Twelve weeks with the iPad — Tool or toy?

Ah the iPad — long awaited, much talked about, and less than half a year after its debut already almost a mainstream device. Apple did it again. Again they disrupted the market, again they couldn’t keep up with the demand, and again we couldn’t wait to hold that new magical thing in our hands… We have been using it for twelve weeks now, a good opportunity to look back and answer the one question: Is it fit for everyday use? Can it be used for work? Tool or toy?

Enchantment

It is easy to be enchanted by the iPad, especially after having spent weeks anticipating what to do with it, how to customize it, what 3G data plan to get, what apps to buy, what accessories, etc. etc. We decided for the 64 GB
Wi-Fi + 3G version. June 15 was the day, after weeks of delay we finally held it in our hands. Setting it up and customizing it was a breeze. The device itself is just beautiful, a cool slate, not too light, not too heavy, with a crisp display, very responsive, the user interface intuitive and fast. Honeymoon…

Next: the apps. That was a tough one. For a few weeks we really increased the revenue of Apple’s App Store. What can you actually do with the iPad? What do you want to do with yours? What is the best app for every purpose? What are the critics saying? What are the users writing? How many stars? How many Dollars / Euros? If we ever felt “geeky” it was back then. We got all charged up, as did our credit card, and we loved it. As of today, we have a collection of 269 apps for the iPad (179 of them iPad only).

Solemn people that we are, we started with productivity apps, Apple’s Pages, Keynote, and Numbers, note taking apps, list creating apps, dictionary, Wikipedia, apps for printing, apps for downloading, uploading, opening and manipulating files. Then we worked our way through RSS readers and other web apps, then utilities to record, measure, navigate, search, find, translate, display… As they say, “There’s an App for everything.”

Disenchantment

After every honeymoon there comes the moment when the dust settles and things turn out to be not quite as perfect as expected. We stumbled over a few shortcomings here and there — no real multitasking, no syncing over Wi-Fi, no file exchange via SD card, cumbersome handling of multiple mail accounts, minor nuisances that might be fixed eventually in the future. The lack of Flash support on the iPad isn’t a bother in our eyes since we never cared for the format. HTML5 + H.264 are doing just fine and we applaud Apple for the courage to dump an outdated standard in favor of a better one.

But, some things really disappointed us — Keynote, Apple’s presentation app, being prominent among them. Back in April, we took a look at the first customer reviews in the App Store. After trying it out ourselves we couldn’t be more disappointed. The app is very slow to open our imported presentation files, renders them useless by omitting media files, destroying groupings and animations. As if that wasn’t enough the app has no proper presenter display; the presenter cannot even see the projected slide on the iPad, only the slide number, not to speak of missing presenter notes. Creating slides the way we create them — with lots of grouped objects, Bézier curves, and custom animations — is impossible because those features are not supported. To us, Keynote on the iPad is useless. And despite some alternatives so far we see no app that would turn the iPad into a serious presentation device — bad news for presenters.

Re-enchantment

Of course, all the shortcomings and disappointments couldn’t put us off. We just love the iPad. Over time we discovered apps and workarounds for every problem and established our own workflow. First thing in the morning is checking the emails, the latest news and tweets. In that respect the iPad has already replaced the other computers in the household. Looking up information — be it on Wikipedia, in a simple dictionary, a translation app, the Internet Movie Database, on Youtube, Google Maps, or the Weather Channel — has almost become an iPad-only task.

And we discovered something interesting about the iPad, it seems to inspire all kinds of analogue activities such as reading, drawing and painting, making music, even bird watching… So, is the iPad fit for everyday use? Can it be used for work? Is it tool or toy? Well, it is definitely a tool and can be used for a variety of tasks. Is it the next computing device? Probably. Can it replace a laptop computer? Not yet. We are sure, the iPad will make its way into all areas of life, not least the business world. But, it seems, even for just toying around the iPad is the best tool.

Here are some apps and suggestions:

After a lot of searching and testing we found that GoodReader is the best document viewer around — and for 0.99 $ / 0.79 € it might be the best investment you’ve ever made. GoodReader supports a whole range of file formats from text, MS Office, iWorks over images to audio and video. Syncing over Wi-Fi works like a charm, as does downloading from the web. Files can be organized in password protected folders.

Most surprising, the app can even be used for presentations! Connected to a video projector via the iPad Dock Connector to VGA Adapter, every file can be projected. It is our backup of choice for seminars and presentations. We just export our slides into PDF, store the movie files, that we want to show in the same folder, and off we go. It’s not the same like presenting with laptop and PPT or Keynote, but it does the trick. And as a bonus you can even pinch and zoom into the projected image / slide. We tried ReaddleDocs as well. For five times as much money it does the same things as beautifully — with one exception, ReaddleDocs can highlight and annotate text in PDFs (as long as there is no more than one column on a page). For many that is an essential feature, a feature that will come to the GoodReader as well, with the next update.

If there is one must-have app on the iPad, it is GoodReader.

The iPad makes a beautiful eBook reader and the app of choice is… no, not iBooks, but Stanza. We like iBooks as well, but Stanza has been around much longer and became our standard reader on the iPhone / iPod touch. On the iPhone 3G and the iPod touch 2g iBooks is really slow whereas Stanza does just fine. Stanza can access more sources than iBooks and has a companion app that lets you read your eBooks on your desktop computer and / or laptop, something that Apple has yet to deliver. Since it is a free app you might as well give it a go.

Drawing and painting are two of the analogue activities that the iPad inspires so beautifully. We couldn’t resist to try it out — and got hooked. How many years has it been since we spent hours sitting outdoors drawing! It took us some time (and money) to finally decide for SketchBook Pro, alongside with ArtStudio and Brushes and Paintbook and Adobe Ideas… And we tried a few more, but SketchBook Pro and ArtStudio are best fit to our needs. Both support video-out which turns them into virtual flip charts if needed. And since Keynote doesn’t support drawing, for presentations on the fly you can just make a few simple drawings and import them into your Keynote file. Fingerpainting is fine, but for better control you might want to try the Pogo Stylus (sorry, Steve).

Axel Wendelberger