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Normal Human Being™ reviews the iPad

Outside the reality-distortion field

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The iPad has inspired yet another high-powered business type to make a mobile-device purchase. Of a netbook.

As you may have heard, Apple's iPad went on sale last Saturday in the US. Since - and even before - that momentous event, boundless bloviatory bytes dissecting Cupertino's "magical and revolutionary" device have engorged the interwebs, with pundits and pundit-wannabes weighing in with both pros and cons (but mostly pros).

Over at The New York Times, however, David Pogue made the reasonable observation that while a tech type might see the iPad one way, a Normal Human Being™ might look past its lack of Flash support, lack of multitasking, lack of a removable battery, lack of a camera, lack of standard USB ports, lack of an SD card slot, and any other lack you might want to mention.

An NHB might look at the iPad and see it for what it is, not what it isn't.

Pogue's unarguable observation presented me with a problem. After covering Apple products and various chippery for over 20 years, my NHB status is highly questionable. While I'm certainly capable of conjuring an in-depth review of most any electronic whizbangery, my observations are filtered through a fine-meshed sieve of preconceptions. My conclusions may be either chowderheaded or keen, but they're certainly not those of an NHB.

So I did what any red-blooded American male might do: I asked my wife for help.

A bit of background on my test subject, whom I will anonymize here as LW ("lovely wife" - certainly not "little woman") to protect her professional cred. LW uses computing devices as tools, and has little - make that "no" - interest in their components, protocols, operating systems, or, for that matter, marketing claims. If a device helps her get her job done and entertains her when she seeks diversion, it's good. If it doesn't, it's bad.

Being an NHB, LW couldn't care less about the difference between CDMA and GSM, as long as her phone makes calls. She can detail the intricacies of a charitable lead trust or a charitable remainder trust, but whether longitudinal or perpendicular recording technology is used in the hard drive that stores her voluminous spreadsheets she cares not a whit.

In other words, she's Apple's target market. So I handed LW my iPad, and asked her to fiddle with it for an hour or three.

As soon as LW fired up the iPad, a strange thing happened: it disappeared. Instead of being a "magical and revolutionary" device, it became a window - to the web, to an ebook, to her email. She looked through the iPad, not at it.

She launched the YouTube app and watched a few Margaret Cho comedy routines. She launched the one ebook that ships with the iPad - Winnie the Pooh, of all things - then flipped through a few pages, commenting that she preferred the color images to those displayed by a monochrome Amazon Kindle, and that the iBook app's two-page landscape view made her reading experience more comfortably "book-like".

But after only a few minutes of iPad use, its window aspect faded away and its physical presence reasserted itself. From LW's point of view, the iPad's bulk made holding it tiring - and LW is no delicate flower - and its slippery backside made using it on her lap an unstable and uncomfortable alternative.

For the record, the Wi-Fi–only iPad weighs 24 ounces (0.68 kg); the Kindle weighs 10.2 ounces (0.29 kg).

"Do they expect you to read with this for any amount of time?" she asked. "I wouldn't." She also noted that since it's uncomfortable to hold the iPad at a regular reading distance, her reading glasses were ineffectual. And she commented that the iPad's glossy display quickly filled up with finger smudges - despite Apple's claim that the display, like that of the iPhone, is oleophobic.

Although, of course, LW would never use a term like "oleophobic". She saw smudges, and they annoyed her.

But the real deal-breaker was when LW imagined taking the iPad on business trips. I explained that the iPad's Pages and Numbers apps can open the Microsoft Word and Excel files she receives from clients, but she wasn't buying it. "How am I supposed to work with complex spreadsheets on such a small screen? And with no keyboard?"

I told her that Apple was planning to release a keyboard for the iPad soon, and she asked, quite reasonably, "So I'd need to carry both on a trip?" And then the death blow: "And will they also sell a mouse?" When I told her that there's nothing on Apple's website that indicates that a mouse would be available, she asked, somewhat incredulously, "So I'm supposed to point at where I want to put my cursor?"

LW doesn't want magic and revolution, she wants a tool to get stuff done. As a business-oriented NHB, to her the iPad is too heavy to use as an ebook reader, too clumsy to use for any length of time as a window on the web, not useful for business purposes, and tough to get docs into and out of.

She did, however, like the idea of a small, lightweight, versatile machine to take on business trips. After taking the iPad for a test drive, LW is thinking of buying a netbook. ®

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While my wife isn't sold on the iPad, my decidedly geekier daughter - coder, soon-to-be engineering grad student, and owner of an LED binary clock - spent an hour or so with it playing JellyCar, Trace, Fieldrunners and Labyrinth. Her verdict: iPhone games are hella better on the iPad's larger display.

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