Friday, May 28, 2010

iPad Review

I was at lunch with a customer yesterday and she pulled a 3G iPad out of her purse to show it off. I've read various reviews (glowing and critical, serious and silly) about the device, so was curious to see for myself.

Overall: Meh.

  1. It was a lot heavier than I had thought it would be. I nearly dropped it when she handed it over because I had anticipated it weighing half the amount it does. The reviews I had read led me to believe that it was light, but could end up feeling heavy if you held it for a long time. I found I had to hold it very firmly and use more hand, wrist and arm strength to move it than I do with other objects that size. It is a very dense device. This would become tiring for me to hold up for more than a few minutes.
  2. Finger goo. (Note that this is not so much a criticism of the iPad as an expression of my distaste for touch screen devices as such.) I like clean display screens. I compulsively wipe my desktop monitor screens and my laptop. I'm someone who hates cell phones because the display screens end up getting coated with finger prints, dirt, sweat and oils from people's faces, and bits of gunk from pockets and purses. I won't use other people's cell phones except in emergencies and I won't use my own if there is a desk phone nearby. The first thing I noticed about the iPad screen was the finger prints smeared all over it. Ewww, just ewww.
  3. Screen glare. The finger prints were so noticeable because of the highly reflective screen. This sucker is shiny. I am not a big fan of the "wet look" on display screens, preferring a more matte surface, but shiny is OK as long as it doesn't obscure the image. We were inside, with low ambient light, six feet away from a window, with no direct sunlight. I could barely make out the images on the screen due to the glare. It took a lot of turning and repositioning of both myself and the device to find an angle and lighting condition which made the screen readable. In contrast, my Blackberry phone only needed a small tilt away from the window to be completely readable.
  4. Jumpy screen. As I struggled to find a good lighting angle, my efforts were complicated by the screen flipping around to adjust to the orientation of the device. The angle I needed to get the right lighting resulted in the device flipping into upside-down landscape mode without warning due to tiny changes in my hands. Then I would have to move it significantly to get it back into right-side up portrait orientation, which led to screen glare, which made the finger prints stand out, etc....
  5. Navigation/Interface. Jakob Neilson's write up on the inconsistency of the interface and the lack of conventional cues on how to interact with the device are right on the money. One app worked by me tilting the iPad around to "move" stuff on the screen, like one of those closed plastic boxes with BBs in it that you tilt and turn to try to get all the BBs into holes in the bottom of the box. Another had me tapping the screen as a simulacrum of the object in the picture. This reminded me of the horrible days of early Web design when users would see a picture of something, like an office, and click on the picture to interact with the site, everything image mapped and utterly inaccessible - design as metaphor. Other apps had symbol images instead of text on buttons, and there was no way to get pop-up or tool-tip text to know what would happen if I tapped the button. There is no equivalent of mouse hover or right-click, and no way to tab through as with a keyboard. The flip side of "intuitive" interfaces is that they are opaque to the user. If I'm playing a game like Myst (anybody else remember that game?), the mystery of the interface is part of the game. On a productivity app, not so much.
  6. Awkward size. It is too big/heavy to hold with one hand and not quite big enough to cradle comfortably in my left arm while using my right hand to poke at it. The holding is made more difficult by the jumpy screen and the glare. I think the only good way to hold it for long periods of time is either to prop it up on a desktop (using the optional dock/stand or one of the carry cases that also props it up) or else to sit with your legs pulled up and the device resting against them. On a netbook/laptop, the "stand" is built in plus you get a real keyboard. On a hand-held device, it is easy to support with one hand and interact with the other. Some devices can be held and manipulated in one hand (Blackberry). So, I have lost the portability of a small device and the power and input options of a slightly larger device.
  7. Small and dim images. This one surprised me more than it should have, I think, and perhaps would not have been so dramatic if I had a netbook. I expected a better image. I found myself squinting and having to bring it closer to my face to make out details on the screen. This would probably have been less of a problem without the screen glare and finger prints (I did surreptitiously wipe the screen a few times to clean it up), but the colors did not pop the way I thought they would, the images were not crisp, and the overall screen size felt cramped. I kept wanting to click a magnify button. Oddly enough, I don't have that sense when working with my Palm T|X or my Blackberry 8830. Their screens are bright, crisp and don't seem cramped, even at their small sizes.
  8. Single-tasking/single-button. Some people think this is a big draw-back on the device, some people don't care. My Palm and my Blackberry are single-tasking devices and I haven't found this to be a problem with them, so was not expecting to find this to be a problem with the iPad. Wrong. The screen was large enough that I felt like I should be able to have multiple windows open. The single button at the bottom of the bezel was not an obvious way to change apps - the owner had to show me how to use it. I disliked having to click that and then touch the screen again to get another app vs. being able to use buttons on the Palm or Blackberry to swiftly flip around without changing my grip on the device. I had to either lay the iPad on the table or start juggling it from one hand to two, which then started new rounds of stabilize-the-screen-orientation.
I was not able to check the internet connection because the owner had not yet set up her account.

Overall, I was not impressed. It was awkward to handle, opaque to navigate, and visually merely adequate. The apps she had downloaded were mostly games, which are not the kind of things I do with computers. (Though I do admit to having a big weakness for Age of Empires.) None of the non-game apps showed off made me go wow. I would like to try using the device again in different lighting conditions (for example, a brightly lit office with no windows nearby) and to do some web browsing.

It does not fit the way I use my electronics at all. I program stuff, I create stuff, I multi-task, I use keyboards, buttons and styluses (styli?) very effectively. I want my devices to do work. I don't do a lot of passive consumption (20 years without a TV in my house) and the only hip part of my life are the real things attached to my fat butt. Thus, iPad is not a product for me.