The iPad in my hands

Tech Life

Last Monday I finally managed to get my hands on an iPad. And no, it’s not a way of saying that I purchased one — unfortunately now I just can’t afford it — I only had a chance to try it for a good twenty minutes, and I wanted to share my impressions.

Those who already own an iPad won’t find anything new in what I’m about to say, I guess these feelings are more or less the same for everyone; anyway there you are.

1. First, I must say that the stands used in Apple stores and points of sale for demonstration units are an excellent idea. They make a good job at maintaining iPad raised, tilted and firm enough to use it without even having to hold it in your hands. When I approached an iPad that was placed in landscape orientation, at first I didn’t even feel like picking it up: I just opened Safari and started browsing.

2. iPad is truly fast and very responsive. The units on display I tried were all loaded with applications, and the first thing I did was to open and close all the apps in the home screen (that is, all the apps that come with iOS), just to see if there were delays or hiccups in the transition animations (fade in, fade out) when you open and close an application. No slowdowns, no hitches. iPad reacted smoothly. Coming from an iPhone 3G, I can say the performance in this regard is definitely noticeable.

3. But it’s not the speed or responsiveness that struck me most. It was — it is — the feeling a touch-sensitive screen this size and with this interface gives you. The feeling that you’re manipulating matter, the feeling of having under your fingertips an interface that responds to your every gesture and touch. The sensation is peculiar, because it’s on the sensory border between abstract and concrete. It is much more pronounced than with the iPhone because the wider iPad screen allows you to use your whole hand, not just one or two fingers. Among the applications eliciting this kind of emotional response were Safari, Photos, Maps, and The New York Times Editors’ Choice.

In Safari and The New York Times Editors’ Choice, the zooming of text and images, the leafing through articles, moving among paragraphs and pictures, had some sort of depth you don’t really feel in the iPhone and iPod touch, due to their smaller display and form factor. With the iPad you’re somehow given the impression of the third dimension, even for a classic two-dimensional content such as text. The fluidity of the zooming and panning, together with iPad’s fast rendering of the pages, all enrich the reading experience in an indefinable way. Same goes for Photos and Maps. The interface of Photos is brilliant: the gestures to open and close photo albums just came naturally to me, as if real photos were placed on the surface of the iPad and you open and close your fingers to scatter and regroup a stack of photos. In Maps, the experience is much more gratifying than on the iPhone, if only because the larger display allows you to examine a wider area at a time, and you don’t have to keep swiping up and down, left and right. Not to mention when you zoom in on an area with Satellite view turned on. It’s like being inside Google Earth.

4. The feelings and emotional impact I mentioned above are probably what Steve Jobs meant by insisting on the word ‘magic’ applied to the iPad. The display’s brightness and the vivid colours make everything the iPad displays even more alive and pulsating, and this, combined with the perception described above (i.e. to have an elegant, fluid and docile user interface under your fingers), creates an overall user experience I can barely define — perhaps the word that comes closest is intimacy. When introducing the iPad in January Steve Jobs said it; those there who were able to try the iPad first-hand said it: you really cannot judge the iPad without trying it personally — and they were right. I want to emphasise this aspect too: take the iPad in your hands and see for yourself. After ten seconds you forget all about technical specifications, about the ‘closed’ platform debate, about limitations and so on and so forth.

5. But there’s more: after a quarter of an hour of iPad use you forget the hardware itself. The iPad disappears. Everything we see and perceive are the contents, what we interact with. When I was surfing the Web, I wasn’t thinking I’m inside a browser using a touch-sensitive electronic device — I was simply surfing the Web. I was ‘inside’ the websites I was visiting. People can paint Apple’s iOS platform as a walled garden all they want; the dominant feeling while using an iPad is a great freedom of movement, of manipulation, a sort of anything-is-possible feeling. I’ll say that again: the fact that shortly after you start using the iPad the hardware and user interface both get out of the way is perhaps one of the strongest points of iPad (and iOS). In my opinion, this is the central aspect of the innovation underlying the interface of iOS.

6. While interacting with the iPad, I admit I came across small obstacles here and there. For example, the Contacts and Calendar applications (and perhaps Notes, but I can’t say for sure) invite you to browse their pages as you would with an e-book. So I tried to browse the contacts on the address book (which is precisely depicted as a paper address book, thus reinforcing the metaphor), but nothing happened and I had to slide my finger on the alphabet vertical slider. I must also say that I interacted with Contacts, Calendar and Notes only briefly, so I’ll have more detailed comments when I manage to test an iPad more extensively.

I’m well aware that my reaction to the iPad may seem overly enthusiastic to some people. I want to emphasise that I approached iPad with an open mind and without prejudices. I am a person who judges from first-hand experiences, not from hearsay, and am not easily driven to enthusiasm. But I always keep a channel open for wonder and amazement. We live a life that is already full of problems and concerns, and I often notice how people around me constantly display an attitude of defeatism, of jadedness; everything is taken for granted, it seems that nothing can really surprise or amaze them, give them some genuine enthusiasm. Some criticised iPad even before seeing it in person (some even before iPad was officially introduced), some have repeated the “Yes, fine, OK, but it lacks this and that …” mantra over and over.

While I was trying the iPad out I was thinking about what’s been accomplished by technology in such a short period of time. I remember what kind of computers and devices we were using just 10–15 years ago. I think of the possibilities that a device like iPad offers. I think that perhaps, thanks to such a device, more people are going to read more and learn more, and this is a good thing, because ignorance is one of the worst ills. And I think about a possible next-generation iPad, with that Retina Display we saw on the iPhone 4 — what a terrific reading tool it would be. These things inspire and amaze me, and spark my enthusiasm, and I’m not ashamed of that.

The Author

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