Hands-on with the new Apple iPad

Computerworld's Seth Weintraub got a few minutes with the device just after its debut

For the next several weeks, a lot of Mac users are going to be eager to get their hands on Apple's new iPad.

I did get my hands on one yesterday -- briefly -- after Apple's iPad launch event here, where CEO Steve Jobs finally unveiled a device everyone's been expecting Apple to deliver for years.

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The iPad is heavier than you'd think, especially if you've used a Kindle. Amazon's e-reader weighs less than 12 oz.; the iPad checks in at more than twice that weight: 1.5 lbs. You notice the heft as soon as you pick it up. It feels like you've ripped the top off a MacBook Pro and added some thickness to it.

Initially, I wondered why so much screen real estate was wasted on the black frame around the iPad's edge. Once you have it in your hands, the answer's obvious: If the touch screen went all the way to the edges, you'd set it off simply by holding it. With the border, you have a place to keep your fingers when you're not doing multitouch gestures or typing on the virtual keyboard.

I wasn't the only person who noticed the iPad's weight. As I was looking over the device with a lot of other media types after Jobs' speech, I heard the guy next to me tell an Apple representative: "If I throw this at someone's head, they are going down."

The source of a lot of that weight is the 25W/hour battery, which can power the device for 10 hours, according to Apple. (I was only able to try the iPad for a few minutes, so that claim remains to be proved in real-world use.) For reference, the MacBook Air has a 40W/hour battery that is billed as lasting seven hours. On stage, Jobs bragged that you could fly from San Francisco to Japan and watch movies on the iPad the whole way. Something tells me he might have tested that particular stat himself.

A lot of laptops promise similar battery life, but don't deliver. My own Asus Eee 100HE is supposed to last 9.5 hours, but I can't do much more than word processing without the battery draining quickly. Watching a two-hour movie will deplete it.

The iPad is built around a new chip, a custom-designed 1-GHz A4 processor that makes the tablet's apps very responsive. That's especially true for the ones that are already available on the iPhone. Maps, for instance, is incredible on the 1024-by-768-pixel screen -- especially using Street View. Moving the iPad around and having the street view move with you is actually quite cool.

The Calendar and Address book apps are also beautiful, and snappy. The most impressive app -- and the most important, given how the iPad will be used by most people -- is Safari. It's fast -- desktop fast. You get all of the benefits of Safari on the iPhone, including pinching, scrolling and even instantaneous portrait-to-landscape orientation changes, all on a much bigger screen. This is the best browsing experience on any device I've come across yet.

The iWork apps seemed a bit slower: Opening a document takes a few seconds. Using it will entail something of a learning curve and isn't quite as easy as Apple might have you believe. Moving some text around and adding an image to a document took me a few extra moments to master. No doubt, regular use will speed things up a bit as you get used to the app and how things work on the iPad.

Alas, Apple didn't let us media types sit on a couch and use it like Jobs when he was on stage. I really think that's how Apple expects the iPad to be used most often. Using it while I was standing up, I thought that it felt a little bigger than something I'd use for a long period of time. Maybe that's just because I'm used to an iPhone.

Given the weight and size, the iPad is definitely something most people will use with both hands -- unlike the iPhone, which you can pretty much operate with one hand. And you're less likely to drop the iPad if you've got a good grip on it.

The pricing -- $499, $599 or $699, depending on how much storage you want -- is fairly aggressive for Apple, and was probably the biggest surprise of the show. I think the entry-level model will be very popular, especially if you don't need 3G access. (Adding 3G bumps up the iPad's price by another $130, plus you have to cough up a monthly fee for data service.) For people like me who have MiFi cards, the 3G isn't necessary. But the 3G model also supports GPS -- which is a big deal for some users.

The 3G rates are actually good, if you aren't already paying for unlimited data service. AT&T will charge $15 a month for 250MB of data (don't download a movie on 3G!) or $30 a month for unlimited data. That's significant, since a lot of people already pay $60 a month for unlimited service plans on their smartphones.

Now that we know what the iPad is, the lone question yet to be answered is whether it will be successful. I think it will. Here's why: It's Apple's answer to the netbook phenomenon. It does just about everything netbooks can do -- and a lot of things they can't do. For instance, can you download 140,000 apps or use a netbook standing up?

Most important, the iPad excels in the places where netbooks have until now reigned: On the couch. In the purse. In the car. In the kitchen.

Like a lot of Apple fans, I'm waiting for the iPad to ship. And when it does finally hit the market in March and April, Apple can count me in. I'm buying.

Seth Weintraub is a New York-based Global Creative Technology Manager and Apple enthusiast who co-founded 9to5 Mac and is a Computerworld blogger and columnist.

This story, "Hands-on with the new Apple iPad" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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