It's somewhat fitting that the first thing you see when you pop open Apple's iPad case is yourself.
The tablet computer (or multimedia entertainment device, or Kindle-killer, or whatever you want to call it) is so incredibly shiny that under even the softest light it turns into a glare mirror. As such, half the time you're staring at it, you'll see your own face staring back at you.
Ultimately, that's what the iPad is: a new benchmark for the concept of technology as an extension of (or, if you're cynical, a substitute for) personality; a loud affirmation of the same phenomenon that brought us overnight line-ups outside electronics stores, "unboxing" videos and the term "fanboy." The iPad is sleek, glass-encased hysteria.
As an aside, it's also a computer -- a computer we managed to get our hands on this weekend by driving down to Buffalo and waiting in line. After playing around with it, we can confidently summarize it thusly: the iPad is a bigger, higher-definition iPod Touch; load the right applications on it, and it is immense fun; its user interface is as intuitive and idiot-proof as elevator buttons; it looks gorgeous, both as a physical device and in the resolution of its display.
But this isn't a desktop, a laptop or any traditional -top. You can't do two things at once on the iPad. And everything you do, you have to do through Apple. Want a book? Buy it from the Apple. An app? Buy it from Apple. Music? Movies? Anything? Apple.
The iPad isn't so much a computer as a delivery device, and there's only one supplier.
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Here are the basics: the iPad comes in six flavours -- 16, 32 and 64-gigabytes, each available with wi-fi and 3G capability, or just wi-fi. Prices range from $500 (U.S.) for the 16-gigabyte model with just wi-fi, to about $830 for the 64-gigabyte version with 3G.
Right now, you technically can't get the iPad in Canada. Sure, you can drive down to the U.S. and pick one up, but once you try to purchase movies or apps from the iTunes store in Canada, you'll be disappointed.
To get around this, we bought one of those pre-paid MasterCards and signed up a U.S.-based iTunes account with a throwaway U.S. mailing address. Subsequently, we could purchase apps without much trouble. If this process sounds convoluted, that's because it is -- that Canadians still have to go through this kind of trouble to mimic the same user experience readily available to their southern neighbours is an embarrassment for which regulators, content providers and manufacturers are responsible.
(Keep in mind that even if you do get a working U.S. iTunes account, you'll still be prohibited from accessing certain content because of your geography. We found certain apps wouldn't give us access to video content, for example).
As a physical device, the iPad is beautiful -- that's because it is essentially just an iPhone, which is one of the prettiest gadgets ever created. It has the height and length of your average paperback, and the thickness of the first 50 pages. You get a very slightly curved back with the Apple logo in the centre, and a black-bordered glass front. There's only one button on the front, and you use it to shut down whatever application you're running and return to the home screen. Along the iPad's edge, you get various unobtrusive buttons, such as volume control and screen-lock, for when you don't want the screen's orientation shuffling between landscape and portrait every time you tilt it. There's no physical keyboard, unless you go out and buy peripherals.
Like the physical design, the iPad's user interface is essentially a super-sized version of the iPhone. You get a series of pages -- the first is a sort of universal search screen, and the rest are littered with icons for the various applications you've downloaded, along with the pre-installed staples such as Apple's Safari web browser, its mail client and iPod software. You flick through pages with one finger, sliding it across the screen with the same motion you'd use to flick a crumb off a table. You tap an application's icon to open it. If you spend more than half an hour with an iPad and still find it confusing to use, you should probably give up on computers.
But superlative ease of use comes at a price -- this is Apple's party, and you will abide by Apple's rules. All applications must be downloaded through the app store. There's no support for Flash, meaning millions of Internet videos are inaccessible on the iPad. There's no multitasking, so the notion of the iPad as a productivity tool is meaningless, even though the company made lots of noise about its updated suite of iPad business software.
Indeed, the iPad is basically an unproductivity tool. The tablet is at its best when playing high-definition movies or any one of those addictive, time-eviscerating games (go download the updated iPad version of Firemint's "Flight Control" game and see if you get any more work done today, or this month). The web browsing is another feature that benefits greatly from a larger screen size -- zooming in and out of web pages is instant, achieved by sliding two fingers together or apart. Apple puts the same two-finger user interaction to great use in its photo application, allowing you to sort pictures in a pile and pull that pile apart. The maps application is arguably more responsive and fun to use than its desktop equivalent. Apple's new book store, the creatively named iBooks, is presented in the form of a virtual bookshelf, where you pull the titles out and flip pages with a single finger. It works very well.
There are several minor annoyances, though. That bright shiny screen only stays bright and shiny for so long before it becomes a smudgy mess of fingerprints. The tablet does a good job of recognizing its orientation and switching screens when you hold it up, but lay it flat on a table and it doesn't know which side is up any more. The on-board speakers are terrible, although you'll likely plug in headphones or use external speakers most of the time. The high-end games are also a let-down. Even though the iPad's more powerful processor and bigger screen let game designers aim higher, the big-name games we tried were no match for a Sony PSP or a Nintendo DS. The virtual keyboard is less cramped than most portable devices out there, but it still feels like mashing your fingers on glass -- there's no tactile feedback.
These are all relatively small problems, though -- and that's perhaps the best reason to wait a while before buying an iPad. Just as it did with iPods and iPhones, Apple will fix many of these bugs in later versions. Inevitably, prices will drop as well. If you're the kind of person who just needs to have it right now, chances are you're already reading this review on an iPad.
The iPad is a beautiful device based on one of the best-designed user interfaces in history. But it isn't revolutionary, and in order to justify the months of hype preceding its launch, it would have had to come pre-loaded with a time machine or perpetual motion app.
But in some ways, that hype is more important for Apple than the iPad itself. What the company wants is for this computer to play a part in who you are -- the books you read, the games you play, the way you express yourself. Because every time you do any of that, Apple will get a cut.
Whereas the iPhone and iPod Touch were small enough to be inconspicuous, the iPad is a declaration, a shiny piece of electronic personality.