A Tool for Content

 
 
By P. J. Connolly  |  Posted 2010-05-20
 
 
 

Apple's iPad Is Impressive, but It Still Needs Work


After spending a few weeks with the Apple iPad, I can say this much: I've seen a future, but it's one that needs work. Although the iPad is groundbreaking and unique, it is far from complete. Some of its shortcomings will be fixed when the next version of its operating system debuts later this year, but even after it gets better management features and multitasking abilities, it's going to remain an immature platform for some time.

One problem, the relative paucity of applications that can take advantage of the iPad's 9.7-inch screen, will be easily solved as time passes and developers create new applications for the device, and adapt existing ones. Other problems may not prove so tractable, being either under the control of Apple's partners, or inherent compromises of the hardware and its software environment.

(I tested an iPad with WiFi + 3G, but wherever possible, my observations extend to the WiFi-only model as well. The 3G features and performance are discussed in an accompanying piece, to make this review as applicable as possible to both.)

The iPad is Apple's first device to use the company's A4 processor; when iPhone OS 4.0 is released for iPad this fall, the A4's potential can finally be unleashed by the addition of multitasking features that are sorely missing in the current OS. The device is available in three memory configurations of 16, 32 and 64GB; about 6GB of that is occupied by iPhone OS 3.2, the bundled applications (which include Google Maps, iTunes, Mail, Safari and a YouTube client) and any memory the OS reserves for its own operation.

In some respects, the iPad is an overgrown iPod Touch; it doesn't make phone calls and lacks a camera, but unlike the Touch, it does offer a mostly useful degree of Bluetooth connectivity. I easily connected headphones and a keyboard to the device over Bluetooth; on the other hand, although the iPad paired easily with various Apple computers, making an actual connection failed, the links lasting a second or two at most. Another drawback of the iPad's Bluetooth networking is that when it's active, the device appears to be always discoverable; even my ancient Motorola headphones can only be paired with another device through a deliberate act.

As with the iPhone, one must use iTunes as the vehicle for loading applications and almost all digital media onto the iPad. (Although it's true that "jailbreaking" a device frees it from that dependence, that's outside the scope of this discussion.) The iPad can be used as a media source for televisions, with the purchase of additional cables and connectors, and a separately sold kit offers iPad users the ability to connect cameras or CF memory cards through the docking port.

A Tool for Content


 

As others have noted, the iPad is best treated as a tool for consuming content, rather than creating it. That's reflected in the versions of Apple's iWork applications that the iPad can run; although they offer some very basic functions, for anything beyond some very simple data entry and formatting, documents have to be moved to a computer with a "real" presentation, spreadsheet or word processor.

Although the iPad can run most applications that were designed for the iPhone, it's not a terribly satisfying experience. The default presentation for these is at the same resolution of the iPhone, but one can enable an enlarged view of 2x, which takes away all the smoothness of the original app's design. The only advantage I can see to this is that a mildly nearsighted person might find this preferable to digging out a pair of reading glasses.

Applications that are designed specifically for iPad offer users a much more appealing visual presentation, and as I noted above, their number will increase with time.

As one might expect, the iPad can be managed in a business environment using the same tools that Apple provides for the iPhone. The free iPhone Configuration Utility covers both devices, and can be installed on machines running Mac OS X or Windows. Although the manageability of both devices is expected to improve upon the forthcoming release of iPhone OS 4.0, the tools that currently exist are straightforward and cover a good deal of IT's concerns.

With the configuration utility, one can set up provisioning profiles for cellular carriers, WiFi networks and VPN access. It's also possible to configure e-mail access to POP- and IMAP-based services, CalDAV-based calendar servers, and updated Microsoft Exchange 2007 servers.

Exchange sees iPhone OS clients as if they were ActiveSync devices, and this allows IT managers to remotely wipe lost or missing devices from within Exchange. "Wiping" in this case is a bit of a misnomer; what actually happens for the more recent devices is that the data encryption key is securely erased, making the data unrecoverable by conventional means.

When I tested the wiping feature, it took just a few seconds from the time I activated the wiping to its execution on the iPad; the connection was over a local wireless network, but would be equally effective over a wide area connection, being delivered by e-mail. There's no guesswork to this; once the remote device is neutralized, an e-mail message confirming the wipe is sent to the administrator, along with instructions on how to reconnect the device if it is found.

Perhaps the easiest way to back up data on the iPad is to use iTunes; restoring data including system configuration and user data took just a few minutes following the wiping tests.

Because Exchange's ActiveSync offers some duplication of the policies that cover features such as passcode requirements, managed iPhone OS devices are configured with a merged set of policies. The more stringent requirements are applied to the managed devices, no matter whether those come from ActiveSync or from Apple's configuration tools.

Finally, the iPhone Configuration Utility can be used to centrally manage access to applications and content, and bar connections to "explicit" media. Devices can also be individually set up with these barriers, as a form of parental control.

In all, the iPad is a pretty amazing device, packing a lot of punch into a slab that's no heavier than most of the books I own. Although nobody sane would recommend the iPad as a general-purpose device, it is already making inroads into business use, and with the expanding pool of applications, its usefulness increases with every week. But by promising an updated OS in a few months, and by leaving out features such as a camera, Apple's already raised the bar on itself.

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