SCap_ 2010-04-06_75Now that the dust has settled a bit on the iPad launch (unlike that from the Icelandic volcano which is keeping me in Europe for a few days longer than planned), it is time for a round-up of initial impressions.

And while everyone has predictably been falling all over themselves to get in a lot of general reporting about the debut, yours truly has been busy curating the less obvious, in order to get to the bottom of the question – to buy or not to buy…

The Form Factor Issue

After testing out the iPad at the Apple Store in Austin for about 20 minutes, and then again the following Monday at BestBuy for nearly 2 hours, I have to concur with the commentators that said it was a bit on the heavy side.

Not so much in the sense of the weight itself, but in the sense of being distributed in slightly too large of a form factor (kind of like overly large furniture making moving of it more awkward even if the item isn’t that heavy).

Not once did I think that that there wasn’t enough shown on the 9.7″ screen. Instead, it was almost too much. And watching various commentators such as Scoble et al. on the review by The Gillmor Gang wield theirs for the camera, they looked a bit too large as well. Wield is the right word for it come to think of it.

I said in January after the announcement that I had wished for the iPad to be “one size smaller”, about paperback size. Slightly smaller screen, less bezel instead, to keep it at about 4 x times iPhone size, rather than 6 x. If it had to be slightly thicker to fit batteries and other entrails, then so be it. No one seems quite as obsessed with (device) thinness as Steve Jobs come to think of it.

We’ll see if one of the other tablets planned for Android/Chrome OS or Windows will take advantage of this smaller form factor. [UPDATE: Looks like Dell is going to, with 5" and 7" screen versions of its Streak tablet. 5" seems a bit too small given that the current largest smartphones are already nearing 4.5 inch screens.]

Think about it like this: A 10″ screen held at 2 feet equates to a 50″ screen at 10 feet! (This is why no one thinks that hard about the little screens in the airplane seat backs being too small to watch many hours of movies on long flights.)

Right now I have my laptop on my lap, with the 15″ screen about 2 feet away. The iPad would have to be held with your arms fully out-stretched to create the same distance. At about 1/2 – 2/3 of that distance, the current iPad screen size will actually be the same (at 2/3) or even bigger than that (at 1/2 distance). I really think a 7-8″ diagonal screen would be completely sufficient.

And make the tablets much easier to wield…

The keyboard issue

There are several aspects to this:

1) There seems to be confirmation of what I suspected in my previous iPad post, that the keyboard dock is not as usable as it may first appear. The reason being that the whole thing is a bit unstable for switching from typing to touch-screen as Engagdet writes: “Our one complaint? It’s not that easy to interact with the touchscreen from this angle” (note that NO Bluetooth mouse is supported), and doesn’t transport well.

[While speaking of docks, an interesting fact that seems to be slipping through the cracks is that the VGA-out dock or adapter enables to output content that is DIFFERENT FROM what you see on your iPad screen for at least some applications that make use of this, e.g. Apple's Keynote presentation app.]

2) Given this reality, it is better to buy the Apple Bluetooth keyboard, IF you need a physical keyboard at times. It will work for other Bluetooth enabled computing devices in your house, etc.

Engadget in the same post shows a good quick video showing (at bottom of post) how fast it it to synch up the Bluetooth keyboard.

The question really is, is it needed at all?

The reports on on-screen virtual keyboard usability vary from good (some claim 50-words per minute, and a pre-launch reviewer from PC Mag wrote his entire detailed, multi-page review on it) to so-so, with the landscape view typing mode appearing to…ahem…win by a landslide.

But even in landscape mode, touch-typists who are used to resting their fingers on a keyboard have a problem, because the virtual keyboard will intermittently think you have begun typing.

The portrait view mode however seems to please next to no-one as far as typing more than a few keystrokes is concerned.

Why? Too far apart for thumb-typing or one-handed “hunt & peck”, too narrow for good two-handed typing. Bummer, if there weren’t an excellent solution that I hinted at in the comments on my last post:

3) Swype. One-handed gesture-based input by “swyping” the letters of a word. The application was unveiled at TechCrunch 50 last year, and is finding its way in private (?) beta onto some Android smart phones.

Why is it not on the iPad? That’s the $64k Question. Swype would appear to be a no-brainer, something that could have really pushed the iPad over the top beyond all doubt.

Fast input, aligned with the ergonomics of the device, seamless transition from touch-based navigation to touch-based Swype “typing”, workable and fast even for those of us who happen to be slowish 2-Finger typists.

This alone may make me wait for an Android tablet with Swype on board, with a slightly smaller screen as discussed above. Yeah, it’s that important.

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Other stuff that is actually great

Somewhat under-reported has been the fact that the battery life is truly excellent, anywhere from 8 hours (non-stop, full-blast use with only the most resource-heavy applications), up to 12 hours or more with normal usage. Very few of the reviewers appeared to be able to get below Apple’s claimed 10 hours, which is a remarkable feat. Manufacturer battery life claims used to be notoriously…how do I put this…optimistic..

Also under-reported is another near miracle that instantly should make the iPad a couch computing favorite: It emits next to no heat, and has no fan, hence no fan noise. All while keeping the screen applications and video very snappy.

This may well prove huge, for business meetings as well, where Steve Rubel has already seen a more positive acceptance than either a laptop (creates distance) or a cell phone (makes people think you’re texting/checking your email).

Despite a variety of conspiracy theories for why Apple has it in for Adobe, THAT is the real reason why Flash is not being supported. Flash is a CPU resource hog. It’s why even a pretty powerful dual-core laptop starts to spin-up mightily when viewing most flash-based video. Have the thing on your lap, and the hot “exhaust” from your CPU is warming up your pants for you.

This is a HUGE DEAL. A literally cool and quiet computer. And just as I write that, here comes news that apparently iPad has issues with sitting out/being used in the hot sun, and can shut down pre-emptively to avoid overheating. Makes sense since it’s all glass and aluminum…

Also underreported: By way of a variety of apps such as Citrix Receiver, the iPad can run any remote computer and nearly any of that computer’s applications that might be too complex or large to run on iPad natively. This could be one of the killer apps for the iPad in settings such as hospitals. Steve Rubel’s point about meetings comes to mind again: Where a laptop would be inappropriate by a patient’s bedside, a tablet can be natural form factor.

About the iPad’s Kindle-Killing…

Much attention has been paid to the iPad’s impact on publishing, especially as a new entrant in the eBook reader category vs. Amazon’s Kindle device. So this area warrants some close scrutiny.

First, let’s point out that Apple is playing it pretty safe when it comes to anything that could smack of anti-trust worthy stiff-arming: The iBooks app is NOT installed by default, even though the iTunes Store is making a pretty obvious suggestion to install it. And Apple did not attempt to block the Kindle app, so they’ve learned from the iPhone Goggle Voice app brouhaha.

Apple has a lot of clout and likes to control everything, and yet, it doesn’t want to get into it with Congress if that can be avoided.

So how should Amazon play this?

Don’t try to take a shrill stand in a battle that can’t be won. Instead of carrying on about how the Kindle is still the superior eReader (e.g. in bright sunlight, which is probably true), Amazon should

1) drop the price for the Kindle immediately to below $200,

2) applaud the iPad for running the Kindle app so well, and so beautifully, pointing out that the Kindle really is a for-the-beach/pool type device, and

3) highlight the fact that ALL of your existing Kindle books will play on the iPad AND hopefully still on your Kindle as well.

The last point will make the Kindle a great hand-me-down device for kids who you don’t quite trust with a $500-900 iPad. And likely persuade prior Kindle owners to stick with the Kindle bookstore. Which is what Amazon should care the most about. There never was much use for them to get into a hardware race against Apple.

The Kindle will eventually simply be seen as a transitional device while Apple and others were still figuring out the new form factor. And meanwhile, Amazon has learned tons of valuable things about eBook economics. The business it should be in.

Given the various issues described further up, especially about the outdoor overheating, maybe it is too early to count the Kindle out just yet, and maybe it will fare better for longer than I first thought. Especially if Amazon further lowers the price.

More details on the iBooks app

One of the big issues that appear to be surfacing in regards to the iBook app is the bookmarking. Writes Gizmodo in “Hands On: Apple iBooks”:

Apple’s Bookmarking solution is perfect for highlighting a favorite line, but pretty lousy for just keeping your page. And, yeah, for a casual reader, this is a biggie.

And I would add to that that iBooks bookmarks are missing the capability to add your own commentary, a must for those of us who are used to heavily marking up our non-fiction books.

Here is another weakness Kindle could exploit for the time being, as relayed by PC World in “iPad as E-Reader: Glaring Problems, Promising Apps”:

By and large, in my reading, iBooks offered the slickest e-book navigation experience I’ve had on any device. Regrettably, however, iBooks makes a poor choice for anyone who wants to read e-book purchases on more than one device. Unless you plan to take the iPad with you everywhere, you’ll be without an e-reader much of the time. To make its bookstore more compelling, Apple needs to make desktop and phone versions of its reader. Until that happens, I won’t be buying any more books from Apple.

That’s pretty definitive, and may be a great life-line for the Kindle.

In summary, has the game just been changed?

I think we can safely assume that the ecosystem of iPad apps, accessories, and other add-ons will be a healthy one, see this example of people’s ad-hoc ingenuity… as the iPad as a design/art object is already spurring on a lot of further, often artistic ideas.

However during my tests one thing I realized is that there clearly is a learning curve for non-iPhone users as far as the basics of the interface are concerned. While that should help to rustle up Apple’s existing customers, it may prove to be a hurdle for very broad adoption. Then again, some commentators have already pointed out that very young users between say 3 and 13, are taking to the iPad like fish to water.

But plenty of adults are also ecstatic. Writes Michael Arrington in his “Unauthorized TechCrunch iPad Review”:

…the iPad beats even my most optimistic expectations. This is a new category of device. But it also will replace laptops for many people. It does basic computer stuff, like email and web surfing, very well. Applications load quickly and are very responsive – think iPhone 3GS with a 50% speed boost.

That’s what surprised me the most. The iPad isn’t just for couch computing…It’s a perfectly usable business device. And the form factor just happens to work far better for cramped places like airplanes than a normal laptop. I doubt I’ll ever open a laptop on a plane again after tomorrow…

The iPad will put significant pressure on laptop sales, particularly second device laptops.

Of course, here is the guy that was so desperate for the tablet form factor that last year he had his own tech blog delve into the device manufacturing business for a bit, and created his own Linux-based tablet prototype, dubbed “The CrunchPad”. (That project ended rather abruptly due to his overseas partners running away with the device under rather dubious circumstances.)

So, do we have a winner?

Someone on Gillmor Gang (see link above) intoned: “April 3 2010, the day the laptop died – or at least became the walking dead.”

I would concur that sub-12-13″ laptops and netbooks have just been dealt a considerable blow.

And Windows 7 based tablet PCs are just not really very far beyond a basic Windows PC with some touch features enabled, it’s as of yet not an end-to-end offering. Microsoft appears to indirectly be acknowledging this by basically ditching Windows Mobile 6.5, and going back to the drawing board:

The (still) unfortunately named (and just “renamed”) Windows 7 Series Phone is pointing in the right direction, but Microsoft won’t have it ready until the fall/X-mas, which means a tablet offering based on it is unlikely to be forthcoming until some time next year at the earliest.

That leaves many as of yet un-announced Android/Chrome OS based tablets, we will have to see if any of those materialize before the X-mas shopping season. Either way, that leaves a lot of room for Apple to run away with the entire category.

If everyone who can afford one and wants this class of device is buying an iPad now, then category leadership kicks in, and could well keep Apple in cruise-control and above 50% market-share from here. Until an entirely new category of device makes the iPad obsolete. Maybe it will be something like this Sixth Sense Technology TED Talk, for example.

Despite my overall positive views of the iPad and relative excitement about the tablet form factor, I for one decided to hold off for a bit longer due to the detail issues described above, which as you can tell are quite different from the ubiquitous and nearly reflexive complaints of “no multitasking, no Adobe Flash, no camera”.

None of those weighed very heavily for me. We will see if maybe Dell’s Streak in a 7″ version running Android and allowing the use of Swype for text input will end up being everything I ever wanted in a tablet. That such an Android device very likely would also support multitasking, Flash, and a camera (the “Big 3 Complaints” about the iPad) would only fall under the rubric “bonus” for me.

Please add your own iPad usage experiences and research in the comments below. Did you get one? Will you? How about an Android based tablet?