Is the iPad the future of computing?

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We got our hands on a 64GB iPad and decided to compare it to a current-model netbook – after all, these two devices are different ways of approaching the same market.

APPLE A1080 laptop battery

First, the price. There’s no doubt that the iPad is more expensive. Our perfectly capable Asus netbook cost us around £250; the iPad £599. That’s a bit of a blow – you could get a very decent laptop for that price, or two netbooks, although we grant you that you can get the basic iPad for just over £400.

Apple A1078 Laptop Battery

Battery life comes next. Our netbook claims around 11 hours’ use – and we can confirm that it’s not far off the mark. On a flight to New York, we used the netbook immediately after wheels up and until descent – for word processing. After around 6 hours continual use, there was almost 4 hours battery life left. Stunning. And the iPad? Well, it comes in at slightly less than that, but not much. Call it a draw.

Apple A1079 laptop battery

When it comes to weight, the iPad wins, being much lighter than the netbook. But things are not so straightforward – our in-flight test with the netbook also required that we carry e-books and music, so we had to add an iPod and a Kindle to the weight, and the whole package was getting on to be as heavy as a laptop. The iPad is just one device – but it can do the lot. OK, it’s not as good a book reader as the Kindle (because of the bright screen) but it’s capable. Hands-down winner, the iPad.

In use, things get a little more interesting (and less straightforward). The netbook was running Windows 7 and of course the iPad was running Apple’s iOS. Windows 7 gave us great application compatibility with Windows applications, but it proved to be a clunky workmate on a small machine. Despite having 1GB of RAM, it was slow to start, though mostly fine once it got rolling. The nature of the netbook and the basic version of Windows 7 Starter meant no Aero graphics, so you do feel like you’re getting a second rate experience. The iPad, in contrast, was always rapid – and we mean that. Not just quick, but rapid. With an OS that’s built from the ground up to be used on the hoof, and with your fingers, it’s surprisingly productive for most things.

But there’s a conceptual difference between the iPad and a netbook that’s not immediately obvious. The iPad is great for consuming media, it can be less good for creating it. It’s designed as a machine for use on the go, so it does less by design – and does things in a significantly different way. With the iPad, we used apps to create mind-maps, user interface mockups, presentations and so on – and it was great. But when it came to typing thousands of words, the netbook, with its real keyboard, was the winner. You can touch type on the netbook at close to your usual speed, but not on the iPad – in fact, not anything like it, unless you pair it with a Bluetooth keyboard or use the rather wobbly keyboard dock. But we’d still say the overall winner is the iPad – unless you need to write a lot. The OS is designed to be used on a mobile device, Windows is not. You can use the iPad OS comfortably at arm’s length, with the netbook you’re always, always squinting at the screen.

So, if you are writing vast amounts, take the netbook right? Well, possibly not if you also want to listen to music or read. Then, it might be better to compromise, take a Bluetooth keyboard and sacrifice a few words per minute for weight and flexibility.

(Now, before you e-mail us, we do know that you can read books on the netbook, using the Kindle application. You can also – just about – watch a film. But in both cases, a netbook is a very poor vehicle for doing these, whereas an iPad does them very well indeed. Films are stunning on the iPad’s screen.)

The iPad is also interesting in other ways. Computers have long been too complex for many mere mortals. The notion of a computer that works as simply as a (say) fridge or kettle has never been viable. Even one as simple as a VCR has been impossible. But the iPad is that device. It’s always on. There are few buttons. Little to learn. When you install an app, you don’t have to answer any questions that you might not understand; you don’t even have to know where the app is going to be installed. In fact, you never get sight of anything like a file system. That whole layer of complexity that IT professionals take for granted (and let’s face it can use with much greater ease than your Gran) simply isn’t there. Now that is how a mass-market computer should work.

There are flaws to the iPad. Famously, there’s no support for Flash, for instance. Steve Jobs may insist we don’t need it and that he knows best by not providing it, but we say ‘nonsense’. If we want Flash, we should have it – even if we accept that it saps the battery and can crash the browser. We’re grown-ups, we can make that decision ourselves. You also can’t print from it, although some apps that will enable printing are around the corner. It’s also difficult to use as your only machine – although you can buy direct from the Apple store for apps, music and so on. Syncing via iTunes is fine if you have one device, but if you also have an iPhone, it’s a fag to keep connecting each to sync things up – for goodness’ sake, it’s 2010 – go wireless!

We also had the iPad refuse to work when it had been left in the sun for too long – the black surround and glass screen is a real heat magnet. When we powered on, we got a ‘need to cool down, too hot to use’ error. But fair enough, it was a daft thing to do.

But with two million iPads sold within a few weeks, the product is a runaway success – one that no one, ever, has been able to create with any other tablet. The Google tablet, which is not far from release, will almost certainly be much cheaper – and Android 2 is pretty capable, if not quite as slick as iOS. We expect this type of device to become mainstream pretty rapidly. We also do think that it points the way to the future of computing – or at least certain types of computing. Less hassle, maintenance and knowhow really does mean a machine that almost anyone can pick up and use right away.

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