Hands on with the iPad

Apple's latest gadget has much for technophiles to criticize, but also a lot for Luddites to love.
Customers line up outside an Apple store in Montreal on Friday, waiting to purchase iPads. ((Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press))

When I sat down to play with the iPad for the first time, with an eye to writing about it, I kept drilling one thing into my mind: "Keep thinking of yourself not as a technology reporter, but as someone who knows nothing about this stuff." It was important to remember, I thought, that this is a toy designed not for the person who uses computers and gadgets regularly, but for the larger audience of people who don't, and who can't be bothered to figure such things out.

In a nutshell, I tried to put myself into the shoes of my nearly 70-year-old mother. Here's a woman who can barely work her television remote control and who has trouble with voice mail. (I can disparage her here because there's no chance of her reading this — she's almost Amish that way.) There is a lot of controversy over whether Apple is trying to remake electronics and the web to its own liking with devices such as the iPad, but that's a story for another time. This story is an attempt to view Apple's latest product through the eyes of a Luddite.

IPads went on sale in Canada on Friday. ((Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press))

Apple is selling two versions of the iPad — one that connects to the internet via Wi-Fi only and another that also has a 3G cellular connection, which incurs a charge of between $15 and $35 a month through a wireless provider such as Rogers or Bell, depending on how much you want to surf.

Techno-savvy people tend to prefer the simple Wi-Fi version since they've generally got their own networks set up at home, or are comfortable finding hotspots. The 3G iPad is aimed at those people who simply must be online at all times and at people who have previously had no other internet connection in their life.

It's been said that the car is the perfect piece of technology, where you insert the key and it just works. As an internet device, the 3G iPad is similar — you just turn it on and you're instantly on the web. That's a big plus for the 70-year-old mother. It is pretty much a given though, that the iPad's internet functions — loading web pages or watching online video — work much faster over Wi-Fi.

The device itself is a typically slick Apple product. It's shiny with smooth corners and a big, bright screen. Just as with the latest iPods and iPhones, the graphical transitions between different applications are fluid and fast. The device switches quickly between portrait and landscape mode when you turn it sideways, and there's a switch that can be flicked to lock the view in one mode or the other.

Surfing is simple and fun

Surfing the web with the iPad's touch screen is simple and fun. While it's easy to make mistakes while typing or clicking links on the iPhone's small screen, it's harder to do so on the iPad as everything is naturally bigger. You can further zoom in on things with the same multi-touch pinch-and-drag functions found on the iPhone, which is handy for those whose eyesight is failing.

Typing, which is murderous on the iPhone, is much better on the iPad's bigger on-screen keyboard, although it's next to impossible to type using proper technique (all 10 fingers) as the screen is just too sensitive. You have no choice but to resort to hunting and pecking with your index fingers, which makes writing anything longer than a few lines a chore. A word-processing tool, this is not, but it's fine for simple web browsing and email.

My mother takes a lot a photos — shockingly, on a digital camera that she has mostly figured out — so I wondered how the iPad might figure in to her hobby. There has been concern in tech circles that the device is too locked down and that it would be difficult for users to get their own content onto it. That's not necessarily the case as Apple sells adapters that you can attach to the iPad that connect either to your digital camera's USB plug or SD card. You can therefore transfer photos onto it from your camera without going through a computer intermediary. Another plus for those who are not tech savvy.

Photos look good on the iPad, but video isn't as top notch. High-definition video displays fine but standard definition, not to mention a lot of online content such as YouTube videos, tend to look choppy. That may be a case of such content not being properly formatted to play on an iPad, but still, it's a sore spot in an otherwise slick presentation.

The same applies to iPhone apps that run on the iPad. The device gives you the option to view the apps at their normal iPhone size, or blow them up to twice their scale. Either way, they don't look very attractive on the bigger screen. The iPad apps, however, generally look crisp and clean. 

Apps have been the iPhone's secret weapon in the smartphone wars. No other phone manufacturer has been able to create such a voluminous and easy-to-use software repository with which users can customize their device. There are only several thousand designed for the iPad so far, a drop in the bucket compared to the 200,000 for the iPhone, but that is likely to change as developers move to take advantage of the device's brisk sales.

An app for everyone

As with the iPhone, the best apps are designed with the Luddite in mind, but there's something for everyone. Even though it's still early days as to what sorts of apps will be possible on the bigger screen, there are already a few inspired creations. I've always thought the iPad would be a great device on which to read digital comic books, and indeed it is. The Marvel Comics app (which, admittedly, few 70-year-olds are likely to want) lets you buy digital comics and view them as a whole page or panel by panel, and it also links to the iPad's GPS/Maps function and displays the nearest stores where you can purchase print versions.

Speaking of books, the iPad is also being marketed as an e-reader, with Apple's own associated e-book store. The iPad's advantage here is obvious — its bright screen allows for full-colour books, complete with illustrations. The downside, though, is that it is not nearly as easy to read as an actual e-book reader that uses an e-ink display, such as the Amazon Kindle. The iPad's LCD screen eventually strains your eyes, and it's not as easy to see in direct sunlight.

As a gadget for Luddites, the iPad has a lot going for it. For technophiles, there are many downsides, which readers are sure to point out in the comments section below this story. There is the issue of Apple maintaining tight control over what gets onto the iPad, both through the app store as well as through its physical inputs. There is also the ongoing dispute with Adobe and the iPad's inability to play the popular Flash multimedia format. And there are also the issues with what the device doesn't have, such as a camera, as well as the fact that this is the first generation of the iPad — a newer and better one is likely just around the corner.

Still, the issues haven't kept the iPad from selling briskly in the United States, where it's been available since April. Evidence is emerging that it's not just gadget-crazy geeks buying it — some people are clearly picking them up for their Luddite mothers.