Apple iPad hands-on review

CNET Senior Editor Donald Bell offers his hands-on review of the Apple iPad tablet computer.

Photo of Donald holding an iPad.
It's here. Josh P. Miller/CNET


Editors' note: CNET's rated review of the Apple iPad is now available.

The Apple iPad is an unprecedented device. It doesn't shoot rainbows or make puppies, but this roughly 8x10-inch tablet computer melds your laptop, smartphone, gaming console, and iPod into a single, affordable, unfortunately named thing.

Of course, we come to you with a standard list of complaints. The absence of an integrated video camera puts the kibosh on any hope of using the iPad for video chats, and without Flash video support, many Web pages look like Swiss cheese. But the biggest problem with the device is coming up with bullet-proof reasons to buy one.

Because the iPad is an entirely new class of device, you'll probably need to lie to yourself a little to justify the purchase. But at this point, any CNET readers worth their salt have mastered the art of making excuses to buy new gadgets.

For the uninitiated, Apple has posted a cheat sheet of demo videos that provide a smorgasbord of reasonable answers to the question: "Why do I need an iPad?" To hear Apple tell it, the iPad is a Web browser for your living room, an e-book reader for the den, a movie player for the kids, a photo album, a jukebox, a gamer's best friend, a word processor, an e-mail machine, and a YouTube junkie's dream come true. No excuse good enough for you? Wait a few minutes and a developer will inevitably make an app for it.

Whatever you need to tell yourself to buy an iPad, we can safely say the device is a worthwhile addition to any wired home. We don't give much weight to the pundits who say that the iPad is the future of the personal computer, but we think it's the most entertaining gadget we'll see all year.

What is it, exactly?

If you're coming to this review already versed on the nitty gritty of what the iPad is and its roots in the iPhone and iPod Touch, feel free to skip ahead. Otherwise, here's the scoop:

The iPad is a touch-screen tablet computer, roughly the size of a magazine, with three models that connect to the Internet strictly over Wi-Fi (16GB for $499, 32GB for $599, 64GB for $699) and three that use a combination of Wi-Fi and AT&T's 3G wireless (16GB for $629, 32GB for $729, and 64GB for $829--pay-as-you go for the data subscription).

The iPad runs the same software found on Apple's popular iPhone and iPod Touch. Apple calls this software the iPhone OS, and it's generally regarded as one of the most successful operating systems designed for use with touch-screen devices. Unlike conventional computer OS software, designed around the mouse and the keyboard, the iPhone OS responds only to touch input and is generally capable of running only one application at a time.

If you've ever used an iPhone or iPod Touch, the iPad will feel immediately familiar. Out of the box, you get many of the iPhone's capabilities, including Apple-designed applications (apps) for Web browsing, e-mail, maps, photos, music, video, YouTube, and more. More apps can be installed using the built-in App Store software or by connecting the iPad to iTunes via your computer using the included cable. If you already own apps purchased for an iPhone or iPod Touch, you can transfer these apps to the iPad, as well.

Photo of iPad being held in one hand.
Donald Bell/CNET

Design

Apple rarely skimps on design and the iPad is no exception. The screen is made of the same oleophobic-coated glass as the iPhone 3GS', making it relatively easy to wipe away fingerprints. Behind the glass is an LED-backlit, 9.7-inch capacitive touch screen that uses IPS (in-plane switching) technology for above-average viewing angles.

Below the screen sits a home button that looks and behaves exactly like the one on the iPhone and iPod Touch, bouncing you out of any open app and placing you back in the main menu. Matte aluminum wraps around the backs and sides of the iPad, tapering a bit around the edges. If you've ever held one of Apple's unibody MacBooks, you know exactly the kind of feel and finish of the iPad's aluminum. Unlike the polished chrome of the iPod or glossy plastic of the iPhone, the back of the iPad seems less likely to show wear. Of course--as with any Apple product--there are already hundreds of cases for the iPad, should you feel the need to give it extra protection.

The iPad measures 7.47 inches wide by 9.56 inches tall by 0.5 inch thick, and weighs 1.5 pounds (or 1.6 pounds for the 3G model). Held in your hands, the dimensions and heft have a natural, magazine-like feel. Like the iPhone and iPod Touch, the iPad sports a finger-friendly OS with an onscreen QWERTY keyboard, and an accelerometer that can detect whether the device is in portrait or landscape mode. The buttons, switches, and ports around the edges of the iPad also mimic those of the iPhone. A 30-pin dock connector sits on the bottom, along with a small integrated speaker. On the right edge you have a volume rocker and a switch that works to disable the iPad's automatic screen rotation in case you need to look at something sideways without the iPad assuming you want it rotated.

The iPad's refined feel and high-quality materials won't surprise Apple devotees, but in the larger landscape of tablets, Netbook computers, and e-readers, the design feels distinctly upscale--especially given its price. Next to the Asus Eee PC, Amazon Kindle , or Fusion Garage JooJoo, the iPad looks like it was made on a different planet (where plastic doesn't exist). We don't make the point to be snobby, but looks matter considering that all these devices are marketed as living-room accessories.

Size also matters. As one of the first tablet computers to go mainstream, you'll need to assess the iPad's size on a case-by-case basis. For the advertised purposes of Web browsing, reading books, and checking your e-mail, we found the magazine-size screen perfectly adequate. After years of watching videos on devices like the iPod Touch, or even dedicated video players like the Archos 5, video playback on the iPad's 9.7-inch screen feels downright luxurious.

For all its charms, however, the iPad is not as portable as we'd like. Part of the problem is psychological. Logically, you know the iPad's dimensions are no less portable than a book. But when a book costs between $500 and $800 and is made of glass, you treat it differently. Without being tucked away in a messenger bag or protective case, walking outside with an iPad in your hand feels like slapping the laws of gravity in the face.

We'd also be lying if we didn't say we wish the iPad could be a little thinner and lighter. At 1.5 pounds and half an inch thick, it makes most Netbooks look bloated, but the iPad is slightly heavier and thicker than most dedicated e-book readers, including the relatively large Kindle DX . If your dream is to relax in a hammock with an e-book in one hand and a tropical drink in the other, plan to avoid the iPad's glass screen hurtling toward your face when you doze off.

iPhone OS

Unlike many of the tablet-style devices we've encountered, the iPad doesn't run a conventional OS (operating system) such as Windows, Linux, or Mac OS X. Instead, Apple decided to use the mobile version of OS X from what is arguably its most successful and fastest-growing product: the iPhone .

In our view, Apple's use of the iPhone OS distinguishes the iPad from the competition. As dozens of iPad alternatives come out of the woodwork, touting all sorts of advantages and added features, the iPad will remain the only tablet computer on the market with access to Apple's App Store.

For the most part, the iPhone OS feels like a natural fit for a device like this. You don't need to worry about traditional computer headaches, such as scattered files on your desktop, installing drivers for third-party hardware, or trying to figure out where you put a downloaded image. Instead, all your apps are clearly laid out, organized in a grid of nickel-size icons that respond to a single touch. If you download an image from a Web page or e-mail, it appears in your photo library, without fail. If you need to search for anything--a song, an e-mail, a photo, or a Web page--double-clicking the home button brings up a Spotlight search feature that covers just about everything on the device. On the iPad, the organizational metaphor of the folder does not exist, and the effect feels liberating.

We think that most users will appreciate this simplicity and reliability compared with a traditional, budget-priced personal computer. Some of you, however, will probably feel suffocated by Apple's totalitarian control over the iPad's OS. If you get a kick out of running your computer using command lines and viewing device contents as a hierarchical file tree, the iPad will probably give you an aneurysm.

Purchasing software and media on the device makes Apple's "walled-garden" approach to the iPhone OS frustrating to a wider audience. The only way for users to purchase and download movies and music on the iPad is to use Apple's integrated iTunes store. If you want to buy new software for the device, you'll need to go through Apple's integrated App Store, which displays only applications deemed acceptable by Apple. Compared with the more laissez-faire approach of a Windows Netbook, for example, the iPad user is giving away freedom of choice in exchange for convenience. (One upside: In theory, Apple's top-down control over the iPhone OS and the commerce within it also serves to minimize the iPad's vulnerability to computer viruses.)

Everything old is new again

You can't place calls with the iPad (at least, not without a VoIP app) or easily text message your friends, but the other built-in capabilities are essentially the same as those on the iPhone 3GS.

That said, the iPad can be pushed much further than any non-laptop mobile device we've tested, including the iPhone. Because of the iPad's extra screen size, default apps such as the Safari Web browser, e-mail, iPod, video, maps, photos, and YouTube all look and behave much more like full-blown applications. The iPad's e-mail app, for example, is a doppelganger for the Mail application in Apple OS X, offering an overview of your in-box alongside the text of any currently selected message. The photos app could easily be mistaken for Apple's iPhoto, with its opening view of photos arranged in event-specific stacks. The iPod app looks and behaves like an abbreviated version of iTunes, for better or worse. And the YouTube app plays out like a prettier version of the actual Web site. Paradoxically, the two apps that have changed the least, Maps and the Safari browser, give the most radically different experience thanks to the iPad's big screen.

Size is meaningless without grace. Luckily, the iPad has both qualities in equal measure, helped by a new 1GHz Apple A4 processor, capacitive multitouch display technology, and an integrated Wi-Fi antenna compatible with the latest 802.1n wireless spec. Apps launch within seconds; waking from sleep mode is nearly instantaneous; and even a cold boot-up takes just 10 seconds. Even if your local Wi-Fi network isn't up to 802.11n speeds, the Web-browsing experience often feels faster than on an iPhone or iPod Touch on the same network, simply because you're doing a lot less scrolling and zooming to get to the information you need.

Other hardware features include Bluetooth 2.1, a stereo audio output (headphone jack), a built-in speaker, an integrated lithium ion rechargeable battery, NAND flash memory, an integrated accelerometer (tilt sensor), and an ambient light sensor. Apple's third-generation iPod Touch can claim many of the same features, but lacks the iPad's integrated digital compass, built-in microphone, and mute switch. It's also worth noting that the iPad's speaker is noticeably louder than the speaker included on the iPhone and iPod Touch, with a slightly beefier sound (though still ugly to listen to). Apple doesn't include earbuds with the iPad, so do yourself a favor and treat yourself to a nice pair.

A 3G wireless-compatible version of the iPad is also available, which includes a SIM card tray, as well as assisted GPS capabilities.

Bluetooth

Just like the iPhone 3GS and iPod Touch, the iPad includes wireless Bluetooth audio capabilities. We tested the iPad with an Altec Lansing BackBeat stereo Bluetooth headset, and the audio quality was on par with results from the third-generation iPod Touch. The pairing process was easy and incident-free. In the music player, a small Bluetooth icon appears next to the player controls and toggles audio back and forth between the speaker and the headset. The iPad's Bluetooth capabilities also allow peer-to-peer networking for gaming and wireless keyboard support for compatible writing applications.

iTunes Store and App Store

In the same way the iPad's apps all look and behave much more like Apple's full-blown OS X applications, the iPad's integrated iTunes Store could easily be mistaken for the desktop iTunes Store. Size aside, all the same capabilities are here, including movie rentals and purchases, TV show downloads, audiobooks, and access to iTunes U. You can pay for purchases by setting up an iTunes account with a credit card, or by redeeming iTunes gift cards.

The same can be said for the iPad version of the App Store; it looks and acts more like the store experience within Apple's iTunes software. Because the App Store is running on the iPad, however, the default display will bring up apps that are optimized specifically for the iPad.

Apple is encouraging developers to create new apps specifically for the iPad, which are not necessarily backward-compatible with the iPhone or iPod Touch. Because this is potentially an expensive proposition for users, we would like it to be easier to distinguish between an app designed for the iPhone and the same app designed for the iPad. There are dual-compatibility apps on offer that include both iPad versions and iPhone versions embedded within the same file, which Apple specially designates with a "+" symbol within the iPad App Store. We wish more apps were bundled this way to ensure broad compatibility, but we understand there's more money to be made in selling apps separately.

Fortunately, in the world of apps, the iPad is at the top of the food chain. Most apps designed for the iPhone or Touch can run on the iPad, either scaled-up to fit the screen, or presented at their original resolution framed at the center of the screen in black. This capability is good news for anyone bringing their existing apps over from an iPhone or iPod Touch, although users will likely want to purchase separate iPad-optimized versions of the apps they use regularly, which could get pricey.

Accessories

Beyond the deluge of third-party accessories already hitting store shelves, Apple is offering a handful of its own accessories for the iPad, including a physical keyboard with an integrated dock ($69), a charging dock without the keyboard ($29) that engages the iPad's photo frame mode, a camera connection kit ($30) that includes both a USB and an SD card adapter for importing images from a digital camera, and a wrap-around leather case ($40) that doubles as a kickstand.

If you're interested in using the iPad for presentations, Apple offers a $30 VGA adapter that can connect to a projector or computer monitor. Video output is only compatible with specific apps, such as Apple's Keynote. The maximum output resolution is only 1,024x768 pixels, so keep your HD expectations in check.

We'll be working on writing up individual reviews for several of these accessories, which we will link to as they become available. Off hand, though, we believe a protective case of some kind is a good investment. Also, given the alternative of charging the iPad using a basic wall adapter, $29 seems a fair price for a charging dock that transforms an otherwise techy device into an attractive digital photo frame.

Requirements

Though the iPad can be used without a computer most of the time, you will need to connect to a computer running Apple's iTunes 9.1 or later to set up the device and sync any existing media, contacts, e-mail, photos, or browser bookmarks. Computer specification requirements for iTunes 9.1 can be found on Apple's Web site.

If you plan to use the iPad at home for surfing the Web and you don't have a 3G-capable model, you will need to make sure your home is set up for wireless Internet.

iPad 3G

One of the big questions facing potential buyers is whether to buy an iPad model that supports wireless 3G service. (The 3G models won't be available till late April, according to Apple's Web site.) The benefit of 3G support is that you can use it to access Web and e-mail through the iPad anywhere with AT&T 3G wireless coverage. For a device so heavily focused on the Internet, the extra freedom of 3G compatibility is a clear advantage. Aside from a negligible added heft of 0.1 pound and the fact that buyers are paying an extra $130 for the 3G capability (compared with Wi-Fi-only models), there's no downside to owning a 3G-compatible model. Unlike the data plans for most smartphones, the iPad doesn't come with any contractual obligations. If you don't end up using the iPad's 3G capability, you can cancel the data plan at any time.

In fact, Apple and AT&T are offering a pretty good deal on 3G service for the iPad. There are two options: $15 a month for 250MB of data, or unlimited data for $29.99 a month. Each option can be prepaid for a month in advance. The 3G service is compatible with only the iPad models that offer both Wi-Fi and 3G, which are priced at $629 (16GB), $729 (32GB), and $829 (64GB).

Another advantage to the 3G-compatible iPad is the extra capability of assisted-GPS, allowing users to accurately pinpoint their locations on a map, making the device more useful for navigation and location-aware apps, such as restaurant finders and tour guides. The Wi-Fi-only models of the iPad can use rudimentary Wi-Fi hot-spot triangulation techniques to guess locations, but are much less accurate and consistent.

If you have no plans on regularly using the iPad outside of your home, you'd do just as well to save some money and stick with a Wi-Fi model. It's also worth noting that AT&T's 3G service might not be all it's cracked up to be, considering the complaints many iPhone 3G users have made over the years.

Photo of Apple iBooks app.
The Apple iBooks app. James Martin/CNET

iPad as e-reader

The iPad marks Apple's first foray into the world of e-book readers. With Apple's iBooks app (a free download, but not included), you can browse an e-bookstore stocked with bestsellers and textbooks. At launch, the iBooks store includes content from five major publishers: HarperCollins, Hachette, Penguin, Macmillan, and Simon & Schuster.

Just as in iTunes, titles in the iBooks store are organized by popularity and by genre. Users can preview the first few pages before purchasing, and downloaded books are sent directly to the user's virtual bookshelf. Unlike most dedicated e-book readers, the iPad allows you to read books in either portrait or a landscape mode that shows two pages at once. Onscreen settings also allow you to change the size of the text, search text within the book, look up words in a built-in dictionary, and hop around using a persistent table of contents.

Play

Free public domain books are also available within the iBooks store, and any EPUB book format (including titles from Project Gutenberg and Google Books) can also be transferred to iPad via iTunes. Competing e-book software, such as the Amazon Kindle app, is also available on the iPad.

From a software perspective, the iPad's capability to integrate multiple e-book formats and third-party online stores makes it one of the most flexible, all-encompassing e-book readers on the market. With a 9.7-inch screen, it's also one of the largest readers we've tested, tied with Amazon's $489 Kindle DX.

One of the easiest criticisms to lay against the iPad as an e-reader is its lack of e-ink technology. There are good reasons why Sony, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and others don't use backlit LCDs on their e-book readers: they drain battery life; fatigue the eye; and become difficult to read in direct sunlight. All of these criticisms are fair. You can read for four days on the Kindle DX without a recharge, compared with approximately 10 hours on the iPad. As on any LCD (including the one you're probably reading on right this minute), text isn't as easy on the eye as it could be with printed paper. Under bright outdoor lighting conditions, the iPad is very reflective, but fairs well in the shade. And at 1.5 pounds, the iPad is hefty for a reader, warranting a lap or a two-hand grasp for extended reading.

Photo of Kindle next to iPad under sunlight.
Under direct sunlight, the iPad's screen can be hard to read, compared with the Kindle's e-ink display. Seth Rosenblatt

But for all its potential pitfalls, the iPad as an e-book reader has an equal share of advantages, provided you confine yourself to reading indoors. The presentation of books on the iPad is gorgeous. Cover graphics and illustrations display in rich color, book pages have a deliberately paperlike tone, and turning pages by tapping or flipping is intuitive. Page turns also render much faster than with e-ink technology, allowing you to quickly flip through pages. Unique features, such as in-book music and video playback (when supported), and one-touch dictionary definitions further distinguish the iPad from its e-reader competitors.

Let's also not forget that there are a lot of books and periodicals that traditional e-ink readers do a poor job of presenting. For magazines, travel guides, photo essays, and graphic novels, the iPad's color screen has the upper hand. We also enjoy how the iPad's ambient-light-sensing screen provides just enough light for an in-bed read and automatically ramps up the brightness near the kitchen window. The only annoyance of reading in bed with the iPad is that lying flat on your back and holding the iPad over your head, or reading on your side, can cause the tilt-sensor to wonder if it's being held is landscape or portrait orientation. A flip of the orientation lock switch will freeze the screen orientation into position, but at the end of a long day, you tend to forget these details.

Games

Just like the iPhone and iPod Touch, third-party apps for the iPad are a big deal. Generally speaking, apps made by these developers branch off in every conceivable direction, from cooking recipe journals to Twitter clients. But if there's one type of app that rules over all the rest in both quantity and popularity, it's games.

Play

All of the thousands games available for the iPhone and iPod Touch can be played on the iPad, scaled up to fit the screen or played at their native resolution. The more than 21,000 games account for more titles than the Sony PSP and Nintendo DS, combined. And those are the games that predate the iPad.

The handful of games we tested on the iPad included N.O.V.A. (a first-person shooter reminiscent of HALO), Igga Arcade (a bundled series of children's games), Fieldrunners (war strategy), Scrabble, and Labyrinth 2 (puzzles). In every instance, the iPad-optimized games look and feel radically different from the experience of playing on an iPhone, or even a PSP. N.O.V.A., in particular, features the kind of responsiveness, graphics, and sharp resolution we'd expect from an Xbox 360.

Unfortunately, the closer the iPad comes to delivering the kind of games we're used to seeing on traditional gaming machines, the more we hunger for practical game controls. Some games are a natural fit for the iPad's touch input and tilt-sensor, others could really benefit from a standard direction pad or joystick.

Minor complaints aside, as a portable way to stay distracted for hours at a time, the iPad's gaming capabilities and deep catalog of compatible titles will appeal to thrill seekers of all types.

Keynote for iPad.
Keynote for iPad brings a unique spin to presentation software. James Martin/CNET

iWork

Unsatisfied to leave the iPad as an entertainment and casual computing device, Apple had to go and spoil the fun by offering the iWork suite of productivity software redesigned for the iPad. Already a familiar staple on Mac computers, the iWork software suite for iPad includes three apps: Pages (word processing), Numbers (spreadsheets), and Keynote (presentations). It's the first version of the software to run on one of Apple's portable devices and makes full use of the iPad's touch screen. Each app is offered separately at $9.99 apiece.

We'll be covering the iPad's iWork apps in greater depth on CNET's Download.com. For the purposes of our iPad review, however, we think it's fair to say that the apps represent a good value, especially considering that the Mac version of the suite sells for $70. More importantly, iWork (and similar third-party apps that are sure to follow) shows how the iPad can hold its own against inexpensive Netbooks running Microsoft's tried-and-true Office software, including Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. In fact, iWork apps are capable of opening and editing common Office documents, though exporting options are somewhat meager. Pages documents can be saved as a Word, PDF, or Pages file. Keynote and Numbers documents can be saved only in their native format or exported as PDFs.

Capabilities aside, there are certain inherent design constraints that prevent the iPad from working gracefully as a productivity tool. The first hurdle is the keyboard. To Apple's credit, the iPad's onscreen keyboard is one of the largest and most responsive we've encountered on a tablet device. Chalk it up to an old dog's aptitude for new tricks, but when it comes to writing multiple pages of text (reports, term papers, rambling manifestos) our fingers just seem to fly faster on a real keyboard.

In response to this possible complaint, Apple's $69 keyboard dock or Bluetooth keyboard accessory can be used to give apps like Pages the kind of real keyboard they deserve. Unfortunately, once you've crossed over to a keyboard accessory, your brain might balk a little at the absence of a mouse. You're still stuck jumping around pages and making edits by reaching out and touching the display. It's an awkward disconnect that isn't impossible to power through, but isn't ideal, either.

Getting files off the iPad isn't as simple as plugging in a thumb drive or burning a CD. You either need to e-mail them, upload them to an Apple iWork.com account, or save them to a shared folder on the iPad's internal memory. You can access this shared folder by connecting the iPad to iTunes on a Mac or PC with the included cable, but if the connected computer isn't your own, it may prove impossible to grab the files.

You face a similar dilemma printing a document you've composed on the iPad--or anything else via the iPad, for that matter. We may see an elegant solution for this in time, but your best bet at the moment is e-mailing or transferring the document to a printer-equipped computer--not a good solution for printing out airline boarding passes, for instance.

Could a high school or college student get away with using an iPad as a primary computer? With the iWorks suite, a keyboard dock accessory, and a "can do" spirit, it's certainly possible, but a similarly priced Netbook, though not as sexy, will offer more flexibility and better typing and editing performance.

MobileMe

Apple's MobileMe service gives iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch owners a way to keep e-mail, contacts, and calendars in sync with their computers without ever having to dock the device. The service runs $99 per year (after a 60-day free trial) and also provides a Web-based photo gallery for your digital photo collection, an iDisk service for storing files remotely, a utility for locating the device if it becomes lost, and a security feature that can remotely erase the device in case of theft.

CNET has a separate review of Apple's MobileMe service , which goes into more depth. As it relates to the iPad, we think that MobileMe features such as remote wipe and location look-up are less relevant, since the product is less prone to loss than the iPhone or iPod Touch. Without a built-in camera on the iPad, the photo-hosting capabilities of MobileMe are less of a draw, as well.

For households with multiple computers and/or iPhones, MobileMe's capability to keep e-mails, contacts, and calendars updated across all your devices can be worth every penny. It's not for everyone, but for those who need it, MobileMe solves a real problem.

Accessibility features

At first glance, a touch-screen tablet may seem like a poor choice for anyone dealing with a physical impairment, but Apple's pioneering work with improving the accessibility of the iPhone and iPod brings some noteworthy enhancements to the iPad. Visually impaired users may find using Apple's Voice Over feature a functional method for navigating menus and typing messages and e-mails. As you drag your finger around the display and tap a button, the iPad will read a description of that button. The iPad will also read the text of dialog boxes, the time of day, the status and orientation of the display (locked or unlocked, portrait or landscape), and detail information, such as the battery level and Wi-Fi signals. What's more, it speaks each character as you type a message, and it will suggest autocorrection choices. Voice Over can read text messages, e-mails, and even Web pages.

To use Voice Over in accessibility mode, you will need to learn a different set of gestures--for example, you'll have to double-tap to open an item--but the feature provides audible instruction. You can set the speaking rate and choose from 21 supported languages. Voice Over works with all of the iPad's native applications, but support for third-party apps varies. Though we're sighted and our Voice Over user experience can't compare with someone who is visually impaired, we were impressed by the feature's capabilities. The iPad also adds multitouch zoom support for the Home, Unlock, and Spotlight screens for all applications, both native and third-party. Previously, zoom worked only in the photo gallery, e-mail in-boxes, and the Safari browser. You can activate the enhanced zoom in the Settings menu, but you can't use it and Voice Over simultaneously.

You also can reverse the display's contrast to white on black. Menus will show white text on a black background, and the Home screen will change to a white background. Just be aware that the contrast change alters the appearance of photos in the gallery so that they look like negatives. It has a similar effect for app icons on the Home screen.

Performance

For a product that's between $500 and $900, the iPad smokes. The custom Apple 1GHz A4 processor wields some power, which is most evident in apps that don't depend on the Web, such as photos, iBooks, or games.

Hand in hand with the processor speed is the responsiveness of the multitouch screen, which also manages to dazzle the eye with its sharp 1,024x768-pixel resolution backlit by even-toned LEDs. Screen angles are unbelievably good, thanks to the same IPS (in-plane-switching) screen technology Apple uses in its desktop displays.

Audio quality is indistinguishable from our trusty iPod Touch, offering a smooth and balanced sound, provided you pair it with quality headphones.

Apple rates the iPad at 10 hours of continuous use, including video playback. Our experience so far shows this to be a somewhat conservative estimate, especially if you're spending much of your time in less-intensive apps, such as iBooks or e-mail. We'll post a detailed breakdown of battery-drain results from CNET Labs, once testing is complete.

Final thoughts

Depending on who you talk to, the iPad is either the future of personal computing, the best distraction money can buy, or Apple's most doomed product since the Apple QuickTake digital camera. Even Apple's marketing team seems to be having a hard time nailing down exactly what the iPad is; in commercials, one minute it's a digital book, the next it's the photo album of the future.

There's nothing specific we can tell you that will justify paying $499 for the 16GB base model, much less $829 for a juiced-up 64GB version with 3G wireless. The only concrete reason to buy an Apple iPad is to be able to play around with the most celebrated gadget of the year. For CNET readers, we expect that is reason enough.

 

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