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Editor's Take: Apple iPad

CNET's Senior Editor Donald Bell sounds off the pros and cons from his hands-on experience with the Apple iPad multimedia tablet.

Image of the Apple iPad.
The Apple iPad. Apple

The Apple iPad is a bit of a misfit. Like an iPod Touch with a glandular problem, a complicated pricing scheme, and a name that will fuel weeks of late-night comedy monologues, the iPad has a rough road ahead of it.

Fortunately, I'm fond of misfits. I mean, I'm the guy who thinks the Chumby is a good idea.

More importantly, I'm a fan of disruptive technology--and for all the snickering, jaded, eye-rolling comments the iPad will get, it is going to change the way we think about mobile technology beyond the smartphone.

I'll get on my editorial jag in a minute, but first, let's spell out the specs. The iPad measures 7.47 inches wide by 9.56 inches tall by 0.5 inch thick, and weighs 1.5 pounds. Held in your hands, the dimensions and heft have a natural, magazine-like feel.

The screen is a glass-covered, oleophobic, LED-backlit, 9.7-inch capacitive touch screen that uses IPS (in-plane switching) technology for above-average viewing angles. Maximum screen resolution is 1,024x768 pixels. Video output is available using a dock adapter, but HDMI is not supported, and output resolution is constrained to 480p. Below the screen is a home button that looks and behaves exactly like the button found on the iPhone and iPod Touch.

Matte aluminum wraps around the backs and sides of the iPad, tapering a bit around the edges. If you've ever held one of the latest 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 fingerprints and wear. Like any Apple product, though, expect to see a boatload of cases and screen protectors for the iPad by the time it launches in April.

The buttons, switches, and ports around the edges of the iPad will be familiar to any iPhone owner. A 30-pin dock connector sits on the bottom, along with a small integrated speaker; a volume rocker button and mute switch sit on the right side, and a screen lock, a headphone jack, and a pinhole microphone sit up top.

Under the hood you're looking at a 1GHz A4 processor of Apple's own making, along with 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth 2.1, and a compass. Battery life is rated at 10 hours, and three storage capacities are available, including 16GB ($499), 32GB ($599), and 64GB ($699). A line of iPads with 3G wireless data support (microSIM) are due out in May with the same capacity range, only it will cost $130 extra for each respective model (i.e., $629, $729, and $829). If you go the 3G route, you'll also need to pay for an additional data plan (currently provided by AT&T with no contract), setting you back $14.99 a month for 250MB of data, or $29 for "unlimited" usage. As data plans go, those prices are very reasonable, but they are tied to the device and can't be shared with your phone or other Internet-capable devices.

Photo of iPad photo app.
The iPad photo app organizes images into stacks, which can be unfurled and manipulated with intuitive touch-screen control. James Martin/CNET

Man, oh man--where to start? First off, let's be clear that the iPad is running a version of the iPhone OS (version 3.2 on the model I handled), and not a version of Apple's full-blown Mac OS. Aside from a few new features (such as iBooks) and a handful of interface tweaks to take advantage of the larger screen, the iPad operates very much like a scaled-up version of the iPod Touch.

Apps that have been around since the iPhone's beginning, such as e-mail, photos, notes, an iPod, calendar, contacts, maps, YouTube, and the Safari Web browser, are all installed on the iPad. Each of these apps, however, has undergone a makeover for the iPad's larger screen size. For instance, apps such as contacts and calendar now offer a split-pane view, allowing more content to spill out onto the screen. The iPod app now looks and behaves like a pared-down version of iTunes, complete with multiple library views, and the capability to create both standard and Genius playlists.

The most impressive app makeover by far, though, is Apple's photo app. Instead of a static list of photo albums, the iPad's photo app displays collections as miniature stacks of images that you can unfold, browse, and manipulate with a stunning fluidity. Unlike the iPhone or iPod Touch, the photo app is also used to power a photo montage that will kick in when the iPad is docked in a charging station, essentially behaving like a digital photo frame. Two dock accessories were also shown off at the iPad launch event that allow you to directly import images to the iPad via an SD card or direct USB transfer. Contrary to our predictions, the iPad does not include an integrated camera, such as the one found on the iPhone 3Gs or iPod Nano.

There's a store for that
Storefronts for the App Store and iTunes store are included on the iPad, along with a new iBooks store for e-books. Existing iPhone and iPod Touch users will be glad to know that the iPad is compatible with the majority of existing apps. Because these apps are designed for the smaller screen of the iPod or iPhone, you will have the choice of scaling them to fit the iPad (causing some pixelation) or displaying them at their original size, surrounded by a black border. Developers are already hard at work to create new apps that are specifically optimized for the iPad's larger, higher-resolution screen.

Media fanatics have all the iTunes download options afforded them by the iPhone and iPod Touch, including music, podcasts, TV shows, movies, movie rentals, iTunes U, and audiobooks. We had some hope that Apple's iTunes LP format would be compatible with the iPad, but that doesn't seem to be the case (compatibility may still be forthcoming).

Photo of the iBook app bookshelf.
The Apple iBook app includes an integrated online store. James Martin/CNET

And then there are books. With the growing popularity of e-readers such as the Kindle and Nook, it makes sense that Apple would stake its claim in the portable reader market, too. The iPad doesn't offer the paper-like e-ink technology of its competitors, but it does include an attractive, iTunes-style storefront of e-books and an intuitive touch-screen interface for manipulating virtual pages. At launch, Apple was mum with details surrounding the pricing and selection of its iBook storefront, but it's safe bet that the king of digital music and video sales will not tread lightly into the realm of digital books.

The iPad marks the first time Apple has released mobile versions of its iWork suite of productivity applications, including Numbers, Keynote, and Pages. Each app will be sold separately at $10 each, and will be compatible with the desktop version of the Mac application suite (sold separately for $79).

For the most part, Apple is pitching the iPad as a casual computer for the living room couch, so the iWork angle seems like an odd fit in an otherwise fun-focused device, but the portability of the iPad may take root with the business presentation crowd.

Why buy it?
The real test of whether the iPad will succeed or fail hinges on the product's capability to bridge the gap between your smartphone and home computer. In fact, for the iPad to get any traction, it needs to first prove that there is, in fact, a gap between your mobile phone and home computer. For savvy smartphone users already juggling multiple computers, it's tough to justify an extra computer in your life, no matter the shape, size, or price.

Really, it's the casual computer user who will see the biggest benefit from the iPad. The kind of person who doesn't own an iPhone or a laptop and would be happy to browse the New York Times stories over morning coffee, if it didn't mean sitting at a computer desk. If you love showing off your digital photos but detest using your home computer to organize and display them, the iPad and its photo-import functionality and large display may be just the ticket.

Also, while Apple may try to be as open-ended as possible regarding the uses and possible users of the iPad, I couldn't help but think that its strengths (photo management, casual Web browsing, e-books, calendar, and e-mail) would be a great fit for my wife. I won't speculate too far down this path, but as someone who generally doesn't like fussing with computers or phones, but enjoys books, e-mail, and keeping our family organized, the iPad may be the ideal $500 computer-that's-not-actually-a-computer for my wife.

Gamers may want to get in on the action, too. After two years on the market, Apple confidently declared its iPod Touch a gaming device last September, with the advent of the company's third-generation iPod Touch. Once game developers sink their teeth into the larger screen and faster processor of the iPad, there's a good chance it may become an even better platform for the app-style games that have run rampant on the iPhone and iPod Touch.

Photo of hand holding Apple iPad.
The iPad isn't a pocket device, and holding it for extended periods becomes tiresome. Donald Bell/CNET

What's not working
Aside from the cringe-worthy name, the iPad has more than a few hurdles in front of it.

Price is a tricky issue. Viewed as a streamlined laptop, the iPad's base price of $499 is certainly attractive. That said, the $199 base price of a new iPod Touch provides many of the same features in a form that is infinitely more portable. The availability of 3G models for an extra $130, plus monthly data charges, gives the product another dimension, but also doubles the number of prices and configurations for consumers to consider.

Size is a problem. As a laptop-toting tech journalist, I've become accustomed to slinging my computer around in a messenger bag, but for many it either needs to fit in a pocket or sit on a desk. Personally, I see the iPad as more of a living room computer than a computer I need to worry about taking out and about--but as a new kind of product, people will have different ideas on just how and where the iPad fits in. For some, the in-between size of the iPad will be a deal-breaker.

To keep up to date on all the latest Apple iPad developments, check out CNET's iPad hot-topic page.