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Retina display iPad, Beauty or a Beast?

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In the beginning I wanted an ebook reader that I could use to read textbooks. I like my Kindle but it’s too small a screen for textbooks and the Kindle DX is not sold in the UK. I wanted something more portable that a laptop and with a better screen resolution, so when the new iPad was announced I pre-ordered one on launch day.

The Good:
Whilst no longer the ‘game changer’ I experienced when I got a first generation iPod touch, the user interface is still very user friendly. I’m glad to report the high resolution retina display is great for reading textbooks in my north facing home office. Job done! As an added bonus Devon libraries have (finally) started an eBook lending scheme that works fine on iPads (but has a copyright protection scheme that doesn’t support my Kindle.)

I have lots of amazing apps and games loaded on the iPad, though little time to play hence most are almost never used. The ones that do see regular service include:

  • iBooks – Apple’s excellent app for reading eBooks, including PDFs
  • iAnnote PDF – for marking up PDFs as you are reading, great!
  • Noteshelf – keep ‘notebooks’ for what I (should) have been writing in my lab book (and actually wrote on scraps of paper that I lost)
  • AudioNote – take audio recordings and written notes in meetings that are synced so that you can touch words or doodles to jump to the corresponding part of the audio, how cool is that!
  • Dropbox – the easiest way of moving documents on and off the iPad
  • iSSH – a great terminal application that is also able to be an xterm
  • Parallels – if you are running Parallels on your laptop or desktop this gives you remote desktop access to your VMs and your Mac!
  • AppShopper – does a great job of telling you when the app you want is on special offer
  • Flipboard – is now my normal way of consuming content from Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin
  • Eyewitness – amazing photo of the day from the Guardian
  • BBC News – my news intake is now down to about 30 seconds a day, is that good or bad?

In general I love my iPad, but if I had to choose between that and my Android phone I suspect the iPad would loose, and it wouldn’t stand a chance against my Macbook Pro. This is partly because of the ways Apple has deliberately crippled the device.

The Bad:
Apple could have done something really cool to improve usability, such as create a data based filing system where you locate objects by tags. Instead the iPad has a traditional filing system, they simply try to hide it and that makes life difficult!

We all know about the iTunes store. It’s rather like parents only allowing children to play with soft cuddly toys they have decided are safe. As an adult I understand the motivation but feel they are being over-protective.

As a rule Apple doesn’t allow you to use programming languages on an iPad. I guess it’s rather like parents locking their children in the nursery to keep them safe. There are very limited exceptions and also  some excellent solutions for using the iPad as a remote terminal or display for a real computer.

The operating system is not truly multi-tasking. Despite all the ‘real estate’ provided by the Retina display you can only see one application at a time and being ‘out of sight’ seems to cause applications to stop or shut down. This becomes a pain when you want to flip between multiple applications, for example between a textbook and the application it is describing.

The memory is not expandable. You can get an add-on that will allow you to connect an SD card or USB device, but Apple try to restrict its use to photos and videos. In my case I tried to use iMovie to edit some
video footage of kitesurfing shot on a GoPro camera, just the kind of thing I would love to do with the iPad when on holiday. Unfortunately the first thing the software did was import the footage into my iPad and killed the last of the free space on the device. To add insult to injury it then took me a while to track down the clips and delete them! I have a 32G iPad so my advice to budding film makers is that they need to go for the 64G iPad (you might want to calculate the profit margin Apple make on that extra 32G of storage).  I’ve read that you can attach storage, via a powered hub if necessary, and then fake the camera file structure as a partial work-around.

There is no Java. To be fair the main sites I use that need Java also don’t work with Google’s implementation so this is not a big differentiator (but this could give Windows 8 RT another USP).

There is no flash. I know Apple’s concerns that this will breach security, but they could always have it switched off by default. It seems they also felt it was necessary to put their child in a straight jacket for it’s own protection. Unfortunately this makes a number of key websites unusable on my iPad, but fortunately I can still see them with my Android phone 🙂

There are no applications that offer sufficient compatibility with Microsoft Office to use the iPad when needing to work with Word, Powerpoint or Excel files. I’ve tried a number of solutions including Pages, Numbers and Keynote. They are adequate for producing rough drafts but my experience is you bounce such documents around multiple authors and reviewers and I find imported Office documents are typically made unusable by missing features. If Windows8 RT can deliver that as its USP it may not be too late for the tablet party!

The Ugly:
To get around the Bad requires jail-breaking! This may be ugly but oh the relief. Fortunately Absinthe made the process very easy. Obviously thereafter you need to take more responsibility for your own security so don’t forget to start by changing your root password.

There are a number of excellent utilities available to improve life with an iPad. For example swiping the top of my screen now gives me a drop down where I can easily toggle things like Airplane mode or Bluetooth. Yes I know I’ve always had that type of thing on my Android phone but you only really appreciate it when you no longer have it! Once you start using the iPad as a producer rather than a consumer you do need a real keyboard to be productive. I believe most bluetooth keyboards will work but use the little Apple keyboard which is great, but hard to balance on my lap when just doing idle browsing. Hence the reason I am so pleased to have a simple way of toggling bluetooth on the iPad (sad but true).

One little enhancement that demands special recognition is SwipeSelection, a little app that allows you to scroll, or select text, by dragging your finger across the virtual keyboard. A real improvement over Apple’s user interface. I hope Daniel Hooper has a patent for his clever idea 🙂

There is a great application called iFile if you need a graphical file manager for your iPad.

Once the iPad has been jailbroken there are several programming languages available. Python 2.5 seems to be installed by default but there is also Ruby and more exotic offerings such as Haskell (Hugs98).

A new application called Quasar gives you true multi-tasking with multiple windows. I can finally read a textbook at the same time as typing commands into a console window (and also have a music video streaming). The application is still not perfect, though v1.2 seems a lot less buggy than v1.1. It really sets the bar for what we should be expecting from Apple!

The iPad ban on programming languages means that whilst you can have nice editors like Textastic, and you can even get Vim, I had given up hope of ever getting emacs. Even after jail breaking I could find no reference to a successful installation until by chance I came across a description of installing emacs on an AppleTV.

Following their link I found an emacs port for the iPhone (there is also a LaTeX port!!!!!). See:

Once installed I was able to launch iSSH, connect to the local machine, and run emacs!!!!

Sadly I don’t yet have a solution for flash, ‘frash’ doesn’t work on my iPad and it is unlikely there will ever be a solution for Java.


Written by zantine

July 9, 2012 at 4:16 pm

Posted in Tech

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