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Published: 2010-09-02 - 16:26:17
Home Theater : Reviews : Tablets, eReaders

Apple iPad Review

By Chris Chiarella
Edited by Chris Boylan

iPod XL

Can a piece of consumer electronics hardware be the third party in an illicit love triangle? Case in point, my cousin, who played with the Apple iPad 64GB on and off for two days during my loaner period, fell for it so hard that he immediately put his name on the waiting list, and shortly after it arrived, his wife suspected that he would be leaving her for it. While my professional reaction wasn't quite so severe, I admit that the iPad is, shall we say, seductive.

Whenever I get in the really cool gadgets, I solicit the opinions of family and friends, starting with my nuclear brood and working outward. My wife is now figuring out all the ways this thing could fit into her busy life. My kids keep asking me "Where's the iPad?" And even the techno-phobic older generation picked up the touch interface almost immediately, then asked me to leave them the hell alone so they could explore.

Upon unboxing my much-coveted iPad, I remembered my initial thought when seeing the photos online: This thing is essentially a huge iPod touch. I felt as if I was trapped in an episode of Land of the Giants, and the product now dwarfed my once-massive man-mitts. And I'm cool with that: To me, this is a logical direction for Apple to go with their portable media devices, onward and upward, physically. While all iPods have always been pocketable, they lack the sheer size to make shareability feasible for multiple viewers, from a distance, like the ubiquitous, versatile, and for many folks indispensable portable DVD player.

But what portable DVD player offers a touch screen? And a world of apps? And no moving parts? And a ten-hour battery, standard? Will the iPad make the portable DVD player obsolete? Well, no, not with a starting price of $500, but the prospect of loading up massive amounts of varied content and going on our merry way is an undeniably attractive proposition.

Hold Me Now

From an entertainment standpoint, the iPad experience is exceptional. The physical package is handy; thin, lightweight, happily big but not too big; with just a few hard controls on the edges and one button on the face. Unfortunately, the iPad's ├╝ber-sized mimicry of the iPod touch leads to my main complaint. If we don't want to hold it--and who does, for two hours straight--what do we do with it, exactly? I suppose if we happen to be near a desk or a table, we can find something heavy and stable to prop it up with. But it's solid, and smooth, and so it is prone to slip, as I found out while trying to rest it on my lap, and the polished one-piece metal back tended to go all Jamaican bobsled off my jeans. We'll need an iPad case, stat, perhaps one that folds/unfolds to give it a little extra height at the rear, or at least a silicone sleeve to add friction so it stays put. (Stay tuned for our iPad accessory roundup, much as we did for iPod nano add-ons).

iPad-WEB.jpg
The striking new iPad hardware in all its sleek glory.

There are optional display stands, which come in mighty handy for a function that the movies/music crowd might overlook. The iPad can also serve as a large, high-quality digital picture frame, and the onboard accelerometer enables it to switch automatically between portrait and landscape modes, whether it's positioned horizontally or vertically.

The screen is simply breathtaking, especially compared with other portable media devices that we might be more familiar with. It measures 9.7-inches diagonally, with LED backlighting and in-plane switching (IPS) technology for an extremely wide viewing angle, as well as an ambient light sensor that compensates for different environments. The resolution is an impressive 1,024 by 768 pixels, at 132 pixels per inch. No, this is not true "HD," and neither are the screen dimensions 16:9, but movies can look pretty great here, as I will elaborate upon shortly.

The home screen sports the basic array of Apple's built-in infotainment functions. The iTunes Store launches with a tap, as does a dedicated App Store, and new content can be downloaded directly to the device, away from the host computer. YouTube is here, complete with a roomy virtual keyboard that pops up whenever needed, to perform proper searches for exactly what we want to see. Apple's Safari web browser is easy to spot as well, and can take us just about anywhere we want to go. Unfortunately, the iPad does not support Flash, a crying shame since this is a de facto standard for internet video and quite popular for games and other web-based apps. Brace yourself now for a wave of frustration the first time you click over to a site that presents an unviewable video clip or Flash-based application.

All of the features I just mentioned require internet access, and the iPad supports the robust 802.11n Wi-Fi standard. Something I noticed over the course of the review was that in the time since the debut of the iPod touch, Wi-Fi has become much easier to find. For example, whereas as Starbucks once offered two hours maximum to registered cardholders, it was recently made unlimited and free to all comers. Add to this Borders, Panera, McDonald's, etc. and you have greater opportunity than ever for internet connectivity.

There is a 3G version of the iPad as well, available in all three storage capacities at an increment of $120 over the price of the Wi-Fi-only models. Requiring a SIM card inside the device, the 3G feature enables data transfer over the 3G cell phone network, wherever a signal is available, which is more places than Wi-Fi, albeit at slower rates, and with a monthly fee.

iPad-movie-WEB.jpg
Movie watching on the iPad is a particularly elegant affair.

The iPad connects to the computer much like any other Apple portable device, utilizing the common 30-pin-connector-to-USB adapter. The device is managed via the free iTunes software, and it will handle any of the audio/video content we'd typically load onto an iPod. Interestingly, when Apple sells what they call the "HD" version of a TV episode, they throw in the SD version for free, and when we load such an episode onto the iPad, it defaults specifically to the "HD" version, further indication of the iPad's display prowess.

Fully Loaded

Apple was kind enough to let me audition the 64-gigabyte model, a blessing when you consider that feature films from the iTunes Store can range anywhere from one-and-a-quarter to two gigabytes each. All of the following have found their way into my collection from disc reviews and other stories: Alvin and the Chipmunks, Batman, Body of Lies, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, The Dark Knight, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Friday the 13th, G-Force, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Gran Torino, Hannah Montana, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Hero, High School Musical 3, The Incredible Hulk, Independence Day, Inglourious Basterds, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, Monsters, Inc., Nights in Rodanthe, Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Race to Witch Mountain, Risky Business, Sherlock Holmes, Star Trek, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li, Terminator 2, Terminator 4, Watchmen, Wolverine, Zombieland and 300.

After loading these 32 movies, I dragged over the entire remastered Beatles catalog from last year in both mono and stereo versions, the two-channel tracks in the roomy Apple Lossless file format. And this still leaves about four more gigabytes free for apps and any photos I might care to import.

iPad-apps-WEB.jpg
The growing array of apps, including amazing new games, takes advantage of the gorgeous screen and built-in motion sensor (accelerometer).

Many applications (or "apps") previously designed for the iPhone and iPod touch are available in new and improved "HD" versions specifically for the iPad, redesigned to look their best on the big, sharp screen. However, older apps can be enjoyed on the iPad as well. They appear in the center of the screen with a thick black border and a small "2X" button in the lower right-hand corner. With a tap, the app then blows up 100% to fill the screen, albeit a little blocky around the edges of the graphics.

Some major players in entertainment are already giving their love to the iPad. The suits over at ABC clearly understand the value, with a free app that makes full episodes of their latest programs available to stream as easily here as on the computer, via ABC.com. Netflix users can now add the iPad to the list of devices supplying streaming access to one of the biggest libraries of Hollywood movies and TV shows. Yes, labels like HBO also make half-hearted overtures with content such as free promos, but DISH Network subscribers might be the biggest winners of all, as DISH Remote Access allows us to manage our program schedule and watch our shows anywhere, anytime -- even Live TV streams -- for no additional charge, naturally (requires DISH subscription and ViP922 sling-loaded DVR).

Accessing stored content requires just a few obvious taps, which pulls up an elegant interface that proffers enormous reproductions of the movie poster art for us to choose from. Once we make a selection, another screen appears with details about the movie, and the Play button. Standard iTunes movies and TV shows have always played well on portable LCD screens, and haven't looked awful when passed along to a TV, and here, at 9.7 inches, the image quality is fine. When we step up to "HD" programs, the fun really begins, with a noticeable improvement in the level of detail across the entire image, particularly appreciable in faces. These higher-priced alternatives provide an opportunity to see how good this new screen can look, although I wouldn't necessarily get in the habit of paying $20 a pop to own the latest movies for my iPad. (Many titles are available for "HD" rental however, for use on the Apple TV as well as the iPad.)

The tiny built-in, side-firing, tri-ported mono speaker is adequate, in no way spectacular, and in fact creates a striking disparity between the quality of the sound and that of the picture, so plan on using headphones or powered speakers whenever possible. I did at least discover through trial and error that
I could improve the speaker's overall performance by cupping a hand under and around it when watching a movie, thereby directing the sound toward my ears.

Although Apple rates the iPad's battery life as "up to 10 hours of surfing the web on Wi-Fi, watching video, or listening to music," in actual use, I'd rate the battery life more realistically at eight-plus hours, which is pretty remarkable still. Charging is a bit of an issue though, as the iPad's juice level will not increase when it is connected to anything less than a "high-power USB port" (as on some recent Macs), although neither will it go down when connected to the computer. The words "Not Charging" appear plainly next to the battery icon on the iPad's screen to remove all doubt. Our best bet to charge the battery is with the included ten-watt AC adapter, plugged into a wall outlet.

Turn-Ons:

  • Big, gorgeous screen
  • Works with current iPhone/iPod touch apps
  • Up to a 64GB of memory (and 8+ hours of battery life) in a slim package
  • Movies, music, internet and more, big enough to share and intuitive to operate

Turn-Offs:

  • How are we supposed to hold it for long periods of time?
  • Onboard sound is severely limited
  • No flash support
  • Charging is not as simple as it could be

Final Thoughts:

Of course the iPad is not solely an entertainment device. It offers serious functionality such as such as simple-to-use email and a fine e-reader for, y'know, "books." At the same time, it lacks the goods under the hood to make it a viable alternative to a true "tablet computer," for mainstream work use. But it now owns that valley between work and play, with a new category of device that looks like it was pillaged from the U.S.S. Enterprise D, tossed into a wormhole and landed on Steve Jobs' desk.

Thanks, Steve, for not keeping it to yourself.

Where to Buy:

Manufacturer's Specifications

  • MSRP: $699 (64GB WiFi only version)
  • Dimensions: 9.6" H x 7.5" W x 0.5" D
  • Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Screen: 9.7-inch (diagonal) widescreen Multi-Touch LCD with LED backlighting
  • Resolution: 1024-by-768-pixel resolution at 132 pixels per inch (ppi)
  • Output/Input: 3.5mm stereo headphone mini-jack/shared Microphone jack
  • Other: 30-pin proprietary connector port (USB 2.0 adapter cable included)
  • Compatible Video Formats: H.264 video up to 720p, 30 frames per second, Main Profile level 3.1 with AAC-LC audio up to 160 Kbps per channel, 48kHz, stereo audio in .m4v, .mp4, and .mov file formats; MPEG-4 video, up to 2.5 Mbps, 640 by 480 pixels, 30 frames per second, Simple Profile with AAC-LC audio up to 160 Kbps, 48kHz, stereo audio in .m4v, .mp4, and .mov file formats; Motion JPEG (M-JPEG) up to 35 Mbps, 1280 by 720 pixels, 30 frames per second, audio in ulaw, PCM stereo audio in .avi file format
  • Viewable Documents (Mail Attachments): .JPEG, TIFF, GIF images, Microsoft Word, Microsoft PowerPoint, Microsoft Excel), HTM/HTML web pages, Keynote. Numbers, Pages, Adobe Acrobat, Text, Rich Text Format, VCF contact information
  • Compatible Audio Formats: HE-AAC (V1), AAC (16 to 320 Kbps), Protected AAC (iTunes), MP3 (16 to 320 Kbps), MP3 VBR, Audible (formats 2, 3, and 4), Apple Lossless, AIFF, and WAV
  • Storage capacity: 64 gigabytes (59.17 usable)
  • TV Output supported (via optional adapter cables): 1024x768 (VGA), 576p and 480p (Component Video), 576i and 480i (Composite)
  • Wireless Connectivity: 802.11a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR (Enhanced Data Rate)
  • Battery: Built-in rechargeable 25-watt-hour lithium-polymer
  • Available finishes: Silver/Black
  • Frequency response: 20Hz to 20,000Hz
  • Processor: 1-gigaherz Apple "System on a Chip"
  • Warranty: 1 Year, Limited

What in the Box?

  • iPad
  • Dock Connector to USB adapter Cable
  • 10W USB Power Adapter

Manufacturer's Contact Information

Apple
1 Infinite Loop
Cupertino, CA 95014

ph: (800) MY-APPLE

on the web: www.apple.com

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