iPad Air

Hardware

I'm hesitant to say what I really think of this device.

In the D8 interview with Steve Jobs, he admitted that people make fun of him for calling the device "magical". Kara and Walt agreed, to laughs from the crowd, but then Steve went on to say that that's the only way he's been able to describe the thing.

That device has evolved tremendously since then, in both software and hardware, and there's another adjective that I'd really like to use, but I have the same apprehension, for the same reasons. So, to follow in his footsteps, I'm going to use it anyway.

This device, speaking about the hardware, is perfect.

Taking for granted Apple's constant ability to make impeccably balanced hardware, where not an inch of it feels weak or heavier or out of place, and not mentioning the display (which is amazing no matter how many times I use it, but is not technically a new feature), the iPad Air is an impeccable piece of hardware. It's incredibly powerful, and it fits that power into a perfect balance of weight and size. The retraction of the bezels on the long sides makes a noticeable difference in the pleasure the device is to hold and type on. It's a pleasure to use, but you really don't feel like you're using it - instead, you feel like you're using what's inside it or what's on it. It just fades away.

Apple has arrived at a wonderful place with the iPad, where they have a new starting point for tablet design without the compromises that the first 4 iPads required. They required too much power, or their display mandated compromises in weight. Not anymore: everything can now evolve together.


Software

I'm an iPhone user. For the foreseeable future, as long as Apple continues to make iPhones, I will keep buying and using iPhones. Third party applications are one of the many reasons for this. It took me a while to try out a lot of apps and see which ones suited me, but after the last two years or so after Retina displays shuffled the deck a bit, I've settled on a small but reliable set of apps to get stuff done.

So, I haven't really explored the App Store in a while. I read a review of an app when Frederico Vittici or Marco Arment write one, and if it seems like something I'd use or fills a need I have, I get it. But I've not had to ask the question "is there an app that does X for me" because for all intensive purposes, I have my needs met.

The iPad means that not only am I experiencing iOS 7 in a whole new way, I'm also revisiting and re-experiencing the App Store in a new way. So, in no particular order, my thoughts.

--On a baseline, I'm really happy with the number of my applications that show up in the "Purchased" tab of the store with ready-to-go iPad versions. Universal is the way to go, and a lot of the developers whose apps I use seem to agree. If I use 100 apps, I'd say based on my use case that 85% are universal and swoop right over.

This is a really wonderful experience. It's the same data: my Facebook news feed is the same stuff, I can look at the same list of restaurants on OpenTable, and I read the same saved articles with Instapaper or Reeder, but they are presented to me in a new, engaging and exciting way. Apple has hit this middle point between new and familiar that makes picking up this device and running with it so easy and enjoyable. It's by far the best part of the device's software experience.

--The apps that don't behave like the ones described above fit into three categories.

The first category are the apps that make separate binaries for iPhone and iPad. Not a huge deal, business is business, but it makes it much more likely I'll look for a universal solution. Tweetbot is the first example of this I can think of: they are separate for iPhone and iPad, and right now I use Tweetbot 3 on the iPhone. I also bought the most recent version of Twitteriffic when it came out, which is a universal app - so, right now, I'm seeing if I can stick with Twitteriffic on the iPad before I pay for Tweetbot's iPad version.

The second category is one where the iPad version is a significant downgrade from the iPhone experience. Many developers just haven't put commensurate energy into the iPad versions of their apps, and it shows.

The thing that will most likely effect whether I stick with Twitterrific or Tweetbot on the iPad is that Twitterrific falls into this category. Here's Twitteriffic running on the iPhone.

 Don't judge my Twitter timeline. #tremendousfollowguilt

Don't judge my Twitter timeline. #tremendousfollowguilt

Beautiful layouts of well chosen fonts, custom animations and a well adapted iOS 7 aesthetic made it a really pretty app. I switched to Tweetbot because it seemed to offer the same aesthetic with more functionality: an upgrade, rather than a traversal.

Here's Twitterrific on the iPad.

 Behold - Twitter for 95-year-olds.

Behold - Twitter for 95-year-olds.

It looks like a blown up version of the iPhone app, something Apple routinely roasts Android's tablet ecosystem and developers for churning out. Yet, here we are, 36 point font and all.

I can only guess that these developers either follow sales numbers for their apps and split resources and energy accordingly. In any case, some apps just offer a sub-par experience on the tablet.

The third category is apps that simply don't offer iPad versions. I'd really like to see Instagram or Uber or Transit or BusTrackDC offer iPad versions of their apps, but currently there's no such luck. The odds of finding a tablet version of your iPhone app are much higher than the odds in any other platform, but they aren't 100%, and that's noticeable once you really start shopping around on this thing.

This unfortunate fact yields an unfortunate consequence: there are tons of crappy, huckstery apps attempting to fill this void by putting a mask on a UIWebView and charging a few bucks for feeding people essentially the web version of someone else's product. They're easy to spot if you know what you're looking for, but they detract from two main selling points of the iPad - complete safety with regards to software and a positive user experience throughout the whole software stack. If you come into the store with a good deal of trust, which Apple hopes that you do, you might pick up a few of these simply by inputting a badly targeted search query.

One sub-issue relate to this is that app discovery on iOS as a whole is slim to none. Maybe 15 apps get placed in front of you out of the almost 1 million available, and there's no real guide once you dive in. Customer reviews are your only real guide, whether through the store or on Facebook, which is a developers worst nightmare. Apple, this is your store. Clean it up.

--iOS 7 on the iPad is really strange.

It's wide to say that, because it's nothing about the features and design in and of itself. In fact, it's almost an exact carbon copy of iOS on the iPhone in every way. The thing is, what feels right on the iPhone doesn't feel right on the iPad.

We all have an endless stream of stimulus demanding our attention. It comes at us from all different directions, some foreign and some familiar, but all constant and never slowing. This is a fact of modern life from before the iPhone; in fact, it necessitated it.

What made the iPhone so remarkable was that it took this huge stream of information and delivered it to us everywhere in a way that we could actually grasp and manage it. You might read your email on a Blackberry, but you'll get to Inbox Zero on your iPhone (if that's your bag). It's the difference between being a passive observer and an active participant in this flow of data. The ability for anyone to be involved at that high of a level anywhere had enormous consequences the whole world over.

IOS 7 is the next logical step in that mode for the iPhone. The design is such that it recedes into the context and let's the stream take priority. The devices size means that, when the data can go unabashedly full width and fill up that screen, you see more of what matters to you. On the iPhone, it was a complete success.

The iPad never had that mission, and doesn't really have that problem. The iPad has a screen the size of some laptops, or at least marginally smaller, or at least large enough so that one could mimic a PC-like handle on an average persons digital life. The iPad didn't have to solve the problem of getting more data on the screen, because it wasn't constrained by size in the same way the iPhone was.

The consequence of taking the same user interface that worked on the iPhone and putting it on the iPad is that where the iPhone feels like a better realization of itself, the iPad feels... Empty. White space is everywhere. Things are far apart, and user interface elements are stretched out.

Apps that adopt the new UI tend to go in one of two directions: either they space the elements out more by virtue of font selection and margin decreases, or they make everything huge. I've yet to see an app on the iPad show off iOS 7 like so many do in the iPhone.

Some of these problems will be solved with time. It's been about two months since iOS 7 launched to the world, and that was the culmination of a process that only began in late June, because the iPad version of iOS 7 was late. It's still in its infancy, and truly skilled developers and designers have yet to really make their mark on this side of the coin. I'm incredibly optimistic, and I'm waiting with baited breath, but I'm still waiting.

--Others, unfortunately, can't be solved with time. Apple has a job to do, and it's arguable that they haven't really done it yet.

One of the main reasons I cut developers a lot of slack earlier is that a) I feel their pain, but b) it's a course they have to chart alone, and ahead of them is a vast expanse of untouched territory. This is because, while Apple made the iPad and shipped the iPad and, now, brought its hardware to a point of ingenious wonder, they have yet to really give a coherent answer for what it's for.

That's not to say its not for anything, because it's for a lot of things - more things, in fact, than anyone in the PC industry ever give it credit for, to their eventual downfall. It's just that Apple has been keen to take a very passive position in guiding this products adoption: here's a magical, wonderful thing we built, we love it, and we can't wait to see what you do with it.

Industry and specialized fields have utilized the iPads potential to be a blank slate and have brought their specific needs to the iPad's screen, and that's wonderful. It's also not what sells iPads to parents and students.

The question the rest of us want answered is not what does it do right now, or what can it do, but what is it's role. What is it for? What is, to paraphrase Steve Jobs, it's reason for being?

That's why, when iOS 7 was released, it seemed to inspire a revolution in iPhone design and confusion and chaos in iPad design. Apple can't bring order just by releasing their own applications (which are wonderful, by the way: anyone who says you can't be productive, and I mean truly productive on an iPad is full of shit); they have to point developers in the right direction so they can bring the platform to true fruition.

Is the iPad the best tablet? Absolutely - it's not even close. I've had the unfortunate experience of developing for Android tablets, and they all suck, and the iPad is so much better than all of them.

Is the iPad Air the best iPad? Well, there's an argument for the mini with Retina, but if you lump this generation together it's obvious that these are the best iPads ever made.

So where does that leave us? The iPad is so good that it bumps up against this glass ceiling, this sense that it should do more, or be more capable. We have no reason to think that, because there's never been nothing like it, but that feeling is inescapable. Read the other reviews of the iPad Air - it's this unspoken disappointment with the best tablet out there that can be summed up with "it's so good at what it does, why can't it just do everything?".

I think there's a reason the iPad wasn't demoed on stage one time this year. iOS for the iPad isn't at a point where Apple's proud enough to show it to us in its full glory, to say "this is what we made for you, and we think you'll love it".

That's why I'm excited for iOS 8 -

...because I think it will be the OS the iPad needs,

...because it will be the first time Apple puts a foot in the direction we've been waiting for for four years, the sudden removal of the lid and the compass' reveal of true course,

...and because when it arrives, it will arrive on this, the device I have in my hand, that I'm using to write these words, making the impossibly perfect even more so.

Magical.