Ever since Microsoft announced its tablet PC concept in 2001, people have been wondering what Apple's take on this fresh product category would be.
On the 3rd of April, the iPad was finally released and it's already proven to be a game changer with over 500,000 units sold in its first week - more than one every minute.
Even though Apple is only selling it in the States for now, a fair number of them are making their way into the hands of eager foreigners who have friends and connections in America willing to ship one over to them.
We thought we'd have a look at it now, as the device's official launch in New Zealand is still up in the air and see what all the fuss is about - and if it's worth braving customs officials to get your hands on Apple's latest gadget.
The iPad has been compared to a large iPod touch, and in many ways, that's exactly right. After all, the same system powers both devices. Although it hasn't simply been doubled up in size to accommodate the larger screen but offers many new unique features of its own, it's obvious that this is closer to a large iPhone, rather than a small Mac, and this may well be where Apple's genius lies.
Cramming a desktop system into a small tablet form factor has been a disaster for Microsoft: even though its version of the Tablet PC has been available for nearly ten years, it's nothing more than a nice product, suffering from hard to use controls and underwhelming performance.
But Apple took the exact opposite route: it already had a system capable of running exceptionally well while using very little power, and it was obviously much easier to scale that system up to create an extremely responsive tablet-sized computer.
But unlike Tablet PCs or NetBooks, the iPad isn't designed to be a self-contained computer: switch it on for the first time and you'll be graced with an image asking you to connect it to iTunes.
The iPad won't work until you've synced it once to your main computer. After that, you need never have to sync it again since you'll be able to email files back and forth or download new programs from the App Store or new music, films and TV shows from the iTunes Store.
If you're getting an iPad before it's been released in New Zealand, the App Store will not be available from it, but you'll be able to get all the programs you need via iTunes on your computer, so syncing will be crucial, at least until it officially reaches these shores.
Be aware that the iPad needs a lot more power than an iPhone and your computer's USB ports may not be powerful enough to charge it as you sync. Only the latest computers can do this and even those will charge it extremely slowly. It's far more effective to use the bundled wall charger for this purpose.
So how does the iPad work? Well if you're used to an iPhone or iPod touch, you'll feel right at home but you'll also appreciate all the new improvements.
For one thing, there isn't a right or wrong way to hold it: whichever orientation you choose, even if it's upside down with the Home button at the top, the interface will re-orient itself so that everything is facing the right way.
This means that it doesn't matter how you pick it up, you'll be able to start working right away. It's also great for left-handers who can easily have the Home button to the left should they choose to.
This constant re-orientation can also become a problem, especially when holding the iPad at an angle. In those instances, there's a switch to the side, just above the volume controls, which you can toggle to lock the display in the current orientation.
The iPad comes with a series of default programs which are very similar to those found on the iPhone, like Maps, Contacts and Calendar. They have however been completely redesigned to take advantage of the bigger screen and look gorgeous, as well as being highly functional.
The same goes for the YouTube application. On the iPhone, this program's focus is on the video itself. Here, tap on the resize button (bottom right of the video) and you'll be presented with a look that's very similar to YouTube's actual webpage, with recommendations on the right and a description of what you're watching at the bottom.
The Videos program is very elegant: not only can you see the film's poster artwork as you'd expect, but you can also read a synopsis and have a look at the cast and crew list - all information readily available in iTunes, but sorely absent on the iPod touch.
The iPod application is where you listen to your music. It looks a lot like iTunes in fact, but of all the bundled programs, this is the most disappointing one. It feels unfinished: there's no CoverFlow view, for instance, and when you play a song, the screen is taken over by its artwork... and nothing else.
With so much space to play with and so much attention paid to the other programs, it looks like Apple dropped the ball on this one. Still, a free major revision of the system will be released around October, which could give Apple an opportunity to fix this.
They made an excellent job with the built-in mono speaker though: despite the size of the unit, the audio is loud and clear and there's no problem hearing your music or film - even in a large room.
Some other programs are noticeably absent, like Weather and Stocks. But the worst omission is the lack of Clock. Without it, you can't set an alarm, which is a major oversight.
Sure, you can get a similar program from the App Store, but the main advantage of Apple's own was that it ran in the background, none of the others do, which means that unless it's running – and chewing on your battery all night - it won't wake you up.
Speaking of the App Store, there are already thousands of applications available specifically for the iPad. Many are upgraded versions of existing iPhone programs and if you already have those, check how they work on your iPad before forking out for the larger, and much more expensive, version: you can double the iPhone program's dimensions very easily and most of the time, you'll find this adequate. Only those specifically designed for the iPad – designated HD in the AppStore – have been re-engineered to take advantage of the larger screen are worth taking a closer look.
With all the focus on consuming media, you might think that the iPad isn't ideal for content creation, but this couldn't be further from the truth. For one thing, Apple has released optimised copies of its iWork productivity suite.
You can use Pages to write letters, Numbers to create spreadsheets and Keynote for designing presentations. These programs are compatible with Word, Excel and PowerPoint and work amazingly well. The only downside is that they're only available via the American AppStore for now, meaning that you'll need a US iTunes account to get them.
Another program you need a US account for is iBooks, Apple's own eBook reader. They've managed to replicate the experience of reading a book, but in digital form. The attention to detail is amazing: you can even see the print on the other side of the page as you turn it over. And don't think that this is just another means for Apple to grab some of your hard-earned money: they've also made available thousands of books from the Guttenberg Project (which is designed to preserve out of copyright books in digital form) and those are absolutely free. You can even add your own via iTunes, as long as they're in a specific format, namely ePub.
As for typing on the keyboard, I was very impressed. In landscape orientation, I was able to touch-type easily. Although I wasn't as fast as I would be on a traditional keyboard, I suspect that this is merely due to lack of practice. Typing on glass is a surprisingly great success. It doesn't work so well in the portrait orientation since the keyboard's more cramped, yet it's also too large for typing with both thumbs comfortably like you can with the iPod touch.
So the iPad is an incredibly responsive machine which excels at media consumption and is also a very adept creative tool… but is it for you?
That's the most important question and it really depends on what you use your current computer for. If it's to surf the web (except for Flash content, which Apple won't support in the iPhone OS that iPad runs - but since Flash games like Farmville don't support a touch-based interface but rather rely exclusively on a keyboard and mouse, those programs wouldn't have worked anyway), write emails and a few letters, and listen to music, you'll find the iPad perfect for your needs: it wakes up in an instant, is amazingly fast and responsive, you don't have to wait for the interface to catch up to your commands, everything feels fluid and natural, and it's much lighter than a laptop.
It's heavier than expected, and holding it for long periods of time in one hand can become tiring - the answer is to hold it like a clipboard over your forearm.
The iPad's a computer that's been designed with the general population in mind, people who don't care what makes it tick and where or when to save files, people who want a computer to work so they can focus on what they need to do, not tinker with it.
If this sounds like you, then you should definitely give the iPad a serious look. Let's just hope Apple releases it from the confines of the United States soon…
Apple iPad WiFi US$499 (16GB) - $699 (64GB)
Steve Paris has over 25 years of experience in computers. He's a freelance writer as well as an Apple Certified Trainer, and provides consultancy, training and troubleshooting services to the Waitakere area www.maclore.net.