You don't need an iPad. But once you try one, you won't be able to resist.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
April 5 2010 11:44 AM

You Don't Need an iPad

But once you try one, you won't be able to resist.

Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

I picked up my iPad at a San Francisco Apple Store early on Saturday morning, and I spent the rest of the weekend putting Apple's new touch-screen computer through its paces. Here are my first impressions:

You don't need an iPad; it's an indulgence. Over the last couple of months, I've received countless comments from readers puzzled over my early exuberance for Apple's tablet computer. The iPad, they argued, was the Paris Hilton of PCs, undeniably glitzy but of no discernible utility. It appeared to fill no obvious role in life—if you've already got a computer and a phone, why do you need one of these things?

The simple answer is: You don't. So far I've done almost nothing with the iPad that I couldn't have done on either my computer or phone. If I were to run into a kind-hearted mugger tomorrow who forced me to give up only one of my gadgets, I'd throw him the iPad without hesitation. I need my phone and my computer to get things done, but I don't really need a tablet computer. The iPad is a luxury—like Steve Jobs' Mercedes roadster, it's the sort of thing you buy if you've got extra money and you want a fun, stylish gewgaw.

So, why would you pay at least $500 for a machine that merely replicates your other gadgets' functions? Because the iPad is the best media-consumption device ever made. Or, to put it another way, there is no better machine to use on the couch, the bed, or in the bathroom. Not long ago we had other ways to occupy ourselves in these places. But as TV, movies, books, newspapers, and magazines migrated to computer screens, our machines began to infiltrate every part of our lives. Yet neither the laptop nor the phone is especially well-suited for use while lying down or otherwise slumping around. The laptop is too bulky and the phone is too small. The iPad bridges this gap—its size, shape, and interface make it the perfect machine for your most intimate moments of leisure.

When you're lying down, you hold the iPad up with one hand a few inches away from your face, just like you'd hold a book. If you're sitting, you cross your legs and lay the iPad on your thigh. I found it just the right size for both positions, though at 1.5 pounds, it's a tad too heavy to hold up for very long. I recommend buying Apple's $40 case, which folds back to act as a kind of stand; I used it to rest the device on my chest without needing to support it all the time. (But beware—while surfing the Web in bed on Sunday morning, my self-standing iPad slipped and fell on my face. It hurt.)

It's the iPad's speed and touch interface that makes it a breakthrough leisure device. Pretty much every fun thing you'd do on your phone or laptop is better on the iPad. Movies and TV shows sparkle on the vibrant screen, and third-party iPad games are more powerful (and thus more addicting) than those on the iPhone.

It's difficult to describe how pleasant it is to surf the Web on the iPad without sounding like an Apple ad. The best thing you can say is that after a few minutes, you forget you're using a computer at all. The iPad loads Web pages instantly, and once you fall into the rhythm of tapping, pinching, and flicking to move objects on the screen, you feel like you're interacting with tactile, responsive paper rather than a flat piece of glass.

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The iPad's killer app is reading. The iPad is especially great for settling in with a book or a long article. Indeed, in nearly all scenarios, the iPad makes a better book-reader than the Kindle. Yes, Apple's tablet lacks the Kindle's paperlike E Ink screen, but that's a feature, not a bug. E Ink e-readers can't display color images and animation, and they don't do graphic design. Those elements are critical to the presentation of newspapers, textbooks, magazines, children's books, and lots of other printed content—all of which the iPad handles beautifully.

What's more, you can read a lot more things on the iPad than on the Kindle. With the iPad, you can read books from Apple's iBooks store, which carries "tens of thousands" of titles (priced around $10 to $15 each); there are also loads of books, magazines, and newspapers available through the App Store (including fantastic apps from the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal); and best of all, there's a Kindle app for the iPad, which lets you read any of the 450,000 books that Amazon sells for its device. (In fact, it makes sense to buy your iPad books through the Kindle—Kindle books can be read on a range of devices, while iBooks work only on iPads.) There's only one scenario in which the Kindle outshines the iPad—if you're reading in direct sunlight, the iPad's glossy screen is almost impossible to make out. Everywhere else (including in the dark), the iPad does to the Kindle what the Kindle did to the hardcover—renders it instantly obsolete.

And that's a great thing. A year ago, I lamented the Kindle's rise—the device was so wonderful, I argued, that it risked giving Amazon total control of the future of publishing. The iPad finally presents a worthy competitor in the e-book market, and the rivalry is sure to lead to positive outcomes for readers. The last time Amazon and Apple went head to head over digital media—Amazon launched an MP3 store to rival the iTunes Music Store—we all ended up getting music that was free of copyright restrictions. Competition could prove similarly fruitful for books.

The iPad won't turn us into Apple-controlled zombies. The iPad's best feature—the brilliant way in which it lets you surf content—is also one of the main raps against it. Because it lacks a physical keyboard and a camera, the iPad "actively resists the urges of people to make things," complains The Awl's Choire Sicha. A more withering take comes from Cory Doctorow of Boing Boing, who can't stand that Apple has locked down the device. The only way to get software for the iPad is through its built-in App Store, over which Apple maintains an iron grip. "If you want to live in the creative universe where anyone with a cool idea can make it and give it to you to run on your hardware, the iPad isn't for you," Doctorow writes.

Both criticisms are valid, but more than a little overwrought. It's true, as Sicha says, that the iPad isn't so great for getting work done. I tried out Pages, Keynote, and Numbers, the three productivity apps that Apple designed for the iPad, and while they could prove useful in some limited contexts, they're not a replacement for desktop versions of these programs. The next time I go on a business trip, I won't leave my laptop behind in favor of the iPad; I'll take both.

Still, it's not entirely true that the iPad is just for consuming stuff. The on-screen keyboard is much better than I suspected it would be—I found myself typing nearly as quickly and accurately as I can on a physical keyboard. I wouldn't want to write an article on the iPad, but it is certainly good enough to use for responding to e-mail while watching TV. Also, there are some forms of creativity for which the iPad might prove better than the PC. It's much easier to draw and paint with your finger than with a mouse; artist Jorge Colombo has created several covers for the New Yorker with the Brushes iPhone app, which is now bigger and better on the iPad.

But even if we accept Sicha's take that the iPad is only for consumption, what's so bad about that? Lots of human inventions offer no outlet for creating things—among them the DVD player, the Kindle, the Wii, and the paperback. None of these devices resulted in a dearth of art or criticism, and it seems paranoid to think that the iPad will have that effect on our culture.

I can't dismiss Doctorow's take as easily. He's certainly right that Apple's third-party software development model limits both what programmers and iPad owners can do on the device. I have long wished that Apple would loosen its rules on the App Store—or, at the very least, issue some transparent, easy-to-understand rules. At some point, it will have to give in, if only because its current path is unsustainable. As the iPhone and iPad win more users and more developers, Apple will face an increasingly difficult time reviewing all those apps—and eventually it will have to loosen its rules.

But I also think that App Store agonistes have overstated the importance of native programs to the future of computing. On the iPad, just as on the PC, I found that I spent a lot of time using Web programs—sites like Gmail, for example, that are swallowing up more and more of the functions of downloadable software. It's true that there's a lot that Web programs can't do yet, but modern Web standards and browsers are making online programs very powerful. As long as Apple keeps the iPad's browser compliant with these standards—which it seems intent on doing—it almost doesn't matter how the company rules the App Store. Through the Web, the device will always have unfettered access to a very wide range of programs.

The iPad's limitations portend the future of computing. But wait a second, doesn't the iPad's Web browser already limit one de facto Web standard—Flash? Yes, but there are a couple of caveats to note. First, Flash is not a Web standard; it's a proprietary technology owned by Adobe, and many of its functions are being replaced by modern Web standards like HTML5. Moreover, I didn't find Flash's absence so limiting. Many sites on which I watch Web video—YouTube, the New York Times, Netflix, Vimeo, the Onion, and others—are already available on the iPad. Hulu plans to launch an iPad-compatible site or app soon. Sure, I visited some sites with Flash-enabled functions that didn't work on the iPad, but these cracks rarely crippled the entire site, and I don't remember ever getting really annoyed about them.

Indeed, there were several other iPad shortcomings that bothered me more than the lack of Flash. Before Apple unveiled the iPad, I hoped the new device would be "the first fully powered PC that is as simple to use as a kitchen appliance." The iPad is that machine. Its operating system is based on the iPhone's OS, but even if you've never used an iPhone, you'll get the hang of the iPad in about 30 seconds: Tap an application's icon to load it, tap the home button to go back.

But this simplicity comes at the cost of flexibility. There are 1,000 things you can't do on the iPad. I wanted to add a "bookmarklet" to its Web browser—it wouldn't let me. I wanted to increase the browser's text size, but that option isn't available. I wanted to look at one window as a guide for something I was writing in another window, but I couldn't. In order to keep things simple, the iPad runs all apps in full-screen view, which means that you can't look at two windows at the same time. The iPad doesn't offer multitasking on third-party applications, either, so you can't run an IM program in the background as you can on your desktop. Worse, the iPad doesn't have a great way to notify you of processes occurring outside your main app. On my PC, I get a little pop-up bar showing me the sender and subject line of every incoming e-mail message. That would be very useful on the iPad, but there's no way to add it.

These aren't bugs; they're deliberate limitations that are inspired by the iPad's design philosophy. In many cases these constraints make sense, but for some users in some situations, they can be extremely frustrating. Choire Sicha says that the iPad spurns creative people, but it seems more appropriate to say that it resists "power users," people who like to customize their machines to do things better, faster, and more productively. The iPad resists customization; there is only one way to do most things on this device—Apple's way.

To be sure, the iPad strips out a lot of what we find frustrating about PCs—the application-installation process, the hierarchical folder file system, the need to back up and save your work, and any danger of malware. It's also true that most people who use computers aren't power users, and even power users don't want to be power users all the time. That's where the iPad comes in—we can all do with a few limitations now and then. Yet as much as I love the iPad's model of computing, I doubt that it will ever make the PC obsolete. The iPad is likely the first of a new class of limited-use, appliancelike computers that we'll increasingly see populating our kitchens, cars, and bedrooms. Still, we will probably always need fully functional general-purpose PCs that don't dumb things down.

Fortunately, there's room for both: I'm writing this article on my Windows 7 PC, which does pretty much everything I ask of it. But I need to take a break after all this writing. For that, the iPad is my perfect companion.

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Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.