SAN FRANCISCO — An Apple product unveiling is usually a bit of a letdown. That's the downside of the company's iron-fisted secrecy: The entire press gets so worked up that when the new device finally makes it to the stage, it inevitably seems far less grand than you'd imagined. (MacBook Air? Yawn.)
But I won't lie: I've been waiting for the Apple tablet for a long time, and in the moments before CEO Steve Jobs takes the stage Wednesday morning, I'm positively giddy.
Rumors of the tablet's existence go back at least to 2002; in all that time, the company hasn't said a single solid word about it. So when Jobs finally spills the beans after about 10 minutes of wind-up, I'm floored. iPad? After all that time, you're going to call it that, really?
But then you see it. And then I got to touch it. In an instant, my skepticism of the cheesy, feminine-hygiene-product-inspired name fizzled. For more than a year, I've been looking for the perfect second computer. I wanted a flat, portable, easy-to-use machine that I could use for e-mail and reading the Web. The iPad is that device. Jobs described it as the perfect hybrid of a laptop and a phone, and I agree. Everything about it — its size, shape, weight and fantastically intuitive user interface — feels just right.
First, the features: It's an aluminum-and-glass touch screen machine that's about the size of a Kindle. The iPad is extremely thin, and it weighs just a pound and a half. It runs on a proprietary Apple microprocessor, can hold 16 to 64 GB of data (depending on which model you get), and its battery (allegedly) lasts up to 10 hours. The device goes on sale in two months. (Apple didn't say the exact date.) Prices range from $499 (16 GB, WiFi only) up to $829 (64 GB and a 3G wireless modem). A cellular data plan through AT&T costs $15 a month for up to 250 MB of bandwidth and $30 a month for unlimited data. There's no contract—you can cancel your data plan at any time without any fee. (When I asked an Apple rep whether iPhone owners could use the same plan for both devices, he didn't know the answer.)
As many Apple-watchers had predicted, the device runs a version of the iPhone operating system. This itself is a breakthrough. Apple is departing from — if not dispensing with — the multi-window, desktop metaphor that it invented with the Mac and that has come to dominate PCs via Windows. The iPad has no windows. Like on the iPhone, all programs take up the entire screen, commanding constant attention. This has some advantages over the traditional PC, especially in ease of use. Earlier this week, I begged Apple to build the world's first computer that worked like an appliance — a machine that hides away a computer's guts and requires little maintenance. The iPad is a move toward that vision. It's the first mainstream computer that doesn't have a file directory, doesn't require backups and doesn't call for a multi-step process just to add programs.
A computer running a phone OS has some downsides, too. For one, the iPad is completely locked down. It won't run any programs that aren't approved by Apple for sale in the App Store. Want a browser other than Safari? Want to buy movies from a store that's not run by Apple? Too bad. We saw a clear example of this during Job's demo: When he loaded up the New York Times' home page, the middle of the screen was blank. On an ordinary computer you would have seen a video there—but Apple has decided not to include Adobe's Flash plug-in in the iPad, which means that most online videos won't work. If video sites want in on the iPad, they'll have to play by Apple's rules: You can watch YouTube videos through a built-in app, and I bet that other online video companies are jumping to make compatible apps or sites. I'm looking at you, Hulu!
But enough about its shortcomings. What can the iPad do? It's a Web browser, e-mailer, photo album and a home entertainment device — it plays music, movies and TV shows, and it lets you read e-books and play games. The iPad also has access to Apple's App Store, meaning that it can run the more than 100,000 programs that were first created for the iPhone; developers can now create programs specifically for the iPad, too. I tried just a few of these, and most worked wonderfully. Navigating is effortless. The iPad has the same library of multi-touch gestures as the iPhone, and unlike a Mac or PC, the iPad turns on instantly, so programs start up with almost no load time. Oh, and this thing is fast — as I switched from e-mail to the Web to games to the photo program, the iPad didn't hiccup.
Many times during the presentation, Jobs hailed the iPad as the world's best Web browser. "It's like holding the Internet in your hands," he said. He's right. Because you hold it right in front of your face, just as you would a book, everything online seems closer and more intimate than it does on a desktop or laptop. For the same reason, the iPad is going to be the perfect way to read books. The built-in book-reading application, iBooks, offers access to thousands of titles from five major publishers, and Jobs promised that it would soon offer many more.
Unlike Amazon's Kindle, the iPad's screen is a traditional backlit LCD display, not E-Ink. LCD isn't as easy on the eyes, but it's got a few upsides—it can display colors, it can do animation, and you can use it in the dark. Pages turn instantly in iBooks, unlike the half-second it takes on the Kindle. You can also see full-color photos—you can get iPad travel books, photo books, cookbooks and textbooks, all of which look crummy on the Kindle—and authors can even include video.
Unlike the Kindle, the iPad will also let publishers customize the way they present their content. The New York Times showed off a beautiful reader app that it is planning to build for the device. Finally, here is an electronic version of a newspaper that can rival print, one that includes an editorially designed layout, distinctive typography and color photos. But it's even better than the paper: It's got a search bar, videos and interactive features. The Times didn't say how much it would charge for the app, and it's too soon to say how much the iPad will help old-media companies.
Apple claims that the iPad can be used for work, not just play — but I'm not sure that's true. The company unveiled an iPad version of its office suite iWork, which has a spreadsheet program, a word processor and a presentation app that have been customized to work via touch controls. These were the only apps I found a bit clunky.
What was the hold-up? Typing. In portrait mode, the on-screen keyboard is too small for typing quickly with two hands. You get a bigger keyboard when you rotate the iPad sideways to landscape mode, but then you've got another problem — it's too wide to hold it and type at the same time. The only way around this is to rest the device on a table or your lap, but then you find yourself staring straight down awkwardly.
Apple will sell an add-on keyboard for the iPad, but if you want to do a lot of work on the go, you're probably better off getting a real laptop. The iPad isn't for work. It's for every other waking moment.
Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society.