Doesn’t time fly when you’re having fun? It hardly seems possible that a year has passed since I bought my iPad. High time, I thought, for a retrospective which, I hope, will answer some of the questions that perplexed reviewers when it first came out – the main one being ‘what is it for?’ If memory serves, reviewers wondered whether, given the uncertainty over its niche, this new-fangled device could be anything more than a toy, hardly a serious contender for the business market. But the sales of the iPad spoke for themselves, and now there’s an iPad2, and other manufacturers have jumped on the bandwagon, reifying God’s advice to Moses – ‘Keep Taking The Tablets’.
As ever I can only speak from my own personal experience, and that of my immediate circle.
A few months after I bought mine, Mrs Crox (not a Mac user, and deeply suspicious of my iPhone) expressed a desire for one, so now we have His’n'Hers iPads. Even then the popularity of the iPad at the Maison des Girrafes is such that it’s sometimes hard to get a look-in.
I iz stealin ur iPad
Mrs Crox initially used her iPad for what car insurers call ‘domestic, social and leisure purposes’ – keeping up with her email, looking at Facebook, and shopping. As such it completely replaced our ancient home desktop PC, and had the added bonus of being easily portable – more so than a laptop.
What about for work? In her most recent job, as editor of an online magazine for a charity, Mrs Crox used an IBM ThinkPad, occasionally connected to one or more big screens and proper keyboard. However, she did use her iPad when out and about covering political conferences, mainly for taking notes. She appreciated the smallness, lightness and ease of use of the iPad compared with a laptop, finding it much more easily stuffable into her handbag. Many people have expressed reservations about the iPad’s virtual on-screen keyboard, wondering whether it’s good enough for sustained work. Mrs Crox’s insight here is valuable, as, unlike me, she is a trained typist, and finds the keyboard ‘intuitive’. In contrast, she dislikes the standard keyboard on the Mac.
Mrs Crox is currently ‘resting’ between gigs, so her iPad is pressed into service as she browses job adverts and applies for jobs. The iPad, being an excellent browser, excels at the first – but sometimes falls down on the second, as it’s sometimes very hard/impossible to fill in forms using an iPad, and Mrs Crox has to dig out the ThinkPad or use my iMac instead. The iPad is great, and there are usually work-arounds for these problems, but the limitations of the iOS operating system are reached fairly quickly.
Sometimes Mrs Crox is forced to use alternative means of computing if her iPad has been half-inched by one or other of the younger Croxi, who use it to play games but mostly to watch TV. Crox Minima is the only person I know who can run down the iPad’s prodigious battery in one session.
The feature that drew me to the iPad was the prospect of a ten-hour battery life, and the thought that here was a device I could take on my travels and tote at meetings without having to slink off to recharge it every few hours. For that feature alone the iPad gets five gold stars. At conferences I use it to take notes, to log into the office system, keep up with emails and so on and so forth. If you don’t like Safari as a browser, there are others available as apps, such as Mercury (recommended by Mr J. McQ. of Hackney) and you can save things offline in Dropbox or (for MobileMe users) iDisk. The prospect of the iCloud (which is due to replace MobileMe next year) is most toothsome as the iPad is just made for such nebulosities.
I’ve used the iPad as a reader, whether using the native iBooks feature or the spiffing Papers program – available for Mac, iPhone and iPad – which allows you to keep all your reprints and pdfs in one place – so farewell, boxes and boxes of dusty paper in the attic. And there is also Flipboard, recommended by my friend Mr B. C. of Swindon. This is basically a feed reader in which you can integrate Facebook, Twitter and all your favourite sites and blogs, but this bald description undersells it massively. What Flipboard does is lay out everything – even FB updates and tweets – into a magazine-style format that’s seven bells beyond gorgeous incarnate.
I have also used the iPad to write blogs, though the limitations of iOS have intruded here, too. Blogging usually means writing in a window inside a window, something that iOS doesn’t like. There are ways round this, too: Prof. S. C. of London recommended the BlogPress app, which is a good way of getting round the problem.
One of my jobs at Everyone’s Favourite Weekly Professional Science Magazine Beginning With N is to travel the world demystifying the journal in front of audiences of
sceptical eager scientists. I put together my presentations in Keynote on my Mac, save them to iDisk, retrieve them on the iPad and open them with the iPad’s Keynote app (this cost all of ten bucks, cheap at thrice the price). I plug the iPad directly into a projector using Apple’s own iPad-to-VGA connector. This usually works – but doesn’t always, so it’s a good idea to take a CD with the presentation in Keynote on it as a backup. If you can’t find a Mac to host it, you can save a version in PowerPoint, though some of the fancier bits and pieces might get lost in translation.
However, the iPad screen is so bright and clear that I’ve given presentations to small groups of people using the iPad alone, just walking around and showing people the pictures. This is, actually, a nice way to give presentations, breaking down the divide between lecturer and audience, and the presentations I’ve given in such settings seem to have been the more enjoyable for all concerned. I can only imagine how effective the iPad might be for sales and marketing people giving pitches to small groups of potential clients. As it’s a tablet, carrying it around is a doddle, much easier than walking around with an open laptop.
And then – oh joy – there’s the iPad as a writing tool. For years and years I have sought a small, portable device that I could use to write things on, and for that, the iPad is the proverbial Mutt’s Nuts. I write everything in Pages, the iPad’s version of the eponymous Mac wordprocessor, which is childishly simple but none the worse for that. The iPad seems to be my preferred writing tool, even for long sessions. This is partly because I enjoy writing on the train, an environment in which I spend a great deal of time and in which I am least disturbed. I wrote the whole of my novel By The Sea on the train using a Dell laptop, and used the same machine and an Asus Eee to edit large chunks of my still-gestating SF bonkology The Sigil. The Dell was heavy and fragile and was retired within a year. The Eee is cursed with much fiddlitude and a battery life rather less than the life of a particularly debauched mayfly. The iPad, on the other hand, is light and has more power than several gigapascals of bottled djinn. It is simply brilliant as an electronic typewriter for the confirmed road warrior. Pages is just great, and, like Mrs Crox, I have very little trouble with the onscreen keyboard. I do have a bluetooth keyboard, but don’t use it as much as one might think (though my vast, cool and unsympathetic intellect has looked upon the Zagg bluetooth keyboard/case with envious eyes).
I wrote the still-shamefully-unpublished Defiant The Guinea-Pig: Firefighter! entirely on the iPad, on the train, and I am currently 10,000 words in to my next book,
Pippa Middleton’s World of Sex and Cooking Tropic of Cladistics – again, all iPad, all au train. And thanks to SketchBook Pro, a rather handy drawing app, I can do all the illustrations on the iPad, too.
The iPad is not (and was never meant to be) a substitute for a computer, and when I’m at home I very much prefer to work at my desktop, a 24-inch iMac. Much to my surprise, though, I am still using my iPhone for tasks which on the face of it would seem better suited to an iPad – this is, I guess, because the iPhone, being a phone, is even more portable. The iPhone gives a better game of Scrabble (which is strange, as the iPhone and iPad versions of Scrabble are made by the same people, yet have different dictionaries). It’s handier for navigation, too, as I can attach it to the dashboard of my car.
In the end, though, the best apps are those that use the iPad’s gorgeous screen. Canis primus croxorum and I are keen walkers, and we’ve got out of a few scrapes using the iPhone version of ViewRanger (recommended by Dr A. W. of Potters Bar) – basically, a set of Ordnance Survey maps in your pocket, with GPS to show where you are. For planning routes, though, or just browsing, the iPad version is extremely useful.
For music, an app called RealBook contains lead sheets for hundreds of jazz standards. Just prop it up on your music stand, and you can see everything, even on a dark stage. Transposition? No problem! Just tell the iPad what key you want, and the music rearranges itself. I’ve used Pages to save pdfs of music for gigs, which makes reams of paper stuck together with tape a thing of the past.
But for pure eye candy it’s hard to beat ExoPlanets, a constantly updating guide to extrasolar planetary systems, complete with a 3D, rotatable map of our part of the Galaxy showing where they all are.
So what, in the end, is an iPad? I think it’s very much what you make it. I’ve found it great fun – but also unexpectedly useful. It has its limitations as a machine for work, but then it also has its advantages, mainly its lightness, its battery life, and also the fact that it takes no time at all to boot up. And, oh yes, later software updates even on the MkI iPad means that it multitasks. At the moment I don’t feel the need to upgrade to an iPad2, as I rarely make video calls and have never used the FaceTime feature on my iPhone. Speaking just for me, the iPad is a Goldilocks machine, and goes with the way I live and work as a girrafe does to a unicycle.