iPad: First impressions

Screenshot from an iPad's home screen, showing various app icons.The other day I took delivery of my new tablet computer, an iPad mini with a Retina display, which cost £290 plus delivery charges on Amazon. It’s a wi-fi only model; I can’t afford another contract for a data SIM when my mobile data is more than adequate already. The reason I bought it, despite never having considered buying one until a couple of weeks before, was that I was getting frustrated with the poor quality of my Nexus 7 tablet and the apps that run on it. It’s the cheapest Nexus by far and it really shows in the quality and reliability (or lack thereof) of the device and the performance of apps on it. As I said in a recent entry, I was blown away by what I saw when I tried out a relative’s iPad (the demonstration models in the Apple store don’t really do the system, let alone the software available for it, justice).

The IPad is certainly quality; the display really is top-notch and in most cases you can hardly detect the dots - this can’t even be said about my Nexus 4 phone and on that,they’re practically invisible. The operation of just about everything is an awful lot smoother than on the N7 and crashes seem to be a lot rarer (Safari crashed - meaning closed without warning - when I was viewing the Google Play website, but that doesn’t play well with Android browsers either, including Chrome). My Nexus 7 would seize up almost every time I used it, because it would attempt to run every network update whenever network connectivity was restored, at the same time - every social media timeline update, the Google Play app update, everything it hadn’t been able to do without the network. I’ve not had that problem with the iPad, perhaps because I don’t turn off the wi-fi because it doesn’t drain the battery nearly as quickly - indeed, neither does actually using the tablet.

The first app I installed was TweetBot, a Twitter client I’d been using on the Mac, which is easily the most fully featured and least buggy client I’ve seen on any platform, and as I mentioned a couple of entries back, certainly better than anything on Android. Facebook is also a huge cut above the Android offering, even though that’s improved (a few years ago it was so buggy as to be unusable). Sadly, Facebook haven’t ported it’s Messenger client to the iPad,meaning you have to either install the iPhone client, make do with the message support in the Facebook app itself or install a multi-protocol messenger client (in my case, IM+). This is a common problem on iOS: a lot of apps are written with the iPhone form factor in mind and don’t scale to the iPad, so you get either a tiny app or an enlarged one. This problem doesn’t arise on Android, where different size screens have been around since the beginning so developers know their apps have to scale. However, there is really no excuse for major apps not to scale now, nearly four years after the iPad first appeared. (And some apps are worse than on Android , notably the BBC iPlayer client.)

However, finding a decent mail client didn’t prove to be so easy. On Android I use AquaMail for all my mail needs including GMail; it provides a flat (non-threaded) message list and lets you delete messages easily (rather than insisting on you ‘archiving’ them as Google’s own client does) and configure just about everything. Apple Mail insists on a conversation view, as if everything is a forum, and hides the mail listing in a drawer, when you might want to see all of it at a time. There’s no client that does everything AquaMail does, but myMail comes pretty close. There are too many that insist on going into landscape mode when starting - I only ever use landscape for watching videos. None of them mention this in their App Store listing, either. A particularly dishonourable mention goes to Boxer, which added an entire set of sub-folders of its own to both the mail accounts I set it up to use.

However, the biggest weakness was what I expected it to be: the keypad, including Apple’s auto-correct system. Even on a fairly large screen, I can’t fit two hands on it and when I’m typing with two fingers, I need something that will cut down the number of key-presses I have to make to type a substantial amount of text (like this entry), and auto-correct, despite sometimes suggesting words and despite learning your writing habits to some extent, doesn’t cut it. (Even before Android’s keypads learn your style , they make some pretty educated guesses.) Apple have persisted with this inadequate keypad for years despite there having been better alternatives for years, charging a higher price than you pay for devices with this feature. You can now, as of last week, download an app called SwiftKey Note that has some of the features of their Android keypad, but you can only use it in that app and copy the text to another, not use it as the keypad. Perhaps Apple will argue that not allowing third-party launchers, keypads etc improves stability, but that shouldn’t stop them licensing the technology to improve their own product.

In short, it’s a high-quality piece of kit and smooth in operation, but it’s let down by annoying omissions and some bugs - the fact that it didn’t set my time correctly when I set my locale was the first one I noticed, just minutes after start-up, as well the fact that it doesn’t work well with a stylus , which means you have to use your fingers and the screen gets filthy very quickly (and don’t believe any shop assistant who tells you that any given stylus works - you have to press a lot harder than on a Nexus 7 to have any effect). I certainly won’t be getting an iPhone on the basis of this experience; not only have I got too much invested in Android, but the performance of my Android phone isn’t enough of a push factor, and iPhones are always vastly more expensive than the latest Nexus anyway. This device could be so much better, isn’t only because of perverse pride on Apple’s part, and should be given the money theycost.

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