I’ve always wanted one of the tablets Captain Kirk and Picard use on the bridge of the Enterprise. Kirk authoritatively signs the small electronic device and still has time to leer at the yeomen in her red miniskirt. Picard is more – introspective – as he sits at his desk studying the slim tablet before encountering a Dyson sphere. A few years ago, I wrote a science fiction short story, and one of the gadgets in the story was a tablet media device that everyone carried around to get their news and entertainment. I thought the gadget was quite clever, but sadly Apple has surpassed me. Although I can’t have a jetpack or a flying car, I now own a tablet as good as Picard’s. I’ve been using the iPad constantly for several months now, and I’m going to provide a general review of the device and then discuss some of the specific ways a science fiction reader will find it useful.
The iPad is a marvelous media consumption device, superb for reading books, playing games, watching videos and enjoying photos. The iPad only weighs 1.5 pounds, and although it can’t be tucked into your pocket, it can be carried under the arm like a hardcover book, which makes it an excellent portable device, much more so than a five-pound laptop. Its 9.7 inch screen also makes it an excellent platform for viewing media or working on the go, more useful than the small screen of a smartphone. The display is not as good as the retina display on the iPhone 4, but it is still a crisp, bright, and beautiful display.
The iPad starts instantly, resumes applications where you left off, has enough battery power to last for a day of work, and does most of what people do with a laptop. After using the tablet on a daily basis I have less and less patience for starting a computer and waiting for it to start working. I have come to appreciate that I touch one button and the tablet immediately restarts on whatever I’ve been reading or working on.
The iPad benefits from the fact that one company, Apple, creates the operating system and the hardware because both work together seamlessly and swiftly. It’s rare that the iPad lags or refuses to work properly. The only problem I’ve had has been with third party applications freezing and that’s a rare occurrence. In the six months I’ve owned the gadget I’ve had to reset it once; compare that to how often you have to restart, defrag, or press control, alt, delete on a Windows computer.
Some of the other benefits are harder to explain and have to be experienced, such as the pleasure of touching the interface and interacting closely with the technology. The iPad is software-centered, meaning you essentially hold a one button window that opens apps. There are thousands and thousands of apps; Android is not close to competing at the moment. The apps vary in type from dozens of pointless fat apps to extremely useful productivity apps to excellent media apps to popular games. The apps are generally cheap, with many free, and with most costing either .99 cents or 1.99, although a few are more expensive and cost $4.99 and up. Most of the apps do one or two things well, as opposed to traditional PC programs like Office, which attempt to do everything and often contain endless features that you neither need nor understand. As more apps are added, the iPad will only become more useful and versatile.
Apps are simple to add: you push one button. One major negative is that Apple’s app store is difficult to navigate. The search function is decent, but only if you know the exact title of the app, and even then you can sometimes struggle to find an app. The apps are divided into categories, but there are so many apps in a category that you can flounder around trying to find something. Apple has not managed to make browsing pleasant either in the app store or in iTunes. One of the best ways to find apps is through reading reviews on independent sites such as Macworld or Maclife. Apple’s closed garden app store also means unless you jailbreak the device you can only put apps on the device that Apple approves of through its labyrinthine and unclear approval process. That limitation alone is a dealbreaker for some.
The touchscreen is superb, so responsive and so comfortable you forget about it until it becomes natural to use. In the past I’ve used a resistive Windows XP based tablet, which required a stylus; the user experience is so much better on the iPad that there is no comparison.
The iPad is an excellent music and video player. The speakers on the device are shockingly good, and it contains the software standard on iPods and iPhones. There are also excellent third party apps such as Pandora for streaming music, Wolfgang’s Concert Vault for hundreds of concerts, Netflix for streaming movies, and VLC to throw odd ball video file formats. One enormous negative is that the device is tied to Apple’s walled garden: both music and videos are tied to iTunes. If that bothers you, you should look into an Android tablet.
For productivity the iPad offers great versatility with its numerous apps. The glaring omission is that Microsoft Office has not been developed for the device, but Apple’s iWork suite allows capable word processing, presentations, and spreadsheets. There are many different text editors and word processor with more being created monthly. There are apps for virtually anything you would do with a laptop. You can edit photos and videos. You can create to-do lists, develop databases, keep notes, and more and more of the Mac ecosystem is being developed for the iPad.
I personally cannot type long documents on the software keyboard; although it’s large enough to touch type, since I can’t rest my fingers against the keyboard as you would a physical keyboard I tend to hit the wrong key. I can type short emails or messages with two fingers, but for longer documents I use a Bluetooth keyboard, which combined with the iPad still weighs less than a laptop in my bag and makes the iPad fully functional for writing.
The iPad has a number of significant weaknesses. It will not play flash on the Internet. It does not have USB ports, which makes it harder to get files on the device. It does not have a good file system, and it’s difficult to synch files. The best way to manage files is often through the use of 3rd party apps such as Dropbox. The iPad is prone to glare, and you can’t read on it effectively in direct sunlight. It’s also heavy if you hold it in your hand for long periods of time; I tend to keep it in a ZooGue case, which will prop it in several different positions and reading angles on my lap or on a desk.
The device is intended to compliment your main PC or Mac, much like a netbook, and must be synched with a computer through iTunes; it cannot be a standalone computer.
One major criticism when the iPad was released was that you could not multitask. The new software update has muted that criticism. You can now multitask by pressing the home button twice; at the bottom of the screen you then see all the apps you have recently used, if you press one of the apps you are taken to wherever you stopped working. I think this is an elegant solution for multitasking since the small screen is actually better for focusing on one task at a time. For true multitasking, when you have windows from several programs open at once, you’re still better off with a traditional computer with a large screen. With that said and done the iPad could be used for that function. You could listen to music on Pandora, research on the web, and take notes on iWork by swiftly switching back and forth using the home button. That would not be as convenient as a large screened desktop, but it would be as useful as a netbook.
Why do I feel the iPad is of particular interest to science fiction readers? Well, the iPad is an excellent eReader. Part of the reason is that the screen and formfactor are both excellent for reading. I would never read an entire book on a laptop, but on the iPad I’ve pursued a number of books with pleasure. The intimate experience of touching and interacting with the device on a screen large enough to easily read documents, as opposed to squinting at a smartphone’s screen is a very satisfying experience.
You can download several different reading apps: Apple’s own iBooks app, the Kindle app, Barnes and Noble’s Nook app, and the independent developer app Stanza (which is excellent for public domain books) among others. The iPad can do anything a Kindle, Nook, or any other eReader is capable of doing. Some readers prefer the e-ink screen on a Kindle to the iPad’s LCD screen, and if you feel that way by all means buy a Kindle. I enjoy reading on the large bright screen that the iPad offers, and find it less laggy than the e-ink screens.
E-ink readers are significantly cheaper than the iPad. The Kindle is $139 in its Wi-Fi version as opposed to $499 for the cheapest iPad, and it has much better battery life, a week as opposed to 10 hours on the iPad. If you only want a reading device, than a dedicated reader is a better bargain.
Most of the reading apps allow you to bookmark, highlight, or add notes to a book, a nice advantage over analog reading. With the iBooks and Kindle app you can double tap on a word and bring up a dictionary. You also have access to other reading apps such as Instapaper, which you can use to download long articles off the web and read them on the iPad. Instapaper will strip the adds from the articles and make the font larger making the articles more pleasant to read. There are also apps to read PDFs and most other file formats.
Since the iPad can download all the major reading apps, you can shop on all the major eBook stores, including the new Google eBook store that the Kindle cannot access. With the Kindle you are limited to buying books off Amazon’s eBook stores (which probably has the largest number of new books, although both Google and Barnes and Noble are competitive). The iPad can read the ePub format, which is the standard in the industry that all readers (other than the Kindle) read.
I have been downloading a lot of free science fiction stories and reading them in iBooks. A great deal of SF from the 30s, 40s, and 50s is now out of copyright and can be obtained on Project Gutenberg and Manybooks.net. There are also other places to get free science fiction for an iPad: for example, Tor.com, Feedbooks, Baen Free Books, and the Internet Archive.
Many SF fans, including myself, love comic books and graphic novels, and, unlike black and white E-ink readers, the iPad’s large, bright, and colorful screen is perfect for that genre. I had largely stopped reading comics until I bought an iPad, but now I’m reading digital comics nearly on a daily basis. The screen size is slightly smaller than a normal comics page, but several apps will resize the comics. With the digital comics you can pinch to zoom and get a close view of the art, focusing on whatever part of the page you want, so in many ways the digital comics are better than the original comics. You can look at the comics in landscape or portrait allowing you to see the page as the artist intended, or focus on a panel and view it in detail.
Most comics from before 1950 or so are out of copyright and available to download free and legal on the web. There are also apps that sell digital comics from Marvel and most independent comic book companies. A comic book fan like myself who doesn’t want to spend thousands of dollars on comics, and who doesn’t want a room filled with long boxes can get a lot of enjoyment from the digital comics. I now have a vast collection of comics on my computer and iPad, and that digital collection has not taken over my entire house and driven my wife crazy.
At the moment the iPad has no fully realized competitor, although from reviews I’ve read in tech magazines the Samsung Galaxy Tab is a good albeit overpriced alternative. If you want a color reading device the $250 Barnes and Noble Nook is well reviewed, although it cannot function as a full fledged tablet like the iPad. Over the next few months there will be Windows 7 tablets, Android tablets, probably Linux tablets, and HP is preparing tablets based on the Web OS they purchased from Palm. Windows 7 is not built for touch input and will need to be modified extensively to work as a tablet operating system. Google has admitted that Android is not built for tablets and will also need to be modified extensively. The Web OS is built for phones, but could also be tweaked. In theory, any of these competitors could put together a product that could compete successively with the iPad, but they will not have the apps or network of developers for months or years, and it’s possible they will not manage to blend the hardware and software together as well as Apple. And of course Apple will use its head start to continue improving its product. Despite its limitations, for a full-fledged tablet and color reading device the iPad is currently your only option.
WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THE iPad?
I don’t see why not. Even if Steve Jobs is a annoying liberal, you can use your iPad to read Republibot, comment on my articles, surf to right wing websites, ignore the Huffington Post, or put snarky comments on their website, download the Fox News app, read The Road to Serfdom on the Kindle app, or books by Thomas Sowell on iBooks, listen to podcasts, or Internet radio, and do everything on the go on one of the best portable devices around.
Copyright 2011, Robert Bee