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iPad vs. Everything Else

Harry McCracken
PC World
Monday, May 3, 2010; 12:19 AM

Photographs: Robert Cardin>What, precisely, is the iPad? Compared with its iconic an­­cestors, the iPod and the iPhone, that's a surprisingly tough question to answer. It runs the same operating system as the iPhone--but you can't make phone calls on it. It has been hailed as the gadget that may save the publishing industry--though its e-reader software, which isn't preinstalled, does not display magazines and newspapers. It features a bevy of games--but it's neither an Xbox 360-killer nor a handheld device like a Nintendo DSi.

Most paradoxically of all, the iPad takes on the Windows world of netbooks and even more full-featured PCs, though it doesn't run all Web apps. Or print. Or provide a file system that lets you get to all your documents in any app. Those shortcomings would make the very concept of competing with PCs laughable, if weren't for the way its small size, touch interface, and impressive battery life add up to one of the best devices ever built for consuming content of all kinds, from Web pages to books to feature films. It's both more fundamentally limited than a PC and an exciting sneak peek at where interfaces are likely to go--which is why it makes much more sense as a supplement to the other computers in your life than as a replacement for any of them.

In short, Apple's tablet competes with an array of existing devices without mimicking any of them. And the best way to figure out whether it's a plausible alternative to a PC, an e-reader, a game console, or any other better-established gizmo is to give it a whirl. So we did--read on to see what we found. (For more coverage, browse to go.pcworld.com/ipad.)

The iPad vs. the PC

Let's state the obvious: The iPad isn't going to be your only computer. It tells you that yourself the first time you turn it on, when it asks to be connected via USB cable to a PC or a Mac running iTunes. Even if you don't want to buy music, movies, and apps on a computer and transfer them to the iPad, you'll want to sync from time to time, especially since that's the only way to back up an iPad.

So the question isn't whether you want an iPad instead of a computer-it's whether you want both. If you're happy with PCs in their current form, you may find the iPad's limitations crippling, especially if you're creating content rather than consuming it. The on-screen keyboard is probably the best ever created, but it's still no match for a real, tactile QWERTY board when it comes to comfort and typing speed.

Everything operates in full-screen mode, and with few ex­­ceptions only one app runs at a time--a shocker if you're used to leaping between browser, word processor, spreadsheet, and e-mail. The iPad can't run standard desktop productivity applications, and you can't always find adequate substitutes among the Apple-approved choices in the App Store. The device doesn't even have a solid office suite yet (see "Does the iWork Suite Work? Not Yet").

The list goes on: It has no camera, no support for Adobe's Flash browser plug-in, no direct way to print, and no slot for your digital camera's memory card. (Several good iPad photo editors are already available, but the simplest way of getting images off a camera and onto the tablet requires a $29 adapter.) The roomiest iPad has only 64GB of storage, compared with the 500GB found on even some inexpensive laptops.

But the iPad's profoundly un-PC-like personality turns out to be its biggest virtue, too. For starters, its small size, half-inch profile, and 1.5-pound weight make it far more portable than even a netbook. The 9.7-inch color screen may be small, but its IPS (In-Plane Switching) technology makes it look good from any angle. And the groundbreaking battery life--an honest 10 hours on a charge--lets you spend less time stressing out over the possibility that you will run out of juice.

For a machine that lacks timesaving features such as multitasking and windows, the iPad doesn't feel hopelessly cumbersome. And actually, thanks to its fundamentally simple finger-driven interface, zippy performance, and true instant-on capability, the device often feels like a quicker, more efficient, less annoying alternative to a Windows PC or Mac. It's absolutely impossible for apps to pop up annoying messages without your permission, and the tight restrictions that Apple places on third-party applications make security a nonissue for now.

Unlike a PC or phone, the iPad isn't a necessity. Many people who find the idea of it intriguing are going to buy an iPad and be glad they did. But refusing to buy one is also a viable option. So is biding your time as an interested bystander. As usual in tech and in life, good things will come to those who wait: The library of iPad apps will only get richer, and iPhone OS 4.0, due this fall for the iPad, will bring multitasking and other benefits. And chances are that roughly a year from now, Apple will release a second-generation iPad that sports at least some of the features most obviously missing from the first model.

PCs are better at being PCs than the iPad is. But the iPad is something new, useful, and important--and you shouldn't dismiss it until you've tried it.

Next: The iPad vs. the Kindle
The iPad vs. the Kindle

When Amazon.com shipped its first Kindle in 2007, the innovative e-reader seemed to be the future of books. Side-by-side with the iPad, however, the Kindle now looks a tad retro. Apple drives the point home when you download its iBooks app by tossing in a free e-book with a feature that the Kindle can't match: color pictures of Winnie the Pooh and pals.

True, the iPad doesn't render the Kindle irrelevant. Amazon's $259 gadget costs only slightly more than half as much as a base-model iPad--and that price includes wireless broadband that allows you to download books without paying a monthly service fee. And, at least at the moment, some Kindle books are a few bucks cheaper than their iBooks equivalents.

Thanks in part to its 6-inch screen, the Kindle is far smaller and lighter (at 10.2 ounces) than the 18-ounce iPad. The Kindle's use of E-Ink technology lets it run for two weeks on a charge and keeps it readable in direct sunlight; in contrast, the same sunlight will wash out the iPad's LCD screen. And some e-reader users find E-Ink to be easier on the eyes.

But the E-Ink screen is also the Kindle's most striking liability. It's monochromatic--dark gray text on a light gray background--and the lack of backlighting makes it hard to read in murky lighting. Photos and other images tend to look as if they were drawn on an Etch-a-Sketch, and screen updating is inherently sluggish.

The iPad? It sports one of the nicest color displays of any portable device; it has crisp black text on a white background; and you can flip through e-book pages as fast as your fingertip allows. In short, it's more like a real book.

Apple's iBooks Store launched with 60,000 titles, just one-sixth of the selection that Amazon provides for the Kindle. But on the same day that Apple started selling iPads, Amazon released an app that lets Apple's tablet become a Kindle, giving users access to all 480,000 digital tomes that are offered in the Kindle store.

In addition, the iPad allows access to thousands of free books in ePub format, a format you can't read on the Kindle.

Did we mention that third-party apps let the iPad do thousands of things besides reading books? Or that it may be the best device ever made for kicking back and reading the Web? (The Kindle's browser is so rudimentary that Amazon still calls it "experimental," two-and-a-half years after its debut.)

Ultimately, both the Kindle and the iPad are nifty gadgets, but only the nerdiest, most well-heeled tech freaks would consider buying and using both. And ounce for ounce and dollar for dollar, the iPad provides you a better return.

For an e-reader and more, it's advantage iPad--unless you're on a tight budget or are an E-Ink devotee.

The iPad vs. Magazines and Newspapers

Amazon's Kindle lets you subscribe to 58 magazines and 120 newspapers, with free wireless delivery. But the drab, plain-text presentation isn't much different from CompuServe circa 1990. In theory, the iPad should change everything. Publishing executives--who started giving their content away for free on the Web 15 years ago and have regretted that blunder ever since--are giddy over the new possibilities that this tablet format offers.

Apple's iBooks application and Amazon's Kindle app for the iPad don't do magazines or newspapers, so every publisher of periodicals has to figure out the iPad for itself. Time's app fills the screen with photos, makes you scroll down to see text, and puts selected online (Time.com) items in a separate section. GQ turns pictures into slideshows, and turns captions off by default. Other magazines--including PCWorld--are available on the iPad via the Zinio app, which downsizes print layouts to fit onto the iPad's smaller-than-a-magazine screen.

None of these approaches, however, decisively improves on good old ink-on-dead-trees, a technology that still works beautifully for both skimming and deep reading. Moreover, some computer-based features that print just can't match--such as full-text search--generally aren't available in iPad e-publications.

Three national papers--the New York Times, USA Today, and the Wall Street Journal--are all on the iPad, and all three do among the best jobs of translating paper into digital form in the iPad's dimensions. They reformat themselves on the fly for portrait or landscape reading, artfully weave words and photos, and don't try to become too clever. (If you can figure out Popular Science's interface, drop us a line.)

iPad periodical pricing models, like user interfaces, are still works in progress. And some publishers tend to charge quite a bit. Time wants $4.99 an issue, and every copy is a separate app. Full access to the WSJ is $3.99 a week, even if you al­­ready pay for the print and/or online versions. The New York Times' Editors' Choice app is free, but includes only a smattering of stories--call it Some of the News That's Fit to Print.

Of course, with certain exceptions such as the bulk of the WSJ, most of the content in iPad apps is also available for free via the iPad's Safari browser--usually updated more frequently and with extra features such as the ability to leave comments. If publishers are going to convince users to pony up for iPad periodicals, they must produce ones that are clear improvements not only over paper but also over the Web.

The iPad does have the potential to do for magazines and newspapers what the iPod did for music. But first, publishers will have to create products that take full advantage of the iPad's display and interface. We're not there yet.

Next: The iPad vs. the BlackBerry
The iPad vs. the BlackBerry

On mobile devices, movies, music, and social networking are all very well; but the classic mobile application remains unglam­­orous, invaluable e-mail. And RIM's BlackBerry phones are still synonymous with mobile e-mail. Is the iPad--which in­­cludes Mail among its handful of bundled apps--a plausible substitute for a BlackBerry device? Definitely not, if you're the archetypal jittery CrackBerry addict who is always checking messages.

The iPad is best used when you are sitting down, and it does not lend itself to quick, inconspicuous peeks at your inbox. Furthermore, while every BlackBerry is an always-on data device that provides access to e-mail anywhere you have a cell signal, only the 3G iPads--which may be released just after this article is posted--will match that feature. With the Wi-Fi-only models, you'll need to hunt for a hotspot or in­­vest in a portable router such as the MiFi.

For relatively unhurried mail access, though, the iPad is certainly okay--and is faster than booting up a laptop and diving into Outlook. For my money, the roomier display and the on-screen keyboard together beat the BlackBerry for reading and writing messages that are more than a few paragraphs long, and the built-in file viewers work well for checking out Office and PDF documents. Gmail users can choose between Apple's Mail app and Google's outstanding browser-based Gmail client, which provides you with instant access to gigabytes of mail.

The iPad's Mail app does have some limitations. For in­­stance, while you can set up multiple e-mail accounts, you can't merge them into one inbox, and you can have only one Microsoft Exchange account at a time. You also can't open file attachments in anything except the file viewers and Apple's own iWork apps. Apple says that it will fix these issues when it up­­grades the iPad's software in the fall. Here's hoping Apple also improves the search feature, which doesn't look within message text (it checks only the To, From, and Subject lines).

Even if you like the Mail app, you won't be tempted to ditch your BlackBerry. Or your iPhone, or your Droid, or any other pocketable e-mail device.

The iPad vs. the iPod

iPad skeptics are fond of slagging the tablet for being nothing more than a humongous iPod Touch. When it comes to playing music and movies, they have a point--the iPad does feel a lot like a Touch with a 9.7-inch display. That's not an entirely bad thing, however.

For many people--such as those who opt for the pinky-size iPod Shuffle--the iPad's heft alone is reason to eliminate it as an iPod replacement. A gizmo you can't slip into a pocket or strap to your arm is one you're not going to take on a stroll or to the gym. You can even make a case that the venerable Click Wheel on the iPod Nano and iPod Classic is superior to the iPad's on-screen controls for music navigation. (Oddly, the iPad's iPod app doesn't even have Apple's signature Cover Flow view for browsing through albums.)

But wait: With the exception of the Shuffle, all iPods have long done video as well as audio--and the iPad's comparative Jumbotron of a display makes it the best "iPod" for movie-watching yet. It's the first one that two or more people can comfortably watch together, at least if they're in close quarters, such as in adjacent airplane seats (and if they have the device nicely propped up). In fact, the iPad may be the best in-flight entertainment system ever designed, with enough battery life to keep you entertained from New York to Athens. And around the house, the tablet can serve as a sort of portable TV/boom box--its built-in speaker may be mono, but it's loud and clear.

When it comes to content, the iPad gives you everything that you can get on any iPod, plus more. And even if you don't feel like buying your entertainment from iTunes, a wealth of stuff to see and hear is available, thanks to impressive iPad apps from ABC, Netflix, NPR, and others.

The iPad is not an iPod substitute--it's really a different critter. But on its own terms, it's one of the most en­­tertaining entertainment devices since the original iPod.

Next: The iWork Suite

Does the iWork Suite Work? Not Yet

When Apple unveiled its tablet at a press event back in January, it also introduced three unexpected flagship applications: iPad versions of the Pages word processor, the Numbers spreadsheet, and the Keynote presentation package that make up its iWork office suite for the Mac. On stage, they looked irresistible, with ingenious interfaces that made finger-driven productivity look not just possible but also fun. And they were priced at a reasonable $10 each.

Interface-wise, the versions of the iWork apps that Apple shipped in April for the iPad remain standouts--once you've positioned an image in a document by slipping it into place with your fingertip, any other method is clunky by comparison. And while the list of features in the three apps doesn't rival that of Microsoft Office or the Mac version of iWork, that's not a huge issue given the relatively simple tasks you're likely to undertake on an iPad.

But Pages, Numbers, and Keynote all have one gigantic, overriding problem: Their support for document exchange with the non-iPad world is dismal. If you start a message in Mail, you have no way to attach an iWorks document. You also can't hook up your iPad to a computer via USB and simply drag documents back and forth. Instead, you must export documents from within iWork--as attachments, using iTunes as a conduit, or via the not-nearly-as-useful-as-it-sounds iWork.com.

All three apps claim to open Office documents, but some such documents appear garbled, and others--such as the multiple PowerPoint files I tried--produce only a cryptic error message. The programs strip out formatting that they don't understand; as a result, that formatting disappears if you try to move the file back to a desktop suite. And you might not even be able to do that: Pages can export Word files, but Numbers can't save in Excel format, and Keynote doesn't do PowerPoint. (If you happen to use iWork on a Mac, the situation is only slightly better.)

These issues are so ugly for iWork, and for the iPad in general, that it's hard to imagine they won't get fixed. But suite users may not have to wait for Apple: iPad versions of the Quickoffice suite for handhelds and DataViz's similar Documents to Go are in the works. Both of those mobile productivity packages have long histories of handling documents that were created elsewhere with panache. And they might turn out to be better options than the current version of iWork even if they aren't as elegant.

--H.M.

Next: iPad Applications

Our Eight Favorite iPad Applications

USA Today's free app is the best of the daily-newspaper entries, with a layout that closely mimics the dead-tree version while adding cool interactive slideshows, graphics, and polls.

Putting Netflix's im­­pressive stable of streamable movies on the iPad's brilliant screen is a no-brainer (you'll need a Wi-Fi connection). The app is free, but you must pay at least $9 a month for a Netflix account to stream movies.

If what you miss most from kindergarten is finger painting, then download this $8 app. The controls are easy to master, but are still sophisticated enough to create real beauty in the right hands.

You'll find no better way to settle a barroom bet over which of the Baldwins was in The Usual Suspects (Stephen, BTW) than to turn to this free app, which allows you to dig deep into the well-known online treasure trove of cinematic trivia.

Play traditional keyboard classics such as "Für Elise" and "Flight of the Bumblebee" through this $1 app's fun, Guitar Hero-like interface.

This free app presents the adventures of masked avengers in a whole new way--it moves you automatically from frame to frame of an illustrated story with merely the flick of a finger.

If you don't mind a few sauce splatters on your iPad, the free Epicurious app is a near-perfect kitchen companion, and you can search through hundreds of recipes. The app puts together a shopping list for selected recipes and provides easy-to-read instructions.

Perfect for people with a Wi-Fi-only iPad. If you come across an interesting article, click Instapaper's ?Read Later' bookmarklet in your computer's browser. Instapaper ($5) strips out the ads and sends it to your iPad.

--Edward N. Albro

Next: iPad Gaming

iPad Gaming: Compelling--and Awkward

As a gaming device, the iPad has lots going for it. The display is large and gorgeous, the processor is snappy, and the multitouch interface allows for innovative ways to play. Plus, the App Store is a model of instant gratification: You can snap up relatively cheap games wirelessly. But don't toss out your Nintendo DS or Sony PSP yet.

The first question for iPad gamers is this: How the heck are we supposed to hold this thing? At 1.5 pounds, it might seem light, but holding it aloft for extended play sessions can be tiring. Trickier still is playing when you can't get a seat or are in a crowd: Try flailing your arms around to steer that sports car while you're standing on a packed bus.

And then there's the button issue. Steve Jobs hates them, but buttons are an important reason why the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP work so well: If you need to reload your weapon in a first-person shooter, your thumb can find that button easily while you concentrate on ducking behind a wall.

The iPad's controls are frequently just on-screen icons or arbitrary tapping patterns. It's no fun being fragged because your thumb is a half-inch off the trigger.

For some game genres, however, the iPad shines. The de­­vice is big enough to be shared, making board games like Scrabble feasible. Strategy and tower-defense games benefit from the large space; the interface makes it simple to place structures and issue blanket orders to large groups. Micromanagement is still tricky without a keyboard and mouse, but the iPad's implementation of such games is superior to anything that consoles--portable or otherwise--have attempted.

The iPad is a game-changer for some genres, but most mobile gamers will still want to hold on to their DS or PSP.

--Nate Ralph

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