Thursday, June 3, 2010

The iPad: My Maxi-Precioussss

I went to check out the iPad the day of its release. I didn't buy one. Thought I didn't need it. To paraphrase my friend Kesselman, I already have something just like it but it's a quarter the size and makes phone calls and takes pictures and video. But I'm a hard core Apple guy (Apple-core?) so that un-purchased toy gnawed at me, like the Ring gnaws at Gollum. Last week, I bit off the finger. I already call my iPhone the Precious. Now I have the Maxi-Precious.

It took forever to get here. I followed the FedEx tracking page obsessively as the box went from Shenzhen to Hong Kong to Memphis to Oakland... (where it enjoyed the long Memorial Day weekend)... to Los Angeles Hollywood to the Delivery Vehicle to here. I've been getting calls and messages. "So how is it?"

After three days, here's how I think it is. Totally freaking awesome, but still leaving an all too human hole in my desire to have it all, at my fingertips, at all times.

First, let's be clear about a couple of things. It is NOT just a big iPod Touch. The greater screen real estate, combined with apps designed to take advantage of it, makes for a completely different, immersive experience. Nor is it a laptop without a keyboard. The lack of a hinged keyboard and the easy interactivity of the multitouch screen leads to a much more intimate relationship with its content. Put it this way: when was the last time you, without thinking, carried your open laptop into the bathroom to continue reading an article or watching a video at your, ahem, leisure? The iPad goes with me pretty much everywhere around the house, leaving the laptop downstairs in my office for work and the occasional working road trip or library jaunt.

There are a few apps already available that take full advantage of the iPad design and are outrageously cool. I'm a sports fan, so the ESPN ScoreCenter jumps out. It's your own personalized SportsCenter, with crawls, video stories, links, highlights, stats, all delightfully laid out and hellaciously fast (nearly everything runs zippily on this beast). The MLB and NBA apps, equally cool. I'm almost tempted to buy the MLB DirecTV package, which also gives you access to all games, streaming live, through the iPad. After months of having my Netflix membership on hold, I re-upped it to allow full use the iPad app. One tap IMMEDIATELY streams any of their huge "Play Now" library of movies and TV shows, in addition to their DVD delivery service. Amazing. And yes, with an adapter you can (I'm told) hook it up to to your TV, and run your movies full screen. I find myself using the NPR app all the time. It's brilliantly designed, with scrollable ribbons for News, Arts and Culture, and Music, and one click buttons for live listening, the most recent hourly news report. One click on any show or report adds it to a playlist for later listening. IMDB is no longer just about finding out what movie that actor was in, it's now the go-to for showtimes, reviews, TV viewing suggestions, and almost anything else relating to visual media.

Obviously with a 1.0 release there are things that aren't quite there yet. I can't imagine wanting to take pictures with such a large device, but a front iSight cam would be nice for Skype or iChat. Apple's Numbers works well and opens Excel docs without even asking. Pages looks nice, but naming, sharing, and exporting docs is confusing. I have yet to find a way to easily access Dropbox files and edit them (I mostly use Scrivener-generated RTF files, which DocsToGo strangely no longer supports), so the iPad's use as a device to work on is limited. The onscreen keyboard is functional, and faster and more accurate than the iPhone's but I still find myself using a modified hunt and peck rather than my usual zippy touch method.

But I never planned to work much on the iPad. I imagined using it for two primary purposes. One, as a book reader, to cut down on the precarious tower of tomes on my nightstand that will certainly kill me in the next earthquake. And, two, to maybe, possibly, replace my beloved but dwindling paper edition of the L.A. Times, and the constant clutter of dead tree detritus and little plastic ties therewith associated.

As far as the books go, I think it'll be a success. Apple's free Books application is gorgeous, with a clear, clean display and intuitive controls. Once their library has grown sufficiently, and once they add highlighting and note-taking capability, it will probably surpass the Kindle iPad app; which, in the meantime, is terrific, and has the advantage of being equally usable on the Kindle or iPhone and syncing bookmarks and "farthest read" points across all your devices invisibly via WhisperSync.

Newspapers, and particularly the LA Times, are another story. I've spent my morning coffee time the last three days with the iPad in place of the paper. I'm not sure it's going to work for me. I love my LA Times experience. I read the front page, continue to finish articles that are of interest to me, maybe catch one or two other stories while flipping through. Then I go to the Editorial and Op-Ed pages. I look at one or two pieces in the much-hated LateExtra, and so on flipping quickly through Business and Calendar for anything that grabs my eye, then finishing with Sports. It's a thoroughly linear experience, but one in which I will also catch any big news or interesting features I might have missed.

In three days with the iPad, my news experience is fractured. Part of this is the fault of the LA Times. Their website layout is awkward, and their iBrowse-based facsimile e-edition - which I find clumsy and unworkable even on my 21inch iMac - doesn't even run on the iPad, who knows why.

But I think there's just a disconnect between the way one reads a newspaper and the way one browses the web. On my first day, links to the Sports page from the splash page had me reading about the LA Galaxy before I'd finished the top story on the Gulf spill. I found myself reading a full article about Glee, which I despise, just because I'd clicked on it and it now took up the entire screen, where I would have scanned in a second or two and taken in a headline or a fraction of an article or two on the same page before flipping to the next. On day two, I tried to focus, and replicate my reading routine on the iPad. Front page, Op-ed, Business, Calendar, Sports. I did this with moderate success. But then I went back to the paper edition to flip through and see if I'd missed anything. I'd missed a lot. The random local interest stories, one of Dan Neill's great car reviews, a piece about a bit of local architecture... the various bric-a-brac that, sure, Twitter follows or RSS feeds or Google Alerts or StumbleUpon might turn up for me, but even if they did, I probably wouldn't bother to click through without the cup of coffee and the set-aside reading time to encourage it.

I love new things, and I've put my paper subscription on vacation hold while I try to reshape my brain to the new paradigm. But perhaps my brain has become too set in its ways. Perhaps linear has its place. There is something to be said for getting from one end of a story to another without distraction. You'll notice I have placed no links in this post. You can always Google those apps if you're interested.

Tell you what though... I'm totally looking forward to watching the Lakers-Celtics series with the NBA GameTime app in my lap, watching those stats and shot-location diagrams update in real time, and catching up with NPR news or streaming a TV show or YouTube during the commercials.