Friday, April 15, 2011

My Two Cents' Worth about the iPad 2

I did not purchase the first iPad. Truth be told, I couldn't figure out the iPad's raison d'etre--at least for someone like me who already had both the iPhone and a MacBook. The overlap between these other two devices left relatively little ground uncovered. But there was so much buzz about the device, and when the buzz turned towards the second-generation device I found myself getting sucked in. Many sources were predicting that the mobile / tablet platform would be THE area of computer development for the foreseeable future. And the more I read, the more I began to see uses for the device which I hadn't anticipated, uses for which neither phone or laptop was really satisfactory.

Initially, my chief motivation was mostly to get an e-reader. On my long trips abroad I already have so much shit to carry with me, and the two or three books in my backpack seemed an obvious target for weight savings (and bulk). Plus I had a sense that I'd like reading this way if I had the right format.

And there's a pointed work-specific angle as well: we have about 10,000 pages of navigation and official company documentation which we are required to carry--a good 35 pounds' worth in six or eight heavy binders carried in a big, blockish flight case. There's an Aircraft Operating Manual; a Minimum Equipment List; an International Operations Manual; a Flight Operations Manual; a Fault Reporting Manual, etc. All of this stuff is dryly technical and chock-full of legalistic ass-covering verbiage and technological gobbledygook; these are not easy-to-read, page-turning documents, which makes some kind of search function seem like a godsend.

Not all of our documents are available to us in electronic format--the 5,000 pages of Jeppesen navigational and approach charts, for example (though it's worth noting that these charts ARE available electronically; my company just hasn't transitioned to this format). The other big FAA and company documents which ARE available as PDFs are not yet approved for use in this format. Nonetheless, more and more of us are carrying the documents on our laptops in PDF format. Even if we must still carry the document case to be legal, the electronic documents are just much more user-friendly. In addition to the search function, one can switch easily among numerous cross-referenced manuals without having five of them actually open around the cockpit.

In defiance of protocol I've been carrying my company PDFs on my laptop for several years, and I'm much more likely to reference these documents electronically than I am to dig out the paper manuals and search. I carry a second copy of all this stuff on my iPhone as well, just because, well, because I can. I make sure to upload the latest versions every time I leave for a trip, making my electronic versions more current than the paper copies, which may have a revision in process which hasn't yet reached us (or which I have not yet done the laborious process of inputting). Also, it's worth noting that with so many pages of documentation, all of which are subject to regular revision schedules, there is no way I haven't screwed up a paper revision somewhere and left myself with errors in my library. The electronic versions fix this problem in a stroke.

The problem with the iPhone and laptop libraries are that 1) the iPhone is simply too small to read, especially in a dim cockpit. And its limited memory makes searching within these huge documents a very slow process. And 2) the laptop is not a very convenient way of looking at things in the cockpit either; there's no ready place to set the laptop while you're searching, and there is the process of getting my backpack from wherever it's stored, extracting the computer, waking it up, putting it back when you're done, etc.

The iPad seems tailor-made to address this exact scenario. It's compact and easy to carry, easily taking the place of an entire case full of charts and books (indeed, it can contain a thousand times the library size I would ever need to carry); it's easy to read and customizable for one's eyes and ambient light conditions (within a week of getting the device I felt certain I would never willingly read a paper book again, it's that good!); it's fully searchable; it has GPS locating capabilities, which offer navigational possibilities that make paper charts instantly obsolete.

Other devices, like Amazon's Kindle, share some of the iPad's capabilities, and the Kindle is considerably cheaper and even smaller than the iPad. But the Kindle is an e-reader and little else, while the e-reader function is the least of the iPad's offerings: you can watch movies, play games, surf the internet, take care of emails, watch TV, read the newspaper, listen to music, video-chat. On and on. I finally decided that it was worth the extra dough over and above a basic e-reader to have all this extra capability, even as just a toy. I would run the experiment of buying one and seeing whether it really added up or not. (The purchase itself was another little goat rodeo that I'll skip over for now. Suffice it to say that on Susan's and my recent visit to Chicago, I dragged myself out of bed at 5:AM to wait outside the Michigan Ave. Apple store in the rain with 100 other folks to get a crack at their limited daily supply.)

I decided initially on the 32GB 3G model, but ended up getting a 64GB model, mostly because (I reasoned) the cutting-edge of today is the entry-level of 6 or 12 months' hence, and I would almost certainly sell this on eBay when the next model comes out. The top-line model would likely retain more residual value. And so, new device in hand, I headed off for a five-day trip, the first trip in a decade or more where I had not carried a laptop. After that trip, and in the subsequent month, here's what I've learned:

I think whether one could live without a laptop--especially on the road--entirely depends on what you do with your laptop. For reading emails, doing a bit of surfing, checking the news, and maybe watching a movie, the iPad excels. Especially with a bluetooth keyboard, you would never miss the computer. And it's all small enough that you can likely just shove it in a pouch in your suitcase. But I found myself pining for my MacBook at times. I'm still deciding whether this is just a learning curve issue or whether I'm really lamenting any real loss of capability. I did not buy an external keyboard for my iPad, and I find that the virtual keyboard, while being much better than the iPhone and fine for the occasional email, is not suited to writing anything of much length. Writing a blog post like this one on the iPad is quite out of the question without a bluetooth keyboard. Also, my typical layover involves walking around and taking pictures on my phone and then posting some of those photos into a blog post. While the iPad surely has available apps with image-editing capabilities, there's no ready way to get the photos from the iPhone to the iPad, especially in Australia or China where I do not have ready access to a data network (most of our layover hotels offer wired internet service). Over time I'm sure I could find a fix to the photo business, but for now it's a detriment.

I also find that for surfing the iPad is good, but not so good as my MacBook. You are often directed to the mobile versions of websites, which typically give truncated presentations. Also, for all the touted speed of the A5 processor, I still find that surfing can be a time-consuming process. Pages load more slowly than with my MacBook, and searching my big work documents is still a good deal slower than on my laptop (though better than the iPhone). And there are quirks: I got a news aggregator--Pulse--which promises to keep a bunch of my favorite feeds updated for me. But I find it's a slower process than it might be, and twice I've had it kind of crash and need to be thrown away and reinstalled to return to its already mediocre functioning. Likewise a Google image search (with the Google Mobile app): not infrequently the pictures come up blank, and I've never really been able to look past two or three panels of pictures before the whole thing just becomes buggy and stuck and dysfunctional. Not to overstate the point: it works quite well almost all the time, but there are quirks.

And then there is the music. It has taken me years to get my whole music collection ripped into digital format and to finally be able to carry all 36,000 pieces with me on the road (where after all I spend 1/2 my life). In fact, my present MacBook is the first device where I've been able to do it. And having just gained that capability, it pains me to do without it. The 64GB iPad has a lot of storage capability (and again, my company document library takes up a fraction of a fraction of it). But with 15 movies thrown on there for a long trip, I'm left with very little space for picking and choosing among my 200GB of music files. I think the time is coming where I'll keep the whole collection on the cloud somewhere and access it wirelessly (which will give yet another challenge when overseas), and in any case future iPads will surely have a terabyte of storage which will solve the problem. But for now if I don't carry it I don't have access to it.

And all of this, iPad and iPhone alike, seems to require a home or laptop computer to manage all the stuff on them. So you can't ever really get too far away from your main computer.

I understand that my challenges may not be everyone's challenges, but for these reasons my iPad is not going to replace my MacBook. The MacBook stays in its bag much more than it used to, and the iPad is a revelation in ways I had not expected--I'm glad I got it, and sorry I didn't get the first one. But my sense is that all this is a work rapidly in progress and the iPad of five years from now will be a different animal yet from the one in my backpack. THAT iPad will almost surely be a stand-alone device, but for now I find I need both devices to keep my world in alignment.


dbackdad said...

Nice overview. I'm trying to decide if I should get an iPad or not. I'm not a Mac user in the conventional sense (as I don't have anything Apple) but my work has me setting up and configuring Macs, iPads, and iPhones all the time for clients. And what experience I have with the first gen iPads, I do like them. If anything kept me from getting one, it would be the cost and, as you say, the realization that it may not replace all the functions of a laptop.

wunelle said...

My sense is that, as a tech guy, you'll love it as a toy. And you're surely find that it has real utilitarian value. But it doesn't strike me yet as an essential bit of kit.

When one can have most all these features for $500, it seems a pretty good value. But mine was closer to $1G with Chicago city taxes, and that makes for an expensive toy, I think.

shrimplate said...

The thing I like most about the iPad is its go-anywhere size. The display is very easy on the eyes, too. But my kid never lets me use it!

36,000 items on your iTunes? I'm impressed. I only have 14,000... so far. Ripping CD's takes up a bit of time.

wunelle said...

I'm settling in more and more to the iPad. I find it's so easy to carry, that I have lots of my content / capability with me in places where I didn't before (well, if I didn't have an iPhone already the iPad would have been an ABSOLUTE revelation; as it stands, it's just a much better iPhone for all the non-phone stuff).

As for the iTunes, I have lots of stuff I never listen to--a couple thousand tracks of Mozart and Haydn, for example--but It's so fabulous to have ALL my stuff so handy. Before this, it was much more difficult to flit from thing to thing, especially if I get a wild hare and want to compare, say, all my different versions of the Fourth Ballade (13!). iTunes seems a perfect way to wade through one's CD collection.

(And yes, the ripping process is excruciating. It's taken me years. Literally.)