Sunday, December 9, 2012

My iPad Review (or I’m in Fat City with my Apple Thins)

I’ve had my iPad now for about two months, and it is time to tell the world what I think about it. Let me begin by saying I’ve been a science fiction fan for almost 60 years. It started with Heinlein’s “Have Space Suit, Will Travel” in about the fourth grade, and science fiction became a major influence of my life and career.  Many think that Sci-Fi authors tried to predict the future; not exactly. It is more that science fiction writers like to play “what if.” So they take a concept and project it, typically into the future, and just develop a whole universe based on "what if" those concepts were fact. With science fiction’s interest in space travel, naturally that occurs at some time in the “yet to come,” although today space flight is a reality. Still, those writers from the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s got a lot more correct about space flight than they did about computers.

As a group, those writers from the golden age never really got computers right. There were some good predictions of what we now know as the internet, but early science fiction usually assumed that a large and powerful computer would be as big as a small asteroid. Recent Sci-Fi, written since small computers have become a reality, do explore issues like a micro computers embedded in your body (you’ve heard of hardware and software, let me introduce “wetware”), but the golden age of science fiction didn’t predict what we see today in every coffee shop, college campus, and grandparent’s homes – computers are everywhere.

The original Star Trek had some interesting ideas with the voice interface computer (complete with boson’s whistle), and you may recall that James Kirk would sign some kind of clipboard like thing that might have been a computer, although it was about five inches thick and he used a pen. Even Captain Pickard is rarely seen with any kind of portable computer with the sex appeal of the iPad – that delicious little Apple with its svelte glass and aluminum body.

Well the iPad really seems like the future of computers. Notice how it has captured the public’s attention and the competition’s attention too. You hold it in your hand like a book. That is really what makes the iPad unique. At work I always see people walking around with their ThinkPads open. Personally, when I’m on the way to a meeting, I shut mine up and carry it like a closed library book. The people I see with the screen open, grabbing it precariously by the top or holding it with their fingers like a waiter carrying a tray of drinks, are like people walking around with an open book -- very clumsy looking. Well, the iPad is the most natural device to carry. You can even use it while walking, although that can lead to walking into walls. (“The Cat Who Walked Through Walls” – Heinlein reference.)

My favorite use for the iPad is reading. I’ve currently got the complete collection of “The Golden Age of Science Fiction: An Anthology of 50 Short Stories,” Volumes I to XIII on my iPad ($1.99 each at Amazon), and it is like carrying your whole library around with you. I have magazines on Zinio, dozens of news services, and the web on Safari. I’ve even got Netflix, IMDb, and Life; maps and YouTube; photos and music and email.

I love going mobile. You should see me at the airport. I open up my bag and start taking out my computers for security check. First, there’s the IBM laptop I use for work (Lotus Notes, VPNs, Intranet Web Pages); that is followed by the Mac Air for personal use (Facebook, Photos, Music); finally, I plop the iPad onto the belt -- I’ll be doing some reading on it in-flight. I leave the iPhone in the carry-on although it is a computer too, just one you can also use as a phone. I wonder how many MIPS I’m dragging onto that aircraft. In 1968, the equivalent IBM mainframe would have required its own plane, plus a tracker trailer full of air conditioning, and a bus full of maintenance personnel. This really is the future.

We are living in the future
I'll tell you how I know
I read it in the paper
Fifteen years ago
We're all driving rocket ships
And talking with our minds
And wearing turquoise jewelry
And standing in soup lines
We are standing in soup lines

IBM Convertible

I’ve been using laptop computers since around 1992, and their portability has always been a most attractive asset -- a computer you could carry around like a notebook. I was once on a committee tasked with recommending the fate of the old Carnegie Library building in Longmont. There were lots of pros and cons on tearing the building down to make way for the new library. I recall taking my laptop to the meetings and taking down all the notes and suggestions in a spreadsheet to produce a summary of the plus and minus ideas. People were amazed that I had a computer that I could bring to the conference table. They had never seen a laptop before. Prior to that, I had an earlier IBM portable, called the Convertible, which ran DOS. When you lifted the tiny mono screen, the body would open up to make it easier to insert diskettes into the 3.5 inch floppy drives. Unfortunately, it didn’t have battery power and had to be plugged in. Plus it weighted about 14 pounds and was the size of a large typewriter and had a little fold out handle. Still it was an indication of what was to come and sure beat the heck out of carrying an IBM or Compaq “luggable.” Some will remember that, even before the IBM PC, there was the Osborne "portable."

IBM Luggable
So let’s compare my iPad to my little MacBook. I have a tiny Mac Air that I use when I travel. (I’m writing this note on the Air.) I chose the Air for its small size – it is only 11” in a world of 13”, 15”, 17”, and larger laptops – yet it has a full size keyboard.

Apple Twins
Sporting the same aluminum casing and the famous Apple logo, the 11-inch Air and the iPad are definitely cousins. The Air is about seven-tenths of a pound heavier than the iPad. In two dimensions (thickness and depth), it’s of comparable size. If you lay the iPad atop the MacBook Air, you’ll see that the Air is a little more than two inches wider than the iPad.

iPad dimensions: 9.6 inches by 7.5 inches and 0.5 inch thick; Weight: 1.6 pounds (Wi-Fi + 3G model).
MacBook Air 11-inch dimensions: 11.8 inches by 7.6 inches and 0.11 to 0.68 inch; Weight: 2.3 pounds.

That comparison skips over one important point: the iPad is always open, ready for use at the push of a button. The MacBook Air works only when you open its clamshell and put it on a surface where you can type, use the trackpad, and see its screen. The iPad, by contrast, can be used in a lot of places where the traditional laptop really can’t. Some laptops get a little too hot to put on your lap. You can’t really curl up in a comfortable chair with your laptop. You have to find your comfortable desk or use the kitchen table.

But that very disadvantage is also Air’s biggest physical advantage over the iPad: It needs more room because it’s got a physical keyboard. The iPad has that virtual on-screen keyboard. I have seen teens and sub teens texting the contents of War and Peace using only a ten-key pad, so I assume that some can speed type on a glass screen, but I’m not one who can. I really need a physical keyboard with tactile feedback to reach my best typing rate. A friend commented the other day about the length of my essays and asked where I find the time. You would be surprised. I’m a very fast typist (errors and all), and I really bang these notes out quickly. But that is on a real keyboard, not a piece of glass.

Another friend suggested you can get wireless keyboards and turn the iPad into a “real” computer. Certainly you can, but that sort of defeats the big advantage of the iPad. Add a keyboard, and a mouse, and a pair of speakers, and a printer, and … now you might as well lug a laptop!

As an aside, I like the keyboard on my Macs, but I’ve never found a keyboard that matched the IBM designs. I’ve owned a couple of dozen IBM computers and each one had a marvelous keyboard that fit your fingers like a glove. A perfect combination of tactile feedback, appropriate click, just the right pressure, and a molded face with lettering that never wears off. The originals were the best – built by the wizards at Lexington who produced the IBM Selectric Typewriter. But even my current Lenovo T410 that my company provides has that marvelous keyboard. The chicklet keys on my Macs remind me more of my old Radio Shack CoCo. I’ve typed on worse keyboards than Apples, including Dell and Sony. HP is not much better and many HP laptop keyboards are silver with black letters which these tired old eyes can’t see very well, especially in low light. No, you can see a Mac keyboard fine, especially the MacBook Pro (MBP) with its lighted keys, but I still long for the original IBM PC keyboard, solid metal and clickity-clack.)

What it boils down to is that the iPad is a fantastic consumption device. Computer architectures are basically input – process – output. As an output device, the iPad is marvelous. The beautiful color screen, the built in speakers, (I was just kidding earlier about carrying external speakers), the touch interface – all so elegant and just plain fun to use. You can even respond to a few emails. But beyond that, it isn’t really great at input. If I’ve got a spreadsheet to work on, then give me a number pad and cursor keys. If I’m writing a long document – like this essay – then please give me a real keyboard.

Another big difference between the Air and the iPad is the operating system. While the Air uses Mac OS X, a graphical variant of UNIX, the iPad shares operating systems with the iPhone. It is an OS specifically designed for mobile, touch screen devices and is very stingy with the battery and supports powerful gestures. Long battery life is important in a portable device. Adding large batteries simply makes the computer heavier and an impediment to going mobile. On the down side, the iOS does not give you simple access to the file system. There is no equivalent to Finder (or Windows Explorer for you non-Macs). In my opinion, serious computer work requires direct access to the file system either via a GUI or a command line. Also, you a pretty much limited to buying programs (apps) through the Apple Store. There is some security in not downloading programs from unsafe places, but the proprietary Apple Store limits the availability of some types of programs on the iPad.

So if your computer experience is heavy with Photoshop, Dreamweaver, Firefox, and VMware, then that’ll require a real Mac. Also, don’t try to edit video on the Air using something like Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premiere Pro – the littlest Mac will run out of horsepower on that job too.

The missing Firewire port means you won’t be recording video, even with an external hard disk. If these are the kinds of tasks you plan to do on a mobile system, then it is time to pull out the MBP. Neither the iPad nor the Air is really up to that task. I’ll save that battle for another time and put the desktop up against the laptop – in this corner – the MacBook Pro!

The earliest generation of iPad didn’t even have multitasking support, although that shortcoming was soon fixed with the iOS 4.2 upgrade. There are still other weaknesses of the iPad, chief being the lack of support for Adobe Flash. (The iPhone shares this weakness.) There are several reasons given by Apple for not supporting this ubiquitous web standard, including battery life, security, and system crashes caused by Flash. But it is a real pain in the patootie to go to all those web sites and not being able to view the video. YouTube and some other services have workarounds, but your average web site with Flash is just not viewable on the iPad, only on the Air.

I was also concerned about finger prints on the screen. This is a big reason why I think the move to touch screens on laptop and desktop computers makes no sense. Sure there are some advantages to the new gestures for pinching, scrolling, and paging, but do you want finger prints all over your view screen? I’ve got to tell you that, at work, I often point out something on my screen to a coworker dropping by the office. That leaves little fingerprints all over my screen, and it requires a regular cleaning to keep it viewable. I keep a bottle of screen cleaner and a rag on my desk just for that purpose and probably clean my computer screen more often than my glasses.

Now cleaning my iPhone is easy. I just rub it against my shirt and, voilà, clean screen. The iPad is a little too big for that. I had one of those shoe shine cloths in my drawer, remnants of my years on the road taking stuff from hotel rooms. I kept it in the iPad case for screen cleaning -- didn’t work! Finally I discovered the secret weapon: a sock. So if you see me with one shoe off down at the coffee shop, you’ll know I’m cleaning my iPad screen. However, even though my iPad screen looks like a children’s fingerpaint project reflecting in the light when shut off, as soon as you turn it on, you don’t notice the messy screen at all. Screen cleaning is not really necessary.

Now for the serious complaints. What does an iPad not have? Plenty: no USB port, no Firewire port, no card readers – at the minimum, please, at least a slot for SD cards. The success of the personal computer has been entirely tied to the availability of fancy peripherals from printers to scanners to cameras to hubs to who knows what someone has plugged into a computer. I admit that, again, in a super mobile platform you would not likely carry around a bunch of peripherals, but what if I want to upload some pictures. It appears that blue tooth and Wi-Fi are the only way into the Apple heaven. Also, there is no camera, so no Facetime or Skype video, although I expect iPad II to quickly fill in that gap. (Can’t really see me holding up an iPad to take a photograph, but I’ll bet that'll happen once the camera is available.)

HDMI output would also be nice. I could use my iPad to present at the next conference if only there was some kind of video output port.

(I revised this paragraph based on feedback from my friend John who reminded me that Apple was an early adopter of the USB port.) After some research, I now know that Apple introduced the USB port in its original iMac model. My first Mac was an iMac "graphite" (sort of charcoal gray), and it used USB for both keyboard and mouse and I added a DVD writer via USB since the internal drive was read only. Apple championed the Firewire, but was also a big user of USB. In today's mobile market, Apple is almost the only brand to include Firewire on most of its portable computers. Remember, the iPad has no ports at alll, neither USB nor Firewire.

Never mind that the battery is not user replaceable and you can’t add memory with the aforementioned memory card, which is pretty common in Apple land. It is both the strength and weakness of the iPad as a general purpose computer, this lack of connections except through the proprietary apple connector. Yet some of these disadvantages are shared by the Mac Air. You can’t change its battery either and it only has a couple of USB ports and no Firewire or memory card support! (The Air's bigger brother, the 13-inch, does have an SD slot.) I know these are small devices and space is more a premium than on the space shuttle, but Apple seems completely unapologetic about these shortcomings. It is kind of like, “no soup for you.”

A short paragraph about price. iPad: $499 - $829. MacBook Air 11-inch: $999 - $1599.

And, if all you are interested in is an e-book reader, the very affordable Kindle reader starts at $139. The Kindle is only monochrome, but it is smaller, lighter, and the battery lasts three times as long as the iPad. Check out the Nook if you want color. And go for the iPad if you want everything else.

Speaking of battery life, I don’t have a precise statement about that. It seems like my iPad battery lasts a week if I only pick it up now and then. On this trip, I’ve been doing a lot of reading, and the battery seems good for a couple or three days. I read on the entire flight out here, about three hours, and the fully charged battery dropped to about 70%. Compared to my iPhone, which I charge every night, the iPad has pretty good battery life. I also can’t give details on my Air, since I plug it in when using it at home. (Remember the desk or kitchen table requirement.) But all these Apple devices have longer battery life than my brand new Lenovo computer which lasts about 6 hours in steady use, albeit with a lot more happening in terms of disk drives and an i5 quad processor. But the Lenovo has a battery so big it actually sticks out the back like some kind of flashlight accessory and weighs somewhere in the neighborhood of a Hyundai two-door. I am not being scientific here because I’m not really a test lab, just an enthusiastic consumer of computer cycles.

In terms of performance, neither of these beauty pageant winners went out for track and field. The Air definitely outperforms the iPad, but neither of these products is intended for heavy duty, over the road trucking. Again, get a MBP for that. The iPad is completely silent, but you have to have very good ears to notice any noise from the MBA. I’ve heard that the 13-inch has a little noisier operation, likely due to increased thermal load of the faster processor and larger Solid State Drive, but you won’t hear the Air, even when the fan is running.

In conclusion, if you have to choose between the iPad and MacBook Air (or some other laptop computer), it comes down to where you’re willing to compromise. The iPad wins on size and convenience; I’d rather read PDFs, e-books, Websites, and RSS feeds on the iPad than on the Air. And I’d rather use an iPad in a briefing room to show off documents to colleagues and clients. If all I need on a business trip is the Web and e-mail, the iPad will be enough. But for anything more than that, I still need my MacBook. Just remember, you can’t curl up by a warm fire in your favorite easy chair with anything but an iPad. Well, maybe your iPhone, but the screen is so tiny!! PLUS, the iPad is just so “Sci-Fi-riffic” it could have its own channel on cable TV.

And, before I go, let me tell you about an app that the science fiction writers would really appreciate. It is called pUniverseHD. It is a star chart. Using the iPad’s compass, GPS, clock, and motion sensors, it portrays the starry night in the direction the iPad is held. Hold it to the east, and you see the east sky. Lift it up and it tracks with you showing the higher heavens. You can even point it at the ground to see what stars are occluded by the earth. It is so futuristic and so practical for an old star gazer like me. I just stare at that app with open mouth in amazement how year 2525 it seems. Seeing video from around the world in real time – yeah, that’s impressive, but pUniverseHD – now that is magic.

I just wish Robert Heinlein was still alive to see this. We’ve boldly gone where no man has gone before. It’s back to the future for me. Now where’s that iPad. I was reading a great little tale by Phillip K. Dick.

Originally written on February 28, 2011.

Remember the Osborne?

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