Hooked on the iPad

Most people who know me quickly realize that my tolerance for electronic gadgets that don’t work properly or don’t justify their hefty cost is pretty low. I still use a Palm 680 Smartphone and hold onto my computers much longer than their useful life. Shiny and new aren’t on my top requirement list as much as utility, durability and value are.

Store return policies appear at the top of my list when considering a vendor for a new electronic gadget, and restocking fees are definitely my enemy. So when I purchased my first tablet PC to try out, based on all the positive feedback and reviews, the generous return policy at Target (90 days) was just the ticket to figure out whether a tablet would fit into my computing life. As it turned out, I didn’t need the return policy and the Apple iPad 2 goes with me nearly everywhere I go.

While tons of ink has been spilled about the tablet space and the iPad, I wanted to share my thoughts and experience of living with an iPad for over four months. Despite owning two desktop computers, two laptops and a smartphone, I find myself going back to the iPad time and time again whenever I need a totally portable and light device on-the-go.

Several models of the iPad are available. They differ by color (black or white-I chose white), memory size (16 GB, 32 GB or 64 GB) and wireless capability (Wi-Fi or cellular). For my own purposes, I chose the 64 GB version to ensure that I never run out of storage space, given that the iPad has no on-board expansion capabilities. While many might question the need for this much memory, I know that it can be quickly filled up with documents, e-books, music and video. I took the approach that you can never have too much space; just like with computer hard drives, you always manage to fill them up at some point, especially with so many apps available these days.

Some may argue that with the Apple iCloud (and other online storage services), the online storage and backup facility recently launched, more than a nominal amount of local storage is no longer necessary. My response is that, while Wi-Fi and cellular data reception may be ubiquitous, it’s when you really need that video or document that you find yourself with an online connection that’s unavailable, too slow or unreliable. Internet access hasn’t, in my opinion, reached the reliability or overall availability as much as say, electricity.

This brings me to my next choice: Wi-Fi or cellular internet access. I’ll say up front, I’m too budget-minded when it comes to paying for even more internet access (via cellular) when I’m already paying for it twice: once on my smart phone and once at home (after all I am a financial planner). I just couldn’t see spending another $30 or more monthly for an additional plan that I would use only where Wi-Fi is not available. Also, if I were to “spring” for another wireless connection, I’d go for one of the portable cellular Wi-Fi routing devices that can make internet access available for more than one device (à la the Verizon MiFi). This way I’m not limiting my cellular internet access to one device; I could also use it with my laptops.

In my experience, cellular access on my iPad would have been handy at times where Wi-Fi was not available for my iPad, but those instances have been only a few. Also, keep in mind that, even when only Wi-Fi is available, it may not be free (airports, airplanes, etc.) And obviously a cellular data modem can’t be used on an airplane.

For someone who has used an iPhone or iPod Touch, getting used to the multi-touch screen and iOS interface is second nature. For someone like me, who never owned either, learning the navigation of the interface and various finger gestures was very simple and intuitive. Within minutes I became comfortable opening and navigating applications, though it took some getting used to. Being so PC and Windows centric, this was also my first experience with an Apple computing device (other than an iPod of course).

Since I’m well versed in using iTunes software, the synchronization interface for the iPad with your computer, getting started setting up the iPad was relatively easy. While I was anxious to sync, view and listen to my music and videos on the iPad, I really viewed the primary purpose of the iPad as an e-reader and lightweight e-mail and internet browsing device. Everyone knows about the hundreds of thousands of “apps” available for the iPad, and I was curious which ones I would gravitate towards or incorporate into my daily life.

An online Apple account is essential if you plan to use iCloud, download apps or buy anything from the iTunes store. Anyone who has purchased music or media from Apple already has an account. If not, setting one up is easy and free; even if you never purchase a thing from Apple, and are only interested in the free apps, you’ll need an online Apple account.

During set-up, the iPad asks if you wish to establish a 4 digit passcode to protect your iPad and contents. I can unequivocally say that you must do this immediately and set a short time-out for it. It will help protect your device and data from unauthorized access and spying eyes, and will not allow use until after you input the passcode. You can even set the maximum number of failed attempts to unlock the iPad, after which it will erase all the data from the device as a safety precaution.

One of the first apps that came “standard” on the iPad was “Find iPhone”. This allows you to remotely track down your device via GPS should it become lost or stolen. I set this up right away just in case this happened. Although a clever thief can likely find a way around it, it’s a second line of defense (after the passcode) to retrieve or wipe your data should the iPad fall into the wrong hands. And as I get a bit older, it may even help me find my device around the house in case I misplace it like my keys.

Without any USB ports or memory card slots, one wonders how you get data back and forth to the device. As alluded to above, the iCloud can act as a data hub to shuttle files and documents to the iPad. In addition, e-mail and internet attachments (most commonly PDF’s) are opened and displayed without any extra effort, using the preinstalled iBook application.

Speaking of e-mail, setting up an internet e-mail account (in my case Google’s Gmail) was straightforward and effortless. The iPad uses the IMAP protocol to sync messages with the server and makes e-mail processing a breeze. Tapping out short e-mails with the on-screen keyboard became easier over time, though I splurged on a $99 Logitech Bluetooth keyboard/cover combo device. The keyboard doubles as a hard screen cover when not in use. The keyboard, while a bit small, is much easier to type on than the virtual screen keyboard and makes short work of typing longer documents or e-mails. The keyboard/cover also doubles as an iPad stand turning the iPad into a mini convertible notebook.

Internet browsing using the Safari browser worked flawlessly, though Internet Explorer or Firefox users may take some time to get used to Safari. Of course, as many iPad users learn quickly, Apple does not run the ubiquitous Adobe Flash applications or videos. Over time, this has become less of an issue as more and more video content is being converted to HTML 5.0. While the majority of web videos are in Flash, a large portion of YouTube and other web video content is available in HTML 5.0.

So once I had mastered the e-mail, internet, e-reader and video playback capabilities, it was time to explore the available apps that would make me more productive on my iPad. Regular readers of my columns know that the most useful app on my computer is RoboForm, my form filling and password management software of choice. RoboForm is available for the iPad, though the form filling capabilities are all but muted in this early version. It really acts as a lookup repository for web sites, ID’s and passwords, which is what I really need when on I’m on the road. RoboForm syncs online with RoboForm To Go for those signed up ($19 annually), so your ID’s and passwords are always up-to-date.

I also like the idea of being able to remote control my PC’s with my iPad, so I bought and downloaded the LogMeIn Ignition iPad app to be able to remote control my PC’s ($30). While the iPad screen is a bit small to display my 30-inch screen at home, the app performed flawlessly to remote control and access my home PC. It takes a little getting used to, that is, using the finger gestures to navigate, but this works fairly well. There are no extra fees for this access beyond the fees you may pay for the LogMeIn services (they have free and paid plans).

Reading books, newspapers and magazines on the iPad is a pleasure and a great convenience. I converted my Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, Business Week and Investor’s Business Daily paper subscriptions to electronic ones and I’ll never go back to ink stained fingers. I’ve also had an electronic PC Magazine subscription ever since they ceased their print edition, so I now get that “pushed” to my iPad on the day of release. Any further renewals of magazine subscriptions will be electronic to help reduce magazine clutter creep at home. I know my wife appreciates it and can’t wait for this to happen.

The calendar, contacts, notes and reminders (to-do) can all sync with Outlook or Google Apps. While I still use Commence RM as my favorite personal information manager, I can sync Commence with Outlook or Google Apps and therefore my personal information is available to me on my iPad. And with the iCloud, once I move to a “current decade” smartphone like the iPhone, I’ll find that information there as well. Using the Mint app, I can keep track of my spending, credit card bills and budgets. I also downloaded the Microsoft OneNote app to sync with my online and desktop OneNote databases, a very handy and quite useful app.

I used iCloud to back up the iPad and it worked on the first try without a hitch. Though the allotted free space is limited to 5 GB, you can buy additional space for a fee. All of your Apple purchased content and media is stored for free and doesn’t count against your paid and free space. Be aware that, for a limited time, box.net offers 50 GB of free space to anyone who downloads their free iPad cloud storage app.

Battery life of the iPad is about 8-12 hours, so you can work with it all day long without carrying a charger. My only disappointment with charging the iPad is that my laptops’ and desktops’ USB ports were not powerful enough to charge this iPad. This seems like a device flaw or “bug” to me. Even an iPod charger was not powerful enough, which was a curiosity.

I spent several days (not consecutive) trying to use the iPad as my primary and only computing device, but never made it through the day. That’s because, even with the accessory keyboard, I found it cramped and a bit tiring to work on for hours at a time. For conference note taking, the iPad was quite handy and lightweight to carry around all day long. Given that iOS is an Apple operating system, many PC based apps (such as Commence RM and Microsoft Office applications) won’t work on the iPad. Obviously, running a robust database application or tax compliance software is currently out of the question, until someone “ports” their apps to the iPad. So I won’t be selling my laptops anytime soon.

I found surprisingly very little to complain about when it came to the iPad. Obviously the price of the iPad, just like other Apple products, is at a premium to other tablets, but I believe that this will change very soon as competition heats up. When it came to some Adobe Flash based web sites, obviously it was disappointing not to be able to call them up on the iPad.

When some applications continuously crashed for apparently no reason, I had to uninstall then reinstall them to fix the problem. Unlike a Microsoft Windows application which displays a cryptic error message when it crashes, when an iOS application crashes, it merely closes without prior notice or message. But the recovery is quite elegant and rarely caused a reboot of the iPad.

Without a cover or protective film, the iPad can easily slip out of one’s hand and fall to the ground. I used and recommend a Zagg brand clear film cover on the front and back to protect the screen and improve the grip.

With Android based tablets hitting the market in droves in the next year, the next act for the iPad will be to stay one step ahead. Apple’s share of the tablet market has already taken a hit, and unless Apple enhances the next iPad with new features not found on the other less expensive tablets, the iPad will become one of many others competing for consumers’ attention and dollars. The design, simplicity and elegance of the iPad set it apart; only time will tell whether buyers will continue to pay a premium for it. For me, the bar is set high, so competitors will need to really show their mettle to get me to switch. I’m hooked. I’d be delighted to hear your feedback and useful applications that you can’t live without.