Apple iPad review:

Apple iPad

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 $25 a month for 2GB. Each option can be prepaid for a month in advance. (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.

The Apple iPad as e-book 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.

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.

Under direct sunlight, the iPad's screen can be hard to read, compared with the Kindle's e-ink display.

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.

Gaming on the iPad

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.

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.

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.

For in-depth reviews of the iPad's iWork apps, visit CNET's 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 account, print them using an AirPrint-compatible printer , 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 directly.

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.

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.

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. Here are our official CNET Labs tested results. More tablet testing results can be found here.

Tablet name Video battery life (in hours) Web site load time (in seconds; lower is better) Maximum brightness (in cd/m2) Default brightness (in cd/m2) Contrast ratio
Apple iPad 12.6 9 388 161 881:1

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.

This week on CNET News


Discuss: Apple iPad (16GB)

Conversation powered by Livefyre