Monday, April 05, 2010

iPad 101: FAQs

With iPad in the market now, if you are still not sure what all the hubbub's about, get some questions you need answered before you click the "buy" button? Help is here.

What's so special about the iPad — or tablets in general, for that matter?

The iPad will be Apple's first tablet device since the early 1990s, when the original (and now-extinct) Newton landed with a thud. Back then, though, laptops still weighed 10 pounds, PDAs didn't really exist yet (the Newton was arguably the first), and the only people with cell phones were the likes of Gordon Gekko. Now, of course, touchscreen smartphones and ultralight laptops are everywhere, but tablet PCs — which are, as Steve Jobs himself admitted during the big iPad unveiling, stuck somewhere between a smartphone and a laptop — have yet to truly take off. Will the iPad be the device that finally turns the tablet PC into a mainstream gadget? Looks like we're about to find out.

How big is the iPad?

Boasting a 9.7-inch display, the iPad itself measures 9.6 long, 7.5 inches wide — a little bigger than a magazine — and about half an inch thick. It's not super-heavy at 1.5 pounds, but those who've hefted the iPad report that it feels a tad heavier than they expected, considering its size.

How does one use the iPad, exactly?
A lot like you would the iPhone. The main "home" screen displays your various iPad apps, with a row of four core apps (Web browsing, e-mail, photos, and iPod) along the bottom. Tap to launch an app, swipe through photos and e-mail, "pinch" to zoom in or out of a Web page — you know the drill. Nice, but those hoping for some kind of groundbreaking tablet UI on the iPad will be disappointed.

When will the iPad arrive, and how much will it cost?
The initial, Wi-Fi-only wave of iPads will go on sale Saturday, April 3, and they're available now for pre-order. The 16GB iPad sells for $499 (much cheaper than many had been expecting), while a 32GB model will retail for $599 and a 64GB version will go for $699. Later in April, Apple will start selling iPads with embedded 3G wireless capabilities for surfing on the go; the 3G iPads will also come in 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB flavors, although each will be $130 more than their Wi-Fi-only counterparts.

What about those 3G iPads — will I need to sign a contract? Which carriers are supported?

The good news: No need to sign another two-year agreement for a 3G iPad data plan. Instead, you can get a month-to-month prepaid plan: $14 a month for 250MB of data (which should be fine for checking e-mail and light Web surfing, but not so great for streaming large quantities of video), or $29 a month for unlimited data. The bad news: AT&T is the only U.S. carrier offering an iPad data plan, for now anyway.

Will I be able to (wirelessly or otherwise) "tether" my 3G iPhone to a Wi-Fi-only iPad for shared, on-the-go data?

The answer, straight from Steve Jobs: No.

What about battery life?
Expect 10 hours of active use on a single charge, or a month of stand-by time, according to Apple. As with the iPhone, though, the iPad's battery is sealed in the shell, meaning you won't be able to swap in a spare battery if you're running out of juice. Apple says it can replace a dead for you, but the service will set you back a cool $99.

I can't wait to hear about the camera. How many megapixels? Will it have a flash?
Uhhh, sorry, folks: No camera on the iPad. Yes, I know. You're not the only one who's disappointed, believe me. (Can you imagine what video conferencing on, say, Skype for the iPad would have been like?)

What are the physical buttons and ports on the iPad? Is there a slot for a memory card?

Besides the Home button that sits below the display (which, as on the iPhone, takes you back to the home screen), the iPad has a "sleep/wake" button on the top, a screen rotation lock and a volume up/down rocker along the right edge, and a standard Apple dock connector on the bottom edge. So, where's the memory card slot, you ask? There isn't one. Instead, you'll have to get Apple's $29 iPad Camera Connection Kit, which includes an SD card adapter.

Will I be able to check my e-mail, surf the Web, manage events and contacts, and play music and video, just like I can on the iPhone?

Yes indeed, except the iPad versions of the calendar, contacts, Safari, and the iPad media player all promise to look and feel more like their desktop counterparts than like the pared-down versions on the iPhone and iPod Touch. For example, the calendar on the iPad looks strikingly similar to iCal for Mac, and the iPad's iPod player is a kissing cousin to the desktop version of iTunes. Surfing the Web and watching videos should especially benefit from the iPad's jumbo 9.7-inch display; personally, I can't wait to watch movies on the iPad while cooling my heels at 30,000 feet.

Nice! So I take it that Safari on the iPad will support Flash, right?
Ah, no. Steve Jobs has made it perfectly clear that he's not that keen on Flash (he called it slow and "buggy" during a recent town hall at Apple HQ); instead, Safari for iPad (and the iPhone, for that matter) supports HTML5, a new Web standard that can handle streaming video. Still, expect to see lots of little blue "there-should-be-Flash-here" icons scattered around the Web during your iPad surfing.

How do you type on the iPad? Is there an actual keypad, or do you type on the screen?
Like the iPhone, the iPad comes with a virtual, on-screen QWERTY keypad — except on the iPad, the virtual keypad is almost the same size as a standard keyboard, which means you won't have to peck on the iPhone's tiny little on-screen keys. If you're more comfortable with an actual keyboard, though, Apple will be selling an iPad keyboard dock for $69 in "late" April.

OK, what about apps? Will iPhone apps on the App Store work on the iPad?
Yes, in one of two ways: either a "windowed" mode, in which the app in question runs at its normal iPhone size surrounded by a big black window, or in full-screen mode thanks to the magic of pixel doubling. Not the most elegant solution, to be sure, but workable.

What about multitasking? Will the iPad be able to run multiple apps at once?
Not any more than the iPhone can, unfortunately. Apple's core iPad apps (think e-mail, the iPod app, etc.) will run in the background, but not third-party apps, although they will support push notifications for incoming events (like instant messages or breaking news).

Will there be apps written specifically for the iPad's larger screen?
You bet, and several companies have already announced their initial iPad offerings, ranging from Gameloft (which has already showed off a revamped version of its first-person sci-fi shooter, "N.O.V.A.") to Amazon (which is teeing up a full-screen Kindle reader for the iPad). Meanwhile, Apple has promised iPad versions of its iWork productivity suite (including Pages for word processing, Keynote for presentations, and Numbers for spreadsheets). Not only will iPad-specific apps benefit from greater resolution, they'll also have more screen real estate to deal with, meaning better and more precise touch interfaces and controls. Indeed, much of the excitement surrounding the iPad centers more on its potential for future iPad-specific apps and games than on the iPad hardware itself.

Speaking of the Kindle, isn't the iPad supposed to be some kind of Kindle killer?

Well, that's what Apple's hoping, away. One of the first iPad apps out of the gates will be iBooks, which will offer access to a new Apple e-book store complete with thousands of titles from Penguin, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, and Hachette. (Notably absent from the list, for now, anyway: publishing giant Random House.) E-book prices on iBooks are said to rival (if not equal) those on Amazon's Kindle store, and we can expect such niceties as animated page turning, customizable background and font colors, and high-resolution text. As I just mentioned, though, Amazon will have its own Kindle tablet app ready for the iPad, and Barnes & Noble says it'll be getting in on the iPad action, as well.

So that covers books; what about magazines and newspapers?
Magazine and newspaper publishers have been eyeing the iPad as a possible savior for their industries — imagine, they say, "Sports Illustrated" on a 9.7-inch touchscreen, complete with jumbo pictures and video, interactive polls and quizzes, live scores and updates, you name it! That all sounds quite promising, but so far we've only seen a few, somewhat tepid examples of what a newspaper on the iPad might look like. The New York Times showed off a reasonably slick app during the iPad unveiling that features pages and articles that look like the print version; and publications ranging from the Wall Street Journal and Time to Wired and Esquire say they've got their own iPad apps at the ready. But whether the first iPad versions of the Times, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and others will truly wow us — and, more important, whether users will pay for iPad newspaper and magazine subscriptions — remains to be seen.

Say I buy an iPad and don't like it. What's Apple's return policy?
You've got 14 days from the day you receive your iPad to return it for a refund, according to the Apple store's terms and conditions. If the iPad box is unopened, you'll get a full refund; if you crack open the box, though, Apple will charge you a 10 percent restocking fee.