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The iPad: a computer for the rest of us

Games are a major draw for the iPad. The vibrant colours, touch screen and large format all add to the appeal.

Last week I finally got my hands on an iPad. Thanks to suffering from a bad cold for several days, I was able to devote a lot of time to putting the much-hyped device through its paces. 

When I first wrote about the iPad back in January, it had just been announced. Few people had seen it, fewer had used it. Since then, it has been released to the masses, first in the United States and finally, late last month, here in Canada and elsewhere in the world. In my initial, uninformed assessment, I wrote that I didn’t need an iPad because everything I could do on it I was already able to do using tools I already had, such as my Mac laptop, my mobile phone and my e-reader. I opined that it would be good for people who didn’t have these devices or who weren’t too tech savvy.

I still stand by those words, but after a week with the iPad, I’ve changed my mind as to its effect on me. Yes, I can read books on the Sony Reader, and yes, I can access email and the web and play games on my mobile phone, but the experience is so much richer on the iPad that there’s no comparison. And there are things I can do on the iPad that I can’t do on a mobile -- such as download, read and annotate PDFs while on the SkyTrain (very useful for me in my PhD research), watch movies and tv shows, show off photos to my friends and family, and so on. I’ve even used it in the kitchen, as a recipe “book”.

Now, I realize that comparatively few people have iPads, and comparatively few will buy them, but the experiential change that Apple has introduced will, I feel, have profound implications on the future of computing.

Right now, if you want to use a computer, you have to adapt yourself to it. You have to learn about directory structures -- saving, erasing, locating and importing files. You have to wait for it to boot up, you have to be wary of viruses, etc. For some people, that’s great. There are people who love tinkering with computers, but most of us just want to use the damn thing. We want it to come on instantly, to save our data automatically, to protect us from viruses.

The iPad does all this. It turns on instantly. If you work in an application, when you leave the application, your work is automatically saved. It’s difficult to infect with a virus. You don’t have to worry about directory structures or (usually) file names. You don’t have to point to things on the screen with a mouse or keyboard -- you just use your finger. Even if you don’t have an iPad or if you don’t care about Apple and its products, these things will affect you, because other computer manufacturers, seeing the success of the iPad and the height of the bar that Apple has raised, will be doing their best in the coming months to emulate and improve on the iPad.

The iPad isn’t perfect of course, as many people have been at pains to point out (see Engadget for one of the best and most balanced reviews). It’s great for some things, and not so good for others. But for a first try, it’s very impressive, and well worth the price. 

Like the iPod Touch and iPhone, the iPad can download and run apps from the iTunes store. There are already thousands of iPad-specific titles available, including games, utilities, and the like. Some apps are iPad-specific, others are flexible enough to adjust to either the iPad or iPhone. Even the ones designed specifically for the iPhone will run on the iPad, but these don’t look very good on the larger screen.

The web experience on the iPad is much richer and rewarding than on a mobile phone. You can see an entire web page at a time, and still use your fingers to zoom in or out to particular areas of interest. True, web pages that use Flash will miss out on some content, but that’s a minor inconvenience as far as I’m concerned. Email is also easier to read and write on the iPad than on the iPhone, thanks to the larger screen.

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