Sunday, April 11, 2010

Interlude - The iPad Conundrum

“Computers make it easier to do a lot of things, but most of the things they make it easier to do don't need to be done.
- Andy Rooney

So you may have heard about this new tech device that's out there called the iPad. It's been described by its creator as “magical and revolutionary”, and as all kinds of other things by other reviewers. Based on my own analysis, including a 20-minute session in my local Apple Store taking the thing for a test-drive, it's not really something I need, but it is something I want.

That's not strictly the conundrum referenced in the title, but it's on the way there.

One of the most clear-headed analyses of 'do you need an iPad' that I've read was put together by Ted Landau, a long-time Mac technology writer. He has this to say about my specific situation:

Suppose you own both a MacBook Pro and an iPhone, do you also need an iPad? No. If you also own an iMac,even more emphatically no. In these cases, the only real extra that the iPad provides is the ability to run iPad-optimized apps that you cannot run on any of your other hardware. This is not a big extra at this point. With the hardware you already own, you can already do just about everything else.

That makes perfect sense to me. I don't need an iPad. So why do I still want one?

Blame the devil Andy Ihnatko, particularly this description of his iPad, not from any of his excellent Sun-Times reviews of the device, but from his personal blog:

The iPad was a superstar on my first day at the conference. Not for the attention it got; for its performance. It underscored every positive impression it made upon me during the week when I wasn’t allowed to use it in public.

1) The battery life is spot-on. I was using my iPad from the moment I awoke at 8 AM to just before I sloped into a car to go backto my house at 8:30 PM. In between, if I ever had the slightest notion to do something with the iPad, I did it without any thought as to the need to “keep some battery in reserve for emergencies....”

2) The iPad shone through in the “I need to write and publish something straight away, even though I didn’t plan ahead and bring a real keyboard” scenario....

While sitting in the back listening to a panel, I checked my email and found an invitation to an Apple event on Thursday. I wrote about 500 words about it using the virtual keyboard, edited it, and published it to my blog. As I’d expected, I couldn’t type as quickly or as accurately as I can on my MacBook keyboard, but even with this little slate balanced between my knees I was typing fast and naturally. It’s a perfectly usable keyboard. With the added advantage that when I don’t need a keyboard, it goes away completely. Big, big win all around.

3) The iPad is the perfect choice when discretion is important.... At the CoWA (and many other conferences) I don’t use a computer for slides. I just use it for reference. The screen keeps a rundown of the points I want to make, in their order, as well of a list of any names or data that I need to mention. I might also want to open a browser window and check on a fact or two. Good stuff. But I don’t like using a full notebook up there. To the audience, it looks like I’m dividing my time between my participation on the panel and my Twittering about how awesome last night’s “Amazing Race” was.

The iPad is the first computer that scored tens all the way across the board. The screen is viewable from any angle; I can just keep it lying flat on the table and still read the screen perfectly. It has a big screen, so I don’t need to squint and hunt to find my place in my notes. And it’s fast and it’s powerful and has a big, typeable keyboard.

4) Carrying it around isn’t a hassle. Not in the least. Yup, you’re going to want to have a bag of some kind with you. I refer back to my earlier comment about the inconvenience of carrying books and magazines. I normally have a smaller version of my Indiana Jones satchel with me at conferences. The difference is that I’ve just deleted about four or five pounds from my normal load: My 1.5 pound iPad takes the place of a 5.5 pound MacBook plus its charger.

The most important point is that the iPad does a better job in this environment than a MacBook or any other notebook. I slide it out of the newspaper pocket of my bag, click the Home button, and it’s awake and ready to assist. When I’m done, I click the Power button and slide it back; no need to wait for the machine to Sleep or the hard drive to spin down. And I don’t even think about battery life. So I use it all the time.

Herein we begin to approach the conundrum itself. Ihnatko, in this essay, implicitly addresses the primary complaint about the iPad I consider legitimate: Why would you need an iPad when you have an iPhone?

I purchased and downloaded the iBlogger app for iPhone a long time ago; you can even see evidence where I used the app to update this blog. You may also notice that I haven't used iBlogger to update this blog for, oh, about half a year now. (There are a couple of entries from November that have the 'posted with iBlogger' footer on them, but those entries were, in actuality, originally posted using MarsEdit and only edited with iBlogger later.)

Twitter is awesome on iPhone – you type out your 140 characters or less and away you go. It's a pithy, quick-hitting format that doesn't punish you for using a small virtual keyboard. And the iPhone virtual keyboard, while fine for Twittering, text messaging, or other quick-format posting, really doesn't lend itself to the long-form, rambling kinds of things I like to do in blog posts, and especially doesn't lend itself well to sprinkling hyperlinks in among all that rambling text. MarsEdit is my tool of choice for that kind of work.

But an iPad would be significantly better than an iPhone at this task. Enough to make me give up MarsEdit on my MacBook Pro? No, but probably enough so that I'd actually consider blogging rather than Twittering when I see something I want to comment about.

Also, there is video. I have nearly half the space on my 8 GB iPhone devoted to video files, including (currently) two episodes of the Canadian series “Slings and Arrows”, two episodes of “Star Trek: Enterprise” (the mirror-universe episodes, natch), the Season 2 finale of “Leverage”, the Pixar animated short “Presto”, and two full-length films, “WALL-E” and “Sky High”. That's over six hours of video, more than enough to get me through any long stretch of otherwise soul-crushing boredom, assuming I have access to external power. (I highly doubt my nearly two-year old iPhone's battery would last through a video marathon of all the content I have on it.)

But this isn't all the video I have in iTunes. Thanks to the wonder that is Handbrake, I have the entire run of the Connections series, all the remaining episodes in seasons 1 and 2 of S&A, at least one episode each of the original series and Next Gen “Star Trek” series, and a couple more movies. While I could fit all that content on an iPad, I still couldn't watch all of it, but I could watch everything I currently pack on my iPhone, plus have about another three-to-four hours of battery left, based on estimates provided by reviewers.

Oh, and then there's the Netflix iPad app, and I am a paying subscriber to Netflix (it's how I watched much of Leverage over the past two seasons).

Watching video on iPhone isn't horrible– I've done it more than once while laying in bed, either at home or in a hotel room, and it's a decent experience. But the larger iPad screen opens up the possibility of a much better video experience, which while not necessary, is tempting and desirable. So again, clear upgrade over the existing technology.

Oh, yeah, iBooks. I've downloaded a number of e-book readers for iPhone (I have Stanza, eReader, and Kindle for iPhone all on my phone currently), and they all seem fine for what they do. The option of reading those books at a larger format size is interesting, but not compelling all by itself. What is compelling, though, is combining the iPad reader with the possibilities that an application like Calibre allows.

Calibre is to e-books what Handbrake is to digital video: a universal converter and translator. I have much of my D&D 3.5 gaming library in PDF format, thanks to a good friend, and the possibility of converting those PDFs to ePub format and being able to access them during a game on an iPad is compelling. Add in the iPhone Dicenomicon and SpellbookMaster apps, and I'm very close to being able to play an entire session of D&D using one piece of hardware, which is smaller and thus less obtrusive than the hulking Windows laptops other players bring to the table. That goes beyond compelling to 'wicked awesome' territory.

So yeah, I'd like to think I'd do a fair amount with an iPad.

Here's another facet of the conundrum: What would you do for network connectivity?

Part of the reason that the iPhone has been such a ludicrously useful device for me is that it allows me to stay connected to things in a way I hadn't imagined possible. It's a phone, so I can call people and they can call me. But it also allows me to connect to Twitter, and Facebook, and e-mail, and with a combination of e-mail polling (set to check my accounts every hour) and push notifications (for Facebook), I don't fear missing out on important communications, regardless of the format. And, in a real win, the integrated contact information that the Apple Contacts app provides means that I can track all of that information for each person I need to keep in touch with, and the iPhone can even help me by providing that information depending on which app I'm using (by, for instance, giving me Chip's e-mail address when I need to forward a GenCon hotel housing request to him).

Moving from an iPhone to an iPad would force me to lose some of that connectivity.

I could, as originally planned, wait for the 3G iPad, then sign up for the unlimited AT&T iPad contract-free data plan. Here I lose just the phone, along with the convenience of being able to dial the phone based on my stored contact information. Though my iPhone makes me a 3G superman, I have friends who still prefer more traditional technological communications, and so I'd miss not having the ability to call them.

More to the point, my iPhone is currently my only phone, so I'd have to either continue to use it, but mainly as a phone rather than a communications hub, or replace it with a less expensive phone.

Ihnatko's solution is Mi-Fi, the personal cellular modem that serves as a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot where ever you are. I'm not sure which provider he uses, but there are at least three providers in my area, which means I wouldn't necessarily be tied to AT&T (though the AT&T service has actually been pretty good, thanks to AT&T adding a cell tower in my neighborhood shortly after I bought the iPhone); I could go with Verizon (the provider for my original pre-paid cell, whose signal may still suck in my apartment) or Sprint (which I've never tried, and which also has announced that they're close to rolling out their new 4G network in the Twin Cities, so there'd be that) instead.

The bad news is that Mi-Fi, for me, would be a $60/month plus tax two-year commitment, and the Mi-Fi plans from Verizon and Sprint are not unlimited data plans.

Complicating the issue is that my employer has an arrangement with AT&T which allows me a discount on my iPhone plan; I'm currently paying less than $70 a month (including tax) for my iPhone service with unlimited data. Adding even an inexpensive phone to a Sprint Mi-Fi plan would cost more than the existing iPhone plan, and would provide me with less service.

If I had Mi-Fi, could I get rid of my $65 a month cable modem package? Maybe, if I was willing also to give up online gaming – the MiFi bandwidth limit would probably keep me from playing Magic: the Gathering Online or Star Trek Online to any appreciable degree (or run the risk of paying huge overage charges) – and also restrict myself from going nuts with the Netflix iPad app (which sort of defeats the purpose of getting excited about that app). So I'd be paying less per month under this paradigm, but getting way less satisfaction – part of the fun of having things set up the way they are now is being able to do things without worrying if I'm hitting bandwidth caps or download limits.

However, if I don't go with Mi-Fi, then I face a different problem. My employer will help me defray the cost of my iPhone plan, but won't allow me to connect my phone to their wireless network (and in all honesty, I probably don't want my phone on their network anyway, since the cellular network is far less restricted). But a 3G-less iPad, at work, would be a very nice looking piece of metal and glass that can only do things that already exist on the device, and that don't require any network connectivity. It wouldn't be a 'brick', per se, but it'd be way less useful than my current iPhone in the same environment. This wouldn't be a problem at home, or at the friend's place where I play D&D, but plenty of other places would become exercises in 'how much is it going to cost me, either financially, spiritually, or both, to get hooked into a Wi-Fi network here?' Again, that makes the iPad experience a far more conditional one than the one I have with my iPhone; the non-3G iPad is only 'insanely great' where I can get a Wi-Fi signal, whereas my iPhone is almost always awesome.

I'm not really worried about portability. See Ihnatko's article that describes the iPad as being about as obtrusive as a book or magazine, and though I'd want a bag to carry it in (I tend to drop books or magazines that I carry for long stretches at a time), I have just such a bag – the Israeli paratrooper bag I received as VIG swag at last year's GenCon.

And note Ihnatko's comments about accessibility – even with a laptop/netbook in sleep mode, you have to wait a bit for it to 'spin up', and then either spin it back down or wait for it to go back to sleep on its own, the latter of which tends to eat up precious minutes of battery life on non-useful functions. With the iPad, when you want it, zing! It's ready for you. When you're done, zoop! Away it goes without losing any extra juice. When you need it, you just use it, which is exactly the experience I expect after having owned an iPhone for nearly two years now.

The iPad handles basically everything I find good-but-not-awesome about my iPhone and makes it awesome. The challenge will be to find a way to get that without having to take half-a-step backward and turn something that's currently awesome on my iPhone back into good-but-not-awesome.

No comments: