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Our Apple iPad review, Part 2: Multimedia, iBooks, gaming, wrap-up

In the first part of our iPad review we went through a physical inspection of the Apple’s tablet and did some general remarks on how the UI has evolved as compared to the iPhone OS.

Today it’s time to get more specific and see how the iPad fares in multimedia presentation, web browsing, e-book reading, and of course, gaming.

Video playback

The screen image quality is great, the hardware is powerful enough for most video (and all audio) content you throw at it and the interface of the player is nice and fluid. A powerful tool indeed, right?

Now consider this – you need iTunes to upload content, the screen is the awkward 4:3 aspect ratio, the device cannot stand on its own and it too heavy to hold for an entire movie and the supported video formats are quite limited.

There is no DivX or XviD support and the 16GB version doesn’t offer enough storage for you video collection so you will need to dig even deeper in you pockets for that. The excellent first impression is starting to fade away.

Still if you are really motivated to use the iPad as a video player and money is no object, you should definitely opt for the iPad Dock (30 US dollars), and probably for the 64GB version (200 US dollars premium).

Surely, you can enjoy streaming video from various popular online sources such as YouTube, Vimeo, Netflix, Facebook, ABC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, ESPN, NPR, Time, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Sports Illustrated, People, National Geographic, etc.

A possible way around some of the video limitations is also the paid AirVideo streaming app that lets you watch videos straight from your desktop computer streaming over your personal Wi-Fi network. Streaming over internet is in its early experimental phase as well, so the prospects are quiet good. Since it uses your computer to do the transcoding heavy lifting, it also takes care of the limited number of supported codecs too.

Generally, 4:3 displays such as the one on the iPad aren’t much good for watching videos and there’s a good reason widescreen displays are dominating the market currently. The iPad unfortunately is off trend in that respect. On the other hand, it’s really good at reading and web browsing.

Audio playback

The iPad is much better on the audio side where the iPod heritage of the iPad is most evident. The time-tested music player interface is another application that uses the split-screen interface to make best use of the large resolution screen.

Organizing your music library is easy and there is the option to apply equalizers. Combined with the excellent audio quality (more on that in a second), that makes the iPad a promising musician.

The iPod application also has its own search in addition to the general Spotlight search.

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The iPod application

Unfortunately, once again you are stuck with iTunes for uploading the music content to your iPad and there’s something about being forced to use a specific kind of software for uploading music tracks that we simply hate. Not to mention the iTunes dodgy performance on Windows-powered computers.

Audio quality impresses

We are used to seeing perfect audio output from the Apple devices. The Apple iPad’s audio quality is just as clean as that on the iPhones, but it is also louder, which is an important upgrade.

In headphones, the iPad is still not much louder the loudest mobile phones we have tested recently (and falls a mile short of the Nokia N91 class-leader) but other than that performs admirably.

But let’s cut the small talk and give you the results so you can see for yourselves. You can find more information about the test itself and the meaning of the different numbers in the table here.

Test Frequency response Noise level Dynamic
range
THD IMD + Noise Stereo crosstalk
Apple iPad +0.01, -0.07 -90.1 90.0 0.0068 0.012 -89.6
Apple iPhone 3GS +0.01, -0.05 -92.1 92.1 0.0035 0.011 -95.0
Apple iPhone +0.34, -1.16 -90.8 91.3 0.0050 0.016 -91.4
Apple iPhone 3G +0.52, -1.05 -89.9 90.1 0.0033 0.016 -93.1
Apple iPod Touch 2G +0.04, -0.05 -91.4 91.5 0.0027 0.012 -90.0

Apple iPad
The Apple iPad frequency response is simply perfect

Image gallery

The image gallery of the iPad differs from the one in the iPhone and the iPod touch in two key things. First, the process of transferring the images via iTunes doesn’t downsize the images so the images keep all the detail they initially had. We tried a 12 megapixel image – it worked really great for pixel-peeping.

That, combined with the very cool display, makes the iPad a powerful tool for browsing your photo collection and showing pics to friends.

The second difference between the iPad and the iPhone galleries involves some added extra eye-candy. You can now pinch-zoom your way back to gallery view and in to single photo view.

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A very fast and smooth gallery makes the iPad an excellent tool for browsing images

People who are seriously considering using the iPad as a picture browsing tool might consider getting the camera connection kit that allows photos to be downloaded straight from a memory card. This is something netbooks do for free of course, but the Apple way is, as usually different.

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There’s no compression this time and the photos look amazing

If you’ve got yourself a desk stand, you can easily use the iPad as a digital picture frame when you’re not using it. Unlike the iPhone, it has that functionality straight from the lockscreen. Just press a button and your photos start scrolling on the big screen.

Web browsing is wickedly fast, lacks Flash (but you knew that)

The other key feature of the Apple iPad (the more important one at that) is its web browser. Just as we expected the iPad delivers great performance in terms of speed and usability.

Browsing the web on the Apple tablet is a really nice experience, with the great loadings speeds (better than the iPhone’s), fluid touch control and gesture support (pinch zooming also works like a charm). Downloads are also possible so you can easily save an image you are looking at for opening it latter on your iPad.

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Browsing GSMArena.com on the iPad is a nice experience

The multiple tabs support and the auto fill and password managers also improve the usability of the Safari browser greatly. And now that pop-up menus appear as small windows on the screen itself rather than occupying the display things are even more desktop-like.

Apple iPad
Multiple tabs are supported

Generally, the browser is great at performing the task it was designed for. There are minor rendering issues on several of the web pages but that is nothing you shouldn’t be able to live with.

Apple iPadApple iPad
There are some minor rendering issues • Pop-ups in the browser

The thing is the Apple iPad lacks Flash support of any kind so Flash content is a definite no-go. This is not something Apple forgot but simply the next blow in their war against Adobe.

While we can certainly see HTML5 (which the iPad supports) replacing Flash in several years time, we don’t want to wait several years before something we paid 500 bucks for catches with the rest of the world.

So right now Flash game sites are a no-go on the iPad and Flash video sites work only if they have a dedicated version that serves H.264 videos (there are a lot of those, we admit). However you look at it this is a hit on the Apple’s reputation more than a hit on Adobe. They might win the war eventually but battles are certain to be lost in the process.

Finally, we decided to check the strength of the built-in Wi-Fi antenna as this is one of the things most criticized about the iPhone. It performed equally well as an Atom netbook we had lying around the office from different distances and through walls and the speed test proved twice as better than the iPhone’s at the same test distances.

Still, we would prefer the 3G version of the iPad as it would prove a lot more versatile than the Wi-Fi only. Plus with a GSM network, you can rely on Assisted-GPS for a faster lock besides the regular thing.

iBooks

Apple made a big deal out of the new iBooks application, which is supposed to allow the iPad to compete with the Amazon Kindle and the other dedicated e-book readers out there. And as far as the software support goes, Apple have done a great job.

The iBooks app feels just as great and fluid as the rest of the interface. Purchasing new books is easy and done directly through the iPad and it comes with all the settings you would need in an e-book reader.

Apple iPadApple iPad
The iBooks library offers two view modes

You get to pick your font size, there is searching, faster and slower scrolling through the pages and even some visual candy on top of that. You can also adjust the backlighting strength according to your preferences. It’s the same setting as the one found in the settings menu but it saves you the effort to go there each time you start reading.

Apple iPadApple iPad
Font size and backlighting can easily be adjusted

The thing is the LCD screens are simply not as good for long reading as e-ink ones. Colorful and bright they might as well be, but when you read several pages on the iPad your eyes start to sore (or at least ours did). Apple made a good use of the full color display though and included pictures in the books, something that the e-ink displays are simply not capable of delivering.

Apple iPadApple iPad
Portrait mode is also supported

In fact that makes the Apple iPad excellent for reading e-magazines, where the articles are shorter and photos are an important part of the content.

And the iPad itself is a pretty heavy piece of equipment so it’s not always too comfortable reading from it. It’s not much heavier than a hardcover book but if you are used to taking a paperback one with you in bed, you will most likely have to change your reading posture.

Gaming is the iPad element

Now this is certainly an area where the Apple iPad impresses – mostly due to the excellent titles, the speedy hardware and last, but not least, the huge display (as compared to the iPhone’s). You might not be able to access your favorite online Flash games with the browser, but a large part of those titles has already made their way to the App Store in nice touch-optimized versions and migration from the regular iPhonish resolution to the iPad’s has already started.

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Plants vs Zombies

Even at these early stages the iPad App Store is brimming with entertaining titles that we loved and enjoyed so much that the finishing of the review was at risk. There are titles where touch-driven gameplay adds so much more to the general experience that you will find it hard to revert to more traditional controls.

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Hit Tenis 2

Of course, there are also plenty of game genres types where touch control isn’t all the rage. Racing games, platformers and shooters are the most popular from the top of our heads. Still gaming is an area where the iPad manages to deliver even more than it promises and with the ample battery life we see it being used as a portable gaming device quite often.

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Aurora Feint 3

Once again though, the purchase of a dock is highly recommended, as otherwise the device needs to be held at all times during gaming.

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Pinball HD

To show you how cool the games on the iPad are we plan to review a few of them in the following days and create a few nice videos too. Stay tuned!

Final words

The iPad is definitely not an easy piece of hardware to review. It aims for a market niche that we aren’t even sure exists and takes an approach none of the observers expected. By stretching the iPhone OS to a device equipped with a 9.7″ inch screen we can easily see the limitations of a platform designed for use on mobile phones.

The iPhone OS is cool to operate, nice to look at and offers plenty of 3rd party software, but doesn’t have the flexibility or the productivity of a full-featured OS such as Windows or Mac OS. This all leads to the fact that unless your needs are all too specific, it won’t offer you much more than an iPhone. The iPad is just not good enough for serious work (unless you do all your stuff in the browser window with no Flash or Java required), which leaves it in the sole role of a portable entertainment device.

And as we always appreciate a good entertaining device, we won’t say that the iPad was a bad idea all together. Yet, no matter what Steve Jobs tries to convince you, netbooks are still a better buy in many scenarios.

The closed ecosystem of Apple’s hardware and software is what makes the geek in us rebel against all the limitations imposed – and while we can accept many of those in a smartphone, we just won’t let those slip in a computer.

Perhaps we are wrong in perceiving the iPad as a computer, but whatever you think it is, it’s most certainly overpriced for its feature set.

Then again, no one said that all purchases should be rational and the great market start of the iPad shows it. Us? We will pass for now.

P.S. In case you’ve missed the first part of our iPad review, you can check it out here:
Our Apple iPad review, Part 1: Hardware overview and our general take on software

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