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April 6, 2010

BP Unfiltered

iPad: Home Run or Home Plate?

by Will Carroll

Magical? That's the adjective being used by many people - especially Steve Jobs - when describing the iPad. For baseball fans, the idea of a new, bigger yet still small screen holds magical possibilities. After a few days with the device and some apps, I have a pretty good handle on how the iPad fits in for baseball fans. This isn't to say it's for everyone. Flat out, it's not. But if it is, from the time you first hold it and see the bright screen, the interaction you'll have with it, and then, just a bit down the line, you'll forget it's there. That's the point where you'll say to yourself that yes, it is magic.
 
The first thing you notice about the iPad is that it fits in the hands well. Even at four times the size of the seemingly perfectly sized iPhone (which was copied by the Nexus One and Blackberry Storm), it's not as awkward as I'd expected. It finds a place in both hands, in one hand, or on your lap. The screen is amazing - perhaps more amazing that any screen I've seen. While it's not "Full HD", you're going to have to be a real stickler if this 720p capable screen isn't enough. Using an app like "The Elements" is like seeing a book out of Harry Potter. It doesn't take much to imagine a future BP in this format, if the rights issues weren't in place. (I'm sure MLBAM has something in the works.) Then again, BP works almost perfectly in the Browser. The new unified cards seem purpose built for the iPad. 
 
Battery life is nothing short of astounding. Early reviews have the battery showing video for longer than the rated 12 hours. I used the iPad heavily on opening day and during the National Championship game Monday night, yet still had better than a 50% charge on Tuesday morning. My guess is that for everything but video, most people will get two days out of a full charge. (Note that the iPad is a major drain and that it needs certain power output in order to charge. If you have a USB hub or an older or non-Apple computer, check on this before buying - or there is an included wall charger that works as well.)
 
Jason Snell of Macworld (and a BP reader - hi Jason!) said in his comprehensive iPad review that it "felt like holding a web page in your hands." While that sounds odd, it's very true. There's a level of interaction in the browser that's better experienced than described, but simply works better. It's so natural that when I sat down at my laptop after an extended iPad session, I reached up for the screen as if to touch the link. John Doerr, the legendary venture capitalist, recently said that we're moving not only from "the mouse to multitouch" but that we're entering an era where we're shifting from "WYSIWIG to WYSIWI (what you see, is what is.)" In the show-off app "The Elements", there's definitely a degree of Minority Report in how you feel you're actually interacting with objects. The sense of possibility is, well, magical. I do wonder if we're also shifting from a web-based world to an app-based world.
 
On the app front, the most noted is of course the new purpose built version of MLB At Bat 2010. While some will grumble that they have to buy a new $15 app after having purchased the iPhone app and MLB.tv's package, the total re-write for the iPad adds some functionality. Full screen video is amazing, while the integrated elements like pop-up lineups, pop-up video highlights, and near-instant pitch by pitch tracking all make for a great experience. It's not perfect, though. Streaming video is, well, streaming video and it's not as clear as an HD tv or even most computers where people usually watch MLB.tv. It also lacks the PitchFX inputs that we've come to know and love. As with the iPhone app this year, there's integrated home and road video, plus Gameday Audio of home and road feeds that can be shifted to the background. Here's a gallery of screenshots from the iPad At Bat 2010 app, taken during ESPN's Sunday Night opener. It gives you some idea of the quality of the video and the layout. The captions should be pretty self-explanatory
 
There are other apps for baseball fans - ESPN and others have score/news apps, there are some baseball specific drawing apps, and a scorebook app. Twitter and email integration also allow the social baseball fan to share the experience, tho the lack of multitasking support makes this a back and forth endeavor. Rumors that OS 4, scheduled to be introduced on Thursday, may correct this. Overall, the universe of apps already in place for iPhone make the "there's an app for that" almost as true for iPad as it is for iPhone. While not all iPhone apps work or look as good on iPad, the pace of switching to a purpose-built iPad app for most popular apps is astounding.
 
The browser is where the iPad shines. Interacting with the elements by touch is intuitive and fun. The design work that Apple has done is nothing short of astounding. You'll also likely be stunned by the speed. It renders pages quickly and sharply. Zooming in and out works well. It's the smallest details that you'll notice. While the iPad does not have Adobe's Flash plug in, I personally never missed it. The web sites that I go to regularly worked well for the most part, though I'm sure each of our experiences will be different. I do believe that as Android and Chrome OS grow, the multitouch interface will quickly become the dominant metaphor. That mouse sitting next to you probably has about a five year life span.
 
There are some other downsides to the iPad that have been noted across the tech sites - the iPad is a bit heavier than you expect on first touch, but any less heft and it would feel even more fragile. It's not great in direct sun, with both a reflective screen and a tough time finding the proper viewing angle. It shows fingerprints significantly more than an iPhone, despite a coating on the screen that's supposed to help with this. (On the iPhone 3G S, the coating works well, but even on the 1G or 3G, it wasn't as noticeable. I'm not sure why.) This is to say nothing of the cost. When the cell-enabled version comes out later this month, the costs go up even more. I went with the wi-fi version because I couldn't come up with a use case where I couldn't just pull the iPhone out of my pocket and use it in situations where there's no wi-fi. (One note: There have been some issues with wifi. Most of them seem related to signal strength and the type of routers used. I had that issue with an older router after unboxing the iPad. Very frustrating, but a new router fixed the issue.) 
 
And if you were wondering about the ability to type or write on the iPad, this review was done entirely on one. Where the iPad falls on this use is that the document syncing in Pages seems less than ideal, requiring the use of the iTunes sync and a USB wire. In addition, Google Docs does not (yet) work on iPad, though I can't tell why. I've used GMail as a "scratch pad" instead - it has autosave, spellcheck, and works great in the iPad's version of Safari. I'm sure there will be scads of "apps for that" issue soon, so I'm not too troubled by having to kludge through for a while with GMail. (Also, GMail's iPad iteration is better than the one they currently have on the "standard web." It's flat out awesome and feels as much like an app as a real app. I haven't even set up the installed Mail app since GMail on the web works so well.)
 
The onscreen keyboard works better than I thought as well. It uses the same autocorrect as the iPhone, a big help I could probably use on my real computer, and while it's not as easy as on normal keyboard, I also don't have decades of practice using it. It wouldn't surprise me if in six months, I'm as fast on the iPad as I am on a MacBook. The only quirk I have is that when set flat, the angle - while viewable - seems a bit off, so that I'm not touching it exactly where I think I'm touching it. It happens mostly on the letter "T" for some reason. Still, the keyboard is not only usable, it's ability to change based on the use is a big plus. Having a ".com" button when I'm typing in a URL is awesome and having the "return key" switch from "search" to "go" to return based on what I'm doing is going to be a big help to many.
 
Is the iPad for every baseball fan? No. In its first incarnation, the iPad actually lives up to the hype and promise, but the existence of the device itself will lead to innovations that we haven't even thought of yet. Others will have issues with cost, the closed system that Apple has built with the App Store, and I'm sure there will be viable competitors soon. My verdict: It's the Jason Heyward of the tech world - not perfect, but man, you have to love both the potential and the early performance.
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