Your Biggest iPad Questions Answered

By  |  Saturday, February 6, 2010 at 2:52 pm

[Here’s another column I wrote for In this one, I try to summarize some of the major things that non-geeks need to know about the iPad.]

When Apple finally announced its iPad tablet computer at a San Francisco press event last week, we learned that it was “magical.” And “revolutionary.” And that the price was “unbelievable.”

That’s the truth according to Steve Jobs, at least. As usual, the facts are a bit more complex. The iPad is an ambitious product that’s hard to sum up in a few words, or to assess at all until it’s actually available for sale, which won’t be for weeks. Herewith, some early answers to major questions about the device, based on what I learned at Apple’s launch and the hands-on time I got with one after the great unveiling concluded.

What’s the keyboard like?

Better than I expected. It looks like a jumbo version of the iPhone keyboard, but the keys and the space between them are so much more roomy that tapping the right character is much, much easier. You’re not going to want to write a novel on the iPad, but quick bursts of text, such as e-mails, should be simple enough.

The iPad will also work with Bluetooth keyboards, and Apple will sell a charging dock with a built-in keyboard: That’s good news, but you’ll want to try out the on-screen keyboard yourself if at all possible before plunking down any money.

What’s the software situation going to be like?

The iPad will run “virtually” all iPhone applications without modification, which means that it’ll work with more than 150,000 programs on the day it ships. But that’s a stopgap, not a long-term plus: Unaltered iPhone programs will run on the iPad either scaled to fit its larger screen (with correspondingly chunky text) or in a tiny window. If you invest in an iPad, you’re gambling that developers will write their wares to take advantage of its larger screen and richer user interface. Many will, but it may take a while before true iPad apps are as plentiful as iPhone ones.

What are the device’s biggest limitations?

The blogosphere is rife with debate about the many things the iPad doesn’t have and can’t do. There’s no camera (which would have been cool for video chat) and no support for Adobe’s Flash technology (so many video sites and most online games won’t work). Only Apple’s programs can run in the background — so you can listen to music while browsing the Web, for instance — and all applications run only in full-screen mode.

Oddly enough, these gotchas don’t bother me as much as two less-discussed omissions. The iPad comes with a splendid photo viewer, but it doesn’t have a USB port or memory-card slot; if you want to import your digital camera photos directly into it, you’ll need to buy a clunky-looking external adapter. And even though Apple showed off nifty-looking versions of its iWork word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation program at the iPad launch, there’s no way to print from the device. The best you’ll be able to do is create PDF files, move them to a PC or Mac, and print from there.

[UPDATE: As several readers reminded me, there are several third-party iPhone printing apps which will presumably work on the iPad. But they’ve all got their share of limitations and aren’t a full substitute for built-in printing capabilities.]

Is the price really as unbelievable as Steve Jobs thinks?

A. The iPad is a lot more reasonable than pundits were expecting — the conventional wisdom was that it would run $1,000 or so. Instead, the iPad starts at $499 for the version with 16GB of solid-state storage and no 3G broadband, and tops out at $829 for one with 64GB of storage and AT&T 3G. Apple is pricing its tablet to move — which is presumably why it lacks some features that most people expected it would have. But with its aluminum case and high-end display, it outclasses similarly-priced netbooks from the standpoint of pure aesthetics.

Q. I like the idea of a tablet, but I want a real PC. Will be I be able to buy an iPad-like gizmo that runs Windows?

A. Sort of. At last month’s Consumer Electronics Show, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer previewed devices he called “slate PCs,” including a model from HP. They’re all screen and no keyboard, like the iPad. But the single thing about the iPad that’s most impressive is that Apple came up with a user interface optimized for a touch-centric, no-keyboard computer. Microsoft, by contrast, says it has no plans to tweak Windows any further: A slate PC will simply be a Windows 7 machine with no keyboard and no mouse.

Q. Will the iPad be a satisfactory substitute for a PC or Mac?

Absolutely not, if you’re talking about making it your primary computer. For that, you want something that can run a wider variety of software, and work with cameras and printers and other devices. You may also want a machine with enough storage to hold a bulging collection of music, photos, and videos — even the most-capacious iPad has much less storage space than the skimpiest current netbook. And you almost certainly want a system with a bigger screen than the iPad’s 9.7-incher.

Q. Speaking of netbooks, should I buy an iPad instead of one?

A. That’s not as much of a slam-dunk as you may think: A lot of people are going to be more comfortable with something that looks and works more like a traditional PC than the iPad does. But I think that others who might have bought a netbook in the past as a secondary computer will buy an iPad instead, and be pleased with the purchase — especially if they’re primarily interested in consuming music, movies, e-books, and Web pages. Netbooks are notoriously sluggish when it comes to video and graphics, but from what we’ve seen of the iPad so far, it’s a zippy little beast.

Q. How about getting an iPad instead of Amazon’s Kindle or another e-reader?

A. That’s going to be a decision that many people will be confronted with from now on. The Kindle certainly isn’t going away anytime soon: It costs only a little more than half the price of the cheapest iPad and runs for days on a charge rather than the iPad’s claimed life of ten hours. It boasts an impressive collection of books, plus lots of magazines and newspapers; the iPad will have to scramble to catch up with Amazon’s book selection, and Apple hasn’t said anything about its plans for periodicals at all.

Despite everything, though, the iPad is going to be a formidable Kindle rival. Amazon’s e-reader is a one-trick pony (albeit an impressive one) with a screen in dull black and white; the iPad is in glorious color and e-reading will be only one of many things it’ll let you do. If Apple can ramp up its content offerings, its gadget promises to be a treat for people who like to read — as long as they’re willing to charge it up frequently.

Q. So should I buy one?

A. Make no decision until the reviews come out at the end of March, when the first units ship. (The Wi-Fi only models, that is; the 3G version will arrive a month after that.) At that point, if the iPad sounds intriguing but not utterly irresistible, bide your time. If the history of the iPhone is any example, Apple will announce a second-generation iPad in 2011 that fixes most of the biggest gripes and packs more features at a better price. And many of the smartest tech fans I know are unapologetic late adopters who’ll consider the device seriously only then.

As for me, getting my hands on gadgets early — sometimes too early — is what I do for a living. Stay tuned for further thoughts on the iPad once Apple ships the thing.


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18 Comments For This Post

  1. Patrick Says:

    “many of the smartest tech fans I know are unapologetic late adopters”.

    Please provide a list of the tech fans you know. No need to publicly identify them, but give them each a unique identifier. Then note which ones are smart and which are not. Then, for the smart ones, list their adoption strategy (use these five catagories: early, middle, apologetic late, unapologetic late, and never).

    At that point, give your raw data, I will be able to validate your claim. Thanks. I ask for this information in order to determine if you are a useful source of information that I can rely on (or not).

  2. Harry McCracken Says:

    @patrick: Will do, just tell me what sort of unique identifiers I should use. Also, do you need their shoe sizes?


  3. TJ Says:

    All my iPad questions were answered in the absolutely hilarious video “Hitler Responds to The iPad” on YouTube (which currently has over 3 Million views).

  4. Backlin Says:

    You know what would make a good unique identifier? Their credit card numbers. =/

    Anyway, good Q&A as usual, Harry. Those printing apps definitely are no substitute for built-in printing; although I personally haven’t needed to print a document in quite some time.

  5. Michel Forgues Says:

    That was one of the most clear headed, rational iPad review I’ve seen since 01/27. You write as if you were a normal person, not an OCD-afflicted geek, Apple fanboy, Apple-hater or paranoia victim.

    I have spent the last 25 years with Apple products (sales,service, support), dealing with normal people who care more about getting things done than about technology. They experience computers the way I experience my fridge or my TV, exactly the way it should be. What the iPad offers in this first implementation will more than offset the real or imagined weaknesses and misses described elsewhere.

    At some point, we have to admit that a certain level and number of features is ‘good enough’. My 2006 iMac is good enough. My 20-inch CRT TV is good enough. My iPod Shuffle is good enough. My old black and white laser printer is good enough. I don’t own a cell phone. I wanted and needed a better fridge, so I bought one. That is how normal people think. Teenagers of all ages will always want more, let them.

    How many of us need or even use most of the features in our software? Apple has been building products that most of us want and use, leaving behind the minority who demand more (bigger, faster, higher, kitchen sink). Microsoft products are stuffed with features few people use or want, making them bloated, expensive and hard to understand. You sell that by making us believe that we need to buy MS products because… everyone else does.

    Like you, I am looking forward to trying the iPad. I had a quick look at the Kindle and rejected it because of the dull screen. I have poor vision and require a high contrast and a fairly bright screen to be confortable. My case is not unique, especially among the 50+ cohort. That carries more weight than the price of books. This feature alone will probably push me and many other seniors towards Apple.

  6. Bryan Says:

    Do they have solid state drives or flash memory?

  7. Paul Says:

    Brian – Apple uses Flash for storage on their non computer devices – SSD’s are too pricey and there is no point to use SSD for sizes as small as the iPod Touch, iPhone, or the iPad with the capacities advertised.

  8. mbaDad Says:

    My only question is does the non cell version have a GPS, and how accurate is the GPS in general? As a pilot this looks like the perfect device to strap to my leg. Cell tower triangulation won’t work at 5,000 feet above ground level.

    I tried to buy an android tablet for my teenage daughter last Christmas, and the iPad is perfect for her needs. I simply could not find one that did not look like a waste of cash. Let us hope next Christmas there are several devices to choose from.

  9. Paul Says:

    No actual GPS – the GPS is done completely via cell signal. It’s A-GPS.

  10. iPad Screen Protector Says:

    Thanks for a solid review of the product. My wife want to replace her laptop with it… bad move i say. Thanks for being frank. Matty.

  11. john naulty Says:

    uh, the “non-cell” version apparently does not have any gps facility -it could hardly triangulate using cell towers without a radio module, could it? the cell capable models work just like the iphone 3gs – use cell data to quickly locate your general position, then use gps signals for fine location – often to within the lane on the interstate! I have used the 3gs in airplanes and it works fine. if you have the ipad gsm version with gos, it will locate you without a cell signal, it just takes a minute or so longer to download the ephemeris from the satellites and begin calculations from a “guess” at where you are located at the time.The cell data merely gives the gps a good starting point to calculate from, and hence a faster position. I don’t think the wifi only version will tell you where you are, at all.

  12. pond Says:

    One of the announcements that got my goosebumps going in favor of the iPad came from Citrix, showing their app running Win7. Basically this is to use the iPad a la Microsoft’s failed ‘Mira’ platform, as a smart display that shows and operates a networked PC (or Mac, I believe).

    This gets around a lot of the other shortcomings, if it works. Play flash, run any program that runs on your laptop or desktop, PC or Mac. I’d be interested say in a Mac mini/iPad combo, with the mini running in the office, and the iPad on the couch. Pull up the iPad, use it to wake up the mini, and run all my OSX programs via the iPad as display. If there’s something I’m missing on the mini, use the iPad to control my PC and run those programs.

    I’m waiting until the iPad ships and there are user reports and reviews on how well the Citrix/iPad combo works. There are other VPN solutions too, I understand folks use their iPhones to log onto their computers; it’s just that the iPad’s nice screen, and (maybe) the Citrix ease of use, would make it sweet for general folks unwilling to go commandline.

  13. tashi Says:

    there is a little app, which is kind of speech recognition. It allows you to verbaly order things like searches. Now add to that real speech recognition for the office stuff. All the aids and secretaries and what not will show up with just the Ipad and their smallish handbag on any outing with the boss. You dictate memos, mails and protocols, while tistening to the recordings (there are several apps to chose for that). Doing your job and looking good at the same time is what usefull gadgets are ment for.

  14. aristos Says:

    hi i want to know if ipad can i put external dvdrom and hardware can i install any games or something?

  15. Kennesawga Garage Door installation Says:

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  16. iPad speakers Says:

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  17. us friendly casinos Says:

    Brian – Apple uses Flash for storage on their non computer devices – SSD’s are too pricey and there is no point to use SSD for sizes as small as the iPod Touch, iPhone, or the iPad with the capacities advertised.

  18. ricky Says:

    can you use excel and word programmes on ipad2