Is the iPad really that bad?

Maybe I just had low expectations for my iPad. I didn’t think it was going to revolutionize computing, or replace my laptop, phone, and TV set. I didn’t think it was going to have much impact at all on how I lived my day-to-day life, except for one thing: I hoped it would encourage me to read more.

Even though I was an English major, I’ve never been a great reader. I’m not the sort of person who devours multiple novels each week. Heck, I’m lucky if I read three or four per year. Sure, I spend plenty of time surfing the web, and I need to read a lot of blog posts and journal articles for my job, but that means that I’ve been spending a lot less time just sitting down and reading books over the past few years.

When I bought the iPad, I was thinking its primary use would be as a way to encourage me to do more of that. So, how have I done? In the nearly two months since I bought it, I’ve read about 1.5 books. That’s better than I had been doing, but not by much. I had also hoped to read more magazines and other periodicals on the iPad. How’d I do there? So far, only one magazine that I read frequently has come out for the iPad: WIRED. So I decided to pony up $5 and see what that was like.

My first impression: This is just like the physical magazine. It’s got all the things I like about WIRED, and most of what I don’t like. I didn’t hate it as much as some of the other early reviews, but I agree that it’s not the sort of transformative application that will suddenly return the magazine industry to profitability.

For $5 (well, $4.99), you get one copy of the magazine. This isn’t a subscription, it’s just a one-shot deal. I think that’s about what it costs on the newsstand, but if I have my iPad with me, I’m not typically going to be trolling newsstands for something to read. The price, clearly, has to come down.

Once you figure out the interface, it works well enough. The articles are clear and easy to read. If you rotate your iPad from horizontal to vertical, each page transforms to a completely new layout. The typography is much better than on a typical app or web page, with proper hyphenation and justification. Text is a little blurry, but very readable. Reading a feature-length article like Steve Silberman’s excellent story on biobanks is a much more satisfying experience than reading the same story online.

As the interfacelab review points out, the app is a bit of a hack job, an enormous 500-meg file, with each page of text presented as a jpeg image, not true dynamic text. This of course means you can’t search, select, or copy/paste. Other than the file size, that doesn’t really bother me. It’s a magazine, not a reference work. Still, particularly because of the file size, I’m hoping this is fixed in future versions.

Similarly, books on the iPad are a pleasure to read, but hardly an improvement over the real thing. Other than the convenience factor, I’d be just as happy with paper.

Where the iPad excels, however, is with PDFs. The experience of reading a PDF on the iPad beats a computer hands-down. I bought the iAnnotate App, which isn’t perfect, but does an admirable job with PDF annotation. I can highlight, type notes, bookmark, and search, both for my own notes and through the PDF text itself. Scrolling around the app is actually easier than fumbling through paper copies, and miles better than reading on-screen. Note-taking is intuitive and easy. Yes, importing and organizing PDFs could be easier (My ideal app would combine Mendeley and iAnnotate), and there needs to be an export function for your annotated PDFs, but overall, it’s fantastic. I haven’t printed a PDF since I bought this app. I even used it to go over my taxes—over a hundred pages (you don’t want my finances)—before filing them.

The other use I had planned for the iPad was Twitter. I love Twitter, but it’s a big time sink when it runs in the background on my main computer and distracts me from the task at hand. Now that I have confined Twitter to its own shelf, I get a lot more work done. That’s great, but I wish the Twitter experience on the iPad was a little smoother. Since the iPad doesn’t support multitasking, it can be hard to do simple things like copy and paste a link into a tweet. If you start a tweet in Twitterific, then need to add an @reference to it, your work might be lost while you search for the name.

Another major annoyance is cursor control. It works just like the iPhone: you touch your finger to the spot you want to place the cursor, and a little magnifying glass appears above your finger so you can line it up exactly right. The problem is, if you end up one character to the left of where you want to be, you have to do it all over again. Sometimes it takes me two or three attempts to get the cursor where I want it. If only the iPad’s virtual keyboard had cursor arrows, this problem would be solved. Cursor arrows are a MUST for the next-generation of the iPad OS. In case some people don’t like losing the screen real estate, it could be a user-configurable option. But once they have better cursor controls, I can’t imagine many people would want to go back.

A slightly thornier problem is cut and paste functionality. To select text to copy, you tap the screen and wait for a contextual menu to appear, then click on “select”, then select the text you want. But there’s a slight lag before the menu appears, and I often end up tapping several times. The same thing happens when I click somewhere to paste the text, but the problem is compounded because if the cursor is in the wrong spot, I have to start over. So even editing tiny 140-character tweets can be a bit of an ordeal. This needs to be streamlined in the future.

Surfing on an iPad is for the most part okay, but I can’t help feeling that everything loads just a little slower on the iPad. This may be due to ads, which I often have blocked on my computer, but even pages that I don’t block seem to load quicker on the computer. For me, this isn’t a big deal. Generally if I want to surf, I’m going to use a computer.

I do wish iPad developers would offer more “light” and “trial” versions of apps. With many apps costing $10 or more, it’s frustrating buying apps that end up not meeting my needs. I think if trial versions were available, developers would end up selling more paid versions.

But overall, the iPad does everything I hoped it would when I bought it. It’s a much more convenient way to keep all my reading material in one place (compared to physical books and magazines), and it’s a superior reading device for the documents I read most: PDFs. Now I just need to cross my fingers and hope magazine prices come down—and that the magazines I actually would like to read become available. Atlantic, Scientific American, National Geographic, and (ahem) SEED, let’s get going on this!

See also: iPad: First impressions

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3 Responses to Is the iPad really that bad?

  1. Sherri says:

    Interesting that the iPad didn’t increase your reading, even though you were hoping it would. Getting a Kindle two years ago definitely increased my reading, because it was so handy and convenient. Of course, the only point to having a Kindle is to read books; it can read PDF’s and magazines, but it doesn’t do a great job with them.

    I have an iPhone and an iPod touch, and even though the apps are cheaper on those platforms, I still wish I had a way of trying out apps before buying them. Even at $.99, I find it annoying to buy an app that just doesn’t work for me at all.

  2. Dave Munger says:

    I wouldn’t say the iPad hasn’t increased my reading — it just hasn’t done quite as much for it as I expected. As I said, it’s a very comfortable and convenient way to read, so I probably just need to set aside more time for reading.

  3. nyc says:

    You can get National Geographic through Zinio (iPad/iPhone app).

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