The new Apple tablet is being billed as the ultimate portable entertainment device — a cross between a netbook PC and an iPhone — so how does it stack up as a music device? To find out, we took it for a quick spin.
Hardware: On the top of the device, there's a standard headphone jack and a tiny mike hole. The speaker on the bottom edge next the USB out is considerably more powerful than the one on the iPhone, and is plenty adequate for watching movies and music videos — we watched Lady Gaga's "Telephone" video and the Bob Dylan 1966 "World Tour (The Home Movies)" and had no problem hearing dialogue or lyrics, and it wasn't even turned up all the way.
That said, you'll get much more satisfaction out of connecting the device to external speakers via a standard audio cable, or, even better, to a pair of wireless speakers via Bluetooth. We weren't able to connect via the iPad's cable to the USB input in the Suzuki Kizashi's audio system, which meant we couldn't control the iPad through the car's dashboard, but we were able to pair it via Bluetooth in about a minute using the exact same process as on an iPhone. Sound quality through the car's Rockford Fosgate speakers was excellent — the only downside was having to use the iPad to skip tracks or pause, but that was actually almost easier considering the iPad touchscreen's huge screen and easily navigable touchscreen interface.
Buying music and video: The iTunes store on the iPad is a delightful new addition to Apple's music and video marketplace, and is a cross between the extensive boxes and scrolling boxes you'll find on desktop iTunes, and the minimal listings on the iPhone. You get about 20 different thumbnails to choose from on any page you happen to be on. You can choose home pages by Genre, Featured, Top Charts, and Genius as well as sample any song before you buy it. As with other iterations of the iTunes store, you can also just enter a band, album, or song name into the search field and find an album. The Music Video store is just as unsatisfying a browse as on regular iTunes — there are a few "Hot Music Video" selections to choose from on the home page, but you're on your own with just searching by name for anything else.
Playing music and videos: The iPod function is a partially reduced version of desktop iTunes — side-by-side album thumbnails of albums that flip open when you touch them, or lists with smaller thumbnails in artist or song view. Oddly, there's no Cover Flow option in the iPod player, which would be nice considering how beautiful the album art looks on the iPad's 9.7-inch screen (gorgeous album art automatically fills the screen when you're playing an album).
Music videos also look stunning on the iPad's big screen, and holding the thing in your hand or lap while watching a clip is actually a more satisfying experience than watching it on your computer, if only because you aren't distracted by a keyboard or someone texting you in the middle of it (remember, the iPad can't multitask). Scrolling through your music video collection is much easier with big thumbnails at your disposal on a bigger touchscreen, too.
What we don't like: The music player control buttons are relatively small and relegated to the top of the screen. It would be nice to have some oversized buttons, partly just for the fun of it, and partly for safety if you're, say, driving your car.
Also, since the iPad doesn't support Flash, the software that powers most of the streaming video on the Web, it can't play any videos from Veoh, AOL Music, MTV, etc. The good news is that Veoh, at least, is working on a compatible app for streaming its music on the iPad. For now, you'll have to get your free music video streaming on from YouTube, which looks pretty good on the iPod (we watched Vampire Weekend's "Cousins" and it was as crispy as on the smaller iPod screen).
Reading iBooks: The iPad's built-in e-reader is miles ahead of the Kindle thanks to its fast page finger sweep page turning and color capability — perfect if you're looking at vintage photos of Mick Jagger on the Rolling Stones 1969 tour in Ethan Russell and Gerard Van der Leun's memoir Let It Bleed. But the touchscreen gets distractingly smudgy with fingerprints that are all too noticeable when you're reading outside, in the sun (not a problem with the more dull black-and-white e-ink of the Kindle and other e-readers of its ilk).
The selection of books on the iBooks store is mostly of the bio and history variety and light on the picture-book variety. Photographs look stunningly crisp and clear, so we can't wait for some coffee table titles like Mark Seliger's The Music Book or anything by Anton Corbijn to make it onto the store.
The download on the iPad's music apps: At launch, there were only about 100 dedicated iPad music apps available in the iPad App Store, but that number is sure to grow in the coming days, weeks, and months.
Right now, most of what you'll find is of the whimsical "Cat Piano" variety, as well as a whole boatload of other music making options (several instrument simulators, including "Pianist Pro," "GrooveMaker," "Accordion HD" and "DrumPad HD"). These are "HD" upgrades of existing iPhone apps — mainly what you're getting is a much larger version of the existing app without any loss in graphic quality or responsiveness, something that comes in handy when you're playing a tune, mixing a track, or spinning your tunes on a virtual DJ deck.
In effect, though, this larger screen view along with the touchscreen capability brings these apps — in conjunction with the iPad — close to the bona fide instrument realm. "Baby Decks DJ," a blown-up version of "Baby Scratch," lets you have infinitely better control of a pair of virtual turntables for scratching. Current launch apps like the Korg "iELECTRIBE," a virtual touch-sensitive version of the Korg's renowned ELECTRIBE-R analog beatbox, complete with all the same effect knobs, oscillator buttons, and samples, is a good example of where iPad music creation apps are headed in terms of verisimilitude with the meat-world inspiration. We're also looking forward to seeing more of the music-meets-graphics-apps like Brain Eno's "Trope" and "Air." For now, we spent a few hours swiping our fingers all across the screen with "RJ Voyager for iPad" (a visual music doodling adventure by RJD2) and "I-Am-T-Pain" creator Smule's "Magic Piano" (a surreal and innovative keyboard improv app that lets you listen to other players tickling the virtual ivories in real-time "pianoroulette").
Surprisingly, there aren't yet many iPad-optimized music playing or Internet radio apps. Of course, you can use any existing iPhone app on the iPad, but it will show up in reduced iPhone size in the center of your iPad screen (you can enlarge it on your screen, but then it gets annoyingly grainy). Pandora's iPad app is similar to the iPad's iPod functionality — control buttons at the top, but with the nifty addition of album covers for each song on a particular radio station scrolling across the top. Other iPad-specific-music-entertainment apps we didn't get a chance to try out in full are Shazam, WunderRadio, NPR, Soundhound, and Musiic. Expect a more details roundup of iPad's better music apps in the coming weeks.
One thing we don't like about the iPad app store: the price of the apps are as a rule more expensive than on the iPhone. While some apps like Shazam and Pandora are free, most of the quality music making apps start at $9.99 and go up to as much as $24.99. Unless they're free, the cheapest apps are about $2.99.
Bottom line: The iPad just launched two days ago. Like the iPhone at launch, it needs some time to grow into its own, but you can see the big, responsive touchscreen's potential, particularly with virtual-instrument/music-making apps, and we expect much of the innovation to come out of this space. Imagine Yamaha's Tenori-on transported to the iPad screen, for example. We're thinking entirely new instrument on this thing.
So, is the iPad better than the iPod or iPhone? In some ways, yes, but it's no replacement. If you have the money, the iPad is a fun upscale toy and conversation starter. That said, its full potential won't be realized for a year or two, at least. For now, it's not an essential buy by any means, but keep watching this space, because there's definitely a tablet in your future.