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Elke Boevers from Ecce Terram returned from her Silicon Valley sojourn cradling an iPad and today she brought it into the Science Media Centre for us to have a look at – and a play with.

Bottom line is that I’ll probably be getting one of these – importing it via friends in the states rather than buying it locally when it goes on sale for what will likely be a little shy of $1000.

As Sciblogger Grant Jacobs has already pointed out, the iPad is all about consumption of media, rather than productivity. That’s very much the impression you get when you hold this sleek little tablet. You don’t want to spend long entering text via the touchscreen interface or mucking about with the types of applications you use on your computer. The iPad is for leafing through digital pages with the lazy scroll of a finger, browsing Youtube, which looks great on the iPad and playing around with some of the new apps have have been custom-built for the iPad.

One of Elke’s favourites (and rapidly our favourite too) is Sky Gazer, an existing app for the iPod Touch and iPhone which has been adapted for the iPad’s larger dimensions. It creates a picture of the night sky and when you hold the iPad up over your head, you get a representation on the screen of what celestial landmarks are actually above you. The iPad uses the built in compass to figure out exactly where you are in relation to these heavenly bodies. It’s fantastically executed and incredibly responsive.

Sky Gazer - endless fascination

Sky Gazer - endless fascination

I was particularly impressed with ebooks on the iPad which we were displaying using the Kindle iPad app. Basically, the Kindle as a hardware device is pretty much dead in the water with the arrival of the iPad – the usability is much smoother on the iPad and the pages display crisply in landscape and portrait formats. Amazon will continue to make a killing from ebooks, but likely as a third party seller from now on, unless it revamps the Kindle considerably.

My real interest in the iPad is for reading newspapers. I’m a massive fan of the service Pressdisplay.com, which allows me for US$29 a month to get most New Zealand newspapers and around 1500 others from around the world accessible via a web portal every day. What I really like about it is that the papers are delivered digitally in the format they are printed, so you get the traditional newspaper look, with all the benefits of digital – search function, zoom in, scrolling etc.

Press Display works quite nicely with the Safari browser (see photo below) and the PressReader software, which allows you to download copies of papers to read offline apparently does an even better job of formatting newspapers on the iPad.

This is a glimpse of the future for the media in my book. If I can pick up my iPad and skim through the morning papers each morning, watch a few streaming videos, check my email and send a few tweets, without having to go near my computer, I’d be very happy. The iPad does all this any more. Anything deeper and I think you’d be struggling to justify the outlay on it.

Most impressive features

Video playback – Video looks great, crisp, bright, high-resolution, nice user interface on the built-in media player too.

Multi-touch – As with the iPod Touch and the iPhone, being able to zoom in, navigate around a webpage and juggle different elements with the touch of a couple of fingers makes the iPad incredibly versatile and makes the web-surfing experience a treat.

We played a racing car game where the iPad screen becomes a type of steering wheel, pressing down on the screen with your right finger lets you accelerate, pressing your left finger sees you break. Tilting the screen controls your steering. Its a use of the iPad’s accelerometer which allows it to sense the iPad’s position. Users of the iPhone and iPod Touch are familiar with its uses and they are only amplified in this larger format.

A few bugbears (so far)

Many have pointed to the lack of Flash support. This is likely to result in extensive teeth-grinding for iPad users – we forget how attached web developers are to Flash and how many seemingly standard features of websites rely on it to operate.

The lack of a camera in the iPad counts it out as a videoconferencing unit. This is really disappointing as it would be fantastic as a large Skype phone. Camera will do doubt arrive with version two, but its not good enough to exclude it from start, when the Eee PC and other entry-level netbooks boast built-in cameras.

Lack of connectivity options – the single, proprietary Apple connector makes me nervous. A couple of USB slots would have been an inoffensive and inexpensive addition and given more options for peripherals. Not a deal breaker, but definitely limits its appeal in my view (who really wants to plug in an adapter?)

Grubby finger prints – the iPad’s screen quickly becomes covered in finger prints – obscuring the picture at certain angles where the light catches them. This is largely unavoidable, but you are going to spend a lot of time with a soft cloth polishing this thing. Glare in general is an issue given the iPad’s highly-reflective screen, but the flexibility you have to hold the iPad in pretty much any position gets around that.

A sealed unit – a common complaint about the iPhone is the inability users have to pop off the back and install a new battery. As an old-school PC user, not being able to go under the hood is quite unnerving.

This version is Wi-Fi only, which will limit you to the range allowed by wireless hotspots. I don’t really see this as a problem myself as I’d only be using it at home or at the office, occasionally maybe at a cafe.

Audio from the built-in speakers is crappy. As with the iPhone, you’ll need to plug in some headphones to get decent sound.

Overall impressions

Exactly what was expected and promised by Apple. This is a game-changer not for the device itself in this iteration, but for the shift it signals for the computer industry, web developers and content publishers. The app store model and the user-friendliness of some of the apps made available for the iPhone, iPod Touch and now the iPad are already making sophisticated websites seem clunky and out-dated in comparison. These types of apps will increasingly become our route to the internet, rather than via a web browser.

The media should be excited about this device. It makes rich-media applications come alive and early signs are that newspapers, magazines and books look good on the iPad. I’m hanging out for a TVNZ on Demand iPad app so I can stream shows like Media7 when I’m not browsing Press Display.

Check out the definitive iPad review on Ars Technica for a decent analysis of the new device’s pros and cons.

The old and the new. The Guardian's front page detailing the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing behind the Dominion Post featured on the tablet via Press Display

The old and the new. The Guardian's front page detailing the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing behind the Dominion Post featured on the iPad via Press Display