February 4, 2010

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Is the iPad worth it?
Calm down before you pre-order
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com.

They actually call it “magical.” Right there on apple.com, they say the iPad is a “magical and revolutionary device.”

Just introduced last week, the iPad is supposed to fill the gap between smartphones and laptops. There’s no denying that it’s cool, but let’s step back from the hype. With its large 9.7-inch screen, it’s basically a bigger iPod Touch, which itself is just an iPhone without the phone.

The iPad does have a pretty powerful CPU, a 1GHz Apple A4. It’s no Intel Core i7, but it’s top of the line as far as small, mobile devices are concerned. Paired with an operating system that Apple controls, it should offer impressive performance for simple applications originally designed for the iPhone and iPod Touch.

At 1.5 pounds and the size of a magazine, it’s not going in your pocket. Maybe a purse, backpack, briefcase or ever-so-hip messenger bag, but at that point, why not a laptop?

I can see the iPad as a very attractive tablet for use in a single building, either at home or work. It’s a far more comfortable Web browsing tool than a PC when you’re lounging on the couch, in bed or on the porch, and its purported 10-hour battery life gives you a lot of unplugged time. Swanky restaurants could give them to their waiters to entice customers with videos of the day’s specials, and office drones spending a lot of time away from their desk might prefer the large screen over their BlackBerries.

But here’s what it’s not: an eBook reader.

Oh, sure, you can read eBook s on the thing. There’s even an iBooks app that Apple tells you to download. iBooks, in this case, are not really a distinct thing from eBooks, except that they come from Apple’s iBookstore. (They’re also different from the iBook line of laptops Apple was selling a few years ago.)

Here’s the thing: you can read eBooks on just about anything. But that doesn’t make your phone, notebook PC or Internet-connected television an eBook reader.

“The high-resolution, LED-backlit screen displays everything in sharp, rich color, so it’s easy to read, even in low light,” Apple says. You know what causes eyestrain? Backlit screens. Those same screens also suck up battery life like nobody’s business. The whole reason true eBook readers are unique is their electronic ink display technology, which only uses power when there’s a page turn and looks like real, printed text.

The iPad’s greatest contribution to the modern gadget hound’s life might end up being the $30-per-month unlimited 3G data plan that Steve Jobs promised in his product announcement. Right now, mobile broadband data plans for laptops run about $60 per month. Even if you never plan on buying, using or touching an iPad, that price cut could benefit you if other providers follow suit with other devices.

Will it happen? The iPad’s not a full-blown laptop, so wireless providers might not feel the pressure to lower their mobile broadband prices too much. On top of that, the cheapest 3G iPad is $629, and it still takes nearly two years for the difference in plan prices to add up to that.

Still, one can dream, right?