'Book Value

Moore's iPad Adventure, Part 1: Underwhelming in the Early Going

Charles Moore - 2011.06.20 - Tip Jar

I've been a tablet computer skeptic since the iPad was just a rumor during the fall and early winter of 2009-10. Even after Steve Jobs rolled out the first iPad to enthusiastic reviews, I still expected it to be an ephemeral fad that would soon fade after the initial novelty wore off.

As we've now seen, that was not one of my most astute prognostications.

However, I am a consummate aficionado of the classic, clamshell laptop, and I just couldn't fathom all the blather about how the tablet was going to displace the laptop for all but specialized power-user needs. Nevertheless, that's pretty much what's been happening - especially to PC laptop and netbook vendors, although not so much Apple, whose MacBook lines continue to hit sales and market share records. This is partly, I suppose, due to the halo effect from the iPad - and the iPhone before it - as well as their essential goodness.

iOS/OS X Convergence

But continued strong MacBook sales performance notwithstanding, a push is on at Apple, with Steve Jobs presumably the primary pusher, to converge the Mac OS X experience with the smartphone/tablet iOS way of doing things, so going forward, it's a given that in the future even MacBooks are going to feel more like tablets.

With that in mind, and in order to be able to give the iOS and the iPad a fair evaluation, I decided earlier this year that I needed to get an iPad 2, which I also hoped would be able to take on some of the utility duties that have been performed for the past several years by my two 11-year-old Pismo PowerBooks.

black iPad 2 and white iPad 2Ironically, once I made the mental leap to iPad ownership aspiration, I couldn't get my hands on one. The online Apple Store first cited a three to four week wait, then one to two weeks before shipping, which was a bit too vague for my tastes. I finally contacted my nearest Apple reseller, Student Computers of Antigonish, Nova Scotia, in early May and was told that there would be no iPad 2 stock until the end of that month at the earliest, and that even by then was optimistic. So it turned out to be, and I finally got my iPad 2, a white 16 gig WiFi model, on Tuesday, June 14.

Early Impressions

Here are some early impressions after nearly a week of experimentation.

First, I'm still at a loss as to what all the fuss is about. The iPad 2 is an interesting, clever little machine, but a potential replacement for a real laptop computer? Not even close in my estimation. Not even in the same ballpark.

Here are some specifics:

First, the virtual keyboard is every bit as lame as I had expected. Possibly even worse than I'd expected. I'm picky about keyboards at the best of times, but this thing isn't even in the game as far as I'm concerned. I do have a very nice Logitech diNovo Edge Bluetooth keyboard, which I reviewed in late 2008, that pairs up nicely, and it will be almost certainly what I use for any long form text entry.

Secondly, the touchscreen experience isn't growing on me at all. I've never liked touchscreens, and aesthetically the finger smears drive me nuts, but functionally, it's just a lousy input medium compared to a mouse. The combination of the abominable keyboard and the touchscreen's obtuseness for things like making text selections makes me feel like I'm trying to thread sewing needles wearing mittens. It's been suggested to me that a touchscreen pen (or stylus) would probably help, and I want to try that.

...there's no way to display multiple windows simultaneously, which I find frustrating.

Then there's multitasking - or rather its absence, at least in any substantive context (and yes, I know about the Home button double-tap thing*). Because all iOS applications run fullscreen (a mode I steer clear of on the Mac even when it's supported), there's no way to display multiple windows simultaneously, which I find frustrating.

No Replacement for OS X

I'm addicted to multitasking. The move to preemptive multitasking is probably the thing that most appealed to me in switching from the classic Mac OS to OS X. My usual work MO is to have about 18 to 2 dozen applications open, scattered about in nine Desktop Spaces, switching back and forth among them instantly with mouse clicks and keyboard shortcuts. Speed and efficiency are further streamlined and turbo-boosted when I'm at my office desktop workstation by having a RollerMouse Pro 2 rollerbar and a foot mouse in the mix along with a hand mouse.

I can appreciate and even agree with Apple's decision to go with a virtual keyboard in its iOS machines rather than kludging things up with a slide-out keyboard or some such that would still be inadequate for serious text entry. Mousing would also be impractical for the iPad's primary portability emphasis. However, a small trackpad could have conceivably been doable, and mouse driver support for Bluetooth mice would make a world of difference for me in turning the iPad into a practical work tool.

Unhappily, I've seen no mention of mouse support in reports about the forthcoming iOS 5. There is a mouse driver hack workaround called BTStack Mouse available on the Cydia repository, but installing it requires jailbreaking the iPad and disabling Apple's iOS Bluetooth support software and replacing it with the $5 BTStack Keyboard driver. Not my cup of tea, but if you're interested you can learn more from Pearl's Paradise.

The iPad - with no Finder, its underachiever keyboard, and lack of mouse support - makes doing serious text composition or editing on the iPad perversely difficult and vastly slower. I keep thinking: "This would be so much slicker and quicker on a real computer." As Tom's Hardware's Andrew Ku observed in a comprehensive, detailed review and critique of the iPad 2 last week, "Whatever I gained in portability, I lost in productivity. The iPad is a solid content consumption device; it's not nearly as suited to creation. If you want to be productive, you still need a computer."

Indeed, even my 11-year-old Pismo PowerBooks are much more powerful, versatile, and satisfactory content creation devices than the iPad is.

Underwhelming on the Internet

Even the Internet, supposedly the iPad's special forté, is IMHO a frustration on the tablet compared with OS X, with which I usually have four browsers running, and maybe cumulatively 20 or 30 tabs open in several windows. With the iPad, I'm stuck with the tabs-less iOS version of Safari, which seems to work reasonably well within its limitations, and Opera Mini, which so far I'm finding a disappointment, considering that Opera is probably my consistently favorite OS X browser. Not the iPad Web experience I'd been hoping for. (Publisher's note: iOS is a learning experience - I've just started using an iPhone. Safari will gain tabs when iOS 5 ships this Fall, and the Mercury Web Browser provides it now in a free Lite version limited to two tabs and a 99¢ Pro version without that limitation. dk)

Adding insult to injury, the iPad is proving much less tenacious in picking up and holding the WiFi signal from my router than my MacBook, my wife's G4 PowerBook, and the two old Pismos, all of which have no problem connecting to WiFi from anywhere in the main house. Given all the hype about what a wonderful wireless machine the iPad is, this was definitely a surprise.

I also profoundly miss the Finder/Desktop metaphor, being able to drag files and folders around and organize them easily. Not to mention the iPad's poverty of I/O connectivity. Dropbox is looming a lot larger in importance.

Cut and paste, which I use intensively in my workflow, seriously sucks in iOS, to the extent that it is supported, in large part because of the absence of mouse precision in selecting and nonsupport of keyboard shortcuts. As Mac OS X Hints' crarko comments, despite a variety of gesture options for selecting text,

"I still find text editing in iOS to be something of a black art. It's the main reason I have not attempted to edit this site using my iPad. It's still just too inefficient compared to doing it on the Mac, even if that means bringing the Mac along when I travel. I'm glad to hear it's not just me."

Apprehensive, but Sticking with the iPad

All this makes me even more apprehensive, with it appearing that Apple is determined to work toward convergence of iOS and OS X, which would be okay and even logical so long as they don't mess with OS X's traditional functionality, which for me absolutely includes a Finder and Desktop as nonnegotiable necessities.

I feel badly that I've been so negative in this first iPad report. It isn't what I would have preferred. But so far at least, I'm seriously underwhelmed. Early days, though, and perhaps I'll warm to the iPad as I get more accustomed to using it, as my iPhone aficionado daughter suggests.

I'm committed to persevering and giving it a fair trial over some time. However, the overall problem as I see it is that with the OS X user experience so excellent these days, it's hard to imagine how the iPad and iOS could ever measure up. We'll see.

For now, I'm glad I bought the cheapest model.

* Double-tap on the home button when an app is open to bring up new apps to choose from at the bottom of the screen - no need to go to the Home screen.

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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