So many effusive and uncritical reviews of Apple’s admittedly impressive iPad came out yesterday — appearing everywhere from the entirety of the Charlie Rose show to the cover of Newsweek — that some of them need a review of their own.
The main flaw in many of these reviews is simple: They portray the iPad not as a casual content consumption device, a function it serves quite well, but as a veritable replacement for the traditional computer. And, likely because they hope the iPad will reignite consumer interest in their content, many publications gloss over the device’s major limitations and omitted features to arrive at the misleading conclusion that the iPad is a viable alternative to the laptop.
Take, for example, highly paid Respectable Technology Columnist Walter Mossberg’s lengthy look at the iPad, which was published yesterday in the Wall Street Journal and on his Web site. In the second paragraph of his review, Mossberg briefly lists some factors that might prevent the iPad from being a “viable” laptop replacement:
“The iPad lacks some of the features—such as a physical keyboard, a Webcam, USB ports and multitasking—that most laptop or netbook users have come to expect.”
The big problem is that multitasking has been an indispensable feature of laptop computers for decades. It’s not just an irritating omission; it’s what lets you listen to Pandora online radio while writing a text document, it’s how you can chat on an instant messenger while you flip through your favorite Web sites, and it’s how a businessman can watch stocks while talking with his clients.
Despite the lack of this basic functionality, Mossberg’s article, which Apple is already quoting on its sales pages, goes on to call the iPad “pretty close” to a “laptop killer.” He also appears in a video on his Web site brazenly calling the iPad a “general purpose computer” and “not just a big iPhone.”
A device that can’t properly open two third-party programs at once is a full-fledged “computer” that’s “pretty close” to reducing ordinary laptops to obsolescence? There’s an overstatement in there somewhere.
We got our hands on Apple’s tablet today, and we’re inclined to agree with David Pogue: typing on this thing is frustrating if you’re trying to do anything more than send off a quick email or two. No one, despite what Mossberg told Charlie Rose last night, will be writing anything substantial, much less a term paper, on this thing. Students can also forget about using the iPad as a reliable note-taking device.
Even the $69 physical keyboard add-on, available now through the Apple Store, isn’t much relief because, for now at least, you’re still stuck with using Apple’s limited “Pages” word processor on the iPad. It’s a far cry from Microsoft Word or Apple’s desktop word processing software, both in terms of usability and general compatibility. We emailed a document we made with the iPad’s “Pages” software to our laptop computer, which runs Microsoft Office 2007, and found that the formatting somehow changed during the transfer.
While you’re free to load up your iPad with as many text documents as you please, good luck adding bigger media files to the gadget. Mossberg’s Journal review fails to reference even in passing the small size of the iPad’s flash-based hard drive, which is far outclassed by virtually all widely available “general purpose computers.”
For $499, Apple blesses you with a dismal 16 gigabytes of flash memory storage, which is only enough for a handful of movies and photos. Even many of Apple’s iPod devices, which are intended just for music playback, boast just as much, if not more, storage space. Apple’s iPod Classic line, in fact, features 160 GB of room.
For the sake of comparison, the first netbook we found on Amazon – a $366 Eee PC – provides a 2.5″ 250 GB hard drive. What’s more, you’re free to expand the drive at any time if you fill it up. Just pop open the netbook and throw in a replacement drive.
Netbooks also offer much more convenient ways for users to move their data around because, as Mossberg briefly notes, they have little things called USB ports on them. The iPad doesn’t.
USB ports, or universal serial bus ports, are what allow you to hookup printers, copiers, scanners, mice, memory sticks, joysticks, external CD/DVD drives, high-capacity external hard drives, and all sorts of other basic devices to your laptop or netbook. Not only are USB ports absent from the iPad, so too are SD card slots, which allow users to easily upload photos from their camera to their computer (and vice versa.)
Apple sells adapters to restore some of this functionality, but you’ll need to buy propriety hardware to do so from the Apple Store. That drives up costs and limits your options. It’s also a giant step back for anything claiming to be a serious challenger to the laptop, where users can choose from dozens of brands of connectors and memory sticks.
To be clear: You will still need a computer, whether a laptop or desktop, to make the iPad fully functional. You can’t even print from the iPad, nor can you access the device’s file system or organize folders and files like you can on your Windows or Mac computer. While some, like Mossberg, are eager to portray the iPad as a stand-alone device, it simply isn’t going to work by itself for anyone with more than very basic computing needs.
And, though Mossberg raves about the “wicked fast custom processor” in the iPad, he forgets to mention that the processor is significantly slower than what’s available in even some of the cheapest netbooks. Apple is loading the iPad with its own 1 GHz A4 processor, which has a lower clock speed than that Eee PC (1.66 GHz) and is infinitely slower than what you can find in even the cheapest full-size laptops, which now ship with legitimately “wicked fast” Intel Core i7 processors.
The Respectable Technology Columnist is right that the A4 is a big deal, but that’s because of its energy efficiency, not its breakneck speed as compared to typical laptops. You can look forward to about ten hours of battery life on the iPad, even when it’s under heavy use. No laptop comes close.
Part of the reason no laptop comes close, of course, has to do with words like “operating system” and “compatibility,” which are also absent from Mossberg’s piece. Someone reading along with his Journal review might fail to notice that, unlike Apple’s Mac OS X or Microsoft’s Windows 7, the iPad’s modified iPhone operating system probably doesn’t support applications they’re used to on their laptop. PowerPoint? Nope. Word? Another nope.
Then, for all his claims that the iPad is a potential laptop replacement, Mossberg bizarrely ends his iPad review by stating that only “time will tell” whether the iPad can legitimately replace laptops and netbooks. It can’t, and no amount of last-minute equivocation makes it right to pretend it can in a pages-long technology column.
There’s a cynical, but probably accurate, explanation for all this gushing: Many of the publications that are reviewing the iPad, including the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, have also released iPad-specific applications in the hope of broadening their user base as print media slowly fades. Steve Jobs himself also woos many of the most influential iPad reviewers, like Mossberg, with one-on-one meetings and significant exclusive access. It’s no secret that publications reviewing the iPad have a vested interest in its success.
Jobs, though, doesn’t just stop at wooing. Apple reportedly told Newsweek not to hire the blogger over at Fake Steve Jobs, Daniel Lyons, because of his critical coverage of the company’s CEO. When Newsweek went ahead and hired Lyons anyway, Apple rescinded early access of its products, including iPad, to Lyons and Newsweek.
The good news is that the iPad does have its own significant strengths — like its uniquely cheap access to AT&T’s powerful 3G network, its energy efficient LED screen, the 3G model’s GPS chip, and some custom applications — that give it an edge in the crowded tablet market and make it a compelling choice for casual content consumption (though certainly not content creation). And there’s no denying that there’s also a certain intangible “wow” factor to the device that has attracted thousands of customers all on its own.
The bad news is that plenty of the launch day reviews, for reasons unknown, chose to advertise strengths that really aren’t there.
WATCH CHARLIE ROSE, MOSSBERG GUSH OVER iPAD