Thu, 06 May 2010

The iPad As A Book Reader

This is fifth in an indeterminate series of posts about my experiences with the iPad I bought on 2010-Apr-12.

It’s still very early.

As it stands now, Apple launched their iBook reader and the iBooks store simultaneously with the iPad. Amazon’s Kindle reader app showed up a few days later, as did more specialized readers like GoodReader, InstapaperPro, Marvel Comics, and Zinio.

I’ll concentrate on iBooks, since that’s the experience Apple is leading with. The first release is actually pretty functional, at least for reading fiction and light nonfiction. I don’t really know how it stands up as a reader for technical documents or more specialized fare. My first iBooks purchase was William Gibson’s Neuromancer, which seemed somehow appropriate — it struck a good balance by being a book I’m pretty familiar with, but at the same time it had prabably been 20 years since I’d last read it.

iBooks: the Good

As you would expect, there’s a lot of polish in the iBooks interface for common tasks like navigating within books, setting bookmarks, and searching. The controls are evident and discoverable, without the “747 cockpit” too-many-widgets problems of a lot of other reading tools. The “real book” accents (like the visual page illusion and the fake inside-cover you see when reading a page) are visually appealing without being overdone.

Despite the cries of “lock in” predictably hurled at Apple from the usual corners, it’s pretty trivial to get books for iBooks from sources other than the iBookstore. Just as iTunes and the iPod family support MP3 files from wherever you buy/find/borrow/steal/convert them, any book you can get into an unencumbered ePub file will be cheerfully synced by iTunes once you’ve added it to your library. It’s pretty simple to run pretty much any non-DRMed book in the most common formats through a tool like Calibre or Stanza Desktop to create an .epub file that’s readable in iBooks. As with MP3 files you find on the web, you can make the resulting book as nice as you want, provided you’re willing to put a little effort into metadata grooming.

There is a lot of backlight control in the iBooks application. It’s very easy to make the screen equally readable in a brightly-lit room or in a completely dark one.

I may have read on a spec sheet once that the iPad gets less battery life than a Kindle between charges, but I’ve yet to run my battery all the way down in a single day doing anything on the device, even performing far more CPU-intensive tasks than book reading, so, um, I haven’t found cause to care.

iBooks: the Bad

The biggest problem I’ve noticed, at least with reading, is the the insistence on full justification without hyphenation. It simply makes text harder to read. I can understand that good hyphenation is nontrivial to support, but until we get it couldn’t we at least have the option to display text ragged-right?

Despite all the scare stories from E-Ink partisans about how reading on a backlit screen would make our eyes bleed (conveniently neglecting that most office workers spend several hours a day reading on, um, backlit screens), the real visibility problem I’ve hit with the iPad is reflective glare off the shiny screen when reading in direct sunlight. Like the iPhone screen before it, the iPad screen is pretty much a mirror, so don’t expect to get a lot of beach reading done unless you take an umbrella.

The iPad weighs a lot more than the “pure” e-readers (Kindle, Nook, etc.) If you do a lot of reading in bed, you may find yourself switching the iPad from hand-to-hand a fair bit as your wrists become fatigued.

Diversion — an important clarification re: copying text from iBooks.

A friend linked the transcript of a speech by Steven Berlin Johnson where he expressed concern and disappointment that he was unable to copy text from Charles Darwin’s “The Descent of Man”:

But there are worse things than paywalls. Take a look at this screen. This, as you all probably know, is Apple’s new iBook application for the iPad. What I’ve done here is shown you what happens when you try to copy a paragraph of text. You get the familiar iPhone-style clipping handles, and you get two options “Highlight” and “Bookmark.” But you can’t actually copy the text, to paste it into your own private commonplace book, or email it to a friend, or blog about it. And of course there’s no way to link to it. What’s worse: the book in question is Penguin’s edition of Darwin’s Descent of Man, which is in the public domain. Those are our words on that screen. We have a right to them.

copying the uncopyableThe important bit in that paragraph are the words “Penguin’s edition.” I haven’t downloaded “Penguin’s edition” of the Descent of Man because it’s $12.99 and the Project Gutenberg edition, which is returned by the same search query in iBooks, is free. What I can confirm is that I am able to highlight and copy text from the exact same passage in the Project Gutenberg edition of the book.

I am not arguing that a publisher flipping the “copy inhibit” bit in an eBook isn’t lame — it is. What I am pointing out is that the symptom pointed out by Johnson is under the control of the eBook publisher. It isn’t an Apple mandate, and it’s not some inherent failure of the iBooks platform (nor an Insidious Apple Plot To Lock Up Culture.)

Next up: some nice native apps.

:: 17:12
:: /tech/gadgets/iPad | [+]
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Mon, 26 Apr 2010

iPad Built-In Applications

This is fourth in an indeterminate series of posts about my experiences with the iPad I bought on 2010-Apr-12. I originally planned to post this last Friday, but, um, whatevs…

The iPad’s built-in applications are a bit of a mixed bag. A few of them benefit massively from the increased screen real estate and speed (Safari, Mail, Maps), but don’t really add a lot of functionlity over their iPhone equivalents. In a lot of cases it begins to feel like the applications are just being allowed to exist at the sizes they always wanted to be, if that makes sense. Others (e.g. Notes) feel like a bit of a missed opportunity.

Safari is, in many ways, the most important application on the iPad. Just by being a fast as hell browser you hold in your hands and interact with gesturally, it may be all some folks need to justify the iPad. As I mentioned in a previous post, it handily whips Chrome and Firefox on an Ubuntu netbook, both in page rendering speed and pure joy of use — desktop browsers on small screens are seriously compromised applications, being designed, really, for a very different form factor. There are some small but notable improvements over the iPhone’s Mobile Safari as well. The most immediately noticeable is that videos (both native mpeg4 and embedded YouTube, at least… not yet sure about other h.264-friendly sites yet) are displayed inline, instead of forcing a trip to the video player. There’s also an (optional) bookmarks bar. I even have some of my favorite bookmarklets (or at least the ones that make sense there, like Readability and TBuzz) there. It doesn’t do Flash, but if you care about that you’re probably not reading this post.

It’s hard to tell if Mail on iPad is rewritten from scratch or if only the interface has been redone. Like Mail on the iPhone, it lacks a unified Inbox, but switching between accounts is so fast I don’t really mind. It’s pretty easy to plow through emails on the device. You’re not going to type epics on the onscreen keyboard, but reading emails is almost unreasonably pleasant.

iPod application displaying Candy-O by the CarsWorthy of note is the iPod application. Aside from the not really portable thing, it’s easily the most visually yummy presentation I’ve ever seen in a music playing application. The screen size allows displaying CD inserts at full size (assuming you’ve embedded suitably large cover art in your metadata), and it’s really striking with a pretty album cover. The onscreen widgets are all consciously finger sized, including the volume slider. It’s all very tactile.

The Maps application is functionally pretty much identical to the iPhone version, but being bigger makes it prettier. That’s pretty much enough for now.

Notepad is pretty pointless. The only difference is the larger screen size. It brings nothing new in terms of syncing or easy exporting of notes. Meh. Even something as simple as being able to use Bluetooth file sending would help matters. It still insists on Marker Felt.

The Photo viewing app is gorgeous, but it’s not the easiest thing in the world to find the one photo you’re looking for among thousands. For some unfathomable reason, it doesn’t support iPhoto keywords. As an adjunct, you can turn the iPad into a really expensive digital photo frame from the lock screen. It’s also got that “cool to demo, but kind useless”-feature of being able to click on an album and pinch-zoom on a bunch of pics at once. It’s worth noting that the first time you sync photos from your computer to the iPad, it’ll spend hours “optimizing” them. This is irritating when you have a new gadget you just want to play around with. I recommend aborting the process and deferring it until overnight.

The iTunes Store and the App Store are pretty much exactly what you’d expect, nothing more, nothing less. The YouTube app is presentable, and pulls off the admirable trick of allowing you access to the worst comments on the Internet without shoving your face in them.

I suppose I could treat iBooks as a built-in application, seeing as how you’re prompted to download it from the App Store the first time you go there, but I suppose it’ll get a separate post all its own anyway.

:: 18:36
:: /tech/gadgets/iPad | [+]
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Wed, 21 Apr 2010

iPad Hardware Impressions

This is third in an indeterminate series of posts about my experiences with the iPad I bought on 2010-Apr-12.

iPad posed on stand

There were a lot of fanciful hardware designs being bandied about by people before the launch of the iPad. There were things that had all sorts of ports, buttons, and frippery, obviously coming from people how haven’t been paying attention to the ruthlessly minimal designs coming from Apple for years.

I didn’t really pay any attention to them, because I knew that externally, anything they shipped would be a moderately sized piece of aluminum and glass wrapped around some very understated functional engineering. It would be something with no fans, no battery covers, and the bare minimum of external controls and ports.

Steve Jobs seated w/ iPadIn retrospect, the idea of scaling up the iPhone/iPod touch form was the most logical thing they could have done. This device isn’t being aimed at the neckbeards on Engadget whipping out their spec sheets and measuring units, it’s a device aimed quite specifically at the tens of millions of people whose first experience with Apple was the iPod and/or iPhone. The end result is a device that has a very small number of external controls and interfaces that will feel completely familiar to lots of people. It’s the gadget equivalent of printing “Don’t Panic” across the front in large, friendly letters. It so happens that the chosen form factor is very comfortable for sitting on a couch or an easy chair. There was some grousing that they went with a 4:3 aspect ratio instead of 16:9, but 4:3 makes a lot more sense if you expect that the device is going to spend as much time oriented vertically as horizontally.

After a week of carrying an iPad around in various contexts, I’m very pleased with the form factor. It is a very comfortable thing to carry. The weight, which is somewhat greater than I’d expected, gives the thing a reassuring feeling of solidity. I know, intellectually, that a great part of the weight is the fairly massive battery assembly, but it really gives the impression of being a solid block of aluminum in the hand. As you would expect from an Apple device, the whole thing feels very constructed: there arent any gaps or seams, and there is no “flex” when you grasp the opposite corners in your hands and apply slight twisting pressure. The weight isn’t all good, though. When reading in bed, it’s definitely noticeable if you’re trying to hold the device in one hand. One and a half pounds may not sound like much, but when you’re lying on your back supporting it at eye level, it’s quite noticeably heavier than you’d probably like.

As I stated earlier, it never warms to the touch, even when playing video. There’s some serious hardware witchcraft in this little slab.

All of my performance remarks are subjective. I have an iPhone 3G, and the iPad is dramatically faster in all aspects than the phone. Switching between screens on the Springboard has no delay at all. As stated earlier, the browser is desktop-fast. I don’t know how much of this can be ascribed to the A4 chip, the video hardware, or low-level OS tweaks, but the performance is really quite remarkable.

The multitouch screen is very responsive, of course. I’ll come back to this in a later post, but the iPhoneOS UI really comes into its own when paired with an extra large control surface. There are all sorts of interface niceties that work better on the iPad than on the iPhone, simply because there’s so much more screen and control surface area to work with. The battery life and charging experience is worth a whole post on its own. Suffice to say, being able to get 10+ hours on a charge, even under intensive use, is a huge win.

One minor complaint I have about the form factor is, since the device is perfectly happy to work in any of the 4 possible orientations, it’s very easy to lose track of where the external controls are. I often find myself reaching for the rotation lock or volume controls, only to find they’re on a different edge of the iPad than I thought.

Next up: the included software.

:: 21:49
:: /tech/gadgets/iPad | [+]
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First Week With an iPad

This is first in an indeterminate series of posts about my experiences with the iPad I bought on 2010-Apr-12.

I got the 32GB WiFi model.

I tried to resist, honestly. Come on, laugh at the early adopter.

The itch became unbearable the weekend following the big launch. I started calling the local Apple stores (there are 4 in the Greater Detroit area) and all of them were completely sold out on Sunday (4/11). I called again at lunchtime the following Monday, and the Troy store (~10 minutes from the office) had the 32 and 64 GB models.

I had quite a few people ask me how I liked it when I first bought it, and I pretty much said exactly the same thing to everyone: I’ve only used it a few hours; ask me again after I’ve used it for a week.

So it’s been a week, and I figured that this was as good an opportunity as any to brush the cobwebs off my poor, neglected weblog. My plan as of now is to break this into a series of smaller posts that will run 1-2 per day until I’m tired of hearing myself blab. I’m projecting about a half-dozen moderate length posts, as of now.

I’m not claiming I have any unique insights, but I’ll offer the perspective of someone who already owns a bucketload of Apple gear and a netbook. Since one of the big debates among the dorkerati was whether the iPad is more or less useful than a netbook, I’ll talk about things from that direction, too.

:: 06:46
:: /tech/gadgets/iPad | [+]
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iPad vs. Netbook

This is second in an indeterminate series of posts about my experiences with the iPad I bought on 2010-Apr-12.

One mistake the Slashdot/Engadget/Digg crowds always make is assuming that their harware use cases are universal: “It won’t play my 2 terabytes of Ogg Vorbis files stored on an NFS server. I can’t self-host the entire GNU toolchain, therefore it’s useless…” I will try to avoid that here.

I’ve written in this space before about our Acer Aspire netbook. It’s basically the third computer in the house — where I use my desktop (a G5 tower) and my office laptop (a 13-inch MacBook) as machines to “get things done”, the Ubuntu-based netbook has pretty much functioned for a small set of tasks:

  1. Lightweight web browsing (e.g. acessing Wikipedia, the IMDB, etc.) when sitting on the couch watching TV.
  2. A smart terminal for logging into the other machines to compile code, move files around the network, mess around with the home router, etc.)
  3. A really portable machine for times when hauling around even my 7-pound Macbook and accessories feels like overkill. (I took it on our December cruise, for example, and I take it to neighborhood coffee shops sometimes)
  4. A small (but still bigger than a smartphone) media player

I will now say, that for the way that I have used a netbook, the iPad is in most respects a (much) superior platform.

  1. As it stands, the iPad is one of the most pleasing web-browsing experiences available right now. The installed build of Mobile Safari is almost unreasonably fast, on a device that, as I read specs, sports a single 1GHz RISC core. I haven’t benchmarked it, but what’s important is that it feels fast. Pages pop, the rendering and reflow feels close to instant, subjectively faster than my desktop G5 and on par with my MacBook. It is far faster than a current Chrome build on the Atom-powered Acer netbook. It’s not just the speed, though. There is something very natural about browsing the web on a magazine-sized device propped against your leg in an easy chair. Mobile Safari very wisely stays out of the way, with minimal browser chrome and widgets in your face. All the pinch and zoom and double-tap to resize DIV stuff you’re probably familiar with from the iPhone platform is still there, but with a 4x larger browsing surface it really feels like no-compromise web browsing. You’ve still got the “gravitational” fingertip scrolling that’s so pleasant on the iPhone, too. Speaking for myself, the absence of Flash is a feature, not a bug.
  2. As a terminal for interacting with other devices, the netbook wins because of its full (cramped) keyboard. That said, for the types of device access I tend to do on weekends (e.g. changing router settings, etc.) the win isn’t a huge one.
  3. Video PlayerThe iPad is far more usably portable than a netbook. It gets far better battery life (10+ hours vs. 3), is absolutely cool to the touch (the netbook gets very warm in the lap), occupies less space (no pop up screen) in use, and has no fans.
  4. The netbook plays (theoretically) more media formats, but with Handbrake and Air Video, getting any format to the iPad has become pretty trivial. The netbook struggles mightily with fullscreen h.264, as well. As a fairly frequent business traveler, I’m looking forward to taking the iPad on long flights. Everything I’ve heard suggests that getting 4 full-length films on a single battery charge is not unreasonable.

It’s true that the iPad is currently more expensive than most netbook-class machines, but not unreasonably so.

:: 06:45
:: /tech/gadgets/iPad | [+]
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Alcohol, hashish, prussic acid, strychnine are weak dilutions. The surest
poison is time.
— Emerson, “Society and Solitude”