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My weekend with the iPad

17 Jan

Originally posted 27 May 2010 @

I was asked to field test Apple’s iPad presumably as penance for mouthing off about how impractical and uncomfortable I predicted it would be to use. While I haven’t changed my mind about the iPad, I’m also pleased to say that I was wrong about many details. So just like Jacob Nielsen recently did, I can now reveal my first usability findings for the iPad.

For the record, I started writing this article on the iPad which I was given to test-drive for the weekend, but its not currently very easy to get any copy off the device when typing in Pages, I had to give up and resort to my laptop.

The brief for this assignment was to use the iPad in as many real life situations as possible. With devices as richly functional as this, there’s a temptation to play with all the apps and gadgets incessantly simply because they’re there. Instead I put my regular computer away and committed to using the iPad for everything for which I would normally use my laptop.

Tasks I performed:

  • Connect to home network — unbelievably easy.
  • Browsing the web — relatively easy, but it takes two clicks to close a web page or navigate between open tabs, which is counter-intuitive. Also you can’t open links in new windows unless it’s coded into the link HTML code.
  • Check Gmail — images don’t display in emails and there’s no easily identifiable option to turn them on. The ‘Compose Email’ link is now a new button. Typing is only usable if you write it all in one go and don’t make mistakes as correcting or going back is extremely difficult.
  • Browsing photo albums on Picasa — very easy, crisp and clear.
  • Watching movies — Avatar in hi-res looked incredible and the built-in speaker was really good, but it’s hard to get the iPad in a watchable position on your lap as it slides. around a lot. No matter what angle it’s impossible not to get screen reflections.
  • Booked a table for Sunday lunch — easy apart from navigation issues, and there was no Wi-Fi in the restaurant and no 3G in this iPad model.
  • Researched and created a spreadsheet for an info-graphic project — easy but formatting was basic and there’s no way of exporting data.
  • Browsed for a recipe — had iPad when cooking, which was very handy.
  • Wrote this article — or attempted to

Navigating web pages is easy and the iPad really comes into it’s own as a display device. Unfortunately some web pages simply aren’t designed to work with touch screen input and I often had trouble making fields big enough to select, getting drop downs to scroll, and selecting from closely grouped links, even in landscape.

Typing itself is cramped and there’s no tactile response like with a physical keyboard despite the pleasing sound of your fingers hitting the glass. There’s also a slight delay between pressing the key and the on state appearing which can be a little off putting, Landscape mode should add extra keys not simply make the keyboard bigger. Quirks like the apostrophe being omitted from the first screen completely ruins rhythm. You can’t key back and forward and it’s very hard to place the cursor with just your finger. There’s no delete button, only backspace, and no tab key.

Ergonomically, the iPad is hard on the wrists both carrying and typing. Realistically, you’d never type one-handed on this thing because even simple touch navigation is agonising. It’s heavy enough to avoid holding in one hand for any length of time, let alone prodding at it repeatedly with the other hand. The only practical way to use it is flat on a table or on your lap, and even then you need a case or something under it to prevent it slipping.

Where the iPad truly excels is as a book replacement: the resolution is incredible and text looks crisp and clear. Cooking was a breeze as the iPad is way more convenient than any hefty cookbook, and I could turn pages with damp or dirty hands without worrying about marking them permanently (although I was deathly afraid of getting flour or water in it). What’s missing, I think, is innovative content worthy of this new paradigm, if indeed that’s what the iPad is. Apple has always been very good at creating devices a few steps ahead, so perhaps the iPad is just a little too far ahead and is waiting for us to catch up.

I can’t help feeling that the iPad could be a great device if it really could do all the things Apple is trying to convince us it can. Apple’s genius lies in reinventing paradigms; by finding new and interesting ways of doing things, and doing them better and in more interesting ways than their competitors. There’s little point comparing it to existing devices because there really is nothing else like it, and Apple should have marketed it appropriately. The closest comparison is the e-reader, which it beats handsomely, but that’s hardly a market which was screaming out to be dominated.

The iPad is a gorgeous device, well designed and well executed, and I really wanted to like it, but for all the enhancements and improvements it brings, for me it introduces too many downsides and inconveniences.