I admit that I bought my iPad for the wrong reasons. I got one because it seemed like everyone I knew had gotten one for Christmas and, well, I felt left out. I didn't think about how it would fit in with the gadgets I already owned (laptop, Kindle, iPhone), and I didn't borrow a friend's and take it on a test drive. Now I just feel annoyed, having spent $600 on a device that hasn't done anything to improve my life. A salad spinner would have been a better investment, and I don't even eat that much salad.
I don't think the iPad is useless. There's no question that it makes browsing the Web while sitting on the couch easier. Though I have a relatively svelte laptop, it's kind of a pain to tote around the apartment. But am I the kind of person who pays $600 to save the effort of detaching some USB cables from time to time? I don't want to be that kind of person.
I also use the tablet to time-shift. I've long been a fan of the Instapaper Pro app, which allows me to bookmark articles throughout the day and read them on my iPhone during my commute or when I arrive back home. Using Instapaper on the iPad is superior to reading an article on the comparatively cramped iPhone. But again, it's not that much superior. On the subway, the small screen is actually a bonus—I find the iPad too unwieldy for rush-hour travel, or really any situation where you can't use either two hands or a hand and a lap.
When it comes to reading books, I prefer my Kindle—its e-ink technology offers a break from the brightly lit screens I stare at all day, it's light in my hands, and its single purpose means I'm less likely to be distracted by a droll tweet from @pourmecoffee. The Kindle is also economical, and not just because it's cheaper than an iPad. The money I've saved by subscribing to the New York Times and Wall Street Journal on Amazon's reader has paid for the device and then some. Every time I want to do something on the iPad, by contrast, Steve Jobs has his hand out.
The iPad's interface also has some serious limitations. Typing on the thing is beastly, rendering the device useful only for consuming, not composing. And there are limits to what you can consume, as I learned when I tried to stream the Jets-Pats playoff game while traveling, only to realize that radio streaming is typically a Flash affair and thus not possible on the iPad. (In retrospect, this native New Englander was grateful to the iPad for failing me that day.)
Vexed by these shortcomings, I turned to my Slate colleagues, many of whom are enthusiastic supporters of the device. I hoped they could explain the tablet's appeal. Here's the e-mail thread that ensued:
Me: I hate my iPad. What am I doing wrong?
Ellen Tarlin: Give it to me.
Jessica Grose: Maybe the problem is that you are expecting it to be more than a toy. It is not "useful" in any meaningful sense, unless you are traveling with it. The games are super fun though.
June Thomas: Maybe you're too happy with your iPhone. I use my iPad to do the same things I do on my iPhone only on a bigger scale. I say download Angry Birds—it's 450 times better on the iPad. It won't improve your life (the opposite), but it will get you addicted.
Chad Lorenz: Download these apps: Flipboard, Flud, Instapaper, NYT, NPR, WaPo, Slate, Wikipanion, Twitter, Google, ABC Player, WikiTunes. Maybe IM+ if you use Gchat or other IM services. Set up the e-mail for the e-mail address you get your newsletters sent to. And buy some iBooks. iTunes also gives out a free music video every week, which is worth at least one viewing. Sign up for the newsletter of iTunes' weekly 99-cent movie rentals.
Farhad Manjoo: And Netflix: 60 percent of my iPad time is spent on Netflix.
Ellen Tarlin: Get married. Then you can use it to ignore your wife.
June Thomas: Or you can be considerate and use the Kindle app on your iPad to read in bed. It's much quieter than the actual Kindle.
Farhad Manjoo: But brighter. The problem with reading a book on the iPad is that there's always the Web and Netflix to compete with. I've never finished a book on the iPad.
Taige Jensen: I have mine by the TV and quickly share YouTube videos people bring up, settle inquiries instantly, use Beejive to consolidate all my chats/AIM/Facebook/Google, manage scripts on set, write, manage my calendar, watch movies in bed, make music tracks with BeatMaker, manage my Dropbox folder, take notes in meetings, read the news/magazines, and play games.
I think you're doing it wrong.
Noreen Malone: All of which you can do on a laptop …
Taige Jensen: I think if you bought it thinking it was more capable than a laptop, you'll probably be disappointed. I have a terrible HP laptop that you can only use when plugged in, so I'm obviously biased.
John Swansburg: I think it's amazing that Apple has convinced so many people to pay $600 for what seem like such marginal improvements in their lifestyles—$600 to be able to check my e-mail in bed in a slightly more comfortable fashion than I can on my laptop seems sort of crazy when I stop and think about it.
Farhad Manjoo: Your problem is stopping to think about it.
Timothy Noah: I have finished many books on the iPad. It is a superb vehicle for reading books (especially fat ones like Wolf Hall and Freedom, which are a pain to lug around) and magazines and PDF files, and I'm starting to think it's better than newsprint for reading newspapers. It also provides the great gift of illumination, which is very important for those of us past 45, or for anybody who ever tried to read a book in a dark restaurant or in an underlit hotel room or in the dark when someone was sleeping beside you.
The iPad is excellent for reading e-mail, but granted it is only a little better than an iPhone for composing e-mail. The secret to loving your iPad is not to expect an interactive experience from it. I'm not big on interactive experiences anyway. (Though it's pretty awesome for Bananagrams.)
For watching movies the iPad is not so good, as Dana wrote when it came out. But it can be done if you don't mind the fingerprints on the screen and your reflection from a stunningly unflattering angle when the screen fades to black.
Andy Bowers: Frankly, I'm with Swansburg. I've found remarkably few uses for the iPad that don't make me wish for the time back once I've spent it.
That said, I'm also with Farhad on the Netflix issue. And one excellent use for an iPad (or iPhone for that matter) is to get a cable that runs from the output to a regular TV. Then you can rent movies on iTunes or stream Netflix in any hotel room or other place you visit (or at home if you don't have another way to stream Netflix).
Here's the cable.
Chad Lorenz: Obviously whether it's useful to you totally depends on your personal needs and circumstances—and the tech you already own. I don't own a laptop, so the iPad is now the most portable computer I have (not including my iPhone). I already spend my whole day shackled to a desktop computer, and I absolutely can't and don't do any leisure reading in front of one. The last thing I want to do when I get home is plop down in front of another desktop computer. I haven't read a full-length online magazine article in years. I almost never read the New York Times online, and since I don't get the real newspaper either, I rarely read the NYT. Now I read it daily.
Because of the display size on the iPhone, I don't like its Web-browsing experience, so I never open links from Twitter or e-mails. Web browsing on the iPad is maybe even better than on a desktop or laptop, so it's already my go-to Internet machine. For the first time in my life I enjoy using Twitter. Also, my iPhone memory is too small to hold much of my music, and the display is too small to be very good for videos.
I'm sure I could go on, but I've only had it two weeks. It's a device that almost perfectly fills the iPad-shaped hole I had in my life. I spent six months playing the "if I had an iPad" game before getting one, so I was pretty sure I would have immediate use for it.
John Dickerson: I have a violently split reaction. I didn't really want an iPad but my wife gave me one for Father's Day because I am such an awesome father (also to keep me occupied so I don't screw up the children). I love grazing on it almost more than on my computer. I use Reeder and Flipboard to go through my Twitter followers and my Google Reader. If I want to tweet something or send it to Instapaper it's all pretty easy from whatever little corner of the house I'm in. Usually this is nonwork reading, so it's the stuff I really love or that takes me out of my day. Because I use it in this way, I feel the same affection for it that I have for a really good pen or my journals.
It also has some great apps for playing music and when we took long drives this vacation, I spent a lot of time checking out the small towns we were going through and looking up famous battles that took place there or famous people who were born there.
For work, however, the iPad is not just bad, it represents a net reduction in productivity. One of the great things about the new Web is that you can manipulate text, but the iPad treats you like a child. (Not unlike the way iTunes treats you like a child with your own music.) I can't copy text out of the New York Times app or the Washington Post app or most other apps for that matter. Doing it from a Web page on Safari takes about the time required to make a cup of tea. I feel like I spend all my time poking at the screen trying to get the little blue box to behave. It's like I'm on an endless search for a button in the sewing box.
It's great to be able to download most books and carry them around easily, but … I like to mark up books (even novels) and marking up text is nearly impossible. It's like eating candy through a wrapper.
The kids love the iPad and we play lots of math and word games. I have downloaded lots of games but only chess works for me. All the others seem one-dimensional though very pretty, which in some ways describes the iPad.
It was reassuring to learn that several of my colleagues are actually quite ambivalent about the device, and I appreciated the tips from the more enthusiastic fans. I wish I could say they converted me, but they did not. I downloaded Angry Birds HD, and while it is undeniably more fun than the small-screen version, June was right—it only led to me wasting more hours of my life on that insidious game.
June was also right that my scorn for the iPad is bred, in part, by my affection for my iPhone. I tried several of the apps that Chad recommended, but found that in most instances the iPhone version sufficed just fine. One evening, I got all excited to catch up on some Oscar contenders and decided to rent The Kids Are All Right from the iTunes store—only to have it take nearly two hours to download to my iPad. By the time it was ready to play, I was ready for bed. Streaming movies from Netflix is a better, if lower-fi experience, but I made the mistake of trying to watch Stagecoach one night while connected via 3G, not wireless. It wiped out my data plan in about eight minutes. (The Ringo Kid hadn't even shown up yet.) A message from AT&T popped up asking me if I'd like to buy more 3G time. I politely declined—no sense throwing good money after bad.
My Slate colleagues failed to convince me of the iPad's utility. Can you tell me what I'm missing? Post your spirited defenses of the device in the comments. Or join forces with me and denounce the tablet as a waste of time and money.
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