posted by Thom Holwerda on Sun 3rd Jul 2011 22:04 UTC

The software


THE SOFTWARE

Reviewing the software that powers the iPad is a difficult thing to do. So far, if you were to believe the reviews of either the iPad 1 or the iPad 2, you'd think we were dealing with an entirely new interface paradigm that obsoletes the traditional WIMP (windows, icons, menus, pointing device) paradigm, and that the iPad is, right off the bat, the best a tablet can be.

This makes reviewing the software hard, because the expectations have been set; criticism of the iPad will immediately be labelled as merely inspired by anti-Apple sentiments, and considering OSNews' track record of not bending over backwards to praise Cupertino (or any other company, for that matter) and my personal aversion against 'god-moves-in-mysterious-ways'-arguments, the labelling will only be harder and firmer.

However, after a few weeks of intensive use, I can firmly say that while iOS on the iPad is not bad in and of itself, its interface is not new. It's not fresh. It's not a new paradigm. In fact, this is about as WIMPy as any other interface I've ever seen. The consequence? iOS' so-called tablet-inspired interface is nothing but a thin veneer under which lies the throbbing heart of a traditional, run-of-the-mill WIMP interface - and a mediocre one at that.

I'm first going to detail some of its strengths, then dive into its weaknesses - before moving on to a higher-level philosophical discussion about the iPad's interface.


Life's short. Talk fast.

The first thing you'll notice when you use the iPad 2 is just how fast iOS really flies on this dual-core device. On my 3GS - and even during my short stints on the iPhone 4, but to a lesser degree - I often found iOS sluggish, unresponsive, and at times even stuttery. iOS felt 'heavy'.

None of that on the iPad 2, however. This thing is fast. Animations are fluid, without any form of stutter or lag. Responsiveness is near-perfect most of the time, and applications launch and close without much delay, and scrolling really feels like you're grabbing the content and dragging it around.

The only thing that really seems to be able to bog down applications as well as iOS itself is when they need to pull stuff from the web - Twitter, Facebook applications, the App Store, and so on. I wasn't particularly impressed with download speeds to begin with (and I have 120Mbit/s down and 10 Mbit/s up, so that's not it), but what makes it worse is that applications will often not accept input if they're still waiting on network requests to be completed. The App Store is a major offender here - most of the time, the user interface is already all loaded up, but you won't be able to type in the search box until the content in the window has been loaded.

These are minor annoyances, however, and do not apply to all applications, or even in all circumstances. I'm guessing it depends on how applications are coded if network requests can lock up UIs or not (we surely have some iOS developers in the audience who can clarify this). Overall, though, using iOS on the iPad is a delight for those of us who prefer zippiness, tolerate little lag, and just want to get on with it.

Battery life is top-notch, and I usually get about 6-8 hours of usage out of one charge, and this includes playing video using Air Video. Apple should start including longer charger cables though (but that's nothing a USB extension cable can't fix).


iOS App Store™©®

Another strong point for the iPad 2 is the immense variety of applications. Whatever you want to do, there really is an application for it most of the time, and if not, you can generally get by with the iPhone versions of applications if you really need to. Of course, having so many applications is also a problem, but I'll get to that in a minute.

Since it's impossible to cover all the applications available, I'm going to focus on a few that have really become vital for me. First and foremost, Air Video. This is a very clever application that allows you to stream your video library from any computer to your iPad. You install a server on your regular computer, and the iOS client connects to it.

The cleverness here is that the server doesn't just stream content; it will also perform live conversion if the source file is in a format iOS can't handle (using ffmpeg). You can also select to permanently convert a file to an iPad-compatible format. Obviously, live conversion requires some serious CPU power, so don't count on using your old trusty PII server for something like this. I'm using my dual-core Atom server, which can't handle 720p and higher in live conversion. When I want to watch HD content, I simply temporarily transfer the video files over to my workstation which can handle it just fine.

Another gem is Instapaper, with which many of you will be familiar. You can send articles you find online to the Instapaper application from either your iPad or any other computer, which will format the text in a far more readable fashion than most websites do. Instapaper ignores embedded videos, however, which seems like a strange omission. Still, it makes the act of reading web articles a lot less unpleasant, and it's already become one of my favourite applications.

Another quite fancy use of the iPad is as a secondary display using Air Display. You install a driver on your Mac or Windows PC which connects wirelessly to your iPad, turning it into a secondary display. It works just like a regular secondary display. The Windows driver is a bit buggy though, and doesn't support Aero. It's a bit gimmicky, and I haven't really yet found a use for it - but it's fun nonetheless. This application would immediately become useful for watching Justin.tv gaming streams if sound could also be routed to the iPad (Jtv has an iOS application, but it's €12 - that's a bit much for just watching streams).

For the rest, most applications I use are frontends to websites, such as applications for NU.nl, Engadget, Hacker News, Reddit, CNN, the BBC, xkcd, and so on. These applications are of varying quality, but they get the job done. I'm not very interested in gaming on the iPad, but I do have to say that Trainyard - my favourite puzzle game - looks great in 'double'-mode (it's an iPhone game).

Moving on, there are also a few things the iPad doesn't do well.


She ain't perfect...

First of all, the iPad is not particularly suitable as a multimedia device - especially when it comes to video. Codec support is abysmal, rendering the device near-useless for enjoying media on the go. When you're at home - where my iPad is most of the time - the situation can be resolved through workarounds like the already-mentioned Air Video, but this solution is not ideal for people who don't have a computer running all night (like I do with my server), or for people whose computers can't handle the live conversion feature.

While people living in America will be able to enjoy lots of content through things like iTunes, Hulu, and Netflix, this doesn't apply to many people living in the rest of the world (like myself). iTunes is a barren wasteland in The Netherlands (no television series, no films, no music videos - foreign or local), and Hulu and Netflix are not available either. This means that in order to enjoy video material on your iPad, you'll need to either resort to Air Video-like solutions, or convert your entire video library to an iPad-compatible format. Not particularly ideal.

While his seems rather obvious (this is Apple, after all), many other reviews fail to mention it, so I figured I'd bring it up. If you want a tablet to enjoy your varied video library, the iPad is not the right choice. You're better off looking for a solution with wider - or extensible - codec support. I researched the Air Video solution before buying my iPad 2, and if you are hell-bent on getting an iPad, and consuming video is one of your intended uses for the device, you might want to check up on similar solutions as well.

The lack of codecs is somewhat related to another problem: the iPad is a walled garden. I'm not talking about the iOS App Store walled garden, but the walled garden that makes it difficult to get files - no matter the kind - on and off the device. I've now resorted to emailing stuff to and from myself, which really feels archaic and shouldn't be necessary. The iPad should've been mountable, period. There is no excuse for not being able to. I appreciate Apple is trying to address the apparent issue with file systems (I never knew there was one, but alas), but this isn't the solution - this is just annoying.

The whole iCloud internet service is supposed to address this somewhat, but this seems like a rather roundabout solution to a straightforward problem - and as I've said before, giving Apple access to my documents? Yeah... No.

Another persistent source of irritation is the keyboard on the iPad. I'm a Windows Phone 7 user, and I've grown accustomed to the letters on the keyboard reflecting the mode; if shift is pressed, the letters turn into capitals. The iPad only turns the shift key blue to indicate its mode, so if your hand happens to obstruct it, you will start typing in all caps. Kind of an odd omission.

When the keyboard is activated, the top-half of the screen is not de-activated. What I mean by this is that tapping the area above the keyboard will hide the keyboard, and for some reason, this happens a lot. This is especially annoying in the browser, where you might accidentally tap on a link and be brought to another page. The keyboard already sports a 'hide'-key, so at least an option to turn off 'tap-outside-of-keyboard-to-hide-it' would've been nice.

I also find it mystifying that the keyboard lacks arrow keys. Navigating through text fields, or other sections of text when selecting, is a pain in the bum without arrow keys. The problem is that Apple expects you to put the tablet on its back when typing, but this means that when you are trying to select text or position the cursor, your finger obscures the magnifying glass!

Having a spacious keyboard like this - one that can adapt to any situation - makes it possible for the keyboard to sport a special layout with cut, copy, paste, and arrow keys to make manipulating text a lot easier. The touch screen way to copy/paste makes sense on an iPhone with a small screen, but on the iPad? Come on, Apple.

iOS also lacks a split keyboard, which would've made perfect sense on the iPad and the way you generally hold it. Luckily, this will be added to iOS 5, but as it stands now, you can't comfortably thumb-type when the iPad is in portrait mode (let alone in landscape mode).

Table of contents
  1. Tablets: a short history (1/2)
  2. Tablets: a short history (2/2)
  3. The hardware
  4. The software
  5. About that post-PC thing... (1/2)
  6. About that post-PC thing... (2/2)
  7. Conclusion
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