Sunday, April 4, 2010

iPad for college students?

What follows is my perspective on the Apple iPad. I'm a sophomore in college at NAU and I'm looking at this device purely from a college student's perspective.

I caved yesterday morning and bought an iPad.

Writing this post (90%) on the iPad while listening to music

My original intention was to go to the campus bookstore so I could get my hands on one and to see which, if any, textbook publishers had signed on with apples iBooks program. My eventual goal is to use the iPad primarily as a textbook reader, though in order for that to be a viable option I need the various textbook publishers to get together with apple to provide iPad-compatible versions of their books. As it turns out, the staff af the bookstore didn't have a clue about what would be available and couldn't get into the iBooks store to check it out for me. My only option was to buy one and give it a test drive myself.

Looking through the iBooks store, it doesn't appear there are any textbooks available. Though there is a reference section, that's about as close as it gets for now. Much of the hype I have seen from the press proclaims the iPad as something geared very much towards college students. While it is definitely cool and easy to use, the current lack of textbook options, combined with the relatively high price (at least in terms of the percentage of a college student's budget) make it much less appealing.

I'm going to be using my iPad for pretty much everything I can think of for the next month while I try to figure out if it's really worth the $$$. For now, all I have are my first impressions:

First off, it is heavier than I expected. It feels very solidly put together (unlike some netbooks i have toyed with), which is a huge plus for me, as I tend to beat on everything I own. Holding it for long periods of time does tend to get difficult, especially because its so darn slippery. I've taken to putting it in my lap or between my knees whilst browsing or reading. A rubber case like the one I have for my iPhone would make this much easier.

The first thing I did was to open Safari and hit a few websites. NY times, CNN, Facebook. They look amazing on the iPad's monster screen and require very little of the zooming and panning that iPhone and iPod touch users are so familiar with.

In order to get to the websites mentioned above, I couldn't help but use the virtual keyboard. It is a surprisingly simple experience. The iPad autocorrects just like the iPhone to assist those users who aren't familiar with a keyboard that provides no tactical feedback. The iPad defaults to make a little click sound every time a key is pressed. I don't like that so I turned it off. I don't experience any real difference as long as I'm watching the screen to see what I'm typing.
I find that I need to be sitting down to type, which is just fine for me.

Overall, typing takes just a little adjustment from a physical keyboard. I am used to resting my fingers on the keys while I think about what to type next. That does not fly with the iPad, so I have to keep my fingers elevated. The keys are spaced fairly well in the portrait orientation, and while I do find myself hitting "delete" more often than usual, I am confident that with a few weeks of use I could eliminate many of my typing errors on the iPad.

While I'm cruising the web, I usually like to listen to music. Depending on how I have the device oriented, the built in speakers can get covered up by my hand or buried in my lap. The speakers are surprisingly loud, and though they predictably don't provide much base, they do get the point across fairly well. When you really want to listen to music, you can take your headphones and plug em in. The headphone jack on the iPad is not recessed, so any pair of headphones will do, though it does not come with a pair of the apple earbuds we all hate. Thank you Apple. I plugged in my Sennheiser HD 202 cans to hear what the iPad had to offer. Unsurprisingly, the sound quality offered is fairly mediocre. I find it comparable to the sound offered by an iPod, which is considerably weaker than that offered by my MacBook Pro. The EQ is also similar to that of an iPod, with a tendency to clip bass notes and without the custom tweaking available on a standard computer.
Though I was surprised about the lack of cover-flow, I don't miss it.

Moving on, I explored the iBooks selection - after all, that's really what I want this device is for!
The iBooks store doesn't have a whole bunch to offer at the present time... it looks to me like the NY Times bestseller list is pretty much it. There are 50 free books available, all what my english teachers in high school would call "classics." Austen, Thoreau, Shakespeare, etc. Of course, there is a version of the Bible for free download as well. After enjoying a few samples of paid books, I chose The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (free) to read. The reading experience is great. After adjusting the font size and the screen brightness I was ready to rock. I read for a solid hour in very minimal light with no eye strain at all. I particularly enjoy the built-in dictionary, which allows me to increase my vocabulary without switching to the dictionary app (also free), let alone picking up a hardcover dictionary - I'm not sure I'd know how to use one anymore!
Showcasing the dictionary and how dark the screen gets - I was able to read comfortably with no other light in the room.

A lot of people have been saying the wi-fi only option is worthless, because only with 3G can you get the internet *everywhere* you go. That's a bunch of baloney, at least if you're in college.
As a college student, everywhere I go already has free wi-fi! My campus, like pretty much every college campus, has wireless that covers every single building. The coffee and sandwich shops that cater to college students know they need free wi-fi to get our business as well. Everywhere I go has wireless, so why on earth would I pay $30/month out of my already-limited beer money budget for 3G service from AT&T, a company that can't handle the number of iPhones on its network already!!!
Even if campus didn't have internet everywhere, I wouldn't pay for the service from AT&T because their service in Flagstaff is absolutely horrid.

So, after my first impressions, what do I think?
Its cool. Undoubtedly cool. BUT, it won't be worth the minimum $500 price tag until Apple gets the major textbook publishers on board. Even then, the price of these books is going to be have to be around 50% of the printed version for the savings to justify the purchase of the iPad for large numbers of students. I already buy the electronic or online versions of my books, which takes my average book spending per semester from $800 to $350 or so. Unfortunately, because these books are stored in a variety of formats either online or on my hard drive, I often forget which book is where, which program I need to use to read which book, etc. If they were all in one place, Apple and textbook publishers could stand to make some serious bank.

Once again, this is just my first impression. I'm going to give the iPad a fair chance to impress me over the next month. At that point if I'm not happy with it, I'll sell it.

Is there anything you want to know about the iPad? Anything I should try or elaborate on? Drop a comment below to let me know!