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First impression of iPad: Big canvas, but a few quirks

The screen is 9.7 inches across.
The screen is 9.7 inches across. (Jin Lee/bloomberg News)

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By ROB PEGORARO
Sunday, April 4, 2010

About two months after its splashy product introduction, weeks after the start of an absurd excess of media coverage, and hours after overly dedicated shoppers began waiting in lines outside stores, Apple's iPad is a $499-and-up product you can pick up in a store, plug in and start using.

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What's that like?

The first words that came to mind after switching on a $699, 64-gigabyte model lent by Apple were "blank slate." This device's larger touch screen, 9.7 inches across, looks empty compared with those on Apple's smaller iPhone and iPod Touch.

That phrase also works as a metaphor for Apple's wireless-enabled tablet. (The devices that arrived Saturday connect only via WiFi; versions compatible with AT&T Wireless's 3G network are due late this month.) Although it runs on the same software and uses the same interface as the iPhone, the iPad is a different creature, with its own quirks and capabilities.

The most dramatic difference surfaces when you enter text on an iPad. Compared with an iPhone's on-screen keyboard, the iPad's looks enormous. In a vertical, portrait orientation, it may be less comfortable than an iPhone keyboard, since you have to stretch to hit the middle keys with your thumbs; in landscape mode, it's just possible to touch-type, with help from its auto-correction software.

The bigger screen also makes browsing the Web feel more like the same action on a "real" computer. But with no support for Adobe's Flash plug-in, parts of some sites -- The Washington Post's included -- remain inaccessible on the iPad.

The 1.5-pound iPad feels heavier than it looks. Don't expect too many people to walk around with one to catch up with their favorite blogs; this gadget seems made for a comfortable sofa.

Apple says the iPad can run "almost all of" the 150,000-plus applications available for the iPhone and the iPod touch. But that doesn't mean you'd want to. These programs either occupy a small frame at the center of the screen or, if you tap a "2x" button in the corner, are crudely magnified to fill the display. The resulting bit-mapped text and blurry images may leave you wishing for a new eyeglass prescription.

Instead, you'll want programs that have been written or revised for the iPad (which Apple designates with a small plus sign in the iTunes App Store). Some don't run on the iPhone at all, such as the ABC Player, which streams videos from the network's site, Netflix's self-titled player and Apple's iBooks electronic-book reader application.

The last may be the most intriguing program available for the iPad because it directly challenges the most popular tablet computer so far, Amazon's Kindle. The free iBooks ships with a copy of A.A. Milne's "Winnie-the-Pooh" that shows a big iPad advantage compared with the color-deprived Kindle: the ability to display the book's artwork.

Like its more compact cousins, the iPad cannot run third-party programs in the background. So although the new iPad-friendly Pandora Web-radio application looks terrific on the iPad's bigger display, it still stops playing when you switch to your e-mail.

This seems more of a problem on the iPad, thanks to a screen big enough to invite switching among multiple programs. At some point, Apple should find a way to make that happen. Will it?

Also unclear: Will this Cupertino, Calif., company continue to exercise its arbitrary control over the App Store, the only remotely easy way to install extra software on an iPad? The iPad offers programmers a new palette on which to create, but as long as they risk having their work rejected from the App Store -- or removed after the fact for poorly explained reasons -- some developers will direct their creativity elsewhere.

A version of this ran first on the Faster Forward blog; read more at http://voices.washingtonpost.com/fasterforward.


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