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Looking at the iPad From Two Angles

In 10 years of reviewing tech products for The New York Times, I’ve never seen a product as polarizing as Apple’s iPad, which arrives in stores on Saturday.

“This device is laughably absurd,” goes a typical remark on a tech blog’s comments board. “How can they expect anyone to get serious computer work done without a mouse?”

“This truly is a magical revolution,” goes another. “I can’t imagine why anyone will want to go back to using a mouse and keyboard once they’ve experienced Apple’s visionary user interface!”

Those are some pretty confident critiques of the iPad — considering that their authors have never even tried it.

Apple iPad
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Apple iPad

In any case, there’s a pattern to these assessments.

The haters tend to be techies; the fans tend to be regular people. Therefore, no single write-up can serve both readerships adequately. There’s but one solution: Write separate reviews for these two audiences.

Read the first one if you’re a techie. (How do you know? Take this simple test. Do you use BitTorrent? Do you run Linux? Do you have more e-mail addresses than pants? You’re a techie.)

Read the second review if you’re anyone else.

Review for Techies

The Apple iPad is basically a gigantic iPod Touch.

It’s a half-inch-thick slab, all glass on top, aluminum on the back. Hardly any buttons at all — just a big Home button below the screen. It takes you to the Home screen full of apps, just as on an iPhone.

One model gets online only in Wi-Fi hot spots ($500 to $700, for storage capacities from 16 to 64 gigabytes). The other model can get online either using Wi-Fi or, when you’re out and about, using AT&T’s cellular network; that feature adds $130 to each price.

You operate the iPad by tapping and dragging on the glass with your fingers, just as on the iPhone. When the very glossy 9.7-inch screen is off, every fingerprint is grossly apparent.

There’s an e-book reader app, but it’s not going to rescue the newspaper and book industries (sorry, media pundits). The selection is puny (60,000 titles for now). You can’t read well in direct sunlight. At 1.5 pounds, the iPad gets heavy in your hand after awhile (the Kindle is 10 ounces). And you can’t read books from the Apple bookstore on any other machine — not even a Mac or iPhone.

When the iPad is upright, typing on the on-screen keyboard is a horrible experience; when the iPad is turned 90 degrees, the keyboard is just barely usable (because it’s bigger). A $70 keyboard dock will be available in April, but then you’re carting around two pieces.

At least Apple had the decency to give the iPad a really fast processor. Things open fast, scroll fast, load fast. Surfing the Web is a heck of a lot better than on the tiny iPhone screen — first, because it’s so fast, and second, because you don’t have to do nearly as much zooming and panning.

But as any Slashdot reader can tell you, the iPad can’t play Flash video. Apple has this thing against Flash, the Web’s most popular video format; says it’s buggy, it’s not secure and depletes the battery. Well, fine, but meanwhile, thousands of Web sites show up with empty white squares on the iPad — places where videos or animations are supposed to play.

YouTube, Vimeo, TED.com, CBS.com and some other sites are converting their videos to iPad/iPhone/Touch-compatible formats. But all the news sites and game sites still use Flash. It will probably be years before the rest of the Web’s videos become iPad-viewable.

There’s no multitasking, either. It’s one app at a time, just like on the iPhone. Plus no U.S.B. jacks and no camera. Bye-bye, Skype video chats. You know Apple is just leaving stuff out for next year’s model.

The bottom line is that you can get a laptop for much less money — with a full keyboard, DVD drive, U.S.B. jacks, camera-card slot, camera, the works. Besides: If you’ve already got a laptop and a smartphone, who’s going to carry around a third machine?

Review for Everyone Else

The Apple iPad is basically a gigantic iPod Touch.

The simple act of making the multitouch screen bigger changes the whole experience. Maps become real maps, like the paper ones. You see your e-mail inbox and the open message simultaneously. Driving simulators fill more of your field of view, closer to a windshield than a keyhole.

The new iBooks e-reader app is filled with endearing grace notes. For example, when you turn a page, the animated page edge actually follows your finger’s position and speed as it curls, just like a paper page. Font, size and brightness controls appear when you tap. Tap a word to get a dictionary definition, bookmark your spot or look it up on Google or Wikipedia. There’s even a rotation-lock switch on the edge of the iPad so you can read in bed on your side without fear that the image will rotate.

If you have the cellular model, you can buy AT&T service so you can get online anywhere. (Cellular iPads aren’t available until next month; I tested a Wi-Fi-only model.)

But how’s this for a rare deal from a cell company: there’s no contract. By tapping a button in Settings, you can order up a month of unlimited cellular Internet service for $30. Or pay $15 for 250 megabytes of Internet data; when it runs out, you can either buy another 250 megs, or just upgrade to the unlimited plan for the month. Either way, you can cancel and rejoin as often as you want — just March, July and November, for example — without penalty. The other carriers are probably cursing AT&T’s name for setting this precedent.

Do you like the concept?

The iPad’s killer app, though, is killer apps. Apple says that 150,000 existing iPhone apps run on the iPad. They either appear actual size — small and dead center on the screen — or, with a tap, doubled to fill the screen, a little blurry. Still, all the greats work this way: Dragon Dictation, Skype (even voice calls, through its speaker and microphone) and those gazillion games.

But the real fun begins when you try the apps that were specially designed for the iPad’s bigger screen. (When the iPad section of the App Store opens Saturday, it will start with 1,000 of them.)

That Scrabble app shows the whole board without your zooming or panning: a free companion app for your iPhone or Touch is called Tile Rack; it lets you fiddle with your letters in private, then flick them wirelessly onto the iPad’s screen. Newspaper apps will reproduce the layout, photos and colors of a real newspaper. The Marvel comic-book app is brilliant in its vividness and panel-by-panel navigation. (Oops, maybe that app belongs in the review for techies.)

Hulu.com, the Web’s headquarters for free hit TV shows, won’t confirm the talk that it’s working on an iPad app, but wow — can you imagine? A thin, flat, cordless, bottomless source of free, great TV shows, in your bag or on the bedside table?

Speaking of video: Apple asserts that the iPad runs 10 hours on a charge of its nonremovable battery — but we all know you can’t trust the manufacturer. And sure enough, in my own test, the iPad played movies continuously from 7:30 a.m. to 7:53 p.m. — more than 12 hours. That’s four times as long as a typical laptop or portable DVD player.

The iPad is so fast and light, the multitouch screen so bright and responsive, the software so easy to navigate, that it really does qualify as a new category of gadget. Some have suggested that it might make a good goof-proof computer for technophobes, the aged and the young; they’re absolutely right.

And the techies are right about another thing: the iPad is not a laptop. It’s not nearly as good for creating stuff. On the other hand, it’s infinitely more convenient for consuming it — books, music, video, photos, Web, e-mail and so on. For most people, manipulating these digital materials directly by touching them is a completely new experience — and a deeply satisfying one.

The bottom line is that the iPad has been designed and built by a bunch of perfectionists. If you like the concept, you’ll love the machine.

The only question is: Do you like the concept?

David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: pogue@nytimes.com.

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