When Apple finally announced its iPad tablet computer at a San Francisco press event last week, we learned that it was "magical." And "revolutionary." And that the price was "unbelievable."
That's the truth according to Steve Jobs, at least. As usual, the facts are a bit more complex. The iPad is an ambitious product that's hard to sum up in a few words, or to assess at all until it's actually available for sale, which won't be for weeks. Herewith, some early answers to major questions about the device, based on what I learned at Apple's launch and the hands-on time I got with one after the great unveiling concluded.
What's the keyboard like?
Better than I expected. It looks like a jumbo version of the iPhone keyboard, but the keys and the space between them are so much more roomy that tapping the right character is much, much easier. You're not going to want to write a novel on the iPad, but quick bursts of text, such as e-mails, should be simple enough.
The iPad will also work with Bluetooth keyboards, and Apple will sell a charging dock with a built-in keyboard: That's good news, but you'll want to try out the on-screen keyboard yourself if at all possible before plunking down any money.
What's the software situation going to be like?
The iPad will run "virtually" all iPhone applications without modification, which means that it'll work with more than 150,000 programs on the day it ships. But that's a stopgap, not a long-term plus: Unaltered iPhone programs will run on the iPad either scaled to fit its larger screen (with correspondingly chunky text) or in a tiny window. If you invest in an iPad, you're gambling that developers will write their wares to take advantage of its larger screen and richer user interface. Many will, but it may take a while before true iPad apps are as plentiful as iPhone ones.
What are the device's biggest limitations?
The blogosphere is rife with debate about the many things the iPad doesn't have and can't do. There's no camera (which would have been cool for video chat) and no support for Adobe's Flash technology (so many video sites and most online games won't work). Only Apple's programs can run in the background -- so you can listen to music while browsing the Web, for instance -- and all applications run only in full-screen mode.
Oddly enough, these gotchas don't bother me as much as two less-discussed omissions. The iPad comes with a splendid photo viewer, but it doesn't have a USB port or memory-card slot; if you want to import your digital camera photos directly into it, you'll need to buy a clunky-looking external adapter. And even though Apple showed off nifty-looking versions of its iWork word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation program at the iPad launch, there's no way to print from the device. The best you'll be able to do is create PDF files, move them to a PC or Mac, and print from there.
Is the price really as unbelievable as Steve Jobs thinks?
A. The iPad is a lot more reasonable than pundits were expecting -- the conventional wisdom was that it would run $1,000 or so. Instead, the iPad starts at $499 for the version with 16GB of solid-state storage and no 3G broadband, and tops out at $829 for one with 64GB of storage and AT&T 3G. Apple is pricing its tablet to move -- which is presumably why it lacks some features that most people expected it would have. But with its aluminum case and high-end display, it outclasses similarly-priced netbooks from the standpoint of pure aesthetics.
Q. I like the idea of a tablet, but I want a real PC. Will be I be able to buy an iPad-like gizmo that runs Windows?
A. Sort of. At last month's Consumer Electronics Show, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer previewed devices he called "slate PCs," including a model from HP. They're all screen and no keyboard, like the iPad. But the single thing about the iPad that's most impressive is that Apple came up with a user interface optimized for a touch-centric, no-keyboard computer. Microsoft, by contrast, says it has no plans to tweak Windows any further: A slate PC will simply be a Windows 7 machine with no keyboard and no mouse.
Q. Will the iPad be a satisfactory substitute for a PC or Mac?
Absolutely not, if you're talking about making it your primary computer. For that, you want something that can run a wider variety of software, and work with cameras and printers and other devices. You may also want a machine with enough storage to hold a bulging collection of music, photos, and videos -- even the most-capacious iPad has much less storage space than the skimpiest current netbook. And you almost certainly want a system with a bigger screen than the iPad's 9.7-incher.
Q. Speaking of netbooks, should I buy an iPad instead of one?
A. That's not as much of a slam-dunk as you may think: A lot of people are going to be more comfortable with something that looks and works more like a traditional PC than the iPad does. But I think that others who might have bought a netbook in the past as a secondary computer will buy an iPad instead, and be pleased with the purchase -- especially if they're primarily interested in consuming music, movies, e-books, and Web pages. Netbooks are notoriously sluggish when it comes to video and graphics, but from what we've seen of the iPad so far, it's a zippy little beast.
Q. How about getting an iPad instead of Amazon's Kindle or another e-reader?
A. That's going to be a decision that many people will be confronted with from now on. The Kindle certainly isn't going away anytime soon: It costs only a little more than half the price of the cheapest iPad and runs for days on a charge rather than the iPad's claimed life of ten hours. It boasts an impressive collection of books, plus lots of magazines and newspapers; the iPad will have to scramble to catch up with Amazon's book selection, and Apple hasn't said anything about its plans for periodicals at all.
Despite everything, though, the iPad is going to be a formidable Kindle rival. Amazon's e-reader is a one-trick pony (albeit an impressive one) with a screen in dull black and white; the iPad is in glorious color and e-reading will be only one of many things it'll let you do. If Apple can ramp up its content offerings, its gadget promises to be a treat for people who like to read -- as long as they're willing to charge it up frequently.
Q. So should I buy one?
A. Make no decision until the reviews come out at the end of March, when the first units ship. (The Wi-Fi only models, that is; the 3G version will arrive a month after that.) At that point, if the iPad sounds intriguing but not utterly irresistible, bide your time. If the history of the iPhone is any example, Apple will announce a second-generation iPad in 2011 that fixes most of the biggest gripes and packs more features at a better price. And many of the smartest tech fans I know are unapologetic late adopters who'll consider the device seriously only then.
As for me, getting my hands on gadgets early -- sometimes too early -- is what I do for a living. Stay tuned for further thoughts on the iPad once Apple ships the thing.