The Best Remote Control $700 Can Buy: First Impressions of the Apple iPad

April 5, 2010
By | 4 Comments

Having spent the better part of the last thirty-six hours leaving a trail of fingerprints over the surface of my iPad, I can report with confidence that Apple’s long-awaited tablet is a completely redundant and utterly unnecessary piece of technology. There’s little that the iPad can do that a decent laptop or smart phone cannot. By contrast, there is a long list of functions that less expensive devices can carry out with ease (such as taking photos, recording videos, or accessing Flash content on the Web) that presently the iPad cannot. The iPad is a spectacularly limited device, defined less by what it is and does than by what it isn’t and can’t do. Thankfully, it only cost me $699 (plus tax) to confirm for myself that the iPad’s naysayers were on to something when they questioned the utility of a black-boxed, closed-source mobile computer that functions only within the confines of a tightly-controlled walled garden.

That said, don’t for a second think that I’m even considering taking advantage of Apple’s 14-day return policy. For although there’s a lot that my iPad can’t do, there are a few things that it does very well. By far the iPad’s greatest virtue is its form. It’s as if it had been designed specifically to be used in places and situations where laptops can be used only awkwardly, for example, in bed. Laptops are a horrible fit for the bedroom – they can be scalding hot, they fill darkened rooms with light, and they require that you sit up while using them. None of this is the case with the iPad. Its shape is more like a book than a laptop, and it does not overheat. Moreover, there’s an external button that prevents the screen orientation from rotating automatically, allowing for hassle-free viewing and surfing in the prone position. If I didn’t know better, I might just think that Apple developed the iPad solely to solve the pressing dilemma of how to transform the bedroom into a site where members of the digerati may maintain maximum productivity and uninterrupted connectivity, all without waking up their significant others. (Fittingly, the iPad’s “performance” in the bedroom has factored prominently in early reviews of the device. In a series of tweets, a swooning David Carr of the New York Times raved about using the “sexy” iPad in bed, only later to suffer some good-natured ribbing for his pillow talk at the hands of Gawker.)

The iPod’s biggest selling point is not that it will replace your laptop, but that its the furthest thing from a laptop. Even so, the better acquainted I become with my iPad, the more convinced I become that the laptop isn’t necessarily the best point of reference for trying to figure out what the iPad is (or isn’t). I’d suggest a more relevant comparison remains to be made with the remote control. The iPad is a colossally expensive and yet delightfully satisfying remote control that will find its niche as an interface connecting users with content residing on more full-featured devices. This isn’t just another way of saying that it will factor prominently in the cloud computing “revolution.” Rather, I’d suggest that, like the remote control, the iPad’s “killer app” very well may be television.

Already I’m using my iPad to control my television set (via an app that augments my TiVo remote control with a full QWERTY keyboard); to watch television programs (via Netflix’s and ABC’s free streaming video apps); and to talk about television via Facebook and Twitter. Granted, prior to April 3 I did all of the same things on my laptop. If the iPad is to become the next iPhone (as opposed to the next Apple TV), it will be because it somehow enhances an experience that a growing number of viewers already are well acquainted with: that of dividing their attention between their television sets and their laptops.

So far, my sense is that the iPad enhances this experience by taking something away from it – namely, the laptop. Personally, I’ve always had mixed feelings about the laptop in the living room. Simply put, watching television with my MacBook in my lap has always felt a little bit like work: the posture and the gestures it involves make me feel as if I’m still at my desk writing about television as opposed to on my couch tweeting about it. The iPad, on the other hand, is far less obtrusive, and far more flexible. I can sprawl out with it on the couch without fear of receiving third degree burns. I can take it with me in the kitchen (or, full disclosure, the bathroom) during commercial breaks. Perhaps best of all, there’s no mistaking what I do on the iPad with what I do on the MacBook: the former’s multitouch interface and single-task architecture is different enough from the latter’s graphical user interface to trick me into feeling as if there actually remains some semblance of a division between my labor and my leisure. And so after only two nights in my home my iPad has earned itself a place of pride on the coffee table, where it sits right next to all the other remote controls.


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4 Responses to “ The Best Remote Control $700 Can Buy: First Impressions of the Apple iPad ”

  1. Kyra Glass on April 6, 2010 at 1:09 AM

    As a fellow beta tester (so to speak) of the iPad I wanted to throw in my two cents. For me using it has been a surprisingly different experience from using my laptop. My laptop has always felt insufficiently mobile to me, with a 2-3 hour battery (tops) when playing video I never really could move around that much with my laptop (access to the nearest plug was always first in my mind). If I wanted to watch This Week in the kitchen while cooking dinner I had to decide if I wanted to let my laptop finish charging so I could grade student papers on it later, or if I’d rather plug in my laptop or blender on the kitchen. I was constantly deciding whether I wanted to bother turning it off or on, and if I wanted that clam shell screen between me and the person I was talking to. The iPad, for me, is beautifully unobtrusive. It is always on, it can always be with me (it has a permanent spot in my purse) and I can whip it out to show someone a comic panel or make a note without putting this physical wall between us.

    More important for a conversation between media scholars is that I find it changing, significantly how I interact with a variety of media. Print is the first one, I prefer electronic pdfs to paper ones but I have always felt limited in how I interact with them. Now I have returned the sensory interaction with my pdfs I can write on them draw on them, star points, cross out points, etc. Some of how I used to interact with paper has now merged with how I interact with digital media (downloading, tagging, searching etc.) and I really enjoy that. Interacting with another favorite print media of mine, the comic, has changed too. The ability to do extreme close ups of comic book panels (which Marvels app allows) has given me a very different perspective on comic book art.

    My experience with the way I flow from one activity (or media consumption) to another has really changed with the iPad too. Don’t get me wrong, in many ways no multi-tasking is a real disability (particularly for those who want a laptop replacement) but it also creates a really interesting sense of focus and flow that I don’t generally experience with a laptop. The one task at a time nature of the device has encouraged me to flow through media differently. I see information about a television blog post on twitter which leads me to that blog, that blog has a clip that I select and watch full screen. On my laptop, I would have likely kept reading twitter while watching the clip and be halfway into the next blog post. Here the clip really becomes an individual media text for me, something to focus on for a moment before moving on to whats next. The new edition of Paris Match for the iPad takes full advantage of this, it combines text with photographs that are intended to take up one entire screen at a time, so a single image becomes the focus (at least for a moment). The Paris Match edition also includes slide shows with accompanying music and a transition sequence and timing the user cannot control. This lack of control, this space for guided experience provides something very different from the Paris Match website, something I was surprised that I enjoyed.

    The iPad certainly has some flaws as both a productivity and media device (it can download pdfs from e-mails but not from websites for example) but it also has a lot of potential. It has already made me change the way I do some things and has me wondering: what would Barthes think about this most recent edition of Paris Match?

  2. Jonathan Gray on April 6, 2010 at 2:40 PM

    I’m intrigued by the idea of a giant remote control, Max, though presumably that’s just a TiVo thing, not open to all DVRs? 🙁

  3. Jeffrey Jones on April 7, 2010 at 12:21 PM

    One of the more helpful “reviews” I’ve read. Thanks, Max.

  4. […] Matt Dawson’s provocatively suggestion that the iPad could be a really robust remote control that would let you manage, annotate, and expand upon your TV viewing in real time. This first bring up the interesting idea of transmedia components that are meant to be experienced simultaneously. Transmedia is premised on the distribution of narrative threads through and across multiple platforms, but the implicit assumption is that the experiences would take place at different times, that the different pieces, while deeply integrated and reciprocal, are nevertheless meant to be experienced individually. What the ipad signals is perhaps a shift from the popular perception of transmedia as expansion (leading to the central-property/peripheral extension dichotomy that transmedia producers and thinkers often push against) towards one of layering. I’ve previously discussed transmedia stories as intertexts — not just a story told across text but somehow created in the gaps between, the elasticity of multiplicity. This shift speaks to that same concept, as a metaphor of layers moves us to think not only of a world created through multiple stories, but also of stories told through multiple lenses that build upon one another, adding depth and nuance to the view. […]