CNET.com's Donald Bell has written a fantastic and comprehensive review of the Apple iPad that we first published shortly after the tablet's US release, and after using the iPad we absolutely agree with his analysis. The design is first rate and certainly worthy of our admiration, the screen is fantastically sharp, colourful and responsive, and the apps available(both preinstalled and third-party downloads) should cover off most of the functionality you'd expect to be able to perform — though not as well as you might expect to be able to perform it.
In fact, for an entirely new class of device, the iPad is surprisingly familiar. If you've imagined the iPad as an enormous iPod Touch then you're on the right track. Navigating the iPad and adjusting the settings is mostly the same experience, and the tablet's capabilities as a web browser and media player are identical to the iPod Touch and iPhone, which is made somewhat easier with the larger display.
Instead of repeating all of Donald Bell's hard work, we've taken a slightly different approach, focusing more on the iPad as it applies to different, common tasks. But the original US review remains in its entirety on the second page of this article.
As a computer
In our opinion, this is the major misunderstanding when it comes to the iPad, and to be fair, it isn't a misunderstanding perpetuated by Apple.
While Apple sells a handful of basic productivity tools for the iPad — iWorks, Keynote, Numbers — and though the on-screen keyboard is excellent, the iPad really won't replace your laptop or desktop PC. Word processing is now seen as such a small part of what most of us use computers for; we use it for peer-to-peer file sharing, advanced photo and video editing, and software creation to name but a few. All of these tasks require software designed specifically for the tasks that are not available for the iPad.
As a web browser
This would appear to be the iPad's greatest strength, and certainly the area of the iPad we liked best. The Safari browser looks fantastic, full-sized web pages render clearly and without fault, and navigation is a breeze. In saying that, the Safari browser is the only app to have completely frozen during our time with the iPad; once for an extended period, and another time when it wouldn't resurrect without a hardware reboot.
The browser also has all of the limitations of the iPhone Safari browser, many of which have been documented countless times before. No Adobe Flash player is on most of people's lips at the moment, but what bothered us most was the lack of a cached history. We understand the Safari browser does some caching, but this doesn't mitigate the fact that web pages have to reload from scratch when you hit the back button. We also think the browser could have been redesigned for the iPad, placing the taskbar and controls at the bottom of the screen where your hands are most likely to be.
As a media player
The iPad's 10-inch display is an absolute stunner; there isn't a single person we've shown it to who hasn't cooed with delight when they saw it light up. Matched with some rather decent external speakers, the iPad screen makes for a reasonable portable cinema display, capable of playing HD video content (720p).
But if this was the review of a dedicated portable media player, like an Archos tablet for example, the iPad would fall short of a passing grade from the CNET team of reviewers. While the hardware is first class and the internal storage is fine, the lack of an external memory slot would be considered a drawback. Worse still, the iPad's media file recognition is woeful, capable of only playing MP4 videos plus MP3 and AAC music files. If Archos released a player that only played one video codec it would get laughed all the way back to the drawing board.
Apple makes up for this shortcoming in two ways. Firstly, the iTunes store features a reasonable collection of videos to own and rent if you're willing to pay for them. However, if you're someone who has digitised their DVD collection into a common format like DivX or XviD you'll have to re-encode the videos using iTunes; a massive investment of time.
But our major complaint with the iPad as a media player is due to its size and weight. To test the iPad we crawled into bed with a video rental from iTunes, and finished two hours later with extremely sore wrists. At 725 grams, the 3G model is no bag of marshmallows, and without something to rest the iPad on we found it very uncomfortable for extended sessions.
As an ebook reader
While the screen may be great for web browsing and video playback, we're not convinced the iPad should be used as an ebook reader, in fact the iPad is the only reader to give this reviewer motion sickness while reading on a moving train (or it could have been a dodgy lunchtime burrito). The iBook app may look fantastic while you navigate the bookshelf for a classic title to read, once the words are on the screen we found eye fatigue set in quickly. This mightn't be so bad for people reading infrequently or in short spurts, but anyone who is in the market for an e-reader really should consider importing a Kindle. As Donald Bell notes in his review, the iPad suffers from poor visibility under sunlight, a problem you would not have with an E Ink display.
The Apple iPad is a gorgeous piece of technology and is sure to wow your friends and make them instantly jealous all at once, but it is not something you need. The iPad is a luxury item, like a foot spa or a chocolate fountain, and while it's nice to use one, you can certainly live without it too. At its best the iPad is a portable media player and web browsing tool, and if you love to sit in front of the TV checking Twitter and sending emails then you'll love doing it with this tablet.
It isn't, however, a fully functional computer and we wouldn't recommend it as an ebook reader. Those who buy the iPad for these reasons will find themselves returning to their laptops and paperbacks before long. If you find you're still in the market for one after reading this review we suggest waiting a month and checking eBay — we have a sneaking suspicion there will be a flood of iPads for sale before long.