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Friday, April 09, 2010, 08:05 am PT (11:05 am ET)

In-depth review: Apple's IPad and iPhone OS 3.2




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iPad overall impressions

It feels strong and solid, it's highly portable and not unreasonably fragile. It plays all kinds of media, browses news and information effortlessly, creates artwork and serious business documents. It's a computer without the hassle part.

It's stripped down and missing some expected features (if you were expecting it to be a PC laptop). It aims at doing 80% of everything extremely well and just ignores most of the other 20% that you probably don't need to do anyway. It's not trying to be everything; it's trying to be really good at what it can do best.

This is clearly some great engineering, but who will want to buy it? Apart from early adopters ready to snap up iPad just for its newness, it's not yet obvious how the general public will respond to it.

It's clearly not designed to replace MacBook sales, although it gives Apple an alternative to the netbook category (and its price point) that it can sell without losing money. Some users seem upset that its not a phone. Others don't understand why there are any limitations at all compared to a desktop PC, apparently also forgetting the inherent drawbacks of $400 netbooks.

The reality seems to be that iPad is the new generation of systems Apple wanted to introduce earlier, but chose not to. Rumors floated about a "Safari Pad" concept product designed half a decade ago that never made it to market.

For Apple to create something really new, it realized it needed to sell users on the idea gradually, first shrinking the technology down into a smartphone, where Apple could sell it against the sad array of smartphones that existed at the iPhone's launch in 2007. There was already a functional market for smartphones, while tablets have never been successful.

Once volume adoption of the iPhone helped bring costs down, Apple reincarnated it as a handheld music player in the iPod touch. But the dream remained fixed upon a larger scale device that could serve a variety of demands from education to health care to business to consumers at leisure.

Only with a successful App Store in place with billions of downloads under its belt and 185,000 titles in its library could Apple go to media and print publishers and expect them to buy into a completely new platform. Nobody would have supported Apple before it had laid all of that foundation work.

iPad's exclusive period of little competition

At this point, Apple doesn't just have a sharp looking tablet computer, but really a full strategy that feels a lot like the original launch of the Macintosh, but with a lot more in place to support it.

iPad seems exciting to the progressive fringe of technical enthusiasts, and confusing and limited to those who hoped to just pack their PC and all if its 1990's legacy into a screen and just continue dealing with the problems that are at least familiar to them: malicious viruses and spyware; file system spelunking with its potential for unsaved data loss; phone-home authorization of their operating system, and so on.

A variety of iPad alternatives will make it to market this year, many of them sporting simpler resistive screens that require a firm push rather than responding to touch; Intel's less efficient Atom processors that Apple rejected but most other PC makers can't because Windows can only work with the x86 architecture (Apple compiled Mac OS X to run on ARM to deliver the iPhone OS); a variety of industrial design limitations; and an absence of the App Store and its profile among developers and content publishers.

If Apple had faced any real competition to the iPod, it might be easier to imagine that the iPhone and even the iPad might also meet a credible match within a year or two of their release. Instead, it appears that Apple has defined itself a high end market that will force competitors to work a lot harder in their efforts to deliver similar technology products.

As they scramble to do so, Apple will enjoy a brief period of having the only real tablet anyone wants to buy. Whether it can convince the broader market that it actually needs a portable system that costs $500 and is much simpler to use than a PC is a gamble that's hard to bet against, but not yet proven to be a done deal.

Comparisons to previous Apple products

Nearly ten years ago, Apple convinced people to pay just $12 less than the iPad (adjusted for inflation) in order to own the first 5GB iPod music player. The next year, Apple floated an even more expensive 10GB iPod model (priced at $499, or $591 in today's dollars).

Just two years ago, Apple was selling the 16GB iPod touch for $399 and the 32GB model for $499. Anyone who fears that Apple won't be able to sell the much larger and more useful iPad for the same price without being subsidized by a mobile contract has apparently forgotten Apple's ability to sell things.

iPad is fast and fun to work with. It feels like a simplified way to do most of the fun stuff you do on your computer without any of the overhead and bother of windows and files and pointers and all those technical details under the surface.

The worst part of the iPad experience is that once you get used to it, it's hard to go back to the tiny screen of the iPhone. It's addictive. Sure, there's also some comfortable familiarity with working on a full sized notebook or desktop, and there's lot you can do on a Mac that you simply can't on iPad.

iPad and iPod historical pricing


On page 9 of 10: Things not to like; and Which iPad is for you?