Initial Thoughts about the iPad

As I posted on my own blog late last week, in a mild fit of pique at some of the pre-emptive iPad dissing going around, my sense was that the primary use for the device would be for media consumption. In that, I agree with many of the haters — it’s just that I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I spend a lot of time writing, yes, and a fair bit of time coding, but I also spend a lot of time reading and watching and listening and browsing, and a device that helps me do some of that, particularly when I’m on the road, would be a welcome addition to my technical life.

So far, I’ve been quite pleased with those aspects of the iPad. I’ve loaded up the Videos application (which has been separated out from the “iPod” functions of the iPad) with episodes of a couple of television series I’ve been meaning to catch up on; the video plays smoothly and with great clarity. Videos synchronizes with iTunes, and so will of course accept any video you download directly from the iTunes Store, but also any .mp4 video you import into iTunes.

There are also a range of streaming video players available, the Netflix app perhaps most famous among them. I haven’t yet gotten Netflix on my iPad, but I did install the free ABC Player, which plays full episodes of current series just as the website does. The only issues that I’ve had with that player thus far are a little glitchiness around my wireless bandwidth (I was in the middle of several other wifi-using things while trying to stream, but even then, the hiccups were pretty minor), and second, that the player didn’t allow the viewer to back up and rewatch a missed moment or two. Nonetheless, the viewing experience is quite nice, as long as you’ve got plenty of bandwidth available.

But the major draw of the iPad for me was likely going to be the iBooks app, as well as the other major reading applications for the device. I tend to take a lot of working vacations, and the possibility of traveling without the majority of my suitcase’s weight being taken up with books is exciting.

iBooks, as I noted yesterday, is pretty nifty, if overdoing the “books” metaphor just a tad. Your books sit cover-out on a bookcase, which both gives you access to your library and spins around to take you to the store. The store’s selection is fairly limited at the moment, though I’m sure that will grow. Even better, importing any DRM-free EPUB book into iTunes will synchronize it with the iPad, so the device can be filled with Project Gutenberg goodness; it’s also possible to convert e-books from other formats (PDF, for instance) to EPUB using software such as Calibre.

The Kindle app (which now comes in a universal version for both iPhone and iPad) of course has selection in its favor over the iBooks store, not to mention automatically synchronizing with the app on your iPhone as well as the desktop version. One thing that iBooks has in its favor, however, is layout. As some folks have noted, when you hold the iPad in portrait mode, you see one page of the book, which you turn by swiping — and the back of the page you turn is blank. But if you hold the iPad in landscape mode, you get the full recto/verso of the book, which I’ll confess to liking quite a lot. I recognize that this is a bit precious, and it’s part of the rear-view mirrorism of “iBooks,” but it’s pleasing to the eye to have right and left facing pages as an option, and to have pages turn rather than slide to the next screen.

Both the iBooks and the Kindle app allow for text highlighting; in iBooks, you double-tap on a word, stretch the highlighted area to contain the passage you want to highlight, and click — well, click “bookmark,” which is seriously counterintuitive. Bookmark? What happens, though, is that the passage gets highlighted (in a niftily hand-drawn looking way); tapping on the highlight then lets you change its color.

The reason these highlighted passages get referred to as “bookmarks,” I think, is that if you call up the menu on a page you’re reading and click the table of contents button, you’ll see a “bookmarks” option, which lists all of the passages you’ve highlighted, along with the date and time you highlighted them, and the color you highlighted them in. So the seriously anal among you could develop color-coded annotation practices. Not that I would do any such thing.

Kindle’s highlighting function is similar: press and hold over a word, stretch the selection as you like, and tap “highlight.” What the Kindle app has over that, of course, is the ability to create pop-up annotations in addition to highlights, something seriously lacking in iBooks as yet.

What I miss in both cases is the feeling of actually marking the page itself, of responding to the text in its margins in a way that remains visible. I cannot help but assume that one of these readers will develop pencil-style markup ability soon, and whichever does may well earn my loyalty. (And my purchases.)

The last thing that I’ll say on this for now is that I also purchased the GoodReader app, which allows for the import and reading of a range of other kinds of documents, most notably PDFs. It’s got a great reader-like interface for those kinds of documents — including, say, PDF versions of books made available by publishers. But like iBooks and Kindle, it doesn’t have good markup capability; however, other applications such as iAnnotate do focus on the reader’s ability to interact with the PDF.

I’m gradually exploring the other applications that I’ve been fond of on my desktop or on the iPhone, some of which, such as 1Password, are being released in “universal” versions (meaning one application that can run on both the iPhone and the iPad, with an appropriate layout for each). Other developers are releasing separate, iPad-native versions of their applications, thus charging separately for use on each platform. Sadly, Things falls into that category; as I’ve already paid for both the desktop and the iPhone versions of the software, I’m a tiny bit resentful at being asked for another $20 for the iPad edition, but I’ll likely wind up purchasing it in the coming days.

All of the iPhone applications I’d previously purchased run, if in a small window, on the iPad, and for the moment, that may be enough. But I’ll post again in the coming days about more of those applications, as well as the ways I find myself using the iPad once the novelty begins to wear off.

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