It isn't really just a big iPod Touch after all.
Apple Inc.'s new iPad, which goes on sale Saturday, may look like an oversized iPhone or iPod. And it runs the same operating system, and most if not all the applications already available for those devices.
Yet the experience of using the iPad turns out to be surprisingly different. Its larger screen, speed, and other features give it a unique feel. You are interacting directly with your content without the need to constantly pinch, zoom or resize, as you must on a smartphone - and without the mouse or other pointing device you'd use on a desktop computer or laptop.
The experience is so different, in fact, that it could actually hold back the iPad at first. People will have to learn a new way of relating to a computer, almost like learning a new language. Luckily for them, though, Apple has made the new language both elegant and very easy to master.
For the most part, my second impressions of the iPad reinforce my first impressions, which were gleaned at the January launch event in San Francisco. The device is physically beautiful - a smooth slab, a bit smaller than a standard piece of paper, half-an-inch thick with a slightly convex back and weighing a pound and a half. The battery is sealed, as on the iPhone and iPod. While Apple claims a battery life of 10 hours, early reviews have suggested it may even go longer between charges.
The 9.7-inch-diagonal backlit screen is great for watching high-definition videos, playing games or reading, at least in normal conditions. The screen is something of a fingerprint magnet, though; keep a good cleaning cloth handy.
Your existing iPhone and iPod Touch apps - and by the way, you don't have to buy them again - will run at their normal size in the center of the iPad screen. You can also blow them up to take advantage of the extra real estate, in which case they may look a bit funky but seem to work fine. The really fun stuff, though, will be the apps specifically rewritten for the iPad. Apple expects to have about 1,000 of them in the App Store at launch, and some that were made available prior to release are gorgeous.
Firemint's RealRacing HD has you gripping the iPad like a steering wheel, taking advantage of the built-in accelerometer to roar down the speedway. Conde Nast Digital's Epicurious, an interactive cookbook, is a foodie's delight.
Lack of flash
The iPad's screen size makes Web surfing a nice experience, except for one thing. Like the iPhone and iPod Touch, the iPad doesn't support Adobe Systems Inc.'s widely used Flash animation software, meaning that video clips on thousands of sites won't play. Apple's Steve Jobs may have his reasons - Apple says Flash consumes too much power, among other alleged flaws - but those empty boxes on so many Web pages really are a distraction.
Comparing the iPad and Amazon.com Inc.'s Kindle as e-book readers, the Kindle is more like a paperback - cheap, light, convenient. The iPad is more like a hardback: substantial, more enjoyable in a visual and tactile sense, but bigger and heavier. I haven't yet tried reading on the iPad at the beach, but one feature that may help is a convenient backlight control accessible from within the iBooks application.
At launch, the new iBookstore has many fewer volumes available than the Kindle. But the books it does have, which seem to include most current titles, look like real books, with color illustrations, a paper-like feel and even the ability, if you stop in mid-page turn, to see the words on both the old and new pages.
That kind of slick animation, and the iPad's general speed and responsiveness, are products of the custom-designed Apple microprocessor called the A4 that's at the heart of all models. There will be six in all, of which three will be available this weekend. They start at US$499 for a unit with 16 gigabytes of solid-state storage, and Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity; 32- and 64-gigabyte models will be US$100 and US$200 more, respectively.
Later this month, comparable models will go on sale that also connect to AT&T Inc.'s 3G network. That feature will add another US$130 to the price, plus an AT&T data plan at either US$15 or US$30 a month, depending on usage. The data plans will be available on an a la carte, month-to-month basis; if you've got a big trip coming up, you can buy a month's service, then wait until your next trip to buy access again.
More than media
The apps that most hint at the iPad's capacity to be more than a media device are the three components of Apple's iWork productivity suite, brought over from the Mac and rewritten for the iPad. At least at first blush, the Numbers spreadsheet and Keynote presentation software adapt surprisingly well to the iPad's on-screen keyboard and touch navigation.
For Pages, the word processor, you'll undoubtedly want the US$69 add-on keyboard and docking station that holds the iPad at a good angle for typing. I haven't yet used it enough to know how much I'll miss having some sort of pointing device like a mouse, which, of course, Apple introduced into mainstream computing with the original Mac.
There are good reasons to be skeptical about the iPad's potential as a device for productivity. Unlike a Microsoft Windows PC or Mac, it doesn't run multiple applications at the same time. Storage is limited, and carrying the add-on keyboard might be a pain. With no camera, at least in version one, the iPad won't be handling videoconferences over Skype.
Still, because the iPad is so different from what's come before, it may take a while before we figure out just what it really is, and how it will be used. Ultimately, its users, app developers and content publishers will have more to say about that than Apple itself. Right now, the possibilities are vast.
It isn't really just a big iPod Touch after all.