Britney Spears once sang that she was not a girl and not yet a woman. Similarly, Apple's iPad tablet computer is not quite an iPhone, and not quite a Mac. But whereas Britney is a creepy condemnation of our over-sexualised society, the iPad is a simple, gorgeous and fun way to surf the Web, play games, look at photos and videos, and check a few emails -- at a push. It's not full of magic fairy dust, as Apple promised, but, if you're tempted to buy it, we doubt you'll be disappointed.
The 16GB version costs £429, the 32GB model costs £499, and the 64GB iPad is priced at £599. Adding 3G to the package will set you back another £100. That means the most expensive iPad will cost you £699. Those with a 3G iPad will also want to cough up for a data plan.
iPod touch on steroids
What exactly is the iPad? It's pretty much a giant, or a super-sized iPhone without the phone features -- you can't make calls or take photos on this gadget. About the size of an A4 sheet of paper, it's almost comically huge if you're used to the smaller devices.
The problem with the iPad is that, unlike the iPod touch or the iPhone, which aim to replace your current MP3 player or phone, the iPad doesn't have a key feature that justifies its existence -- unless you're about to buy a crazily expensive digital photo frame or maybe an ebook reader like an Amazon Kindle. Nevertheless, the iPad will fulfil much the same role as its smaller siblings once you've got it home.
The iPad doesn't offer the power and flexibility of a laptop -- or even a -- but it doesn't really try to. Like the iPhone and the iPod touch, it just aims to be a simple, fun device for surfing the Web, listening to music, watching videos that you bought from iTunes, and generally wasting time. You don't have to wait for it to boot up like a normal computer, so you can grab it whenever you want to quickly Google something, for example, and it's fantastically portable -- it's possible to use it standing up, as you would a smart phone.
Elephantine app attack
If you've ever used an iPhone or iPod touch, the iPad will immediately feel familiar. Its simple user interface consists of a single button on the front that brings you back to the home screen, and a bunch of rectangular icons that you touch to run various features and apps.
As with the iPhone and iPod touch, you can either download apps straight onto the iPad from the App Store on the device, or use iTunes on your computer and then transfer the apps to the iPad via a USB cable. Unlike the smaller devices, however, the iPad offers a huge screen. If you've ever fantasised about playing Flight Control on a big screen, or having the style and speed of your smart phone combined with a large, Web-friendly display, the iPad will be a dream come true for you.
Several iPhone apps, including Flight Control, have already been updated for the iPad's big screen. There are also Web sites that are optimised for the Apple device -- the iPad version of Gmail is very well implemented, for example, and it's free to use. But many of the apps are much more expensive than the iPhone versions.
You can use iPhone apps on the iPad too, but they don't fill the screen unless you use the pixel-doubling zoom feature. That makes the image bigger, but it doesn't take advantage of the iPad's higher resolution, so you're left craving the iPad version of the app. It's also worth noting that you're locked into Apple's App Store to get all these goodies, and you can only use iTunes on a single computer for syncing.
Bask in books
Apple partly touts the iPad as an ebook reader. We'd certainly rather read an ebook on the iPad than a tiny smart phone. But it has a shiny, backlit screen that can't match the comfort and power efficiency of a reader that uses E Ink, such the Amazon Kindle.
We're also not swept away by the iBooks app, which gives each page a border than looks like the edges of a real page, and tempts you to flip pages with a long swipe of a finger. Admittedly, it has wow factor initially, but these cutesy frills just feel twee eventually -- we'd prefer to use the full screen and a quick tap to turn a page. Apple should focus on the user interface innovations that it pioneered with the iPhone, rather than wasting time aping real-life objects in the manner of Microsoft Bob.
There are also plenty of other ways to get ebooks onto your iPad -- you can buy them through the Amazon Kindle app, or load books in the ePub format (including titles from Project Gutenberg and Google Books) via iTunes.