No, you may not touch it. But I will tell you all about it!
First off, my pretty pretty iPad is an art object. It doesn’t feel like a machine at all: It’s streamlined, just heavy enough to have some presence, but small enough to be intimate. It is not light enough to hold in one hand; that’ll make your wrist hurt. It’s the perfect size for two people to enjoy (with some support).
The overall actions of the interface make the machine feel really magical—everything happens silently and with a beautifully lit animation. When I first logged in, all of the icons gently flew into place from the corners of the screen—not so quickly—and it felt very welcoming. Like something very efficient and very elegant was happening. The screen is huge, bright, and crisp with rich, vibrant color. There is a single external speaker at the bottom of the unit, by the home key, which means it’s actually to the left or right as you’re watching a movie. It’s not got a big sound, but I don’t think it’s meant to.
(Yes, I have my kitty on my desktop. Shut up.)
Although this machine is all about the emotional factor of its experience, things get a little weird when having to deal with the rest of the computing world.
First off, the initial setup bothered me. Based on the advance press, I had thought this was meant to be used as a primary computer by a family who doesn’t want another computer, but when I activated the unit, the screen asked me to plug the unit into my computer and open iTunes, where I had to register my iPad with Apple and my iTunes account. Then I was sent through a beg screen asking if I wanted to sign up for MobileMe (no), and then begin the process of syncing all my crap. What bothers me about this is that you are assumed to have another computer to begin with, and you have to tether it to iTunes before being allowed to even get to the springboard. You are very much coerced into buying stuff for your machine from moment one.
Another real problem is that there is absolutely no support for multiple user accounts, even though this is clearly a family machine. My partner Su and I use two different suites of apps and two different iTunes accounts to manage them, so if we’re going to use this as a family unit, we’ll need to force ourselves out of the one-account-per-person model Apple forced us until a few years ago and create a third family iTunes account, or let each others’ iTunes accounts talk to each other. Still, not optimal, as we’ll forever be stumbling over each others’ apps.
On top of that, iTunes doesn’t reliably do what it says it will: Su had downloaded a copy of Instapaper authorized to his iTunes account, while the rest of the apps were authorized under mine. iTunes told me that unless we authorized under Su’s account, Instapaper would be erased, so we clicked okay to see how that would be handled. Instapaper remained right where it was on the iPad springboard, neither synced nor erased. I’m not sure why this inconsistency is happening; it feels like a mistake.
Power management is another issue. The first thing you expect to do—since the cable looks and acts just like an iPod or iPhone cable—is hook the unit up to your machine via a USB port and start charging. However, I couldn’t. I tried in three different USB ports, but I still got a message by the battery indicator saying “Not Charging.” What gives? According to this Apple Knowledge Base Article, it turns out that some USB ports don’t have the power to charge this thing, but there’s no warning or notification of that, and the “Not Charging” message is unclear enough that someone could misconstrue that to mean it’s fully charged. (I did, and it was because my machine was at 98% of a full charge when I plugged it in.) What happens to the user who isn’t brave enough to poke at their machines to see why things aren’t connecting or charging?
The first app I downloaded, ironically, was my copy of the Kindle app, because I use my iPhone to read all the time and was eager to move that experience to a larger screen. When I launched the app, the experience was breathtaking—one of the first times I have ever had a warm experience with a machine. The app literally glowed at me, and I felt welcome. It collected my downloaded books, presented them as covers, and asked me what I would like to read. Pleased to meet you too.
Most of the features have a few pros and cons:
Safari is a much-streamlined combinant version of desktop Safari and its mobile sibling, and developers: has its own user agent string. There are no Top Sites, as in the desktop version, no tabbed browsing, and the interface itself is the flat, minimal version like the iPhone sports. The major advantage to this version over mobile Safari is bookmark access: you can use your bookmarks favorites bar just like you do on your desktop version. The interface is robust, but not extensible, from what I can see. Irritatingly, Apple has decided to introduce a third visual metaphor for switching between pages in the browser, one that looks and acts like neither desktop Safari nor mobile Safari.
Mail makes good use of a new interface style Apple presents with this device, a pane for easy scrolling on the left and a reading area at right. There is still no single mailbox view to combine all of my accounts, like on the iPhone, and this makes me nuts. Getting from the inbox of one account to the inbox of another literally takes four distinct moments of thought and decision. Ridiculous.
Calendar is gorgeous, and looks like a desk blotter. The interface is beautifully considered, easy to read, and easy to use—but the book-like views lack the page-turning action that iBooks has, which left me scrabbling around the corners of the pages to get them to work. I’m not entirely sure why Apple would let a glaring inconsistency like that happen, especially when they make such a point of telling developers in their own guidelines to try and mimic physical models as closely as possible.
Another interesting interface notion that Apple’s throwing into the pot is a sort of black box to indicate sub-menu actions. What’s interesting is
that they’ve combined scrolling menus (like bookmarks lists) and actions (like creating a new event in Calendar) into the same sort of box, and it works really clearly.
YouTube is a pleasure to use, with simple panes and a big preview for everything. Your YouTube account can be hooked up here, as on the iPhone, giving you access to everything you need to manage it from your couch. Maps is the same as it is on the current version of the iPhone, complete with compass actions.
iBooks is what I would expect from a first release media property from Apple: really, really incomplete. There’s a bookshelf interface that looks like fake woodgrain printed on chipboard (you can easily find the seams and tiles without hunting them down), and clicking the “store” icon pivots it horizontally to reveal the store “behind” the shelf. There’s depth to the shelf, making that feel like you’re going behind a hidden wall, and frankly it cheesed me out. I haven’t bought anything from iBooks yet because apparently they’re painting in the broad strokes of the store’s selection right now and a search for three of my favorite authors got me nothing. First thing I saw was Oprah’s smiling and recommending mug, and I am not that mainstream of a reader. Sorry.
Notes is as realistic in execution as Calendar is, looking like a black leather folio’d blotter. The left side is a pocket holding a list of your notes; you choose a note on the left and write on the right—but you also do a few other administrative tasks there, and it was a bit of a disconnect to throw away a note from that side of the screen when I’d chosen it from the other side.
iPod/iTunes/Whatever They Are Calling It Today
The iPod program is really confusing to me. It looks exactly like iTunes on the desktop … but it’s called iPod. The iPad version of iTunes is the same iTunes store we know from iPods and iPhones. What is going on with Apple’s brand confusion about iTunes versus iPod, and which is what? Is iTunes a desktop music player or a store? Is an iPod an object or a program? And if it’s a program, why isn’t the desktop version of the player also called iPod rather than iTunes? Why is my desktop player called iTunes instead of iPod? Additionally confusing, iBooks and Videos are both self-standing application on the iPad, but I sync all my books and videos on my desktop machine with, you guessed it, iTunes. I play them on the desktop in … iTunes. Oh, wait, no I don’t, because I can’t do anything with my iBooks on the desktop version of iTunes other than organize them. This makes no sense at all. Please stick to one name per thing, people.
Syncing music is exactly the same as it is on an iPhone or iPod Touch—pick, click, sync. This flavor of the iPod-or-iTunes-or-whatever-it-is lets you create and edit playlists right in app, unlike iPod Touches or iPhones, and frankly, that makes my iPhone mad. It’s been wanting to create and edit playlists for a long, long time. The iTunes store itself looks and acts pretty much like it does on the desktop version of iPod. Sorry, I mean iTunes. Whatever it is.
Contacts is a very handsome desktop, leatherbound address book. When you edit someone’s identity, the pages slide gently to the left, the fields become editable and then … the buttons to commit the changes to the card move from the bottom of the page to the top. Why?
I’ve already spent a couple of nights reading with it in bed; it sits with us on the couch while watching TV for quick IMDB lookups. Swiping my hand across the screen to move from screen to screen is sort of grand and declarative, and altogether very pleasant, and typing feels very good to me—the glass yields with a definitive “thump,” and autocorrect happens just as it does on the iPhone. We’ve used the unit to watch a lot of YouTube video. I expected the machine to heat up, but nothing happened. Quite cool to the touch, elegant to use. A little too heavy to hold in one hand, and really needing a way to support it on your legs without sliding around (but that’s why the Good Lord invented Incase). Despite its shortcomings, the beauty and solidity of the object and main interface are enough to make me say: I love it.
The included applications, I don’t love. Not one bit. They feel inconsistent in thinking and in some places, really sloppily designed. I hope Apple works out the interface kinks inside its core applications, because those mistakes are so major and so obvious that they make the apps themselves feel rushed to market.
As to the larger issues of this being a consumption machine versus a creation machine … I’m not too worried about that. Not every computer needs options available to do every single thing every other computer is able to do. I found it’s actually comforting that there’s now a machine simple enough to use as part of the household and not feel so much like my work machine. i don’t want to have a copy of Photoshop in front of me while I’m watching Flash Forward, because that just makes me aware of all the work i need to do. It’s a great little object for exactly how Su and I have been using it: watching videos together, playing games, and reading.
About the author:
Patric King is owner and principal at House of Pretty, Ltd. in Chicago. He designs for both print and the web, most recently for Movieline, 2wice and POV. You can follow his personal Twitter feed here (not work-safe, no intention of being so) or House of Pretty’s stri
ctly design-related (work-safe) Twitter feed here. And you can see all of his Obsessions posts here.