Oh happy iPad day: Apple provided us with hands-on time with the its new device after Wednesday’s big announcement, letting dozens of greasy-fingered journalists poke, swipe, and droll over the svelte hardware and the first-party built-in applications.
And while some of the software was a tad underwhelming in its prerelease state, playing with the iPad quickly revealed its potential for greatness. We simply can’t wait to see what developers make for this thing.
Picking up an iPad for the first time, you immediately notice its thin, light body, weighing in at just 0.68kg and only half an inch thick.
KEY PRESS: Testing the software keyboard, with the same hold-a-key contextual options as the iPhone’s
The aluminum backing has a graceful curve, and the smooth glass screen with its attractive black border just begs to be touched.
The iPad is well-balanced enough to hold in one hand like a tray of drinks while using the other hand to navigate, or to grip with both hands while you drive the UI with your thumbs, or even to balance on your knees while poking at it with both index fingers.
We never felt like we were going to drop it, or that our hands were too small.
IPAD PROFILES: Apple’s reps wouldn’t or couldn’t explain how Profiles work, but we’re intrigued
The 9.7-inch screen is brightly illuminated by LED backlighting, and the IPS technology kept the images viewable from wide angles without appearing to fade.
Everyone who’s ever used an iPhone with the brightness cranked up to navigate a dark room during a power outage will be glad to know the iPad gets even brighter.
OILY FINGERS? Multi-touch controls really shine in the Photos app. Unfortunately, so do fingerprints
Despite the same oleophobic coating found on the iPhone 3GS, the iPad’s screen did pick up fingerprints like mad.
In fact, a friendly Apple gadget handler had to keep wiping it clean for us, smiling politely at our jokes about how the tech press is at least 30 percent more oily than the average citizen.
The units we saw had only Wi-Fi (802.11n) and Bluetooth 2.1+EDR for connectivity, since the 3G-equipped models won’t be available at launch. Web pages loaded quickly and looked fabulous.
Imagine the ease and fun of navigating websites on the multitouch iPhone or iPod touch, but with none of the frustrations of those devices’ small screen sizes. You can see the whole page at once – and actually read it – and then still zoom down to an area of interest with just one tap or pinch.
You’ll quickly stop caring that your favourite site doesn’t have an iPhone-optimized version, because on the iPad, full-size sites just work. Of course, running an iPhone OS means the iPad doesn’t have Flash, so sites that rely on Flash-based navigation interfaces, or feature Flash videos or games, are still useless here.
The Maps application also benefits greatly from the increased screen real estate, with Google Street View showing half a city block comfortably (no squinting on our part).
Location Services triangulates your position based on proximity to Wi-Fi hotspots, plus uses the digital compass – only the upcoming 3G models will feature assisted GPS and cell-tower triangulation as well.
Still, it found our location in downtown San Francisco in about a second, and the compass helped the Star Walk application ($2.99 in the App Store) instantly reorientate its view of the night sky based on which way we turned.
iPad speaker and buttons
It was impossible to hear the built-in speaker in such a loud room, but a tiny speaker does reside on the bottom-right, near the 30-pin dock connector.
A Sleep/wake button, mute switch, volume rocker are all that resides on the slim slides of the device, with only the black Home button gracing the front, blending in to near-visibility, especially since the iPad works in any orientation.
PICTURE THIS: Apple’s iPad Dock has a 30-pin connector for charging and syncing, plus can automatically run a photo slideshow, acting like the best-looking digital photo frame you’ve ever seen
We ran into some problems with the first-party software, although Apple still has ample time to fix them before shipping. (These were demo units, not review units, it’s important to keep in mind.)
We spent some time with the software keyboard, for example, and found it easier to use than the iPhone’s, thanks to the larger keys and more space between them, although it’s still virtually impossible to type without looking because of the lack of tactile feedback.
Switching keyboard layouts for other languages is a snap, but after we’d fiddled with that setting and then flipped back to English, the software keyboard got a little buggy, often not rendering the whole way when we held the iPad in landscape orientation.
BIG UP: The software keyboard is easier to type on than the iPhone’s thanks to the added space
Also, the well-designed Mail client lacked a Media Browser for adding images to new messages, although we could copy and paste images from the Web, the Photos app, and other emails into new messages. The icons on one home screen stopped responding temporarily, fixed by cycling the power.
But all in all, Apple did a fabulous job of designing UI for all the iPad’s default apps – their many contextual menus providing all the control you need without cluttering up the screen with unnecessary buttons and sliders.
IPAD MAIL: Apple’s redesigned Mail app works beautifully in either orientation
The demo iPads were loaded with unmodified iPhone apps, so we could test the experience of blowing up an iPhone-sized app interface to fit the iPad’s screen, with a tap of the 2x button.
This works by simply doubling the pixel size, without any additional smoothing or scaling. In a text-heavy app like Facebook, the pixellation was noticeable and detracted from the ease of reading.
IPAD APPS: Unmodified iPhone apps can run full-screen on the iPad, with larger-than-normal pixels
But in fast-moving games like Super Monkey Ball and Need for Speed, we didn’t notice as much, and the tradeoff between tiny pixels and bigger ones was totally worth it for the more immersive experience of playing on a big screen. We can’t wait to see what game developers can do, programming for the big screen.
The bottom line is that the iPad has tons of potential to be a huge hit for Apple, as well loved by its users as the iPod touch and iPhone.
It’d be hard to have an iPad as your sole computer, since you need to sync it with iTunes on a traditional Mac or PC – or you’re OK with getting all of your content via the App Store, iTunes Store, and iBookstore (which wasn’t running on the demos yet).
AT HOME: Each Home screen can hold 20 app icons plus the ever-present bottom four
Still, the hardware is solid, the touchscreen works beautifully, and the potential for innovative software is through the roof. Once you pick one up, it’s hard to put down.
Just ask the patient Apple employees who gently repeated, “We’re getting ready to close it down,” over and over until we finally left the demo room.
IPAD SYNCING: An intriguing File Sharing screen in the Settings app hints at over-the-air syncing to come
All photos by Paul Curthoys at MacLife.com