Toss in a barcode reader and RFID reader and you could have a brilliant purchasing guide or inventory management system. I thought these guys were forward thinkers? Entire industries could be clamoring for this thing if they just tossed in $30 worth of parts.

    Apple has just been stupid for the last 20 years. Aside the iPod, and maybe the editing software they snatch up, they haven’t done much to win many fans. The way they’ve closed their systems in the last few years is an insult. My first Apple came with circuit diagrams and complete source code. Now they won’t even allow non-Apple interpreters to run on their system. Woz must be shitting himself.

    1. Martin - Over a year ago

      Well I tried not to get too acidic, but the whole idea of the iPad leaves a sour taste in my mouth.

      It does seem a bit odd to call it a “pad” or “tablet” when you can’t write on it, huh? Good point, and one that I’m surprised they didn’t do. It would have been easy enough, I would think… except that it would require a stylus.

      I feel the same way about a book reader as well. I prefer just reading real books myself, but if I were to get a device for holding and reading books, I’d want something with a long battery life and screen that is easy on the eyes. The iPad provides neither of these, and locks down your books with iTunes DRM to boot.

      As for Woz, I read somewhere that he was really enjoying a new Android phone (the Nexus) recently. A sign of the times, perhaps? Food for thought, at least.

  4. CoreyAre - Over a year ago

    Yeah Steve is losing it. He has become senile in his day. He is making toys only he finds interesting in his overly-compinsated, well-off life of luxury while dropping a load on the John. How else can one explain Apple’s (primarily Steve’) obsession with such a pathetic and pointless toy that costs big bucks? The industry is being eaten alive by Tyrell corporation Mega Players. I can see Steve at the top floor of his pyramid of Monopolistic horror. Apple ate shit years ago by not listening to their consumers. They are doing it again. I want proof that Apple asked one single person what they wanted to see in this tablet. This tablet shows 0 consumer feedback or interest. If Apple did seek consumer feedback, Apple would not have chosen a name so easily made fun of. MaxiPad, Mybad, iMad, iGlad (i.e: I did not buy it) etc,etc. Here is my take. Let everyone know what you think as well.

    1. No Camera

    2. Overpriced by $260.00 U.S.D

    3. Completely useless

    4. Completely pointless.

    5. Form follows arrogance rather than function.

    6. Apple is reviving an old habit the industry calls “proprietary greed”.

    7. Terrible design

    8. Unproven CPU with no history of credibility

    9. iPhone OS only

    10. No built in Stand.

    11. No industry Standard I/O

    12. 16 GB HD? WTF?

    13. Lack of common features sold as Accessories

    14. No stylish rubber grips to prevent dropping.

    It has many short comings. But a camera would have made up for many of them. No camera is 100% unacceptable. An ebook reader has always been totally useless. Just as netbooks are totally useless. A netbook and an ebook reader are nothing more than extra, proprietary gadgets that serves a 1% market share. ebooks are proprietary only because of a proprietary market provider. A good example is that crappy Amazon Ebook reader called the kindle. (Name is worse than iPad) The Kindle is proprietary due to its content providers. Just as gaming consoles are completely useless and proprietary. Apple had a good opportunity to make a product (That no one really wanted to begin with) that would make books available to all for free while leveraging apps and ads to make writers and developers happy. Instead, they played right into the hands of a greedy, proprietary market simply because Apple (Mainly Steve) wants to capitalize on apps and ebooks with ads through lock-in. This model is good for music but not good for books. I guarantee you that soon, all ebooks will come with ads inside them just as magazines and TV do. You will be given the option to buy a cheap ebook with ads or a pricey ebook ad-free. Guess who takes a huge cut off the top?

    Apple is going to make a killing if this iPoop product really becomes successful. Until then, I would rather stick with my iphone that has twice the features at a fraction of the cost. If I am going to spend $650 dollars for a laptop/iphone/iPod touch hybrid, I would much rather just buy a laptop. Since I have a laptop, I would rather buy an iPhone. Since I have an iPhone, I would rather buy an iPod. Since I have an iPod, I would rather just tell Apple to stick this thing up their ass. If I didn’t have an iPhone, Laptop or iPod, I would buy this thing. Oh wait, it doesn’t have a camera and only has 16Gb. So once again, Apple can stick this over-priced Maxi-pad up their asses. I tossed my iPod touch for the iPhone. Just as I tossed my old laptops for newer ones that offered me reasons to upgrade. This is the way things are supposed to be. But the Maxi-Pad doesn’t make me want to upgrade at all. It seems like an extra anchor. Knowing that it is an extra anchor, Apple decided to make it anyway and extra heavy to boot. Their goal should have been to put the Macbook Air to rest with the iPad. The Macbook Air has sucked from day one. If this would have been the replacement to the Air, that would have been smart. All they had to do is remove the bottom assembly. By removing the the entire lower assembly, Apple could have radically cut down of cost.

    So that brings me to the pure myth that feature additions would have driven the price higher. Bullshit! With features such as a Camera, built in Aluminum kick stand and other “essential features” this glorified iphone lacks, Apple could have easily kept the entry price at around $350 U.S. Like I said, knock the lower assembly off of the Macbook Air, and run the iphone OS on it and there you have it. How much is the Macbook Air? $1,499. What’s included in the lower Assembly? Everything except the screen.

    1. The Keyboard and all related parts are gone. (Gone in the iPad)

    2. The optical drive (Gone in the iPad)

    3. All I/O (Gone in the iPad)

    4. CPU (Gone in the iPad)

    What’s that leave? An iPad without touch features. So now we are getting to the truth by sifting through the lies. If the iPhone, which is now nothing more than a small iPad with better features, can find a price point of $199 U.S.D for its best model, why not the iPad for an additional $100.00 for the extra screen size? Apple now has a hard time convincing me that a larger version of the iPhone screen would/should cost so much more with or without the additional features. Yes… With or without.

    I personally don’t believe Mac’s are overpriced in general. However, the Macbook Air, iPhone 1.0 and now the iPad are, despite any stretch of the imagination, far, far over-priced. This is coming from a Machead that would rather die a slow and painful death rather than use a Microsoft product.

    Apple can throw together a ridiculous video featuring top Apple brass speaking to us consumers about the iPad in such a manner that you would think they engineered a Golden Goose that shits 24k eggs 4 times per second. They look with wide eyed wonder, use hand gestures and of course, Jonathan Ive and his ridiculous, unruly style of illustration and communication. You wonder if they all dropped acid before they went on Camera. They call the Maxi-Pad “Magic”. Magic? What fucking magic? Black Magic yeah. Or even Voodoo Magic. Possibly bad magic. But not Merlin the Wizard “cool magic”. No… Not that kind of magic. The childish, ass hat kind of magic. Kind of like Lucky the Leprechaun type magic.

    If this thing is being sold for so much with 0 features, Apple could have had the class to run a modified version of iPhone OS that allowed true multi-tasking.

    So why does iPad suck so good? Because of Cannibalism. Apple doesn’t want to cut into their laptop market or their iphone market. So they just took a safe shit and called it the iPad. In the end, it is a product conceived of fear and squeezed out calmly for the ignorant shit eaters of the tech consuming world.

    1. Martin - Over a year ago

      I agree with you for the most part, but I disagree about Macs being over-priced. Anyone familiar with the parts that go into a computer can tell you that they are.

      I also think that many people who already own Apple laptops and iPods / iPhones won’t be interested in the iPad simply because they can already do just about everything the iPad does without having to buy another device.

    2. CoreyAre - Over a year ago

      I have no idea how the reply mechanism works but…

      Martin, in doing these comparisons almost spec for spec, I can certainly tell these people with said familiarity with the parts that them apples are expensive, not overpriced.

      To be fair, the Mac pro and higher end laptops really do need to be updated as they are gathering dust, but apple I guess decided to take a safe shit and develop a crap tablet instead.

  5. Yourself - Over a year ago

    And here I just thought they were releasing the iPhone Jumbo edition. You know, for all those fat people who can’t hit the buttons on a regular sized iPhone.

  6. Yourself - Over a year ago

    iPhat

    Just let me know when someone releases an omni-tool. Until then I’m sticking with my laptop.

  7. Joshua "Loaf" Liddle - Over a year ago

    Apple left out a lot of bells and whistles off to lower the price. I wouldn’t say its a high price, but overpriced for what it is. Frankly when I saw the iPad, I thought to myself “over-sized iPod”. It truly is just an iPod with less convenience.

  8. Brian Hughes - Over a year ago

    i am planning to buy an iPad since it looks lighter than a regular desknote and i don not use much of the features of a laptop.*;;

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