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10 reasons to pass on the iPad? TUAW fact check

Over at TechRepublic's 10 Things blog, Debra Littlejohn Shinder has posted an article called "10 reasons why I'll be passing on the iPad." Some of her reasoning is sound, but quite a few of her points are easy to refute. It's worth looking at her post and the points it tries to make, because it's indicative of a widespread misunderstanding of not only the iPad's capabilities, but also its intended consumer base.

1. There's no physical keyboard

Debra's correct that the iPad has no physical keyboard. But what she fails to account for is that not only will Apple sell a keyboard dock for the iPad, the device can also be paired with any existing Bluetooth keyboard. Apple's reasoning for not including a physical keyboard on the iPad is even more compelling than for the iPhone, because unlike the iPhone, you at least have the option of pairing the iPad with a physical keyboard. In order to put a physical keyboard on the device itself, there'd be two options: keep the iPad the same size and sacrifice a third of the screen's real estate, or increase the iPad's size beyond what some (including Debra) already consider unwieldy in order to include a keyboard.

In landscape orientation, the iPad's virtual keyboard is nearly the size of a conventional keyboard, too, so while touch typing is going to be a challenge, it's a fair bet that typing on the iPad will be much faster and easier than the high end of 30 - 35 WPM thumb typing many people (myself included) achieve on the iPhone's far smaller keyboard. The lack of a physical keyboard on the iPhone hasn't measurably affected its sales; the iPad isn't likely to suffer many lost sales from this, either.

(Note: a few people have asked for a source on the Bluetooth keyboard issue, particularly my assertion that you can use any BT keyboard and not just Apple's wireless models. During her hands-on with the iPad following the device's announcement, Jacqui Cheng at Ars Technica verified that "You can use any bluetooth keyboard you want, instead of Apple's keyboard dock. You could use the case/stand with your existing bluetooth keyboard. You cannot use a bluetooth mouse, however.")


Check out the other nine points by clicking the Read More link below.
2. One size doesn't fit all

Debra claims that if the iPad is supposed to be a niche device positioned between a phone and a netbook, it should have a screen size midway between the two -- in other words, smaller than a 9.7" screen. However, that's not how Steve Jobs positioned the iPad at all during the keynote; Jobs's Keynote slide clearly showed the iPad filling a gap between the iPhone/iPod touch and a 13" MacBook. It's puzzling that in one sentence Debra complains about the iPad being too large to fit in your pocket, while in the next sentence she extols the virtues of Sony's VAIO X netbooks, which are almost exactly the same size - in terms of weight and thickness anyway. The VAIO X has an 11.1" 16:9 display, which actually makes it quite a bit larger than the iPad. One other thing about the VAIO X is quite a bit larger than the iPad: the price, which starts at $1299 -- far more expensive than even the priciest iPad.

While it's true the iPad won't fit in your pocket, it's still far more portable than even a MacBook Air. Stephen Colbert even managed to pull one out of his jacket at the Grammys, so while the iPad is larger than an iPhone, it's far from the unwieldy monster many people are trying to claim it is.

3. It runs a phone OS

One thing many pundits fail to account for is that the iPhone OS is actually a version of OS X adapted for a touchscreen device. No, there's no Finder, Dock, or menu bar. No, there's no Exposé, Spaces, or Time Machine. But the underpinnings of the iPhone OS are exactly the same as those of the Mac version of OS X. So when people complain the iPad doesn't run OS X, they're really pining for OS X features like the ones I already mentioned -- the Finder, Dock, menu bar, etc. However, none of those OS X features are particularly suited to a touchscreen device, especially one with a 9.7" screen. Tablet PCs running the full version of Windows have already demonstrated the pitfalls of running an OS meant for a larger device with a traditional point-and-click interface, and as a result, almost all of those devices have failed to gain traction in the market.

Debra and others also cite the iPad's lack of multitasking as a strike against it. On this point, at least, I agree with them. While iPhone OS already allows for limited multitasking among Apple's own apps -- Phone, Messages, Mail, Safari, and iPod can all run simultaneously in the background -- third-party apps are still restricted to workarounds like push notifications. While restricting multitasking makes a kind of sense on devices like the iPhone 3G, with limited processing power and RAM available, on the iPad those technological limitations don't fly as an excuse. You can argue that not having multitasking on the iPad makes it easier to use for Grandma and other non-techies, but it also limits the device's potential utility. Granted, the iPad isn't positioned as a replacement for a MacBook, but the ability to run even one or two third-party apps in the background would make the device far more versatile.

Personally, I would be very surprised if Apple doesn't introduce at least a limited form of multitasking in iPhone OS 4.0. Of course, I also said the same thing last year about iPhone OS 3.0, so who knows. One point bears mentioning, though: despite the introduction of iWork for the iPad, Apple is still pushing the device as a platform for consuming media, not as a productivity platform. To get any serious work done, Apple still expects you'll use your main computer, whether it's a MacBook, iMac, or PC.

4. There's not enough storage

The most important question to ask on this point is, "For whom?" Debra says the 64 GB model might have enough capacity for her purposes, but she also grouses about the price of that model, comparing it to cheaper netbooks with "four times the storage." I will say that I'm puzzled at Apple's decision to top out the iPad's capacity at 64 GB, especially considering that's where the iPod touch currently tops out. A 128 GB iPad would have been very tempting indeed; unfortunately, given the price of flash memory, it also would have probably cost more than $1000.

But what does 64 GB allow you to store? In my case, a 64 GB iPad would hold my entire 39 GB music library -- 19 days worth of music -- plus my entire iPhoto library of over 7000 photos, which, when optimized for the iPad's screen, would probably take up somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 GB, plus or minus a GB or two. At my most app-crazy I had about 2 GB of apps on my iPhone 3G, and "Other" space, presumably including the OS itself, takes up just over 1 GB. Added up, that equates to 47 out of 64 GB. In my case, that leaves over 15 GB of space for document storage, videos, and so forth. Let's say I store my entire Documents folder on the iPad (I wouldn't -- I use iDisk and Dropbox for that) -- 4300 documents taking up just over 2 GB of space. Now we have 13 GB left over for videos and whatever else. Even if I left myself a 3 GB buffer for whatever reason (including accounting for the GB versus GiB difference), that's still 10 GB of space for videos -- enough to store 10 two-hour films at a decent bitrate, or almost an entire season of an hour-long TV series.

Let me break that down again -- a 64 GB iPad would store:

-- 19 days of music
-- 7000 photos
-- Well over 100 apps
-- A 2 GB Documents folder with 4300 items
-- 20 hours of video
-- Around 3 GB of space left over for whatever else (temporary photo storage, e-books, accounting for the difference between binary gigabytes versus decimal gigabytes, etc.)

Granted, there are people out there with music and photo libraries larger than mine, but most of my Mac-using friends only have, on average, 1500 items in their iTunes libraries, a thousand or so photos, and maybe three pages of apps on their iPhones. 64 GB may not sound like much on paper, but practically speaking, it lets you pack around a lot of media. Unless you're going to spend weeks at a time away from your main computer, the iPad should be able to carry around enough media to keep almost anyone entertained for days on end.

5. There's no HDMI output or camera

Debra claims you can't output the iPad's video to an HDTV without an HDMI connector. That simply isn't true; with a VGA adapter, you can output the iPad's full 1024 x 768 video signal to an HDTV. With a component connector, you can output a 576p PAL signal or a 480p NTSC signal to your TV. Okay, fine, it's not 1080p ultra-high-def video, but where exactly are you going to find video of that resolution anyway (besides Blu-Ray and Bittorrent)? I'll admit that it would have been nice to have at least 1366 x 768 video (1080i, in other words), but I'm betting that the vast majority of consumers aren't going to even bother hooking the iPad up to their TV at all when it's far easier to just put the screen on their laps and watch a movie on the iPad itself instead.

(Whoops -- as a few people have pointed out, 1080i is 1920 x 1080 [hence, you know, 1080i] and not 1366 x 768. That's the resolution my HDTV has, and it claims to handle a 1080i signal -- what I didn't account for was that the 1080i signal gets deinterlaced to fit my screen's resolution. I even used to sell these stupid TVs, so I really should have known better. Sorry about that.)

Another point Debra brings up is the iPad's 3:4 aspect ratio, which is less than ideal for video. This has been argued all over the internet, including here at TUAW, but as many people have pointed out, the 3:4 aspect ratio is ideally suited to pretty much every other function on the iPad except video: books, documents, web pages, and photos are all laid out far closer to a 3:4 or 4:3 ratio than 16:9. Using a 16:9 ratio on the iPad would not only make the device larger than it already is, it would also leave all other forms of media on the device at a disadvantage compared to video.

The iPad's lack of camera is another point Debra and others have brought out against the device, but like multitasking, this is one point on which I agree. A back-facing camera like the iPhone's doesn't make a lot of sense on the iPad -- it would be a bit unwieldy trying to take pictures or video with a device this size, rather like trying to hold up a MacBook Air to take photos with its iSight. Most people probably have a standalone point-and-shoot camera that would take better stills and/or video than the iPad's hypothetical back-facing camera anyway, and you can load those pictures directly onto the device with either the iPad-specific camera connector or SD card reader. But a front-facing camera for video conferencing definitely would have been a killer feature. Apple apparently thought so, too, because it actually included a space in the iPad for exactly such a camera, only to withdraw it for reasons known only to Apple. Whether the company is waiting for the next-gen iPad to introduce a camera or pulling a big switcheroo like it did with the original iPhone -- which was originally supposed to ship with the scratch-prone plastic face of previous iPods, but was replaced with nearly scratch-proof glass in the six months between its announcement and release -- no one can say.

6. There are no USB ports

Debra's main complaints against the lack of USB ports are that you can't hook up a flash drive or a USB keyboard. As far as the keyboard goes, I've already mentioned the fact that you can purchase a keyboard dock or use a Bluetooth keyboard. As for not being able to hook up a flash drive? I can see why some people might want to do this -- expanding the iPad's storage, transferring files, etc. But I'm willing to bet that for most people this isn't going to be an issue. While I run the risk of sounding like Bill Gates's infamous "640K should be enough for anyone" by saying so (although Gates never actually said that), 64 GB of space on a device like the iPad really should suit most users' needs -- at least for the next couple of years, anyway. As for transferring files? I can think of a number of existing, cloud-based solutions, the most simplistic of which is e-mail. No, you can't transfer several gigabytes of files at a time through e-mail or "the cloud," but most people don't transfer that much data all at one go even a handful of times with a portable device, much less on a regular basis.

I'm not going to go full fanboy and say it's a good thing the iPad doesn't come with USB ports. In fact, I'm kind of with Debra and the others on this one in wishing that Apple included at least one USB port. While I probably wouldn't use the port very often (if at all), it definitely falls into the category of "nice to have." I've been an iPod user for almost five years and an iPhone user for a year, and I can count the number of times I've needed/wanted a USB port on one of those devices on exactly no fingers... but I'll admit that I might sing a different tune with a bigger device like an iPad. But for most of the people who are likely to buy the iPad, i.e., the non-geek, non-techie, "I just want internet and music and movies" folks, they're probably not going to miss USB ports at all.

7. There's no flash memory slot

No, the iPad doesn't have a flash memory slot. You can buy an SD card reader attachment, though, although Debra and others rail against the added cost of the connector, claiming that in order to reach "the functional equivalent of a netbook, you may end up spending a bundle." A lot of the same arguments for or against USB apply here as well; most non-geeks aren't going to miss an SD slot at all. Transferring documents via SD cards in 2010 reeks of the "sneakernet" we thought we were abolishing along with dot-matrix printers and 2800 baud modems; let's just say that most users are going to have photos and/or videos on their SD cards, most users are going to wait until they get home to their main computer to upload those files, and most users aren't going to care that the iPad's missing a dedicated SD slot any more than they cared about the iPod missing one. If anything, the argument for an SD slot is far weaker than the argument for USB.

8. The price is not right

Debra claims the iPad "costs twice as much as the Kindle and other ebook readers." That's flat-out false. The $499 iPad does cost almost twice as much as the standard Kindle, but compared to every other e-reader out there, the iPad's pricing is extremely competitive once you consider all the things the iPad does that the other readers iDon't. A $489 Kindle DX, for example, while $10 cheaper than the cheapest iPad, doesn't have a color screen, has only 4 GB of storage, doesn't have a touchscreen, doesn't run apps, doesn't have e-mail, music, and so on, and so forth. The iPad's price is the one aspect of the device that few pundits have complained about; in fact, the pricing has Wall Street and other financial analysts doing cartwheels.

You don't even have to compare the iPad to other companies' similar products to see how good a deal it is. The 16 GB iPad costs $300 more than an 8 GB iPod touch. That $300 gets you twice the capacity, a much larger and higher-quality screen, a more powerful CPU, better Wi-Fi including 802.11n, vastly improved battery performance, a built-in speaker and microphone, and, eventually, access to a host of apps designed to take advantage of the iPad's larger screen and higher performance. A 32 GB iPad has the same $300 price difference compared to a 32 GB iPod touch, as does the 64 GB model. Once you tack on an additional $130 for 3G wireless the price difference widens, but so does the device's utility -- access to wireless broadband anywhere there's an available 3G network, which, as iPhone users already know, is invaluable.

Debra compares the fully kitted-out $829 3G-enabled iPad to "a powerful compact laptop that runs a full-fledged operating system and multi-tasks and that has USB and SD and Ethernet connectors, 4 GB of RAM, and 250 GB of storage." The "full-fledged operating system" she's talking about isn't OS X, however, and the laptop she's talking about definitely isn't manufactured by Apple. That might not make a difference to a lot of people, but if you're already in the "Macs cost too much" camp, it's no wonder the iPad doesn't hold much appeal compared to that Windows Home Edition running, plastic, bargain-bin quality laptop from Dell or HP that's almost certain to stop working in two years or less. Yes, I recognize the extremely fanboyish sound of that sentence. No, I don't apologize for it. Cheap laptops are exactly that: cheap. Call it elitism, fanboyism, Kool-Aid drinking, whatever: I'd much rather put up with the iPad's shortcomings than those of the "powerful" but oh-so-cheapo laptops of other manufacturers.

9. It's locked in

"You have to buy your apps from the App Store," Debra notes. Yes, you do: from a store that has over 140,000 apps available, most of them for free, and capable of doing almost anything. Hate the App Store for some reason? Fine. Jailbreak the thing and use Cydia instead. Apple may not want you to do this, and they may go out of their way to prevent it, but if you're of the jailbreaking mindset already, that's not going to stop you, is it?

A very vocal minority of people love to complain about "vendor lock-in" when it comes to the iPhone/iPod touch/iPad, even though those same people have likely been playing around with video game systems from Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft for decades -- all platforms with "vendor lock-in" even more pervasive and insidious than that of Apple's platform. What these people don't seem to realize is that same vendor lock-in is precisely what keeps Apple's portable platforms from being riddled with viruses, malware, and apps made of more crap than code. "Security through obscurity" may be a valid(ish) argument to fall back upon with the Mac, but with 75 million plus people using the iPhone OS, it's a very high-profile target for virus writers. That same "walled garden" that Linux proponents and "open internet" evangelists whine about is what keeps the iPhone platform from being an unusable nightmare. Yes, the App Store approval process has in many cases been a pain in the nether regions, but things are improving -- apps that might have once taken days or weeks to get approved are now getting through the approval process in a matter of hours. Has the App Store's "lock-in" affected sales of the iPhone one iota? No. In fact, sales of the iPhone took way off after the App Store's arrival.

Yes, "Apple as gatekeeper" gets the George Orwell fans riled. But someone has to keep the gate, because the instant the iPhone OS becomes a truly "open" platform like some people are espousing, that's the same instant the Russian mafia remote-hijacks your iPhone from a basement in Vladivostok because you just had to download that "Siberian Honeys" app from the dark alleys of the internet.

Other aspects of dreaded "lock-in" that Debra's concerned about are riddled with falsehoods. "You can't run Skype to make phone calls," with the iPad, she claims. "We wouldn't want to cut into the iPhone market, after all." Say what? That must be news to the Skype team, who's already investigating an iPad-specific Skype app. It must be news to Apple, too, who no longer restricts the use of VoIP over 3G. "Nor can you download Flash to install on the browser, which means you won't be watching those YouTube videos." Say what again? Since when is the iPhone/iPod touch/iPad incapable of watching YouTube videos? Oh right: since never. No, you can't put Flash on the iPad, but according to our informal poll, 75% of people planning on buying one either don't care or are outright glad Flash isn't making an appearance.

What about hardware "lock-in?" Debra says that "you can't even remove and replace the battery yourself," which has been true of every single iPod since 2001 and hasn't stopped people from buying them by the millions. She goes on and says, "if you were flying to Australia and wanted to bring along an extra battery for the extra-long flight, forget about it." Um. A two-second Google search for "iPhone external battery" might have been a good idea. Plus, speaking from personal experience, if you stay awake for a full flight across the Pacific Ocean, you're going to have a lot more pressing issues to worry about than your iPad's battery, like the fact that you're going to feel like you got run over by a truck after the plane lands. Take it from one who knows: Trans-Pacific flights are best spent in blissful unconsciousness.

10. The network

Yep, the iPad's 3G connection is only available on AT&T's network... if you live in the United States. If, like me, you live in what's known informally as "the rest of the world," this argument against buying a 3G-enabled iPad holds no water for you. But let's stick to the States for a moment and analyze Debra's argument against AT&T's network. No, AT&T isn't everyone (or possibly even anyone)'s favorite US network, but the pay-as-you-go, completely contract-free plans available for the iPad are very compellingly priced. You can get 250 MB of data for $14.99 (not the $20 Debra claims in her article), which is more than enough for casual data usage. 250 MB doesn't sound like a lot on paper, but that's what my iPhone plan started out at here in New Zealand. I never once went over 100 MB or so of monthly data usage until I started using iPhone tethering, and I'd consider my data usage fairly robust. The "unlimited" AT&T plan at $30 a month is an even better deal, and even if "unlimited" only means 5 GB, you're not going to burn through that much data unless you're using the connection every waking hour of the month.

Debra's argument against these plans is that it's another bill to pay on top of your cell phone bill, but that's the beauty of the iPad plans: without a contract to commit to, you can cancel the plan whenever you want. If you start out with the $30/month "unlimited" plan on the iPad, only to find out your usage isn't topping 250 MB, rather than being locked in to that plan for another 23 months, you can downgrade to the $15 plan. If you find that you don't need the 3G coverage at all, you can always buy the Wi-Fi only iPad. "Here's wishing you good luck on finding those Wi-Fi hot spots," Debra says in response to that idea, which sounds about right for us in New Zealand, where free Wi-Fi is about as rare as gold, but makes much less sense in the US, where free Wi-Fi is usually only a library or café away.

If you absolutely must have 3G on the iPad, absolutely must not use AT&T, and are prepared to spend twice as much for the privilege of going with Verizon, you always have the option of hooking the iPad up to a MiFi (possibly -- we'll have to wait until the iPad's actually released before we know if this will work or not). Additionally, just because the iPad isn't available on Verizon right now (now now NOW) doesn't mean it never will be; Apple and Verizon are reportedly "still talking" about bringing the iPad and/or iPhone over to the network.

We've come to the end of Debra's ten points, but not to the end of mine. My final point, the one that sums up all of this: like the Mac, like the iPod, and like the iPhone, the iPad is not for everyone. It's not even for me -- despite all the words I've just spent defending it, I'm not buying an iPad until next year at the earliest, and only if I decide against replacing my current, aging MacBook Pro with the same computer rather than an iMac/iPad combo.

The bottom line is that the iPad can't be all things to all people. It's not meant to replace a full-fledged Mac or PC -- it's meant as an ultraportable extension of a larger device, and one with a far simpler and more intuitive interface, a "computer for the rest of us," if you will. And make no mistake: for every Debra Littlejohn Shinder, for every "open internet" geek who screams "vendor lock-in" every time Apple's name is mentioned, for every "no multitasking, no Flash, no sale" techie, for every dismissive pundit who shrugs and says, "It's just a big iPod touch," there's at least one person who has been waiting for a device just like the iPad, and those people are the ones who will make it a success. Whether you like it or hate it, the iPad is indicative of the future direction of computing.

But, just for the sake of argument, let's say we can cook up a portable computer far "better" than an iPad, a dream device that has USB, 1080p output, a removable battery, runs the full version of OS X, has a front-facing camera, isn't dependent on AT&T, isn't "locked in" to the App Store, has a physical keyboard, widescreen-formatted display, and has more than 64 GB of storage. What might such a device look like?


Oh. Right.

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