First Few Months with an iPad

Preface

I mentioned a few months ago that I was planning to get an iPad 3 when they were released. I did get one and now that I've had it for a few months I thought I'd post my initial impressions and experiences. There have been plenty of reviews of the iPad and while the latest iteration is only a few months old, the product has been on the market in earlier incarnations for several years. So the point of this is not necessarily to write something novel, but rather how the iPad has been improving and enhancing my life in particular. This is one of the longer posts I've written in a while, so for the attention span challenged the summary is that it's an awesome and transformational device; including some ways in which I had not anticipated.

The Journey Toward Buying an iPad

When Steve Jobs first demoed the original iPad on stage several years ago, it wasn't at all clear to me why I would want a bigger version of my iPhone. I've had an iPhone since the 3G and based on what was available at the time I didn't see how a larger screen size would improve the experience. But I also knew that the iPad's success would be defined by the third party applications written for it. And at launch there weren't any. So I decided to reserve judgement for a few months to see what the iOS development community came up with.

It quickly became apparent that the iPad offered a very different mobile computing experience from the iPhone, and a number of "killer apps" came out. Still, it was the first generation of the hardware and in my experience Apple products tend to significantly improve after the first version. After all, the original iPhone wasn't even 3G network capable. So I decided I wouldn't buy one until the second generation came out.

As predicted, the second generation iPad was a big improvement over the first generation. I considered getting one, but I had other priorities in my life at the time. I was just getting into photography and was busy spending my money on camera equipment. An iPad just wasn't at the top of my list of things to buy. Plus, very few people I knew had one so it was somewhat "out of sight, out of mind". That changed in the fall of 2011. A lot of my friends got iPads and were using them regularly around me. It rekindled my interest in the device, and of course every day additional "killer apps" were coming out. I wanted to get one, but at that point it seemed prudent to wait 4 months to see if they released a new one.

The Purchase

Of course, in early 2012 they did release a New iPad. Having skipped the first two generations, I decided that I would get one of the New iPads they day they launched. I actually went to Wal*Mart and stood in line. Unfortunately general competence, strategic thinking, and the ability to plan are not key skills required by Wal*Mart store employees. Their "system" for distributing their limited stock was to have people go up to the counter and tell the salesperson what kind of iPad you wanted. He would then mark that off so that they could keep track of their stock. I had thought they might give you a claim ticket or take your name. But no. You just tell them what you want and they make a mark on the paper and then you go stand in line. Unfortunately, it did not occur to anyone at Wal*Mart to actually tell the customers they were supposed to go to the counter to reserve one. I only realized that because the people in front of me in line mentioned it. Predictably, a lot of people in line had not reserved one, and when the clock struck midnight they just processed people in their order in line. I'm sure you can see where this is going - they sold out two people in front of me in line. Even more infuriating was that they didn't seem to understand how that had happened.

My plan had been to get a 32 GB WiFi-only iPad, since that seemed like the best value for the money and I didn't want another $30/month cellular data bill. I already pay AT&T something like $120/month for my unlimited talk, text, data plan on my iPhone and that is just about as much money as I am willing to spend on cellular services.

Having missed out at the 24-hour Wal*Mart, I decided to try again the next day during normal business hours. I figured that the Apple store would be mobbed and quickly sell out. I found out later that it wasn't and it didn't, but not knowing that I went to a different Wal*Mart. The only model this Wal*Mart had left in stock was the AT&T 64 GB LTE version. In white. That was significantly more than I was planning to spend, but already frustrated with the experience I decided to buy it anyway after confirming that I was not tied into any kind of long term cellular contract. I wasn't sure whether the LTE iPads were carrier-subsidized or not. For almost $1000 you would think not, but...doesn't hurt to ask. It turns out they are, in fact, not carrier subsidized and you buy the data on a month-to-month basis. You can cancel or resume your data plan at any time with no additional fees beyond the montly $30.

AT&T LTE and the iPad

While I had initially not planned to get the LTE version, I decided it would be worthwhile to pay for at least one month's worth of cellular data to see if it made a difference to me. I had seen Alex Lindsay on MacBreak Weekly saying that it was like using a different device with the cellular data plan, but I was dubious. It turns out he was right, and I'm still paying for the LTE data plan. Curses, AT&T!

I do mostly use my iPad in areas where there is WiFi. I use it at home (WiFi but no LTE coverage). I use it at Starbucks (WiFi coverage, such as it is). But having the high speed data access available when I happen to be somewhere that does not have WiFi is really convenient. And the behavioral transformation and perception difference that Alex Lindsay was talking about is, I think, that I don't have to think about whether WiFi is available or not. I just use it. Just as I use my iPhone without regard to what network I'm on.

I have read horror stories about people using up their 3 GB/month data allowance within hours or days. I have not had that experience at all. I have never come close to using my data allotment. I wouldn't consider myself a "cautious" data user. I watch things on YouTube. I view high resolution images. I stream music from Spotify sometimes (although not generally from the iPad - I typically use my iPhone with unlimited data for that). What I don't do is watch a lot of HBO Go or Netflix content on my iPad. Perhaps if I did that I would have data usage frustration. But I don't and I don't. So depending on your workflow this may or may not be a problem. I already have an iPhone so I could look at my historical data usage on the AT&T web site (even though I have an unlimited plan for my phone), so I didn't expect it to be a problem and it's not.

If I had known that I were going to buy an LTE iPad, I probably would have gone with the Verizon version and not the AT&T. The data plans cost the same, but Verizon has better LTE network coverage and they allow you to tether your computer to your iPad's LTE connection which AT&T ponderously does not allow. The lack of tethering capability on AT&T is infuriating. Having said that, the AT&T LTE coverage over the Washington, DC to Baltimore area is really not bad. I live a little outside of their coverage area but if you're in the general area between Reston to DC to Alexandria and up to Baltimore you will get LTE coverage. And it's really fast. I've never had a Verizon device so I can't compare the two, but I will say that my iPad is faster over LTE than it as at home over my WiFi connected to FiOS. I'm not really sure why, as my FiOS connection actually is faster but for some reason the LTE network interface on the iPad feels speedier. In speedtest.net testing I have gotten something like 35 Mb/s download and 15-20 Mbps/upload over AT&T LTE. Fast.

Killer Apps (for Michael)

Of course none of this means anything unless there is some reason to actually use the iPad. And there is. Several months ago I stated that iTunes U was the killer app that had moved me to definitively buy an iPad. Yet, I rarely ever use that app. It's not that it's not well designed or functional. It's both. It's just that I am often on my iPad outside of the home and it's pretty obnoxious to play video with other people around unless I want to use earbuds or headphones, which I do not keep in my iPad bag because I don't like them. At home I don't care, since I live by myself, but actually sitting down to take one of those classes really is a huge time commitment. A commitment which I am typically unwilling to make, as much as I'd like to.

So what are the killer apps for me? First and foremost, Flipboard. If you have an iPad and you don't have Flipboard, you are not really getting the value out of your iPad that you should. It's truly a killer app. There is an iPhone version of Flipboard which is certainly functional, but it's not the same. For those who are not familiar with Flipboard, it is essentially a social media aggregator that pulls together content from your Twitter stream, Facebook, Google+, Google Reader, various other supported services, arbitrary RSS, and their curated content. The concept of a feed reader is nothing new, but the great thing about Flipboard is that it takes this content and presents it as a magazine layout. I follow a lot of people on Twitter mainly to see the links they post to interesting stories. Flipboard knows that, and instead of simply showing me the tweet with the shortened URL, it follows the URL, pulls the page summary and an image if available, and shows me that in a magazine-style grid along with a number of other feed items presented the same way. It shows a number of stories per page, and I can swipe through the pages to scroll through a feed. If I want to read an article I simply tap it and it brings up the content. I can also respond from within the app if I want to tweet a reply, leave a Facebook comment, award a Google +1, or whatever. I went from not paying much attention to my Twitter feed since it was an overwhelming flood to actually reading it nearly every day. That's an incredible behavior change, and I'm better informed as a result. Not only on tech news, but also on news of the world. Oh, and Flipboard is free. Wow.

An unexpected iPad killer app for me is...Mail. When Steve Jobs first demoed the iPad he claimed that it was the, "best device for reading email." I was skeptical of that claim as the interface looked very similar to the Mac desktop Mail application. The Mac Mail application isn't bad, but it's nothing special. My email is hosted on a Google Apps for Domains account and I mostly (don't) read my email on my iPhone. I pretty much gave up on my personal email a few years ago as the volume got to be too high. It's not that I get that many emails from people I know that require a response, and I don't really get much spam. The problem is that I get a fair amount of targeted email. Email from recruiters. Email news updates from non-profits. Email newsletters from professional associations. Plus a fair amount of opt-in email that I really should opt out of but never got around to, such as my Marriott e-breaks emails and Hotwire promotional emails which are completely useless.

The last category aside, it's not that I don't want to read the emails I get. It's just that I am usually on the go and I don't necessarily want to read it right now. So I just let it sit unread in my inbox. Until about 10,000 pile up. And then it's hopeless and I give up and ignore it, just scanning for important senders and subjects. That's how it has been for the past few years, but it's changed with the iPad. I don't know why, but it really is much more efficient to read email on the iPad. Perhaps it's the touch gestures. But then again the iPhone has the same gestures, so maybe it's that the screen is larger so it's a better reading experience. I really can't put my finger on it, but I will say that I can very quickly scan through the emails in my inbox, delete a lot of them, read what's important, and come back for the rest. I won't say that I have worked through the huge backlog of years of unread email, but if you email me today it's much more likely that I'll actually see it. My cached inbox unread count is zero and I'm actually reading things like the ACM technical news bulletins. That has not been the case in a long time.

Another unexpected killer app...Amazon's Kindle app. While the Apple iBooks app is good, and I still think that there will be a lot of rich textbooks published for it, I have not bought any books from the Apple iBooks store. I have had a Kindle for several years and after the first year or so of not using it much, I made the switch to actually buying a fair number of ebooks so I am invested in the Amazon ecosystem. Not only that, but I like the fact that my Amazon Kindle books, while DRMed, are not captive to any one platform. I can read them on an actual Kindle, my iPad, iPhone, desktop application, whatever.

My switch to ebooks was a function of limited bookshelf space as much as anything, but now I have very much come to enjoy the immediacy and instant gratification of finishing a book and immediately having my next read available. I was waiting for something like the Kindle to come out for years, and had contemplating getting the Sony e-ink reader when it was a Japanese-only product a number of years ago. I have never been much for reading on computer screens and the e-ink is so much easier on the eyes.

Having said that, I did not expect to read books on my iPad. I have an Amazon Kindle DX which has served me well over the years. When I got the iPad I installed the Kindle app on my iPad but didn't really expect to use it. I have had the Kindle app installed on my iPhone for years and used it perhaps twice. It turns out, my expectation about my behavior was completely wrong. I love the Kindle app for the iPad and I haven't picked up my Kindle DX since I got the iPad. I thought that it would be more difficult on the eyes, but with the new iPad's retina display the print is much sharper and nicer than it is on my Kindle. The iPad is obviously an LCD screen and not e-ink, but because the resolution is so high I do not find it hard on my eyes at all. It is a delightful reading experience and I love being able to carry one device with me that has all my reading material as well as all the other capabilities provided by a tablet. A minor point, but at first I was jealous of the Apple iBooks page turning animation. It turns out the Kindle app does the same thing, it's just not enabled by default and has to be turned on in the preferences. It was not apparent to me from the videos that I had seen, but when you "turn the page" on the iPad in either iBooks or the Kindle app, if the next page has blank space it actually ghosts the previous page's text in reverse as you are turning the page. In real time. And it works with images as well. It's pretty impressive. Obviously once the page is turned there is no ghosting through. Next time you're in an Apple store, flip through an iBook in slow motion and give it a try. It's cool.

One slight annoyance with the iPad Kindle app is that you cannot actually buy books inside the app, due to Apple's policies which would require Amazon to do a revenue share with them on the in-app purchases if they did. It's not really a big deal since you can go to the Amazon mobile web site and buy what you want, but it would be nicer to have the store experience inside the app. Since Apple runs its own book store, I am not holding my breath on that ever happening. But again, it's not a big deal. I'm sold on the iPad Kindle experience and I do not expect to have much use for my Kindle DX here on out. Poor Kindle. But I'm sure Amazon doesn't care since they are still getting my money from my Kindle Store purchases.

Content Creation

After getting the iPad I wanted to use it not only as a content consumption device but also for content creation. While typing on the on-screen keyboard is surprisingly effective and fine for Twitter or replying to emails, it doesn't compare to a real keyboard for long-form writing, so I purchased an Apple bluetooth wireless keyboard. The wireless keyboard has relatively full size keys but is nevertheless quite compact. Only two to three inches longer than the iPad and it fits in my iPad bag quite nicely (more on the bag in a bit). A bluetooth mouse also works fine with the iPad but, since I am not running VNC apps or the like which would benefit from a mouse, I don't use one.

For writing on the iPad I have tried several apps, including Apple's Pages, but for my money the best experience is iA Writer. I already had it installed on my MacBook Pro and it will sync my content over iCloud or Dropbox so that I can start writing on the iPad and then open up the text on my MacBook to paste it into a web site, journal application, desktop publishing tool to add photos and formatting, or whatever its intended final destionation might be. iA Writer is a very minimalist writing experience, even including a "focus mode" where everything other than the current sentence is blurred out of focus and it disables the spell checking red underlines to eliminate all distractions. Clearly this would not be the tool to use for page layout and rich media creation - Pages is good for that I think - but it suits my needs perfectly. I find that I can get more writing done even than on the MacBook Pro since it is so minimalist and there is nothing else on the screen. In fairness, the desktop version of iA Writer also has a full screen minimalist mode, but somehow it feels even more spare on a tablet. Perhaps becuase my MacBook Pro has a 17" screen which looks oversized and distracting with a thin center column of text being the only thing on the screen.

I'm currently writing this post in the Squarespace iPad app. Their iPad app is a bit long in the tooth, not having been updated in almost a year, and missing a lot of functionality that I'd like to see, but that's a subject for another post and it's perfectly fine for text input. I will have to save this as a draft on the web site and add any images later, though. Which is too bad.

The Hardware

A lot has been made of the retina display on the new iPad. I never had an iPad 2, so I can't compare apples to apples, but I have owned an iPhone 3G and currently have an iPhone 4. The improvement is definitely that dramatic. I always felt that the screen quality on my iPad 3G was more than sufficient, but once I got the iPhone 4 I immediately realized I could never go back. It may be more dramatic on the iPad given the larger screen size and longer usage sessions. I pull my iPhone out regularly throughout the day, but I'm not really reading novels on it or watching movies so my actual individual usage sessions are fairly short for the most part. The iPad experience is the opposite, with longer sessions being the norm.

Holding the device at a normal viewing distance, you really cannot see any pixelation with the type. It looks like a printed book. Difficult to really communicate, you just have to see it. It may go without saying, but high resolution digital photos also look fantastic on the screen. I wish they would make it easier to directly sync albums from iPhoto on the Mac to my iPad through iCloud without having to set up iTunes WiFi sharing, but I suppose that's an awfully first world problem.

The iPad's battery life is advertised as 10 hours. I haven't actually tested it by playing movies continually for that long, but I will say that it lasts a long long time. I have never run out of juice in my normal use. I try to remember to recharge it every day, but sometimes I forget for a day or two and with moderate use it's still fine. I'm writing this on a Sunday afternoon and I believe the last time I charged it was Thursday night and my battery is reporting 55% available. I have not been using it non-stop during that time, of course, but I have used it fairly heavily to keep on top of Flipboard, email, Facebook, whatever. It's definitely a great device for a plane trip.

The Bag

I didn't purchase a bag for my iPad when I bought it because I already knew I wanted a Waterfield Designs Muzetto. I have a Waterfield Large Cargo for my MacBook Pro (along with several other Waterfield accessories) and I am very satisfied with their product quality and design aesthetic so I'm pretty much sold for life. Plus I love that their products are made in America. The Muzetto, as with all Waterfield products, is fairly pricey but you get what you pay for. Plus it's made in San Francisco which is not exactly a cheap labor market, but I'd rather pay a little more as opposed to buying something made in some Asian sweatshop.

Since I had already spent more than I planned to on the iPad, I decided to wait a month or two to buy the bag. Actually I think I planned to wait two months but ended up caving after one and ordering it. The bag was sold out on their web site, so I placed an order for the next production run which was scheduled to ship a few weeks later. Yet inexplicably they shipped my bag a day or two after I ordered. Perhaps they found some product they didn't know they had or someone cancelled an order. Either way, that commitment to customer service is one of the many reasons to buy from them.

There's not much to say about the Muzetto that hasn't already been written elsewhere. I don't keep much in mine - a pen or two, my iPad, and the Apple bluetooth keyboard. The iPad has an Apple Smart Cover on it and the keyboard doesn't have a case. Both fit easily into the main compartment with some amount of room to spare. I keep the pen in the inside zipped pocket. There is a back pocket and a front pocket under the flap, but I don't typically use them as the whole point of the exercise is to have something light and easy to carry, unlike my 20 pound-plus MacBook Pro and accessories bag-of-doom Waterfield Large Cargo bag.

Final Thoughts (TL;DR)

All in all, I am very satisfied with my purchase and even happy that I ended up buying the higher end iPad model, despite it not being my initial plan and significantly more money than what I wanted to spend. Perhaps not everyone would find benefit in the LTE option, but it has turned out to be a very convenient choice for me.

I appreciate that nothing I wrote in this review was groundbreaking or perhaps hadn't been written before, but again my purpose was to share my experiences with how the iPad has worked for me personally. Hopefully in that light it can be of use to someone.