28 Days and Three Continents: A Rigorous Test of the iPad as Everything Hub

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It was a month ago to the day that I ditched physical books, comics, and magazines for my iPad. A round-the-world trip for work precipitated the change. For 29 days, I would be outside the U.S., with stops in Australia, Singapore, India, and the UK. Not to mention that the India stop included three cities and four additional flights. It was not the time for a big stack of physical media, nor for a full laptop. It was time to travel light and to travel digital.

In the process, I’ve learned a lot. Some of it more boring, self-discovery kind of stuff, which I’ll save for my personal blog, if at all, but a lot of it about tablets, computers, and where entertainment itself might go.

1. The current iPad is good enough for most uses.
In spite of my promise to wait for the iPad 2, the thought of a total of 65 hours on planes quickly converted me to the quite-capable version 1.0. I really put it through its paces: web-browsing, Twitter, RSS reader, Facebook, blogging, video, gaming, and book-reading. Despite its early generation, it’s wholly adequate for most of these tasks. It is weakest, as many people have noted, for typing. If you can get it perfectly flat, as on a tray table in an airplane, it’s possible to hit a near touch-typing speed, but any other grip means going slow and making mistakes. Though some have complained about its anemic 256 MB of RAM, I found it plenty speedy for every task I threw at it. The absence of video cameras for video chat was a minor nuisance.

2. It’s possible to read an entire book on an iPad, but the weight adds up.
At 1.5 pounds, the iPad is significantly less heavy than any other computer Apple has ever shipped. This does not mean, however, that it should be considered light. My biggest task for myself was reading Jonathan Franzen’s new novel “Freedom,” a 600-page magnum opus about contemporary life and the strange trajectory of baby boomers. And, while the iPad is lighter than the hardcover of Freedom, its form gets really hard to handle after a certain amount of time. It’s both too thin and too evenly balanced — the top weighs the same as the bottom edge, which means that holding it with one hand is impossible and the two-handed grip gets exhausting. The best way to read is to rest it against a table or other surface (including your reclining stomach). I did get through the book, but I found that I had to switch to Sepia paper over time, as the white pages began to hurt my eyes. As a book replacement, the metal back is highly questionable. Going with a lightweight plastic might be a good update over time — this is the most it should ever weigh.

3. Most developers have a long way to go before really nailing gestural interface.
The most exciting thing about the iPad is its ability to support dozens of kinds of gestures for controls. For the most part, however, the current generation of applications is limited to three: swiping up to scroll, swiping left to flip pages, and using the two-finger pinch to adjust zoom level. Reeder, my favorite iPad and iPhone RSS program, tries to do additional things, like swiping to the right to go up one level of information rather than pressing a back button, but it only works part of the time. The iPad version of Twitter, also, is pursuing multiple levels of swipe to allow a more complex interaction. But these, at best, feel like novelties. There’s been a lot of talk (probably too much talk) about whether the iPad is a consumption device or a creativity device. For now, it remains more of a consumption device, outside of sketching programs, musical instruments and writers using an associated bluetooth keyboard. I now believe this is merely a fact of people making creativity apps that are trying too hard to mimic either a traditional GUI computer model or trying too hard to use an analogous interface to the real world. When and if developers create a solid model for how to use gestures for creativity, the iPad will become a powerful platform for creation — as I’ve noted before, video editing would kill on this thing. Until that day, it’s a great way to catch up on reading and watch video.

4. The iPad is a great travel companion — if you remember to collect it.
When Steve Jobs introduced the iPad, he positioned it as a third device, in between a Mac and an iPhone. That’s definitely true when it comes to travel — it exhibits characteristics of both a phone and a laptop. For example, airport security the world over allows you to leave an iPad in a shoulder bag, even though every laptop needs to be scanned separately. But like an iPod or iPhone, flight attendants don’t much care if you have an iPad out early in a flight or close to landing the way they do a laptop. On more than one occasion, I read my iPad right up to touch-down without getting any guff. There is one downside to all of this, of course, which is that these qualities make it easy to forget an iPad. That’s because we don’t have an existing ritual for what to do with an iPad as you exit a plane. With a laptop, you put it back in your shoulder bag before landing. With a phone, you pocket the device. With an iPad? Well, as I learned personally, sometimes you leave it in the plane seat and need to retrieve it from Singapore Airlines a week later. Thanks, Singapore Airlines!

All told, the iPad is the best travel computer I’ve ever seen. On my next trip, I will absolutely leave my MacBook home