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Apple's iPad tablet: My 30 minutes with the device

Minority Report: Getting hands on with the tablet, what is it really like to use?
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Written by Seb Janacek on

Minority Report: Getting hands on with the tablet, what is it really like to use?

Half an hour spent with the iPad should be enough to convince anyone that Apple's device is something special, says Seb Janacek.

I received a call last week from a friend who had just returned from the States. "I have an iPad, do you want a go?"

One sonic boom later, I'd crossed town in record time and it was in my hands. What follows here is not a technical, exhaustive review - there are many of those. It is merely my reflections on 30 minutes using an iPad.

Physically it manages to be slightly smaller than I imagined but also heftier. The device seems more physically robust than I'd expected, which goes some way to backing up claims by Apple executives that it can be chucked into the back seat of the car and not treated with kid gloves. Good luck with that one.

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Apple iPad - what are silicon.com columnist Seb Janacek's thoughts after using the device?
(Photo credit: Apple)

When I picked up the iPad, its glass screen was impressively smudged with fingerprints. But as soon as the device is switched on, they are no longer visible. This is still a device that will be obsessively polished, though. Likewise, it's soon clear that the wide border between edge and screen is needed to avoid accidentally touching active screen areas.

The first thing that strikes you is its speed and responsiveness. Apps fly open and react instantly to every swipe. To someone who has soldiered on with the most recent iPhone OS software on a two-year-old iPhone 3G, the gratification of having your app or content appear instantaneously rather than after a lag of sometimes several seconds is hugely satisfying.

The native Apple apps are polished - as you'd expect - and adapted from iPhone or Mac equivalents to take advantage of the new screen and interface. The outstanding performers are Maps, Photos and Mail, where the differences between the various device categories are most clear.

The other impressive Apple app is iBooks. The page-turning interface looked gimmicky in the keynote but feels natural in actual use. Whether it's a comfortable medium for prolonged reading will only be established once I've used it for a significant time - and even then it will be a question of personal preferences.

Also impressive was the battery - a long-time problem with the iPhone which struggles to last the day. The iPad I used had been played with by a number of people in the office and had not been near a charger for 36 hours, yet the battery level still read 78 per cent. If the next-generation iPhone could repeat that feat in the summer then all the better.

On the downside...

...the least impressive feature was the wi-fi. There were very few users on the closed network but it still performed sluggishly, with weak signal strength according to the wi-fi icon.

Although someone pointed out that the wi-fi network had been a bit slow that afternoon, there have been reported problems with the wireless performance of the device - something Apple has responded to with a support note. Clearly for a device with very few connectivity options, this issue could be a problem.

Also, while its design means it is a wonderful medium for consuming media, it performs less well as an input or authoring tool. Apple has repackaged its iWork office suite as a set of iPad apps but given the ergonomics of the device, it is unlikely to be comfortable for writing long documents.

The soft keyboard is a good size and perfectly responsive but the natural way to hold the device while typing is to rest it on your lap or on a table.

Apple is also selling a dock with attached keyboard and a protective folder that lets you prop the device up at an angle. My friend said he was kicking himself for not buying this folder when he had the chance.

Half an hour is not long enough to spend with an iPad. There's so much new stuff to play with - and play is an appropriate verb to use.

There are a number of little user interface glitches, such as not being able to swipe a certain page or area in the Address Book or the odd little icon on the iPod volume control. But overall, 30 minutes with the iPad left me with feelings of delight, curiosity and anticipation.

Having spent more than 13 years in publishing with 10 of them on the web, it's the anticipation that's most exhilarating. Publishers will be excited about the possibilities the iPad offers for content. Editors, designers and content providers will be excited by its interface.

On the iPhone you can touch content and pinch images to resize, you can swipe and prod, but usually in a limited way given the screen size. With the iPad that limitation goes away and you gain the ability to combine a range of interactions for different kinds of content. You can play games or watch videos, drill down through related articles or just browse idly with simple gestures. The most difficult thing to do for content creators will be to show some restraint.

The potential for publishing is clear in some of the early apps I played with. For example, the Marvel comics app lets you slide from panel to panel in a way that seems perfectly natural and has the potential to change the way comics are read - if comics are your kind of thing. The images look vibrant on the iPad screen, which presents rich, deep colours. The Guardian's reportage photo app was equally impressive and very simple.

The iPad is certainly not just a big iPod Touch and neither is it Apple's reinvention of the netbook. It's clearly something else.

The success of the iPad will depend on whether Apple's assertion that it fits into a third product category is valid. That assertion itself is reliant on whether early interest in the device can be sustained from the perspective of content consumer and content producer alike.

For consumers, the iPad is a device to engage with content, apps and the web without all the hassle of operating systems and the complicated stuff that go with computers. For producers, the iPad is not just a platform for content, it is a pedestal that can be used to elevate it.

The iPad is out in the UK later this month. I didn't join the early morning queue for the original iPhone. I might well do for the iPad.

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