Brian Whalley reports on his initial impressions of the new Apple iPad in the first three weeks since its release in the USA and what it has to offer the mobile educator.
Triumph of Design over Function?
So, you have seen and read the hype about the iPad ; the world release has been delayed until the US appetite has been satiated and it will be the end of May for the rest of the world. Should you buy one or is this an example of the triumph of elegant design over function? What follows is an initial view of an iPad bought in the US in April and the results of some playing around with it in the USA and then the UK. It is not a comparative test with 'netbooks' or other e-book readers (such as Kindle and Sony), although I shall make some discrete comparisons because this review stems from an earlier discussion about e-books in Ariadne .
One complaint about existing e-book readers was, and is, that they do not have colour screens. I want to view Web pages with images and text at a decent size and read e-books with coloured (and preferably hypertext) material. I'd like my students to have this capability too. The e-ink technology in a Kindle cannot currently offer anything other than greyscale so the iPad is immediately a 'wow' when you turn it on. The touch screen is excellent and a size that can be used to read books as well as Web pages without lots of scrolling. This was my main reason for trying the iPad as, apart of my desire to have students use a Personal Learning Environment (PLE, device plus appropriately chosen applications), the screen was a major consideration. Netbooks fill the bill to a limited extent but with the 9.7" diagonal (19.5 x 15 cm screen, portrait or landscape conversion in 1 second) the iPad is more than good. All my colleagues who have paid me £5 just to touch it have remarked on this. Have a look at the (Guardian) Eyewitness app  to see what it can do. The screen also provides a keyboard (scaling for the orientation) that can be used for typing rather than prodding with a finger or stylus but, as with the iPhone, you can only get numerals by shifting a key. A separate Apple Bluetooth keyboard is available which is very neat, light and allows proper typing. This review was initially typed on the iPad Notes application ('app' now of course), I have not yet tried the Apple iWorks suite and at this stage I am not using the iPad as a laptop replacement; but rather, as a lightweight device that can be used for basic notebook functionality with the ability to read text and view Web pages without strain or undue scrolling.
The 3G version of the iPad is not yet out but, for the moment, this does not concern me; I can 'synch' my iPhone and Macbook Pro when needed and my iPhone gives me some iPhone applications of usefully increased screen size (there are lots more to come specifically for the iPad of course). Music and video (4:3 ratio) come over smoothly - and video is at a reasonable size to view rather than squinting myopically at an iPhone. The iPad was useful on a Transatlantic flight (steerage with restricted lapspace) for typing, music and film. When necessary, you can slip it beside you and need not worry about slopping your gin and tonic over a keyboard. Convenience is a great selling point about the iPad, battery life is excellent, a claimed 10 hours. It took about 6 hours to recharge from 4% capacity to full. The same power connector-USB cable (used also for data connectivity) works for the iPod and iPhone as well so you can easily charge from laptop, external AC sources, car adapter as well, as a PowerMonkey or similar external power source. Power efficiency is mainly due to the type of computer architecture the machine uses. It is the same Apple custom CPU (known as A4) that is used by the iPhone and so, from this point of view, the iPad is indeed a large iPhone. The architecture differs from that used on most netbooks, which are really stripped down and relatively slow and power-hungry versions of (x86 architecture) laptops. We should really think of the iPad as a new generation of small computer and it remains to be seen what Apple will develop in the future.
Unfortunately, Digital Rights Management (DRM) meant that I could not access iTunes myself in the USA so I had to rely on my son's access to try a few things out. I now have a list of applications to experiment with but I shall not report on those here, they will have to wait until the App Store opens for iPad use in the UK. At present, you can only have one app open at a time (plus audio on the iPod application). Apple have already indicated that the next version of the OS will have multiple-tasking, that is, keeping two applications open at the same time; currently you have to switch using the discrete 'home' button. This button is on the screen, the on/off and volume controls are around the rim together with docking connector, earpiece jack socket, aperture for microphone (so you can use the iDictaphone app) and a switch to lock/unlock the screen orientation.
I mentioned DRM earlier so the only iBooks downloaded so far are Winnie the Pooh and Twelfth Night. The former is really very good with the original E.H. Shepard coloured illustrations. They are text-searchable (did you know that the word 'hunny' only occurs three times in Winnie the Pooh?), there is a dictionary and the ability to change to one of five different typefaces and two sizes. The text is very clear and readable in either mode and the graphics can give you a page turn as slow or as fast as you like, neat. I also tried Alice's Adventures in Wonderland downloaded from Stanza where there is more flexibility with fonts but the text is less crisp. I downloaded apps for Kindle  and Reader Lite but did not use their offerings. I suspect that there will be improvements from most e-book vendors with iPad optimisation in the jockeying for position that appears to be going on in the e-book world. We have yet to see how the commercial textbook vendors deal with e-books for the iPad.
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