Dec. 23, 2010 -- Four months into my iPad odyssey, I'm bewitched, bothered and bewildered by this wonderful, ground-breaking, infuriating tablet computer.
What the iPad does it does so well that it almost seems churlish to complain about its shortcomings. The battery of this $499 device consistently runs 10 hours without a charge and it fires up in less than a minute. It's lightweight at 1.5 pounds, ridiculously easy to use and able to do just about everything a full-blown laptop can do, with some key limitations.
I love the way it displays pages, immediately adapting the view to whichever way I hold the device. The iPad never gets hot, always calls up apps and turns Web pages with no hesitation or annoying PC-like behavior such as hour-glassing or freezing.
Apps are easy to load from the Apple store and many of the thousands available are free. I happily canceled my dead-tree newspaper and several magazines to view publications entirely on my iPad. Viewing story pages on the iPad may be just as good and a lot handier than a paper page, although publishing apps can be quirky on the iPad.
I've downloaded three successive versions of the New York Times app and all of them exhibit odd and unpredictable behavior. The latest NYT app, the best in terms of usability and readability, invariably loads with the last version I viewed, then abruptly quits. On restart, the pages are refreshed but the app will occasionally quit suddenly.
And so It goes for nearly all the several dozen publishing apps I've tried. They work amazingly well, but sometimes type is cut off, boxes are blanked out, links are dead. None of this makes any of the apps a bad experience - USA Today, NYT, WSJ and the New Yorker are some of my favorites - but it does detract from the experience. Appmakers are forever finetuning, so it pays to update your apps regularly.
Game apps, a few of which I've downloaded and many of which my teenage sons have added, work almost flawlessly. Maybe that's because game developers are used to sweating the details and publishers are used to, well, shoveling out words and not developing apps. And, of course, users tend to pay for games while most publishing apps are free.
Using the built-in Safari browser is when the going gets more bewildering than bewitching. Most sites aren't optimized for Apple or Safari, so you'll likely encounter a ticker-tape parade of blanks, no-loads and pages that don't look familiar. This is compounded by the hubris of Apple in deciding to spurn the Flash video technology that's used by thousands of sites in favor of HTML5, deployed by far fewer sites although that platform is growing.
On these pages, you'll see the "you must download Flash" error, except you can't because Apple won't let you.
Sometimes Hit or Miss Experience
Dish Network's online site uses Flash so, sorry, no video for you on the iPad. Hulu does work on the iPad, but you have to pay for the best stuff. (Dish Network I already subscribe to and the online version is included.) And Hulu is essentially charging fees to see much of what I can find on the networks' websites for free.
You can order movies (about $5) from the iTunes store for use on the iPad, downloaded and put offline so you can watch on a long flight, for example. But the choices are extremely limited so you must be satisfied with recent and often second-rate movies, like the ones the airlines already offer.
Netflix videos can be streamed on the iPad but not stored offline so, unless your flight has Wi-Fi with a decent bandwidth, you're out of luck. That said, the iPad's HD video picture is spectacular, the controls elegant, the sound through quality headphones a wonder.
You also can't keep more than one browser window or app going at a time, so forget it if you'd like to surf a few sites and, say, listen to Pandora. (An update of the iPad software just released addresses this problem.)
Using commerce-driven websites on the iPad is also hit or miss, too often miss. For example, Southwest Airline's site, the only place you can buy its tickets online, won't let you enter flight dates without infuriating glitches. Use the tiny pop-up calendar to enter your departure date and it automatically changes the return date to a random one.
Fix the return date by either using the pop-up or hand-entering the date with the iPad's on-screen keyboard and the departure date changes randomly. It's simply impossible to get your dates entered correctly.
Too many sites use technology that the iPad can't or won't process, resulting in an uneven surfing experience. Documents and spreadsheets can be done with the iPad, but it's not recommended for heavy users for many reasons, not the least of which is the device's inability to store files in folders, though the sotware update does address this.
Can't Live Without iPad
Connectivity is another stumbling block. The current version includes Wi-Fi connectivity and an extra $130 will get you onto AT&T's crowded 3G wireless network, for a monthly fee. Verizon recently added the iPad to its network, again for a $30 monthly fee, but you have to use Verizon's MiFi wireless device, another gizmo to lug around.
There's no camera, and no USB port, although speculation has it that the iPad 2 -- due early next year or who knows when -- will have these. Just ask Steve Jobs.
But despite its drawbacks, I can't live without the iPad. It's an irresistible device in a world filled with bulky gadgets that come with encyclopedic instruction books that do too little to justify inclusion in your backpack or overnight bag.
The iPad, perhaps to the chagrin of we early adopters, can only get better.