iPad Gripe Session

After a few months of owing it, I keep finding more and more uses for my iPad, many of them not possible on my Mac or my iPhone, and my affection for it keeps ratcheting up accordingly. At the same time, there are at least a handful of irritating shortcomings on the platform that I’m impatiently waiting for Apple to address. I know it’s been less than a full year since the iPad debuted, and perhaps there’s a significant upgrade due soon, but for now, I find that using the iPad is more frustrating than it needs to be.

In large part this is owing to the fact that iOS 4 is so good, making its current unavailability for the iPad feel particularly vexing. In the few short months since I’ve owned my iPhone 4, I’ve become thoroughly reliant on the iOS 4 unified inbox within Mail, for instance — I’m amazed that I ever lived without it on my iPhone and annoyed that I have to live without it still on my iPad. Also, the major efficiency gains that iOS 4’s multitasking makes possible have become second nature to me on the iPhone. Meanwhile, switching between apps on the iPad and having to wait for each app to load from scratch every time I access it seems like an archaic custom leftover from the first decade of the century.

Among features that the iPad does share with the iPhone, the ability to undo actions seems more rote than useful. As a gesture to invoke the Undo command, shaking a handheld device the size of an iPhone is clever and workable. Shaking a much larger device like the iPad is awkward at best and violates one infrequently violated but nevertheless important law of good user interface design: don’t force the user to look like a fool [original euphemism deleted in deference to British sensitivities] in order to use any given feature.

Means of Production

My complaint about undo intersects with the fact that, over time, I’ve started to use the iPad for content creation more and more (by now those early criticisms that the device is conducive only to consumption seem myopic). I still don’t quite believe that long-form writing or word processing will ever be something that people frequently do on the iPad, but on the other hand I’m on a train to Washington, D.C. at the moment and my MacBook has apparently died so I’m typing this particular chunk of reasonably long-form text on my iPad (using a preview release of an intriguing app forthcoming from Oliver Reichenstein’s Information Architects).

Whether we’ll ever type as much on the iPad as on a PC, it seems obvious to me that some refinement is needed in managing how ‘touchable’ the iPad’s screen is while entering text. As it stands, it’s too easy to reposition my cursor as I type by inadvertently brushing against the screen with a knuckle. With the iPhone’s much smaller screen real estate this problem was a nuisance, but with the much larger expanse of the iPad cursor placement can be much more volatile, and it becomes a serious impediment to usage. It should be possible for Apple to implement something along the lines of the ‘ignore trackpad while typing’ feature that the company includes with its MacBook line of laptops.

Unextended Stays

So long as we’re talking about productivity, I may as well declare my futile hope that Apple will one day allow some of the extensibility on iOS that’s available on Mac OS X. It would violate the platform’s vision of purity and its paradigm for stability, I’m sure, but I want more system-wide services. Services that often only third party software vendors excel in.

I want an editable dictionary that can supplant iOS’ built-in auto-correct dictionary. I want Text Expander available to every app, and 1Password and Instapaper too, while we’re at it. I’m sure many readers out there have their own wish lists of similar enhancements, but we’ll probably never get any of them so I may as well stop here.

Unrefreshing Behavior

Back in the territory of pure content consumption: I’ve become a big fan of powering through my RSS subscriptions via Google Reader in mobile Safari. Notwithstanding the fact that Google Reader’s iPhone-optimized interface needs some subtle but nontrivial adjustments for the iPad, it’s great. What’s not great is mobile Safari’s penchant for refreshing a browser window nearly every time I return to it, regardless of how long the window has been idle.

This is generally annoying but it can be particularly disruptive with a Web app like Google Reader where state is maintained on the client side — I can’t tell you how many times when, having clicked off to a site from a feed, I’ve wanted to return to the post as it appeared in Google Reader, only to have it lost because mobile Safari unthinkingly refreshed the whole page. If anyone at Apple really understands why the browser built into the iPad refreshes so aggressively and so randomly, they’re taking the company’s secrecy policy a bit too seriously.

Nothing on But Reruns

I was never a big consumer of Web video on my desktop or laptop, but with the iPad I’ve been consuming more and more of it. I also find myself scratching my head over how the device handles caching of video content. If I start watching a movie trailer the playback will begin after only a few seconds and play only what it’s downloaded before pausing to wait for more, which is fine.

After thirty seconds or so, I’ll often hit play and watch until the playback again exhausts what’s been downloaded — I’m essentially watching whatever comes through in chunks. But when I get to the end of the video, I like to scrub all the way back to the beginning so that I can watch the whole trailer in a single, uninterrupted pass. The problem is that the software then behaves as if it has to load everything over from scratch, as if it hasn’t cached any of the movie, and indeed the experience is just as if I’d never downloaded the video before at all. Frustrating.

Accentuate the Positive

Wow, I hadn’t thought that I had set out to write a ranting post about my iPad gripes but in retrospect it’s pretty clear that I was. It’s only because I think the platform has so much potential, I think. The first wave of iPad apps, which we’re still seeing being released right now, have been enormously impressive. What’s even more exciting is that the first wave of releases on any platform usually turns out to be the least interesting showcase for what the platform can do. I believe that before too long we’ll see iPad apps that strike out into radically new territory, leaving many of the current apps — especially those who simply pull in feeds for reading or emulate print magazines — looking like brochureware sites from the 1990s. On the way there, I just hope Apple fixes a few of these software shortcomings sooner rather than later. Then we can talk about all my complaints about the hardware, too.

  1. I think a lot of the issues with video playback and the constantly refreshing pages are related to the 256mb of ram compared to the 512mb in the iPhone 4.

    For what its worth, I share all the above annoyances also, but still I love my iPad.

  2. I need to point out to you that your use of the word spaz ( presumably, an abbreviated form of or derived from ‘spastic’) may not go down too well with your readership in the UK where people are terribly PC…or at least some quarter are. Just so you know.

    Being a foreigner domiciled in the UK, it has fascinated me the – the evolution of the English language in the 30 odd years I have been here,
    and the cultural differences that shape the same language on both sides of the pond.

    Carry on writing…alawys enjoy your blogs as they have substance.

  3. I agree with your thoughts about the iPad. Hopefully iOS 4 will arrive in a couple of months. I think Adrian is correct, the 256mb and the large screen size (vs. the iPhone) cause safari to refresh all the time.

    What I find fascinating about the iPad is that as a designer we are now asked to design the visual user interface for apps. That is literally a new business direction that supplements our mostly web design work. With the large screen size and the “demand” from Apple for beautiful apps this is a a very interesting development and one I couldn’t have predicted just a short while ago.

    I am typing this on my iPad on a train heading to NYC…

  4. Mei: Thanks for pointing that out and my apologies to U.K. readers for inadvertently using an offensive term. I’ve altered it in the text above. Too bad, I was mildly proud of that joke even though it’s probably not that politically correct here in the States either.

    To the person posting under the name “Netscape”: You’re hilarious. First, you’re too cowardly to post under your own name or use a legitimate email address. Second, well, that’s it really.

    Alon: Great point. I wrote about that in my column in the August 2010 issue of Print Magazine. Because their site is utterly impossible to navigate, I’ll have to email the editor for a link to an online version. I’ll post it on the site here when I get it. Sigh.

  5. Most certainly RAM. The problem was far worse on the iPhone “OG,” was somewhat alleviated with the 3GS, and vastly improved with the 4.

    Critics of the iPad for content creation seem to conveniently ignore the keyboard dock. It’s out, it’s great, it’s still even less to haul around than a Macbook Air.

    Chris Clark outlined a proposal for a “services menu for iOS” which is similar to what you described: Link

  6. My daddy always taught me, if you shake it more than once, you’re playing with it. The same holds true for undo on the iPad, and it looks a lot more civilized.

  7. On the topic of Google Reader, I have been dealing with the issue by leaving the browser window in the “I’ve read all of these and I’m ready to move on” state, always assuming the browser will refresh the next time I open it. If there’s a tasty bit that I want to revisit, I will click on the link to the load the page in a new browser window before moving on.

    Never push the “Mark All Items as Read” button immediately before locking the phone and walking away from it. You can kiss those RSS bits bye bye.

  8. I don’t have much to add to the conversation here as I agree with most of your points. Coincidentally, I solved the Google Reader gripe you have yesterday when I downloaded Reeder. It ties into your Google Reader account and includes options for instapaper and some other goodies. Some features are absent but so far so good.

  9. Hey we can give Apple a few breaks when it comes to functionality on the iPad because the poor thing is a novelty-size iPhone.

    btw it seems that Safari on my 3G iPhone is very refresh-happy. I think it’s just an iPhone convention for the moment, even though it’s infuriating. This is a mobile device! If there’s any place for not refreshing browser content until an explicit user request, it’s on a mobile device.

    And I totally forgot you have to shake the iPad to undo. That is quite unfortunate…and giggle-worthy. Anyway…growing pains of early adoption.

  10. I definitely recommend using one of the alternative browsers (Atomic Web is my current of choice). Proper use of browser tabs is a lot more pleasant with google reader, etc.

  11. Khoi, the iPad has an undo key right on the keyboard—you don’t need to shake it like the iPhone to undo. Just hit the Љ.?123’ key to switch to the numbers side of the keyboard, and the undo key is on the bottom left.

  12. I agree with all of the your gripes. I’d also add the lack of a forward-delete key to the list—it’s a pain to do the whole “hold, drag, lean-in, let go” routine to move the cursor, only to be one character off and have to do it again.

    As far as Safari refresh goes, why would it be a RAM issue? Safari should be able to store the page in VRAM, right? But maybe that’d be too slow.

  13. well, we could start addressing the keyboard issue by (re)designing it properly. many people have no idea that the qwerty keyboard was designed to slow typists down (in order to stop the typebars of old typewriters jamming up). now we seem to be stuck with a redundant design..

  14. Oh dear. I guess even my retraction was too flippant for some people. Well, suffice it to say I didn’t mean anything mean-spirited and regret it if I didn’t take it seriously enough when it was pointed out to me.

  15. All good points. I think one of the more glaring omissions is the lack of any user profiles on the device. With the phone, it makes total sense that only one person will be using it, but the iPad nearly begs to be shared.

    Not being able to have separate settings, email accounts, etc. is a bit frustrating, especially when you have a 3-year-old child who can inadvertently delete something important while you’re not looking.

  16. Oh jeez Neil, you’re completely right and that might be my NUMBER ONE gripe. Somehow it completely escaped me when I was writing this. But yes, yes, yes, please — the iPad has become a family device in my house, and it would be a big win if it allowed separate accounts/user profiles.

  17. For what it’s worth, I don’t believe you meant it in a mean-spirited way.

    Nor do I think you’re a bad person.

    I’ve long been an admirer of your work, and I guess that, in conjunction with having seen this kind of thing go unremarked upon one too many times tipped me over into expressing my frustration and disappointment publicly rather than shouting at dustbins and deleting half-written blogposts like I usually do.

    It’s not about being British, or being overly politically correct (for the record, I’m actually Scottish, brought up near Glasgow, not known for being particularly politically correct as a culture), but about trying to break down barriers to inclusivity for people with disabilities, however unconscious they may be.

  18. sounds like people wish the iPad was a real computer.

    i second a vote for a forward-delete key, but good luck with that. Apple doesn’t think it’s worth having on their MacBooks. and stroking the lovely matte unibody case just isn’t enough to make me forget this issue.

  19. @Cat I agree it’s not something we’re likely to see on iPad. On the mac though, not having forward-delete doesn’t bother me actually, since fn-delete does the same thing.

  20. I’ve suffered the same troubles of using Google Reader on the iPad for way too long. Recently, I’ve switched to Reeder, a native Google Reader app, and can’t remember how I could have ever lived without it. Give it a try — $4.99 is a steal.

  21. Khoi, iread this the other day but am only now coming up from air long enough to comment on the amazing way you’ve captured my inner thoughts on the iPad as well, especially the way in which having iOS4 on ones phone makes one realize the truth in Joni Michell’s line from Big Yellow Taxi, “You don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone.” Such things as folders and multi-task have changed my expectations of what I should be able to do on my iPad.

    My workflow has changed significantly since the IPad, and likewise my use of certain software. Evernote and Instapaper are the ways I handle synching content so that what I need is accessible on any device whenever I need something. (Although I have a gripe with Evernote’s lack of a “folders equivalent” other than tags.)

    And while I enjoy the serendipity and aesthetics of an app like Flipboard, I’m going to agree with what’s becoming a chorus on this thread: Reeder is your solution for an app that solves the issues you have with Google Reader. Evernote users will recognize the interface of Reeder, with the addition of a folders metaphor. (I mention it with Flipboard because they both use RSS or other means to aggregate syndicated content — not because they should be thought of as being in the same category.)

    Best thing you observe: The current generation of app, many of which are brilliant, will look quaint in a couple of years. (And some look that way already.)

    Thanks for your always helpful commentary that helps us reflect on how we not only use, but experience new “tools” like the iPad.

  22. Under the “NOTHING ON BUT RERUNS” section, I have noticed the mentioned video reload behaviour in Safari on my MacBook and my MacPro.

    I am also annoyed by the web page reload requirement if leave a page to follow a link, returning using the ‘back’ button, forces a reload. I can’t figure out why either, but it’s annoying.

    I may be wrong, but I think it has more to do with the page code than the OS.

  23. Khoi,

    I had the same annoying concern about iOS4 and why it isn’t on the iPad yet so I wrote my first and only email to Steve Jobs and surprisingly got a reply backЁ


    Ёalbeit with a not so surprising answer.

  24. Okay I bought Reeder over the weekend and I’ve played with it a few days. There are things that I really like about it and there are things that I don’t like so much — maybe I’ll get around to writing a short review of it here on Subtraction.com. Mostly what irks me is that I don’t really see a particularly good reason to use a native app to do something that works almost exactly the way that I need right in the browser. Plus, the browser is a lot more immediate. Anyway, thank you everyone for the suggestion; I’ll keep using it a while longer and see how it goes.

  25. @khoi – re: “Mostly what irks me is that I don’t really see a particularly good reason to use a native app to do something that works almost exactly the way that I need right in the browser.”

    That assumes that every iPad has continuous and ubiquitous access to the web. Having a native iPad reader allows for download and (if RSS is set for more than headlines) the ability to read stories while offline.

    Also, and perhaps it’s because I have used Evernote in a similar “view” option, I like the interface of Reeder.

    (But I learned a long time ago, everyone has his or her preferences — unfortunately, the entire world doesn’t share mine. ; )

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