I’ve been saying for a long time that the iPad looks cool, but that I wouldn’t be buying this first incarnation of apple’s tablet. I had two reasons for that, firstly, for me, it felt like a solution in search of a problem, and secondly, I’m very grumpy about Apple not allowing the iPad to share the iPhone’s data connection via tethering. Before people jump on me, I want to clarify that I’m not saying that the iPad is a solution in search of a problem in any sort of universal sense, but just in terms of my life at the time. Well, I stuck to my word and didn’t buy an iPad, but I do now own one thanks to the generosity of Allison & Steve Sheridan of the NosillaCast. I’ve had it for a few days now, so I thought it might be worth sharing my first impressions.

I absolutely hate to say this, but there really is something magical about this device that mere descriptions can’t communicate. Yes, it’s a giant iPod touch, but that change in size changes everything. In this case, size really does matter. What also makes a huge difference is the responsiveness of this thing. That A4 processor performs like a sports car, making my iPhone 3G feel like an ageing family saloon!

From a physical point of view, I think they have nailed the size perfectly. It’s big enough for the screen not to feel cramped or small, but small enough to easily throw into your bag. The screen itself is stunning, bright, vibrant colours, and viewable from a surprising range of angles. It feels much more like a photo behind glass than a laptop screen. A bunch of people can comfortably stand around you as you show them something on the iPad, and they’ll all get a good view of what ever it is you have on the screen. When it comes to the weight of the thing, I’m in two minds. On the one hand, when you think of what it is, a computer with a good sized screen and 10 hours of battery life, it’s impressively light. But, compared to a paperback book, it’s disappointingly heavy. On the one hand, it feels wonderfully sturdy and well built, on the other, maybe plastic rather than glass and aluminium would have made it lighter. Rather confusingly, it is both amazingly light and disappointingly heavy all at once!

The fit, finish, and design of this thing is superb. I keep having to remind myself that this is the FIRST incarnation of a whole new product. Apple are going to incrementally improve this thing going forward. The baseline they’re starting from is superb. Nothing about the iPad says “1.0 product” to me.

As for apps, forget about using your iPhone apps on this thing. Yes, they technically work, but the experience is about as un-Apple as it gets. The apps simply look terrible blown up to 2X, and are exceptionally awkward to use centred on the iPad’s big screen at 1X. You can get by in a pinch, but it’s really quite ick! Thankfully there are loads of apps that are ready for the iPad at this stage. With all that extra space, iPad apps give you a much richer experience. Many companies are doing the right thing, and creating universal apps that run at the native resolution on both the iPhone/iPod Touch and the iPad. Some companies have separate apps, but with enough extra features in the iPad version to warrant paying for them again. Unfortunately, some companies are using the iPad as an excuse to extort money from their customers, creating iPad only apps with no extra functionality, but simply re-rendered at a higher resolution. Thankfully more reputable companies producing quality apps are not doing this.

So, on to the big question, have I found a use for the iPad, considering I didn’t see a major need for it in my life? I’m not 100% sure of where all it will fit in my life, but it’s already become a much loved part of my daily routine.

Firstly, Games on this thing are just so much more fun than on the iPhone. I really wasn’t expecting that to be the case, bit it is. I bought Worms HD as a test game, and it was love at first sight! I’d gotten pretty good at Worms on the iPhone, but it always felt cramped, not so on the iPad, where it feels completely at home. The same is true of my Mahjong app, I liked it on the iPhone, but I love it on the iPad. I’m definitely going to start paying closer attention to games thanks to the iPad.

As much fun as games are, they’re not really that practical! I’m not a morning person. Really not. So getting out of bed is not something I rush. Until now my morning routine has been to triage my email on my iPhone from bed, then to check www.met.ie/forecasts and then to finally get up. I now do those morning tasks on the iPad, and the experience is so much better. I’m not going to compose massive replies from the iPad from bed, but I can deal with quick replies and simple organisation and triage very well. This way, when I do get into work, all the spam will be purged, all the quick stuff dealt with, and all that will be left for me to deal with are the mails requiring detailed replies. Reading web pages is a million times more comfortable on the iPad than the iPhone.

Something else the iPad absolutely excels at is exploring data. Web browsing is just one example of this, but there are many more. The maps app is another great one, with the view set to hybrid where you see the satellite photos with overlays you can explore for hours, zooming and panning instinctively. The same is true with astronomy apps. It was nice having planetarium software on my iPhone, but the experience on the iPad is just so much better.

Similarly, the iPad is a fantastic way to show people your photos. I’d heard this said many times on the many photography podcasts I listen to, and it really is true. People instinctively get the interface, swiping to move forward and back, and pinching to zoom seems to come naturally to people. It’s also nice that you can peek into stacks of photos, and get back to the gallery view by zooming right out quickly. Those gestures don’t exist on the iPhone where they probably wouldn’t work so well, but they are a great addition on the iPad. The photo frame feature is also a nice touch.

I’m also going to try to replace my paper notebook and diary in work with the iPad. I hate brining laptops to meetings because they erect a barrier between me and the people I’m talking to, but the iPad shouldn’t have that problem. It’s going to take some time to see how this works out in practice, but my current plan is to use EverNote to take notes in meeting, and DropBox to easily move files onto the iPad. Both these apps have the advantage that they sync wirelessly, so any notes I take in meetings will automatically show up on my desktop, and any files I put in the DropBox folder on any of my Macs will become available on the iPad.

Now, I do have to say that it’s not all a bed of roses with the iPad – I have bumped into a few rough edges. Nothing show-stopping, but just a few little things that are not as good as I’d expected.

Firstly, in work we use HTTP proxies to access the internet from our staff network. The iPad lets you specify the proxies on a per-connection basis, so when I connect to my work network they’re there, and when I connect to my home network they’re not. So far so good. A lot of apps obey the proxy settings, but not all. Most of the apps that ship with the device do, but not the YouTube app. You can browse the videos, but once you try to play one, it times out. If you go to the YouTube website directly, the same thing happens. Browsing works, but streaming doesn’t. It seems that the streaming engine in the iPad forgets to use the proxies. A number of 3rd party apps also ignore proxy settings. This is rather irritating. I have a hack for getting around the problem in work, I can use our guest network, but then I lose access to a bunch of stuff on the staff network for security reasons. It’s not hard to switch from network to network, but I shouldn’t have to!

Secondly, the great photo app ignores hierarchies of folders and albums when you sync with Aperture. When you’re as anal about organising things as I am, that’s disappointing. Not a catastrophe, but something I do hope they fix in later versions.

Finally for now, I was rather disappointed with iBooks. Yes, it’s pretty, and yes it’s cool that you can see through the backs of pages as you turn from page to page, but that’s just fluff. What matters with an ebook reader is the reading experience. Why have Apple decided to allow only 2 font sizes, fairly small, and a little bigger? Why not give us a slider, or at least a few more options!? Also, the illustrations in the free Winnie the Pooh books are really beautiful, but you can’t pinch to zoom them. This is something the iPhone and iPad have thought me to do instinctively, so when it doesn’t work it’s really disconcerting! This generally isn’t a big problem, except that the map of the forest at the start of Pooh is unreadable, and you can’t zoom it! Just imagine not being able to zoom diagrams in technical books. This oversight really needs to be fixed in a future update.

So, in summary, the iPad is a stunningly well designed machine, and as the first of a new breed, it fills me with hope for the future of Apple’s touchscreen computers. As someone who didn’t think there was an iPad-shaped gap in my life, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much use I’m getting out of it, and how much I’m starting to rely on it. I’d really miss it if it went away!