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Experiencing iPad – The Basics

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I have now been using my iPad for three months. It has become my constant companion, my steady assistant—even a conversation starter. I read with it, I check my mail, take notes. It is appointment book, writing organizer, weather forecaster and plaything. I read the New York Times with morning coffee, watch a movie in bed when I’m too lazy (or it’s too early) to get up. I write on it; I tweet on it. Do I sound like a girl in love?

Because I’m not a techie, I feel that I’m uniquely qualified to be your guide to the goods (and not so goods) of the iPad experience. So allow me to start by directing you to my first feature on the iPad, back when my love affair was new.

The most compelling thing to me about the iPad is its size—it is big enough to be a credible writing/viewing/surfing interface, but it’s much smaller and lighter than my MacBook Pro. I can carry it in my purse or in my hand easily; it’s about the size of a slim magazine, although it weighs as much (to me) as a book. Its size makes it a very credible jack-of-all-trades—a hybrid that can do the work of a laptop with the portability of a leather portfolio.

The first thing that people say to me (after the obligatory oohs and ahs—since the iPad is still pretty novel) is that they’ve heard it’s just a big iPod Touch—no more, no less. It certainly does what my iPod does; all my iPod apps work (and work well) on it. My tunes and videos are there; so are my games. But that’s where the similarity ends.

Raise your hand if you like typing on an iPod (or, for that matter, any smart phone—even the best)? Thought so. The first very cool thing about the iPad is its keyboard. In landscape mode (which is all I use for typing), the keyboard is nearly full size. Yes, it’s smaller than even a netbook keyboard. But it’s very functional and I can type relatively quickly on it with few errors—and using most of my fingers, not just my thumbs. I can take notes at meetings, write emails longer than two sentences, even write using a word processor without frustration. I would never think of writing an article, much less anything longer on my iPod or my Droid. But my iPad is doing a good job of making my legal pad obsolete. 

A friend recently gave me a wireless keyboard that works with the iPad. It was a generous gift and it can be very useful for writing longer pieces. The keyboard is small enough to tuck together with the iPad, and for awhile, it went wherever it did. But I’ve found that the keyboard really isn’t a necessary accessory for most applications.

Speaking of applications, there are thousands of them for the iPad (in addition to iPhone and iPod apps that work well with the iPad). But for this first article, in what I hope will be a long series of practical, fun and useful tips for the non-techie iPad user, I thought I’d start with a few of the basic apps that come with the device.

I love the mail program on the iPad. It automatically syncs with Gmail (and other mail services as well), so my email is synced as it is on my phone—instantaneously. It’s readable in both portrait and landscape, with the mailbox running down the side of the screen and the email being read taking up most of the screen. Mail is in HTML, so you get graphics, links, colors, etc. (which is no different than on my phone), but it’s all so much more readable.

On my Droid, which has an excellent Gmail interface, the links are tiny, the words are tiny (hey, I said I was middle aged), and to read the fine print, I generally have to blow up the email and scroll back and forth through it. The email experience on iPad is so much better than the best phone experience I’ve ever had. It’s as good as anything I’ve used, including Gmail’s site itself (which is what I’m using most often these days). But there’s a hitch.

As with the iPod Touch, you have to have an internet connection to stay current. This is one of many reasons why I ended up buying a 3G iPad and not the Wi-Fi. (I spend a lot of time with no Wi-Fi access.)

Responding to an email is a joy with iPad. Hit reply and the keyboard appears, taking up half the screen. Type, hit send and off it goes into the ether of the Internet.

And speaking of browsing the Internet…clicking a hyperlink within an email opens up the iPad’s native Safari browser. I rarely use Safari on my Mac (I really like Google Chrome), but I’m very happy with it on the iPad. You can view whole complete pages, and I’ve found it’s really equivalent to a smaller (but eminently readable) MacBook experience. The font is smaller, of course (but not unreadable), but it’s easy enough to manipulate the page size by pinching and pulling it with your fingers. Pages are best viewed landscape, because most web pages are configured that way. I have generally found that far from being a poor (but necessary) substitute for my computer’s browser, the iPad really provides an excellent browsing experience. It has its limitations, particularly regarding viewing embedded videos. But browsing on MSNBC.com, I had no trouble either accessing or viewing the many embedded videos on the site.

Another “essential” on my iPad is the standard-equipped calendar app, simply called “calendar.” It is beautiful, and is the closest (virtual) thing I’ve ever used to a real, print “executive” style desktop calendar. I love the “list” view, which allows me to look ahead while keeping an eye on my appointments and tasks for the day to come.  I keep my iPad open to the calendar at work; unlike my print calendar, it’s unlikely to get lost under the piles of “stuff” cluttering my desk. It just might be the first digital calendar to convince me to get rid of my handwritten planner once and for all!

It syncs flawlessly with Google calendar (and with any other calendar you specify in the preferences). Adding appointments is as simple, and as soon as you touch the entry area, the keyboard pops up. Save the appointment and it syncs back to all my other calendars. And although my Droid and laptop also keep my calendar, my phone is too small to function as a desk calendar, and Google calendar (and Outlook calendar for that matter) tends to get buried behind four or five other open windows on my computer screen.

So those are the basic basics. Next time: my fave five apps.

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (blogcritics.org). Her Bram Stoker Award-nominated novel, called "Anne Rice meets Michael Crichton," The Apothecary's Curse The Apothecary's Curse is now out from Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books. Her book on the TV series House, M.D., Chasing Zebras is a quintessential guide to the themes, characters and episodes of the hit show. Barnett is an accomplished speaker, an annual favorite at MENSA's HalloWEEM convention, where she has spoken to standing room crowds on subjects as diverse as "The Byronic Hero in Pop Culture," "The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes," "The Hidden History of Science Fiction," and "Our Passion for Disaster (Movies)."
  • The wi-fi works with any wi-fi. I have comcast in my house and it works just fine (as it would anywhere else). The contract part comes in for 3G, which is what AT&T and Verizon are offering (or thru Mi-Fi or your hot-spot enabled phone for example). That helps if no Wi-Fi is available.

    I use it for book reading all the time. I have iBooks, nook and Kindle on it. I have access to all of my 200+ Kindle books, which is nice. Just took it on vacation and read in the very bright sunshine of Puerto Vallarta. Yes, there’s glare, but it’s actually quite readable. Although not as good for really bright light as the Kindle. A non-reflective surface protector might help, although I didn’t use one.

  • Boeke

    Good report, Barbara, thanks for publishing it.

    Does the iPad require a wireless contract with ATT, Verizon, Sprint, etc., or will it use home WiFi/DSL and coffee-house WiFi?

    Could I use it outside for reading eBooks? Is the contrast good, is it bright enough, are reflections subdued?

  • piper dinny

    Barbara, thank you very much for sharing the experience. really helps. 😉

  • Martin


    I have been using the ipad for a week now and I use it to read magazines whilst travelling to work…great app Zinio. It is a good device if you just want consume data but I find when I am at home I often go back to the pc or laptop. Of course install Logmein and you can get your can control your PC from the ipad. I think the main limitations of the device are lack of a built in USB connection, lack of an SD card slot, only being able to install apps that been approved by Apple in the app store and having to install iTunes. It works well for what is destined to do but it is also quite expensive compared to a better equipped laptop/netbook.

  • iPad shares an OS with the iPhone. The OS, which is being updated (and the iPad release is due in the fall) is called iOS-4. iPad runs all iPhone apps. But iPhone doesn’t run all iPad apps. Mac staples like Pages require their own version. I’ve tried Pages for iPad and its quite good (tho I’m more of a Microsoft Word for Windows person, and use it even on my Mac).

  • What is the operating system of the iPad?

    Is it able to run software that Macs can’t, ie software that would only run on Windows or does there have to be an iPad app version of said software?

  • I haven’t noticed that as an annoyance, but I’ll check it out. I tried using an antireflective screen because I was told that was an issue and I ended up removing it.

    I usually use it in the dark for playing games (usually in bed before nodding off) or watching videos. I actually did find the iPod Touch annoying for its reflectiveness when watching movies.

    My iPad cover (see product highlighted below) forms a base so the iPad is at an angle in landscape mode, and I use that base alot for a better viewing experience, so maybe any reflective issues go away with that sort of angle.

  • marykir

    Do you have any problems with the reflective screen? I was using one yesterday indoors, with no lights on & just ambient sunlight through window shades, and was still getting mirror-like reflections anywhere the screen was dark. For example, while watching a TV show I could see my reflection in people on screen wearing dark clothes.