Sunday Times Books LIVE Community Sign up

Login to Sunday Times Books LIVE

Forgotten password?

Forgotten your password?

Enter your username or email address and we'll send you reset instructions

Sunday Times Books LIVE

Hands On The iPad: A Special Report by Mandy J Watson

While I waited (in fact, I’m still waiting) for an iPad review unit to be sent to me that was promised by a third-party retailer months ago, Ben kindly offered to let me try out the BOOK SA iPad. I had seen iPads in passing before, being lovingly stroked by tech journalists who had access to some of the first units to arrive in the country (still unofficially, by the way – the “official” local release date is still up in the air). However standing and watching someone else be enthralled by the device doesn’t come close to experiencing it for yourself.

I spent a few hours with the iPad trying to absorb as much as possible. For this article I’m primarily focussing on aspects of interest to people who read or write rather than other functions such as e-mail integration, the larger web browsing experience, or multimedia applications. I will do my best to describe the experience, rather than the technology, to help you decide if this device might be for you.

Keyboard And Input
The keyboard is not like anything you have experienced before. The screen supports multitouch functionality, which means that it can differentiate between, interpret, and process more than one point being touched at the same time. I’m not a particularly fast typer but I’m not a hunt-and-peck typist either and the iPad kept up with me when I typed in the same way as I would on a traditional keyboard. This was one of the most unexpected – and welcome – features. However, the tactile and sensory experiences (or lack thereof) took some getting used to as you’re just tapping away at the flat screen – there is no key clicking noise or movement; in fact it feels exactly the same as if you were to pretend to type on a glass table.

The keyboard is also context sensitive, so some of the keys will change depending on what program you’re in. For example, there’s a “.com” key in the browser and the Enter/Return key is called “Go” whereas in iBooks the Enter/Return key is labelled “Search” if you’re performing a text search.

Navigation and other control functions that don’t require keyboard input are handled quite easily with finger swipes and tapping, much like on an iPhone. It’s intuitive and you’ll figure out what to do quite easily – one of the iPad’s biggest selling points, and why it’s already so successful, is that it’s easy to use and completely uncomplicated.

Orientation And Display
There is no such thing as “right way up” with this device – there is only landscape and portrait orientation and whatever you are more comfortable using. Most apps, including e-readers, e-mail, and web browsers, support either and only a few that require a specific orientation can’t be flipped. The flipping was very fast and smooth.

The resolution (the number of pixels wide by the number of pixels long) is 1024×768 in landscape (or 768×1024 for portrait), which is a standard that the majority of web sites (should) conform to. I checked out my site, brainwavez.org, on the iPad and the experience was amazing. I built it specifically to fit a 1024-pixel width so everything flowed and fitted well and the quality of the screen made the text and images appear more vibrant than on a traditional monitor.

I tried a few other sites as well and even those that weren’t built to fit well at 1024 pixel still looked better than on your average computer screen, due to the higher quality display of the iPad.

Eye Strain And Ergonomics
I don’t suffer from any particular eye maladies so I can’t speak for those who do, but I used the iPad for four to five hours and suffered no ill effects or tiredness. I’d have to test it for longer to see if I might experience any problems but I think I am personally unlikely to because I spend all day starting at lower-quality screens with no adverse effects (so far). I tested the device inside, however, and not outside in sunlight, so I don’t know how that might affect one’s experience.

Ergonomically, desk placement is probably the iPad’s biggest problem. It’s basically a giant iPhone so the back is smooth and flat. If you place it on a desk you end up hunched over it because, of course, you don’t flip up the screen as with a traditional laptop, so a desk device that can elevate it is recommended if you intend to use it for long periods of time and don’t want to hold it, although that would make typing awkward. The alternative for typing would either be to rest it on your lap or cradle it with one arm while tap-typing with your free hand, which I expect will eventually lead to cramps in your arm.

When you wish to read, however, the tablet design makes it an ideal device to use in an environment away from a desk, such as while sitting in a comfortable lounge chair, or outside under a sun umbrella at the pool, or beneath a tree.

iBooks And iBookstore
BOOK SA’s iPad is linked to a US account so it has the full functionality of what is available to that market, rather than the more insipid offering open to South Africans. iBookstore is similar to the iTunes App Store and the iPad, of course, also supports apps. You can browse bestsellers or search for authors or titles, and then often download sample chapters or purchase a book via the familiar log-in-and-pay procedure. Books that are free or whose copyright has expired are also acquired via the “buying” process, you just don’t pay anything for them. Once you’ve requested sample chapters or bought a book it appears on your iBooks “bookshelf”, and from there you can select a title and read it.

iBooks is a well thought out piece of software. In portrait mode it will present one page at a time (which feels like a web page); in landscape mode it will present two side by side (which feels more like a book). You have controls to adjust screen brightness, font size, and font face. If you change any of the font settings the app will reflow the book without losing your place and if you close the app it will automatically remember where you are for the next time that you open it.

Getting around a publication is a different kind of experience. The page numbers and progress (for example “76 of 281″) are listed at the bottom of the screen. You can turn pages by touching at the corner and dragging upwards to “flip” them across and you can also scroll through a book’s chapters with a swipe of your finger on the dotted bar at the bottom of the page. A pop-up window will appear at each dot with chapter information.

There is also a search function (the keyboard will pop up for you to enter a term), which will list all the instances of your search term in the book in a pop-up window. If you touch a word on the screen you will be presented with your choice of a pop-up dictionary definition, a search box, or the ability to bookmark at that spot. Touching and dragging allows you to select text. To make it easier the area that you are touching will be magnified above it in a pop-up window to help you select with more precision. Similar functionality is available in the web browser to aid you in selecting text from a web page.

The entire control process is easy to master and surprisingly not frustrating, though the text-selection process can still be a bit fiddly. It is a bit strange, however, not being able to flip through an e-book in the very physical manner is which you would flip through a printed book. I’m not sure that that’s something to which I will ever quite adjust.

Kindle App, E-Books, And Multimedia Publications
Amazon, realising that dedicated e-reader devices are becoming obsolete, has slowly been making the Kindle available for other devices, such as Windows and Mac OS computers, the iPhone, and the iPad, in the process transforming the Kindle from a hardware device to a software service. The iPad version presents similar functionality to iBooks but there’s a certain flair to the interface – and your interaction with it – that’s missing. However, if you’ve invested in a Kindle and its e-books and are now thinking of switching to an iPad, you won’t have wasted all that money.

A number of US newspapers and magazines have developed apps for the iPad, some complete with embedded ads, which results in a hybrid between traditional newsprint/magazine publishing and electronic print works. Once again the quality of the screen makes a huge difference. Photographs are rendered in high-resolution colour and some publications allow you to zoom in to see detail – National Geographic is a wondrous experience in this regard (though I still prefer the print edition). Although I didn’t see an example during testing some publications are taking advantage of the fact that the iPad is a multimedia device and are experimenting with the possibilities that this presents, such as embedded video and interactivity. You can imagine what this might do for travel blogging, nature and science reporting, infographics, and even photographic essays.

Battery Life
The biggest surprise to me was the battery life. I was immensely sceptical about the claims (based on years of product testing and the manufacturer lies that come with devices), especially because a screen is usually the biggest consumer of energy and the iPad isn’t much more than a giant screen with a processor behind hit. During the roughly five-hour period that I used the iPad (much of it on the Internet, using Wi-Fi, which is another big battery drainer) the battery drained at about 10% per hour, which means that for normal use you will probably have 10 to 11 hours of charge available to you.

For perspective, the average netbook has either 1.5 to three hours or 4.5 to six hours, depending on the battery type. The iPad’s 10 or more hours allows you to read throughout the duration of a long-haul flight, or utilise Google Maps for navigation on a day trip/touristy wander on foot in a foreign city, without the fear of running out of power.

Final Thoughts
My feelings regarding the iPad, after testing it, were quite a surprise. Although I’ve done my best to describe the experience you cannot understand what it is like until you have a device in your own hands. Other opinions may differ but I don’t see it as a device that will replace technologies and hardware that I already use. Rather, it would augment certain things I do; for example I spend a lot of time reading on the Web and the iPad would be a much better, higher quality, and more comfortable platform from which to do this. There are certain things that the iPad does so well that you begin to think of brand-new uses for it that would fulfill a need that you may not have had before – and, remember, this is the first version of the device: Apple usually only hits its stride around the third version. This makes the possibilities for the future even more intriguing and enticing.

 

Please register or log in to comment