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whyPad - Should I get an iPad?

  • Content creation difficult, but not impossible
  • iPad still killing the competition
  • 3G ipads available on monthly plans, but not necessarily the best option
Written by Adam Wajnberg
23/04/2012

Tablet computers are on the grow. In 2011, sales of smartphones and tablets outstripped PCs (including laptops and netbooks) for the first time. Even saying “for the first time” understates how big a shift that is – proper smartphones had been around for 4 years, tablets for 18 months.

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iPad replace pc


There’s a substantial part of the population who won’t be jumping into a tablet computer any time soon. This includes people who need powerful computers for content creation – webpages, films, music production and business applications. For many people, the computer is a communications and web reading device – and for those people, a tablet is a vastly superior prospect.

For these examples, we’re going to use the iPad. It’s the single most identifiable device, and exists as the benchmark for usability. It’s also often cheaper to comparable tablets, especially in Australia. Most importantly, the iPad has the widest variety of quality apps, and is friendlier in terms of user experience. Power users will indeed get more from an Android tablet, but for people who just need a tablet to do a little more than the basics, the iPad still reigns supreme.

Connectivity

ipad 3g    wifi

The iPad comes in two flavours – Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi + 3G/4G. This alphabet soup may require some explanation.

Wi-Fi is not a service. Wi-Fi is a feature of a modem that allows compatible devices to share that modem’s internet connection, within a wireless range of about 30 metres or so. The most common example is at home – you may have an ADSL connection, where your modem plugs into a phone line that receives a direct feed to your internet service provider. The modem can then wirelessly broadcast that connection, and your computer can detect it and use it. On a desktop PC, you may need a USB plug in adaptor for this, but laptops, smartphones and tablets have a Wi-Fi antenna built into the unit.

Most people only need the Wi-Fi model. They may already have a fixed line connection at home, and when out and about they use free Wi-Fi, which is widely available at fast food restaurants, cafes, hotels and others public places. You usually need to ask the staff for a password. In these places, you are essentially using their internet connection for free.

Wi-Fi + 3G has an additional antenna built in that will pick up a mobile data connection from a nearby cell phone tower. These units will require a SIM card, just like your mobile phone. 3G data is far more expensive per MB. However, the advantage of 3G plans is they offer a chance for providers like Optus or Vodafone to sell you the tablet over a 24 month contract on a plan, just like a mobile phone. That can ease the sting of paying $500+ for a unit upfront.

Wi-Fi is not restricted to fixed-line connections. Club Telco (1300 138 155) sells Pocket Wi-Fi units - Click here for more info. These are little devices that take a mobile 3G connection, and redistribute that connection around you – so your iPad could connect to that. It would see your Pocket Wi-Fi device as just another Wi-Fi modem.

A Wi-Fi only iPad has a few advantages. It’s cheaper by about $100. It keeps a charge longer. Wi-Fi is a universal standard, so when travelling overseas, you can use it anywhere you can pick up a network.

Of course, the Wi-Fi + 3G can do all of this as well, and also connect to the internet whenever you’re near a mobile tower. But consider the extra expense of a 3G plan, and whether you really need to connect everywhere. If you already own a smartphone with its own data plan, look into whether your provider will let you ‘tether’ your data connection to the iPad. That means your phone, in effect, becomes like a pocket Wi-Fi device.

As an e-Reader - Excellent

ibooks

Using 10% of the lowest capacity iPad (16GB) will let you squeeze in about 1000 books, or about 200 comic books, or about 10 interactive books with full video and interactive elements (popular for kids books). The latest iPad boasts a screen clear enough to rival pen and paper, but both the iPad 1 and iPad 2 have screens that almost anyone will recognize as vastly superior to a computer screen and almost indistinguishable from a normal book. The backlit screen can supposedly hurt the eyes, but your mileage may vary. Most people I’ve personally heard say that are people justifying why they won’t buy a tablet. That’s fine – I doubt there are many people with serious eye problems after using one, or people chucking their iPad away over it.

As a games machine - Great

angry birds space screenshot


There are a few high-end games out there that play nicely on the iPad, but where it really shines is with family friendly classics like Tetris and Monopoly, and of course recent hits like Angry Birds and Draw Something – which is an online Pictionary style game you can play with Facebook friends (who also have tablets or smartphones). As a gaming device, the iPad offers a different experience to consoles and computers – but not in any worse or limited. For people who just need the occasional distraction, the iPad has you covered.

As a word processor – Not bad, but not great

Someone will work out a way to make typing on a tablet feasible. For now, it’s not as good as the keyboard and mouse combo. Of course, one can use a Bluetooth keyboard to make the iPad a very decent word processor – but editing with a finger is a bizarre experience. Anything more complex than an essay can be a bit too fiddly.

As a media player – Good

Sure, movies look good, but it’s not like you can play DVDs. For now, you’re stuck with YouTube or buying movies and TVs individually from iTunes. Of course, if you also have a PC with a library of existing content, you might be able to get that on to your iPad – but that’s hardly good enough for a device that’s meant to replace computers.

Same goes for music, with the added problem that the audio output on every tablet is pretty bad. You can connect speakers into the headphone spot, but again, that defeats the purpose of a computer in your handbag.

One (well, two) things I’d highly, highly recommend – podcasts and iTunes U. These are free recordings, sometimes videos, available in iTunes right on the iPad, no computer needed. Podcasting has become the forum of choice for professional comedians, while iTunes U offers free, full courses from big-time Universities all over the world (including OxBridge, the Ivy Leagues and most Aussie universities). iTunes U is still in its infancy, but its growing fast and is bring tied in with full accredited courses. Full, paid accredited courses delivered almost entirely via iPad are coming, it’s just a matter of when.

As an educational tool  – Outstanding

ipad educational

As above, the iPad is on course to become a central hub of learning delivered online. But for early childhood development, the iPad has a special niche. Put a touch screen device before a child, even a toddler, and watch – it’s an instinctual experience. The iPad has become the centerpiece in a booming industry of apps that assist with children sitting somewhere on the autism/Asperger’s syndrome scale. These apps have been developed by child psychiatrists and physiologists to engage children and adults with special needs or who otherwise grapple with social interaction.

Early childhood education apps, apps for the deaf and blind and apps that put people in touch with support networks are commonplace, and Apple has embraced these developers. These apps tend to be in the $1 - $10 range, though equally as many are free. Apple strictly curates its App Store, meaning that there’s a very high probability that the app you’re using has been developed by the best in the field.

Besides the intuitive touch screen interface, tablets offer a far more intimate user experience. Children and adults with anxiety disorders will appreciate the ability to use apps on a device that can easily be taken into a place where no-one is looking over their shoulder.

As a communications device – Excellent

imessage

You can use iMessage to text other iOS users (people with iPhones, iPod Touch or iPads). The default email app is compatible with most online email services like Gmail, Yahoo Mail and Hotmail (with a  bit of fiddling), as well as ISP and Office based email services. Facebook and Facebook chat are brilliant. Apps that allow you to use MSN messenger, ICQ, IRC and other chat services are a dime-a-dozen. Skype works fantastically (including with video on iPad 2 and above, and with most other tablets), and for other iOS users, you can use Facetime – a video chat that operates a little more smoothly than Skype. Communications? No problem at all.

For browsing – Outstanding

The built-in Safari browser is nothing special, but 3rd part browsers like Diigo (a variant of Google’s Chrome browser) are a dream, with functions allowing you to open any link in a background tab. Clicking on an article will open it in a separate tab without disrupting what you’re currently reading. iPads render webpages  quickly and automatically in the most pleasant format. Flash video doesn’t work, but YouTube has its own built in app, and most videos now pick up that you’re using an iPad and redirect to an iPad friendly version.

For fun – Outstanding

This is where an iPhone beats a computer every time. Besides the obvious entertainment like games, books and videos, there are also a heap of photo manipulation apps (including a built in Photo Booth application), drawing apps, interactive books, virtual guitars, pianos and harps, full synthesizers, cookbooks, voice recorders, puzzles – and much much more. Few apps exceed $10; most apps have an equivalent free alternative.

Conclusion

The iPad, and by extension most other tablets, isn’t quite a replacement for a computer yet. More power under the hood is a given – most tablets right now are as powerful as computers from 3 years ago. Multitasking – the ability to say, watch a movie in the corner while you browse or write something elsewhere on the screen – is patchy in all operating systems and essentially absent on the iPad. For those with a large existing library of content, tablets offer limited space and usually no clear way to get that content on there, without a PC in between.

HOWEVER…for a vast selection of people, an iPad or similar could replace a computer right now. When you consider how much more secure an iPad is, how much cheaper the software is, and how intuitive it is to use, it’s actually a better option for the non-computer savvy who only need to write emails and read the news. With the rapid pace of competition, each year the newest models are only slight upgrades- making the cheaper, previous year model an affordable option.

The iPad might not replace the PC just yet- but it offers a great alternative to those for whom a PC was never a good fit in the first place.

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