One month with an iPad

04May10

I received my iPad on April 8. Since then, many people have asked how I like it – my common response is that it’s too soon to tell what I’ll actually do with it. Unlike most technologies, the iPad doesn’t neatly fit into preexisting categories of practice and expectation, and like most technologies, there are unanticipated uses. Now after around a month, I feel qualified to assess what it is and how it fits into my digital life.

Like any piece of technology, its usefulness and role is determined by the context of the user. I have a particular set of uses for mobile media – I spend 95% of my time in places with pervasive WiFi, mostly my house and the Middlebury College campus. I have a 10 minute commute with no public transportation options, travel for any length only 3-4 times a year (and always make it a point to stay in hotels with free WiFi), and rarely use a cell phone (my wife & I share a pay-as-you-go “burner” phone that rarely leaves the house except for trips). At the same time, I am rarely seen without a mobile device for being online, typically a laptop or my iPod Touch, where I’m typically monitoring email, blogs, Twitter, etc. Most of my reading is done on my laptop screen, from daily blogs to scholarly articles and manuscripts, and I run nearly every one of my classes paper-free.

One frequent rap against the iPad is that it’s just an oversized iPod Touch. I agree with that description but not as a condemnation – I love(d) my Touch, and am happy to have a bigger one. In fact, the size of the iPad has made the Touch all but unusable for me as anything but an audio player – I cannot bear to read or write on the Touch anymore, and video/games are even worse. If my kids were a little older, I’d probably trade them my Touch for their Nano, using the latter solely as a portable podcaster. But if you own a Touch and like using any of its visual features, then the iPad will spoil you with its ease of interface and ability to see words and images clearly.

The other frequent complaint about the iPad is much more serious for anyone interested in the politics of computing – the closed nature of the App Store means that Apple controls all software choices. Many critics have pointed out that this is a scary trend for computing, as the relative openness within most operating systems enables innovation and customization among other freedoms. I agree, but I’m not seeing the iPad as a computing system in those terms – it’s no replacement for a laptop as a tool for creating media or customizing your experience, and in the educational context, I wouldn’t want students to use it in place of a PC. It is an oversized phone OS, and as such, the closed system works best as a mobile media player, ranging from video to websites to gaming, but it could not fill the range of functions for which I use my MacBook. Yes, I wish I could enable Adblock on its Safari browser or use simple file transfer, and the standards that Apple employs to judge apps are problematic – but I want to judge the iPad on what it is (a mobile player) rather than what it is not.

I’ve found that the iPad works best for me as a highly portable browser and notepad. Walking around campus or around the house, I take it with me to check email while eating, take notes during a lecture, or access PDFs during a meeting via the essential app GoodReader. I’ve yet to fly since I bought my iPad, but I have no doubt it will be a perfect airplane device for reading manuscripts, watching video (which looks spectacular and sounds quite good via the surprisingly quality speaker), and any other offline activities (I’m much to cheap to spring for in-flight WiFi). I also see its strengths as a conference tool, with simple and unobtrusive access to Twitter (via Twitterific, currently the best iPad Twitter app) and the web during presentations – as well as forced single-tasking helping me manage my attention. While I do typically bring my laptop to & from the office everyday, I could imagine commuting only with my iPad on evenings that I don’t expect to be doing any real writing or research. And the Apple iPad Case makes it simple to walk around campus with the device in hand, making my laptop backpack less essential.

The iPad’s killer app may be its battery – I regularly go two days between recharging, and can easily spend a full day using it with no concerns about power loss. As a MacBook user, this is revolutionary, as Apple has not excelled in power management – the ability to have a fully portable networked machine that doesn’t get smoking hot on its way to running out of power in an hour or two is huge for me. The iPad allows me to keep my laptop plugged in for times that I’m doing major work on writing, video editing, or media management, such as converting DVDs to mp4s to play on my iPad.

While the touch keyboard in landscape mode is fine for basic typing, any longer-term writing greatly benefits from a wireless keyboard, like the one I’m using right now (via the WordPress app). In part this is due to my own habits and discomfort with touchscreen typing, but also because I’m so used to the standard keyboard shortcuts and punctuation cues unavailable on the screen. But with the external keyboard, I can use basic cut/paste and arrow navigation that is well engrained on my fingers. The Pages app is adequate for note taking and memo writing, but the lack of footnote support makes it useless for real academic writing (or paper grading).

I’ve been exploring some of the gaming options, although not in any systematic way. Plants vs. Zombies is great fun, effectively using the touch screen and layout to addictive effect, and the Labyrinth game (mimicking the wooden rolling-ball-maze toy of my youth) is a big hit with my kids. GodFinger is an enjoyable social game, kind of like Farmville but with deific powers to manipulate minions – it’s part of the social game system Plus+, so if you’re on that network, feel free to friend me at username jajasoon. I have no doubt that it will emerge as a great gaming platform, especially as games are designed for simultaneous iPad users.

I am intrigued by the potential of the iPad as an educational platform – I’ve been quite skeptical of the trend of making iPods circulating technologies in academic libraries, as the iTunes sync system is much more designed for a permanent marriage of one user/computer/device. iPads certainly trend that way, but I could imagine outfitting the system with a set of relevant apps and enabling remote login systems like Dropbox and GoodReader to allow users to transfer their files. You can access the App Store wirelessly and the charging cable works best into an AC outlet, so feasibly a borrower could use an iPad without the need to sync to a computer – I’m sure there are permissions issues to this model, but it seems more workable than with iPods.

Other random apps I’d recommend are WeatherChannelMAX for free weather updates, ABC Video Player for high-quality streaming video, and Epicurious for a well-formatted recipe book perfect for our cookbook stand. I’d love to hear of other recommended apps or uses that readers might suggest.

In sum, since it’s grading season, I’d probably give the iPad a B+ for my uses, with the option to revise as the OS and apps develop. I’d love to see more apps that open up the platform, and there are many times when the touch interface of Safari is buggy in scrolling webpages. But it has definitely found a place as an answer to technological questions I didn’t know I had, and there are enough uses for which it’s the best of my many screens. I have no doubt that it will become an important player in the transformation of video and television, as the screen size is perfect for two-person couch viewing as well as backseat road trip distractions for kids. But I’m curious – what do others want from the iPad, and what are you finding it able or unable to do?

I’ve found that the iPad works best for me as a highly portable browser and notepad. Walking around campus or around the house, I take it with me to check email while eating, take notes during a lecture, or access PDFs during a meeting via the essential app GoodReader. I’ve yet to fly since I bought my iPad, but I have no doubt it will be a perfect airplane device for reading manuscripts, watching video (which looks spectacular and sounds quite good via the surprisingly quality speaker), and any other offline activities (I’m much to cheap to spring for in-flight WiFi). I also see its strengths as a conference tool, with simple and unobtrusive access to Twitter (via Twitterific, currently the best iPad Twitter app) and the web during presentations – as well as forced single-tasking helping me manage my attention. While I do typically bring my laptop to & from the office everyday, I could imagine commuting only with my iPad on evenings that I don’t expect to be doing any real writing or research. And the Apple iPad Case makes it simple to walk around campus with the device in hand, making my laptop backpack less essential.

The iPad’s killer app may be its battery – I regularly go two days between recharging, and can easily spend a full day using it with no concerns about power loss. As a MacBook user, this is revolutionary, as Apple has not excelled in power management – the ability to have a fully portable networked machine that doesn’t get smoking hot on its way to running out of power in an hour or two is huge for me. The iPad allows me to keep my laptop plugged in for times that I’m doing major work on writing, video editing, or media management, such as converting DVDs to mp4s to play on my iPad.

While the touch keyboard in landscape mode is fine for basic typing, any longer-term writing greatly benefits from a wireless keyboard, like the one I’m using right now (via the WordPress app). In part this is due to my own habits and discomfort with touchscreen typing, but also because I’m so used to the standard keyboard shortcuts and punctuation cues unavailable on the screen. But with the external keyboard, I can use basic cut/paste and arrow navigation that is well engrained on my fingers. The Pages app is adequate for note taking and memo writing, but the lack of footnote support makes it useless for real academic writing (or paper grading).

I’ve been exploring some of the gaming options, although not in any systematic way. Plants vs. Zombies is great fun, effectively using the touch screen and layout to addictive effect, and the Labyrinth game (mimicking the wooden rolling-ball-maze toy of my youth) is a big hit with my kids. GodFinger is an enjoyable social game, kind of like Farmville but with deific powers to manipulate minions – it’s part of the social game system Plus+, so if you’re on that network, feel free to friend me at username jajasoon. I have no doubt that it will emerge as a great gaming platform, especially as games are designed for simultaneous iPad users.

I am intrigued by the potential of the iPad as an educational platform – I’ve been quite skeptical of the trend of making iPods circulating technologies in academic libraries, as the iTunes sync system is much more designed for a permanent marriage of one user/computer/device. iPads certainly trend that way, but I could imagine outfitting the system with a set of relevant apps and enabling remote login systems like Dropbox and GoodReader to allow users to transfer their files. You can access the App Store wirelessly and the charging cable works best into an AC outlet, so feasibly a borrower could use an iPad without the need to sync to a computer – I’m sure there are permissions issues to this model, but it seems more workable than with iPods.

Other random apps I’d recommend are WeatherChannelMAX for free weather updates, ABC Video Player for high-quality streaming video, and Epicurious for a well-formatted recipe book perfect for our cookbook stand. I’d love to hear of other recommended apps or uses that readers might suggest.

In sum, since it’s grading season, I’d probably give the iPad a B+ for my uses, with the option to revise as the OS and apps develop. I’d love to see more apps that open up the platform, and there are many times when the touch interface of Safari is buggy in scrolling webpages. But it has definitely found a place as an answer to technological questions I didn’t know I had, and there are enough uses for which it’s the best of my many screens. I have no doubt that it will become an important player in the transformation of video and television, as the screen size is perfect for two-person couch viewing as well as backseat road trip distractions for kids. But I’m curious – what do others want from the iPad, and what are you finding it able or unable to do?

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13 Responses to “One month with an iPad”

  1. 1 Jenn

    Thank you so much for this thoughtful review! I saw your post not long after I’d been browsing the apple store, looking at the ipads! I’m very seriously considering getting one, and it was great timing to read your thoughts.

    I use my iPhone all the time, for the sheer convenience of it. When *my* grading is done for the semester, I’m planning to do a full install of windows 7 onto my 3 year old Vista (dis)abled laptop to breathe some more life into it. I thought then I can supplement with an ipad. There’s nothing wrong with the laptop that ridding it of Vista wouldn’t solve.

    The practical questions I have about the ipad are:
    – is it worth the extra $100 for 64 GB (vs 32)?
    – wireless keyboard or keyboard dock?
    – which cables are really necessary (VGA, camera…)?
    – how much will I be spending on apps? I’ve heard they cost quite a lot more.

    Finally, after reading your post, I wonder if they can be jailbroken. I had a jailbroken iPhone for a few months (until it was stolen) and the 2 great advantages were being able to have more than one app open, and access to non Apple approved apps. I haven’t bothered to jailbreak the replacement phone, but I’ve been frustrated with the need to close & reopen apps when flipping back & forth. The audio apps (radio, rhapsody) are useless because you can’t do anything else when they’re open.

    Anyway, thanks again. And Plants vs. Zombies is so killer good on the iPhone I’m not surprised it rocks on the ipad!

    Jenn

    • Glad to be helpful and timely!

      – I got the 32mb, and after a month, it’s about 1/2 full. I’d say it depends on how much you want to load it up with videos, music, and photos. I don’t think apps will eat away at the drive too much, and since you can’t really use it to store documents, it’s not going to get bloated. But I’m sure I’ll eventually feel like I’d like more space, so if $100 is marginal cost, it’s probably worth going bigger.

      – I prefer the wireless, as I can arrange my workspace better. The dock requires portrait orientation, and I prefer using landscape for email and web surfing. Plus the wireless keyboard can work with any Bluetooth device.

      – I got the VGA adapter, but haven’t really tried it much. In a test, video looks great and projecting Keynote seems pretty slick. Didn’t get the camera, but I’m not used to having a portable camera at the ready.

      – Yes, apps are pricier, at least now. We’ll see how things go as the novelty wears off and competition for quality increases. I think I’ve spent around $60 total in apps, as most that I use are free or cheap.

      – Yes, they can be jailbroken. Let Google be your guide – but I’m not going to go down that path, as I’m less than risky as a hacker.

      – And no MobileMe account needed – using DropBox for file exchange, which seems to work just fine for me. What else does MobileMe do?

  2. 3 Jenn

    One more question- do you need a Mobile Me account? Why or why not?

  3. 4 Norm

    Have you used Keynote for the iPad? Do you think it can replace a laptop for lecture slides?

    • Yes, and it has a really slick touchscreen virtual laser pointer. My problems are that it doesn’t have a way to preview the next slide or see presenter notes, which I rely on quite a bit. And some of my presentations that use grouped objects to build don’t translate to iPad that well, but that’s easier to fix. I’ll see in the fall how much the Keynote app has evolved to enable the type of presenting I prefer as to how much I use it.

  4. 6 Roberto

    I’m loving mine. One ap that I discovered yesterday that turns the ipad into a really good digital recorder for voice notes, lecture recording etc is called BLUE FIRE. Its free and highly recommended.

  5. 7 Christopher Hellstrom

    Thanks for this post Professor Mittell. I love my iPad. It will be interesting how the iPad plays into the new media ecology. I think the Kindle is superior as a reading devise though. You can read outside better and the e-ink has less eye strain. As you mentioned, Goodreader is nice for reading general docs and you have the Kindle app for reading Kindle content.

    However, the problem with the iPad is that it’s too much fun. There is an advantage to having a reading devise without the temptations of the glittering casino of the internet right behind that wall of text. However, you have the potential for some new ways of reading, as Robert Coover announced the “End of Books” in the early 1990s he hinted that there would be interesting new ways to tell stories like Michael Joyce’s Afternoon. But these types of new media storytelling had high stratospheric ambitions with low, tropospheric impact. But the iPad has some interesting new ways of reading (like Theodore Grey’s chemistry book The Elements and the fantastic version of Alice in Wonderland (free in trial version).

    But there is room for all of Kindle and iPad once the prices drop to under $100. . It will also be a liberating instrument in far flung places to access the world’s knowledge. These devises (big, small, e-ink, full color) will be laying around the house like magazines and you will pick the content up where you left off out of the cloud. It will be like a disposable window to an augmented reality that you can toggle into wherever you are. And the window will become thinner and thinner until it disappears.

  6. Yes, they can be jailbroken. Let Google be your guide –

    I think it will be around today

    keep your eye open people

    Thanks

  7. 9 Brooke

    Thanks for your thoughts on the iPad! I’m considering buying one, mainly for benefits I could see coming in handy as I start a PhD program in Media Studies this fall. The prospect of being able to have all the PDFs assigned for reading in each course in one lightweight place is attractive from an organization and clutter-free standpoint, especially as I found homework literally weighing me down more and more as each semester of my MA program progressed. (if I could bike to school with an iPad rather than 2-3 stuffed notebooks, that would be fantastic.) An employee at the Apple store near me demonstrated how a PDF could be processed through ePub so I would be able to highlight passages, so it looks fairly user-friendly for that purpose.

    What do you think about the iPad’s value from this perspective? As less and less reading for my classes is book-based, I’m more and more tempted to invest…

    • I definitely think it’s got huge potential as a portable PDF library. The annotation & markup functions in the built-in Books app are limited, but I imagine that this is the type of function that will be rolled out down the road on some app. An app integrating Zotero’s citation management system would seal the deal!

  8. 11 Louisa

    I’ve joined the party. WiFi only. WooHoo!

  9. You can switch back and forth between reading and listening, and your spot is automatically saved. Pages automatically turn while the content is being read, so you can listen hands-free. You can choose from both male and female voices which can be sped up or slowed down to suit your preference. In the middle of a great book or article but have to jump in the car? Simply turn on Text-to-Speech and listen on the go.


  1. 1 scholarly reading on the iPad – one month in « info-fetishist

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