Editors' note (November 23, 2010): The following review has been updated to reflect new features added with Apple's iOS 4.2, and includes battery test results from CNET Labs.
The Apple iPad is an unprecedented device. It doesn't shoot rainbows or make puppies, but this roughly 8x10-inch tablet computer melds your laptop, smartphone, gaming console, and iPod into a single, affordable, unfortunately named thing.
Of course, we come to you with a standard list of complaints. The absence of an integrated video camera puts the kibosh on any hope of using the iPad for video chats, and without Flash video support, many Web pages look like Swiss cheese. But the biggest problem with the device is coming up with bullet-proof reasons to buy one.
Because the iPad is an entirely new class of device, you'll probably need to lie to yourself a little to justify the purchase. But at this point, any CNET readers worth their salt have mastered the art of making excuses to buy new gadgets.
For the uninitiated, Apple has posted a cheat sheet of demo videos that provide a smorgasbord of reasonable answers to the question: "Why do I need an iPad?" To hear Apple tell it, the iPad is a Web browser for your living room, an e-book reader for the den, a movie player for the kids, a photo album, a jukebox, a gamer's best friend, a word processor, an e-mail machine, and a YouTube junkie's dream come true. No excuse good enough for you? Wait a few minutes and a developer will inevitably make an app for it.
Whatever you need to tell yourself to buy an iPad, we can safely say the device is a worthwhile addition to any wired home. We don't give much weight to the pundits who say that the iPad is the future of the personal computer, but we think it's the most entertaining gadget we'll see all year.
What is it, exactly?
If you're coming to this review already versed on the nitty gritty of what the iPad is and its roots in the iPhone and iPod Touch, feel free to skip ahead. Otherwise, here's the scoop:
The iPad is a touch-screen tablet computer, roughly the size of a magazine, with three models that connect to the Internet strictly over Wi-Fi (16GB for $499, 32GB for $599, 64GB for $699) and three that use a combination of Wi-Fi and AT&T's 3G wireless (16GB for $629, 32GB for $729, and 64GB for $829--pay-as-you go for the data subscription).
The iPad runs the same software found on Apple's popular iPhone and iPod Touch. Apple calls this software the iPhone OS, and it's generally regarded as one of the most successful operating systems designed for use with touch-screen devices. Unlike conventional computer OS software, designed around the mouse and the keyboard, the iPhone OS responds only to touch input and is generally capable of running only one application at a time.
If you've ever used an iPhone or iPod Touch, the iPad will feel immediately familiar. Out of the box, you get many of the iPhone's capabilities, including Apple-designed applications (apps) for Web browsing, e-mail, maps, photos, music, video, YouTube, and more. More apps can be installed using the built-in App Store software or by connecting the iPad to iTunes via your computer using the included cable. If you already own apps purchased for an iPhone or iPod Touch, you can transfer these apps to the iPad, as well.
Apple rarely skimps on design and the iPad is no exception. The screen is made of the same oleophobic-coated glass as the iPhone 3GS', making it relatively easy to wipe away the fingerprints and smudges it inevitably collects. Behind the glass is an LED-backlit, 9.7-inch capacitive touch screen that uses IPS (in-plane switching) technology for above-average viewing angles.
Below the screen sits a Home button that looks and behaves exactly like the one on the iPhone and iPod Touch, bouncing you out of any open app and placing you back in the main menu. Matte aluminum wraps around the backs and sides of the iPad, tapering a bit around the edges. If you've ever held one of Apple's unibody MacBooks, you know exactly the kind of feel and finish of the iPad's aluminum. Unlike the polished chrome of the iPod or glossy plastic of the iPhone, the back of the iPad seems less likely to show wear. Of course--as with any Apple product--there are already hundreds of cases for the iPad, should you feel the need to give it extra protection.
The iPad measures 7.47 inches wide by 9.56 inches tall by 0.5 inch thick, and weighs 1.5 pounds (or 1.6 pounds for the 3G model). Held in your hands, the dimensions and heft have a natural, magazine-like feel. Like the iPhone and iPod Touch, the iPad sports a finger-friendly OS with an onscreen QWERTY keyboard, and an accelerometer that can detect whether the device is in portrait or landscape mode. The buttons, switches, and ports around the edges of the iPad also mimic those of the iPhone. A 30-pin dock connector sits on the bottom, along with a small integrated speaker. On the right edge you have a volume rocker and a switch that works to mute any intrusive alert sounds, such as the chime of an incoming e-mail or a Game Center friend request.
The iPad's refined feel and high-quality materials won't surprise Apple devotees, but in the larger landscape of tablets, Netbook computers, and e-readers, the design feels distinctly upscale--especially given its price. Next to the Asus Eee PC, Amazon Kindle, or Fusion Garage JooJoo, the iPad looks like it was made on a different planet (where plastic doesn't exist). We don't make the point to be snobby, but looks matter considering that all these devices are marketed as living-room accessories.
Size also matters. As one of the first tablet computers to go mainstream, you'll need to assess the iPad's size on a case-by-case basis. For the advertised purposes of Web browsing, reading books, and checking your e-mail, we found the magazine-size screen perfectly adequate. After years of watching videos on devices like the iPod Touch, or even dedicated video players like the Archos 5, video playback on the iPad's 9.7-inch screen feels downright luxurious.
For all its charms, however, the iPad is not as portable as we'd like. Part of the problem is psychological. Logically, you know the iPad's dimensions are no less portable than a book. But when a book costs between $500 and $800 and is made of glass, you treat it differently. Without being tucked away in a messenger bag or protective case, walking outside with an iPad in your hand feels like slapping the laws of gravity in the face.
We'd also be lying if we didn't say we wish the iPad could be a little thinner and lighter. At 1.5 pounds and half an inch thick, it makes most Netbooks look bloated, but he iPad is slightly heavier and thicker than most dedicated e-book readers, including the relatively large Kindle DX. If your dream is to relax in a hammock with an e-book in one hand and a tropical drink in the other, plan to avoid the iPad's glass screen hurtling toward your face when you doze off.
Unlike many of the tablet-style devices we've encountered, the iPad doesn't run a conventional OS (operating system) such as Windows, Linux, or Mac OS X. Instead, Apple decided to use the mobile version of OS X from what is arguably its most successful and fastest-growing product: the iPhone .
In our view, Apple's use of the iPhone OS distinguishes the iPad from the competition. As dozens of iPad alternatives come out of the woodwork, touting all sorts of advantages and added features, the iPad will remain the only tablet computer on the market with access to Apple's App Store.
In our view, Apple's use of the iPhone's iOS distinguishes the iPad from the competition. You don't need to worry about traditional computer headaches, such as scattered files on your desktop, installing drivers for third-party hardware, or trying to figure out where you put a downloaded image. Instead, all your apps are clearly laid out, organized in a grid of nickel-size icons that respond to a single touch. If you download an image from a Web page or e-mail, it appears in your photo library, without fail. If you need to search for anything--a song, an e-mail, a photo, or a Web page--double-clicking the Home button brings up a Spotlight search feature that covers just about everything on the device. On the iPad, the organizational metaphor of the folder does not exist, and the effect feels liberating.
For the most part, the iPhone's iOS feels like a natural fit for a device like this. Some of you, however, will probably feel suffocated by Apple's totalitarian control over the iPad's OS.
Purchasing software and media on the device makes Apple's "walled-garden" approach to the iPhone OS frustrating to a wider audience. The only way for users to purchase and download movies and music on the iPad is to use Apple's integrated iTunes store. If you want to buy new software for the device, you'll need to go through Apple's integrated App Store, which displays only applications deemed acceptable by Apple. Compared with the more laissez-faire approach of a Windows Netbook, for example, the iPad user is giving away freedom of choice in exchange for convenience. (One upside: In theory, Apple's top-down control over the iPhone OS and the commerce within it also serves to minimize the iPad's vulnerability to computer viruses.)
With the free iOS 4.2 update Apple rolled out in November 2010, the iPad gains several new features that were previously only available to iPhone 4 and iPod Touch users. The most notable new additions include app multitasking, a universal e-mail inbox, threaded e-mail messages, and home screen folders. Other significant improvements include support for Apple's new AirPlay wireless streaming standard (compatible with Apple TV, iTunes, and select models of compatible third-party speakers) and AirPrint, a method for printing documents to compatible printers using apps such as Safari, Photos, Email, iWorks, and others. For gaming fans, the updated OS also brings Apple's Game Center app, which allows you to track your game scores and achievements and set up multiplayer games with friends or strangers. All in all, the update offers many improvements to the already excellent product, without any noticeable sacrifices in performance or reliability.
Everything old is new again
You can't place calls with the iPad (at least, not without a VoIP app) or easily text message your friends, but the other built-in capabilities are essentially the same as those on the iPhone 4.
That said, the iPad can be pushed much further than any nonlaptop mobile device we've tested, including the iPhone. Because of the iPad's extra screen size, default apps such as the Safari Web browser, e-mail, iPod, video, maps, photos, and YouTube all look and behave much more like full-blown applications. The iPad's e-mail app, for example, is a doppelganger for the Mail application in Apple OS X, offering an overview of your in-box alongside the text of any currently selected message. The photos app could easily be mistaken for Apple's iPhoto, with its opening view of photos arranged in event-specific stacks. The iPod app looks and behaves like an abbreviated version of iTunes, for better or worse. And the YouTube app plays out like a prettier version of the actual Web site. Paradoxically, the two apps that have changed the least, Maps and the Safari browser, give the most radically different experience thanks to the iPad's big screen.
Size is meaningless without grace. Luckily, the iPad has both qualities in equal measure, helped by a new 1GHz Apple A4 processor, capacitive multitouch display technology, and an integrated Wi-Fi antenna compatible with the latest 802.1n wireless spec. Apps launch within seconds; waking from sleep mode is nearly instantaneous; and even a cold boot-up takes just 18 seconds. Even if your local Wi-Fi network isn't up to 802.11n speeds, the Web-browsing experience often feels faster than on an iPhone or iPod Touch on the same network, simply because you're doing a lot less scrolling and zooming to get to the information you need.
Other hardware features include Bluetooth 2.1, a stereo audio output (headphone jack), a built-in speaker, an integrated lithium ion rechargeable battery, NAND flash memory, an integrated accelerometer (tilt sensor), and an ambient light sensor. Apple's third-generation iPod Touch can claim many of the same features, but lacks the iPad's integrated digital compass, built-in microphone, and mute switch. It's also worth noting that the iPad's speaker is noticeably louder than the speaker included on the iPhone and iPod Touch, with a slightly beefier sound (though still ugly to listen to). Apple doesn't include earbuds with the iPad, so do yourself a favor and treat yourself to a nice pair.
A 3G wireless-compatible version of the iPad is also available, which includes a SIM card tray, as well as assisted GPS capabilities.
Just like the iPhone 3GS and iPod Touch, the iPad includes wireless Bluetooth audio capabilities. We tested the iPad with an Altec Lansing BackBeat stereo Bluetooth headset, and the audio quality was on par with results from the third-generation iPod Touch. The pairing process was easy and incident-free. In the music player, a small Bluetooth icon appears next to the player controls and toggles audio back and forth between the speaker and the headset. The iPad's Bluetooth capabilities also allow peer-to-peer networking for gaming and wireless keyboard support for compatible writing applications.
iTunes Store and App Store
In the same way the iPad's apps all look and behave much more like Apple's full-blown OS X applications, the iPad's integrated iTunes Store could easily be mistaken for the desktop iTunes Store. Size aside, all the same capabilities are here, including movie rentals and purchases, TV show downloads, audiobooks, and access to iTunes U. You can pay for purchases by setting up an iTunes account with a credit card, or by redeeming iTunes gift cards.
The same can be said for the iPad version of the App Store; it looks and acts more like the store experience within Apple's iTunes software. Because the App Store is running on the iPad, however, the default display will bring up apps that are optimized specifically for the iPad.
Apple is encouraging developers to create new apps specifically for the iPad, which are not necessarily backward-compatible with the iPhone or iPod Touch. Because this is potentially an expensive proposition for users, we would like it to be easier to distinguish between an app designed for the iPhone and the same app designed for the iPad. There are dual-compatibility apps on offer that include both iPad versions and iPhone versions embedded within the same file, which Apple specially designates with a "+" symbol within the iPad App Store. We wish more apps were bundled this way to ensure broad compatibility, but we understand there's more money to be made in selling apps separately.
Fortunately, in the world of apps, the iPad is at the top of the food chain. Most apps designed for the iPhone or Touch can run on the iPad, either scaled-up to fit the screen, or presented at their original resolution framed at the center of the screen in black. This capability is good news for anyone bringing their existing apps over from an iPhone or iPod Touch, although users will likely want to purchase separate iPad-optimized versions of the apps they use regularly, which could get pricey.
Beyond the deluge of third-party accessories already hitting store shelves, Apple is offering a handful of its own accessories for the iPad, including a physical keyboard with an integrated dock ($69), a charging dock without the keyboard ($29) that engages the iPad's photo frame mode, a camera connection kit ($30) that includes both a USB and an SD card adapter for importing images from a digital camera, and a wrap-around leather case ($40) that doubles as a kickstand.
If you're interested in using the iPad for presentations, Apple offers a $30 VGA adapter that can connect to a projector or computer monitor. Video output is only compatible with specific apps, such as Apple's Keynote. The maximum output resolution is only 1,024x768 pixels, so keep your HD expectations in check. That said, with the arrival of iOS 4.2 and its AirPlay capabilities, iPad owners can now send HD resolution video (and multichannel audio) wirelessly to Apple's latest Apple TV media receiver, in addition to music streaming and photo slideshows. For more details, read our full review of Apple TV.
As far as essential accessories go, we believe a protective case of some kind is a good investment. Also, given the alternative of charging the iPad using a basic wall adapter, $29 seems a fair price for a charging dock that transforms an otherwise techy device into an attractive digital photo frame.
Though the iPad can be used without a computer most of the time, you will need to connect to a computer running Apple's iTunes 9.1 or later to set up the device and sync any existing media, contacts, e-mail, photos, or browser bookmarks. Computer specification requirements for iTunes 9.1 can be found on Apple's Web site.
If you plan to use the iPad at home for surfing the Web and you don't have a 3G-capable model, you will need to make sure your home is set up for wireless Internet.