The iPad is for Gaming

8 04 2010

I have had a transformative experience. And I’ve figured out what the iPad is for.

Much like the process I went through when Google Wave came out, I’ve been mulling the true import of the iPad. Photoshop seems like a natural choice, and would probably be an improvement over the computer–touch-screen in drawing improves everything–but it still wouldn’t be as good as a Wacom tablet. Powerpoints are an option, but then you get to the onerous business of typing. Reading is okay, but it’s far from ideal: I have the perfect ebook reader in my head already, and the iPad doesn’t come close. But there is one thing the iPad does better than almost anything else.

The iPad is a big freaking de-consolized DS. And that’s kind of awesome.

The iPhone has games, and I tried a few of them–little arcade-style games and Asteroids-style shooters. But the iPhone always seemed a little too small, or my thumbs a little too big. I’d have to try some of the really serious iPhone games, like their Metal Gear Solid or Grand Theft Auto offerings, but non-arcade games seem particularly awkward on mobile platforms. Doom on the Droid works okay with a hard-keyboard interface, but using those tiny WSAD keys to move around on a space the size of a pack of cards feels both literally and figuratively cramped. Perhaps the best metaphor for my Droid gaming experience so far is, in fact, a game I played on it, a point-and-click 3D horror game in which the objective was to escape from a bathroom.

A creepy bathroom, but come on.

But the iPad is basically exactly the right size for arcade games or simple adventure games. It’s pretty light, you can hold it in two hands, and the screen feels full, even capacious. It doesn’t have some of the options of the DS–no blowing on it to douse a candle or so on–but it also eliminates the single major problem that keeps me from buying consoles: The fact that I can’t really use them for anything else.

Sure, I could watch a DVD on them, or go all Little Brother and install some kind of remixed Linux on an Xbox, but one of the big reasons I’ve never bought a console is because I hate to have a device that only has one purpose (well, and because I’m laughably bad using console controllers, but that’s another matter.) For all I complain about Apple, most consoles are even more locked-down–heck, if an Xbox gets banned from Xbox live, it’s basically done for. An iPad can do a slick but rudimentary job on a lot of things, but if it offered a really great gaming experience, that might be worth it for me.

An example: I got the chance to play Activision’s Geometry Wars on the iPad today, and it feels completely natural. The game’s simple graphics look good on the sharp screen, and the console-like two-thumb interface takes advantage of the iPad’s multitouch.

Of course, I’m still not going to drop $500 or more on a handheld device I don’t really need, and the iPad is absolutely off-limits to me as long as it doesn’t have a camera (because seriously, games are cool now, but how great would a big, high-resolution version of the augmented reality game Spads & Fokkers be, with iPad users meeting up to control digital airplanes zipping around the real world?) But if the Apple product cycle holds true, I might buy the $200 version a few years down the road, if it goes the direction I’m hoping.

And look, an actual iPad review!

6 04 2010

Two of my friends have gotten iPads, and I’ve had the luxury of messing around on them a little bit. It’s a fun, futuristic feeling: If a science fiction movie from the 1980s (not something cyberpunk–think more of a Westworld feel) had used one, I wouldn’t be surprised. Once you get right down to it, though: It’s a big, fast iPod touch.

That’s really it, and that’s why I, and you, don’t need one. It’s kind of in what Bruce Sterling called the “Goofy Prototype” stage in The Hacker Crackdown. It’s pretty, shiny, pretty expensive, and no one is quite sure what to do with it: It’s like a television for the Web, that does rudimentary document editing and gives you a good, but sub-Kindle reading experience.

But back to the technical stuff. First of all, let me stress again that it’s really, really fast. Going from my first-gen iPhone to the iPad is like the difference between writing an essay on 1890s gold prices in Cyrillic on a typewriter made of quicksand and thinking. Applications that were built for the iPhone open instantaneously; larger apps, like Pages, the word processing document, take only a little longer.

Like the iPhone, the iPad is a bit of a fingerprint magnet; unlike the tiny-screened iPhone, however, the iPad is big enough that it becomes noticeable. This is only when the device is off, however, or at an angle: The iPad screen is bright enough that all but the most egregious of smudges are invisible. The brushed-metal construction feels solid and hefty: This is a bit of a downside when you’re trying to type or hold it for a long period of time, but it does give it a more reassuring feel than the featherlight Kindle. I didn’t get to test the headphone jack, but the speakers seemed about iPhone-strength, which is to say, relatively puny. Watching a Youtube video with a group gives you a bright, sharp image, but little sound even with the volume all the way up.

Interface remains the strong point of the iPad, as it has been with Apple’s other touchscreen products. The icons flip on the screen when you rotate it, and a quick swipe to the right or left brings up additional home screens or a search window. Cut-and-paste works using the same double-tap function as on the iPhone, and the international keyboards, once enabled, can still be accessed with the tap of a button.

The typing has preserved the brilliant autocorrect of the iPhone, but the keyboard, unfortunately, probably leaves the most to be desired. Like the iPhone, where two-thumb typing is a marked improvement over numeric-keypad spelling, but slightly inferior to the Droid’s or Blackberry’s physical keyboard, the iPad keyboard hovers in the awkward liminal space between iPhone and netbook keyboard. In portrait mode, it’s a bigger version of the iPhone keyboard, something which works surprisingly well, especially for someone like me who can manage fairly long missives on her iPhone. Turn it to landscape, however, and it’s much less clear what to do. If you’re holding it, you can reach awkwardly for the keys in the middle; if you’re sitting, you can set it down and crane your neck over the keyboard to ten-finger type. I actually got the best results by propping the iPad on my iPhone, raising it an inch off the table and giving me a better typing angle; my friend told me the case, which hadn’t arrived yet, would prop it up in a similar way. All I can say is that that external keyboard is going to be invaluable.

So, overall, is the iPad worth buying? It’s a lot of fun, but if I need an ereader, I’ll get a Kindle, if I need a work tool, I’ll get a netbook, and if I want a goofy prototype, I’ll get one of the convertible netbook/tablets like the Viliv Blade or a set of augmented reality glasses. Let’s put it this way: I would buy the iPad if I had infinity dollars, but if I had infinity dollars, I could just hire Steve Jobs to design me a time-traveling robot iPad suit that also gave me telepathy. And guns. Lots of guns.

Why I won’t buy an iPad (besides that I’m broke)

4 04 2010

I don’t read BoingBoing with any regularity, but Cory Doctorow’s piece on the iPad sums up a lot of what I feel about the device:

Why I won’t buy an iPad (and think you shouldn’t, either)

It’s a long article, and doesn’t easily lend itself to sound-biting, but hits on the three big issues I have with Apple in general: Their general distrust of computer users, their hostility to interoperability, and their expectation of a never-ending user upgrade cycle. Here’s one quote from Cory on the non-replaceable batteries of the iPad:

The way you improve your iPad isn’t to figure out how it works and making it better. The way you improve the iPad is to buy iApps. Buying an iPad for your kids isn’t a means of jump-starting the realization that the world is yours to take apart and reassemble; it’s a way of telling your offspring that even changing the batteries is something you have to leave to the professionals.

Of course, I feel like kind of a loser agreeing with this. I’ve never built a desktop; I like messing around with them but am usually not even particularly good at it. I memorably tried to do video out to a TV once and ended up somehow erasing my graphic drivers and spending an hour in the command line trying fixes a friend and I had looked up on his parent’s computer.

Overall, I’m okay with Apple computers. I recommend them to any friends who aren’t interested in tweaking their computer or operating system, and who want something that just works. Software-wise, you can mess with it if you want, but most people don’t, both because there’s no need to, and because as far as I can tell, you already need to have a pretty solid knowledge of the commands to do so. That’s both the beauty and the curse of Apple. It’s the unexamined life of computing.

But when people ask me why I spend my time looking at no-brand Chinese netbooks instead of just getting a Mac, it’s because I genuinely like trying to figure out new things, and being forced to do so. I use Ubuntu, the tricycle of the Linux world, but even with that, it’s because I like being forced to figure out workarounds for things, and because I like the flexibility and openness of it.

Apple is the antithesis of openness. It’s a form of benevolent dictatorship: Apple tells the consumer what they want, and the consumer usually likes it. I got the first generation of iPhone when it came out, and even with new smartphones on the market, I really don’t think there’s anything like it in terms of sheer beauty of design. Everything on it flows: The apps have a consistency that’s wonderful, and everything on it goes together just about perfectly. That said, I jailbroke it about three times before they opened it up to independently-developed apps.

The other problem with iPhones, and Apple products in general, is that they’re not designed to last, or even really to be upgradeable. They’re designed to be just slightly less shiny than the newest model, at which point you’re to throw out your old one. Apple’s gotten better about this–they’ve tried to make it easier to recycle your iPods and related products–but fundamentally, the problem remains. Like Cory says, you can’t even change the battery yourself, and there’s no way to use many things Apple-related with other products: When Palm made its Pre smartphone compatible with iTunes, a legitimately good music management software, Apple released a series of updates designed to break the compatibility.

That’s one of the things I really like about the Droid, and something that makes me hope it gets a solid app store and better software in the next version. Android doesn’t have the brilliance of the iPhone operating system, but that’s sort of the difference between vibrantly democratic India and totalitarian China: It’s a lot easier to put on a fantastic Olympics in the latter, but you don’t get a whole lot of choice about whether that’s what you want to do in the first place.

Update: Here’s a good counterpoint to some of the things in Cory’s essay: The Kids Are All Right


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.