Keep Taking the Tablets

I’ve recently purchased an iPad, partly to satisfy some unrequited gadget lust, partly to satisfy some real needs for which I hoped it might be a good match, and partly to try and understand what all the fuss is about. As a long-time user of both Tablet PCs and Pocket PC (Windows Mobile) PDAs, I’m in a fairly unique position to judge what works well and what doesn’t. So far, it has to be said, I’m distinctly underwhelmed.

For several years in the mid-noughties, my main laptop was a convertible Tablet PC (actually a succession of Toshiba M-series tablets). I liked these devices with their dual ability to function as a subtle note-taking device in meetings or on the move, and as a fully-fledged laptop most of the time. Ultimately, though, such devices are too great a compromise: too heavy, battery-hungry and stylus-dependent for use as an eReader or travel companion, not powerful enough to meet my demands for a laptop capable of supporting virtualisation, multiple development platforms and heavy duty image processing. My main laptop is now a 15″ Toshiba, and it does the main jobs very well, but I’ve lost my subtle note-taker, unless I want to lug an old tablet PC as well.

Also, since 1999 I’ve always carried a Pocket PC, for the last 5 years a succession of HP iPaq 4700s (sadly, they don’t last forever). My PDA is brilliant for checking my diary, playing games, as a music player and for a variety of other uses. Thanks to the German company SoftMaker I even have a fully-fledged office suite which is absolutely compatible with Office 2003, right down to the menu and options dialog structures. I have composed some quite large documents using it, but unfortunately the screen size makes it just too fiddly for heavy-duty use.

It’s also unfortunate that HP set the bar so high with the iPaq 4700. I should really have been able to update it with a device including a phone, mobile internet connectivity and GPS, but two attempts to do so have ended in frustration (see “Digital Convergence – Still Waiting” and “Annoyance-Based Technology Selection” for details). Even HP haven’t really managed to replace it – their nearest current equivalent is much chunkier and has a much inferior low-contrast screen.

Enter the iPad. Before I start complaining, let’s acknowledge that this is a great piece of hardware design which does some things really well. For a start, it’s a brilliant eReader: clear, light and an ideal size. When I print documents for off-line reading, I usually print two pages to an A4 side. The iPad screen almost exactly matches this A5 preference, but with the great advantage that I can easily zoom in or change fonts and text orientation if required. To read web pages I can either exploit the mobile capabilities, or save them to PDFs on my PC.

As a mobile web browser it generally looks very promising. Again, the size is just right, with none of the compromises of phone/PDA solutions. Apple’s lack of Flash support is an occasional pain, but otherwise no problems so far.

It’s also going to make an excellent portable photographic portfolio. The screen is widely acknowledged as one of the best on any portable device, with wide viewing angles and good colour fidelity, and my photos look great on it. Getting iTunes to show a sensible album structure is a bit of a challenge (of which more later), but I’m now fairly satisfied, although I may end up using third party software which doesn’t insist on renaming my files and hiding the filenames!

Battery life is great when measured by the standards of fully-fledged laptops: at least two days fairly steady use on tasks like document reading, note taking and web browsing. Of course strictly speaking we should measure by the standard of a monotasking PDA  (I assume that “monotasking” is the opposite of “multitasking”, but I may have just made that up :)), and on that basis it’s not so good, but still acceptable.

So the hardware is great, and everyone loves the glossy touch interface. The problem is that, as the saying goes, beauty is only skin deep. The elegant facade hides an astonishingly crude and restrictive software architecture, which puts me strongly in mind of a 1990 DOS computer (albeit with a glossy graphical skin). The problems of that architecture will be the topic of my next post…

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