iPad - looks cool, but what's it for?

By Matt Greenop

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nzherald.co.nz Technology Editor Matt Greenop gives his assessment of the iPad launched by Apple today

Apple is trying to shoehorn a new device in between two distinct markets with its freshly-announced iPad.

Having already sold us iPhones and MacBooks, the Cupertino company's latest object of gadget desire seems to fall squarely in between the two.

And as tablet PCs have been around for the thick end of a decade and have failed to take off, it's only Apple's reality distortion field that could turn it into a real success story.

So is it worth the starting ticket price of NZ$708? Sure. Is it needed? Not really.

While the iPad is a svelte device that fits in with Apple's stylish brand, it barely builds on the iPhone's abilities other than being a bigger screen to play games and view content on.

If you've already got the smartphone and a netbook or notebook, there seems to be little to attract necessity-driven buyers.

The iBooks functionality is potentially quite useful - catapulting Apple into the developing e-book marketplace against the likes of Amazon's Kindle.

It appears to display e-books quite well, and includes an iBook store - an attempt to relive the success stories that are AppStore and iTunes Store.

Aside from this, there is little to attract your average gadget-toting geek.

iWork, Apple's productivity suite, has been retooled for iPad, but realistically, most who are looking for word processing, presentation or accounting software will be likely be using a 'real' computer.

Using some of the brilliant applications for the iPhone on a larger screen will be brilliant - especially playing multi-touch controlled games, or reading news and web content.

It also looks like a nice way to rifle through piles of photos or email without having to balance a super-heated laptop on your, er, lap.

But watching YouTube videos, movies and other rich video content is more likely to be done on a laptop or an HD television. Either way, keeping high-definition movies on a device with a maximum storage capacity of just 64GB - and many likely to opt for the cheapest, WiFi-only option only has 16GB of flash memory.

On the bright side, it is compatible with the super-fast 802.11n WiFi standard, meaning quick transfers from servers or other machines, and 10 hours of battery life makes mobile movie-watching easier than power-sucking iPhones.

A glaring omission is a front-mounted camera with video capabilities - some well-sorted VoIP software and a camera could have been the iPad's 'killer app' and made it a useful business device. I can't see too many corporate IT buyers placing big iPad orders.

(Update 29/1): Apple has since announced VoIP for iPhone and iPad over 3G)

The iPad's music handling again puts it somewhere between an iPhone and a laptop - with a larger, prettier interface. But a 9.7-inch screen doesn't exactly scream portability, that's what iPod and iPhone is for.

It is early days, though - and Apple isn't usually content with resting on its cashed-up laurels for long.

As more applications and abilities are added to iPad - and the device itself grows up - it may well prove to be a worthy gadget to add to the arsenal.

The ever-deified Steve Jobs said himself at this morning's event - "It's so much more intimate than a laptop and so much more capable than a smart phone."

But he asked, after pointing out the three key areas of Apple's business - iPhone, iPod and Mac - "Is there room for a third category of device?"

And that, people, is the million-dollar question.

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