Hard News by Russell Brown


iPad Impressions

As those of you who follow me on Twitter will know, Friday was both my birthday and the day I bought an iPad. I didn't have to queue, I'd been able to bypass Apple's ridiculous secret-squirrel ban on shops being able to tell customers whether they'd have them in stock, and I was out the door of the local JB Hi Fi by 8.45am.

I hadn't felt the need to shell out and buy an iPad before the official local launch – half the point of these things is the joined-up iTunes ecosystem, right? But I was intrigued that some of my early-adopter geek friends were immersed in their iPad worlds -- and some of them seemed disgusted that they'd ever been lured into spending the money. Clearly, mileage is varying.

I've been surprised at what has and hasn't, worked for me. Multi-touch web browsing really has its virtues. The locked-down Flash-free Safari browser is reliably quick, and it's satisfying to be able to quickly zoom in on the column of text you're reading. The Guardian website was a particularly enjoyable read this way.

Curiously, the version of Safari that ships with the iPad doesn't include Safari Reader – or support for tabs or private browsing. It can't be that it's too hard, because another Webkit-based browser, Atomic Web, offers private browsing, privacy options for Facebook and Twitter sessions, a choice of search engines, a couple of different ways of displaying tabs, and even a bookmarklet to integrate it with Safari. It's very good.

Also: maps were just made for multi-touch. The built-in Maps app is simply the most comfortable, useful digital maps experience I've ever had. Wikipanion works nicely, and the local tvGuide app is ugly but functional. iBooks only offers out-of-copyright works for now, but it's an extremely smooth experience to stock the library with Jane Austen, Dostoyevsky and Defoe. And I do like Jumbo Calculator.

On the other hand, the thing I had expected to be a great experience on the iPad – the big-name editorial apps – are largely unimpressive. The BBC News app has an ugly UI and offers basic news stories, although the video can be useful. Sports Illustrated does a pretty good job of creating an electronic magazine experience – purchased from within the app for $6.49 an issue -- but it's a large download, and the download stopped when to iPad went to sleep! The Vanity Fair app is viable but irritating. The PubMed app is basic, but the content's handy.

The local editorial apps fare well in comparison. Unlike the Vanity Fair app, North & South's uses simple and consistent UI conventions (swipe left or right to turn pages, scroll down to read the story) and I've found it quite pleasant to use. It was created by our friends at CactusLab, where Matt Buchanan had this to say:

ACP wanted an app, but with the constraint that they didn't have extra resource for layout, which is what Wired et al use (they create separate PNG layouts for each iPad orientation and don't support iPhone). ACP also wanted to support both iOS devices if possible.

So we built a solution that renders ePub files more or less directly from InDesign (there is a small amount of pre-processing that ACP does). Once the ePub files arrive on the device (packaged as an issue that you buy through in-app purchase), we automatically prepare and cache dynamic one and two-column layouts from the article data in the file. We support iPhone (including retina display, portrait only) and iPad in both orientations. The page layouts are styled with CSS and rendered as web views within the native app, over which we've added intra- and inter-article swipe navigation. Titles are rendered with SVG fonts (the only format supported in web views).

We've been able to retain print staples like inline images, styled pullquotes, etc, and we support inline/fullscreen video and a built-in photo gallery that collects and displays all images from each article. Our approach to building pages is smart enough to slightly rearrange the order of items to avoid gaping holes around full-page images, which was no mean feat!

A benefit of the overall approach (certainly over Wired's) is the ability to copy/paste within articles.

The NZH app by comparison takes a similar approach to us in terms of layout, but (we believe) uses native iOS page layouts rather than web views. You can copy/paste with this approach.

Ah yes. The Herald app. 50MB, of which around 40MB is a video advertisement on launch – and you can't avoid it. Ironically, although the Herald's small video team has been preparing to deliver HTML 5 video for some time, there's none playable through the app. Apart from that, it seems to work quite well – the heavily pictorial story grid is a quite attractive way of presenting stories, and better than the BBC News model.

With the exception of Sports Illustrated -- which offers in-app access to Twitter, Facebook and email for some of its pages – this is browsing without social features, and in Vanity Fair and Wired you can't even select and copy text to paste out into another app. On the other hand, there's something relaxing about browsing without feeling the need to tell everyone else what you're reading.

As a board member I'm particularly proud of the work that's been done with Chrometoaster and YouDo to get the NZ On Screen website ready for the iPad launch. Yes, it's not an app, but a website redone in HTML 5, and more than 300 of the 1000-odd titles on the site have already been reformatted as HTML 5, not Flash. It looks great. You can choose the HTML option if you're using Safari or Chrome on a persona computer, and it also works on the iPhone.

Because I know what some of you are thinking, yes, I had a quick check, and there is plenty of HTML 5 porn video available, via a couple of different "tube" sites. Atomic Web's private browsing helped facilitate this research.

Meanwhile: Vodafone needs to fix its speed test app for iPad users – it requires Flash. In fact, Vodafone need to fix quite a few things. I tried repeatedly this morning to activate the bundled Vodafone SIM as per the instructions – and got repeated failure messages. A "try again" button just bounced me through to the My Vodafone login page, for an account I hadn't been able to set up.

Eventually, over the phone, a couple of pleasant Indian gentlemen were able to determine that my SIM had in fact been activated, and took my credit card details to purchase some capacity. Because we're travelling later this week, and just to give it a good try-out, I opted for the $50 "Extreme" option, offering 3GB of mobile data (the only other option was $20 for 250MB).

But here's the thing: it's not 3GB for $50. It's 3GB for $50 per month -- the capacity expires after 30 days. In comparison to what Vodafone Australia is offering – including unlimited 3G data for $A50 a month prepaid and $100 for 6GB that lasts six months, and $150 for 12GB for a year – it's a sad bloody joke. Really, screw that.

Sadly, Telecom's offering isn't much better. Given that 3G access won't be something I want all the time, I expect I'll ditch Vodafone (remind me to turn off that re-billing, okay?) and take up a 2 Degrees pay-as-you-go option when their micro-SIMs are available.

Anyway, that's enough for now. No, I didn't write this on my iPad, but I'm not uncomfortable with the onscreen keyboard for short jobs, and I got a keyboard dock for the big ones. I'm still grappling a little with the ergonomics – it's just a wee bit heavy for my dodgy left wrist to hold up for long, so I tend to rest it on my knee.

And I haven't really explored the potential for non-Apple-approved moving around of files, beyond noting that Dropbox works well and deciding I'd get back to it later. It bothers me less than I thought it would, but it's hard to see the iPad as a stand-alone computer when it doesn't allow for so many of the things I do on my actual computer. So yeah: I don't love everything about the iPad, and I don't hate it either. Which is about where I thought I'd be with it.

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