ReelThoughts: February 05, 2011

"The Time Waster"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


You could consider this a product review of Apple's iPad. Kind of.

I received an iPad as a Christmas gift, so I have had more than a month to put it through its paces and, while I won't claim to have truly plumbed its depths, I have used it for a variety of purposes: playing games, writing, web browsing, checking e-mail, listening to music, watching video, reading e-books, checking news/sports/weather, and so forth. My number of apps is south of 50, but that's mainly because I'm picky about downloading things. My thought process for free and pay apps is the same: I'll get it if I'm sure it will be useful and doesn't duplicate something easily available on the web. (I sometimes relax the latter rule if it's a free app - IMDb being a case in point.)

My conclusion is that the iPad is one of the greatest time-wasters ever invented. This should not be considered a criticism or a put-down. I like wasting time as much as the next person and I'm shocked how easy it is to fill up the minutes and hours with an iPad. Own one of these devices and you'll never be bored again. On the flip side, you may never get anything done.

Some die-hard Apple-philes (those who view Apple products with the fervor of religious zealots and are convinced that Steve Jobs is the Messiah) are likely frothing at the mouth right now because I have dared to write something that could be construed as heretical. They're going to argue that, for those who care to use it thus, the iPad can be a boon to productivity. Technically, I suppose that's true. There are apps that mimic Word and Excel. You can write documents on the iPad and fill out rudimentary spreadsheets. However, in order to do that, you are forced to use the iPad's keypad, which is not touch-type friendly. It's designed with the advance hunt-and-pecker in mind. As such, it's functional, but try doing 60 words a minute on it (which is about my below-average touch type speed these days - I once could do 80 or 90 wpm, but my skills have degraded over the years). Not likely unless you possess small hands and an uncanny ability to locate keys without feedback. Try typing a few sentences without once looking at the keypad and see how many mistakes you'll make. At any rate, productivity of this sort is better achieved using a laptop or desktop. It's nice that, in a pinch, the iPad can be employed to compose a letter or jot down a few thoughts but, when it comes to bread-and-butter productivity tools like word processing or spreadsheets, it's inferior. A "real" computer is needed.

An argument can be made that the iPad is a superior tool for tweeting and browsing/updating Facebook. However, since I don't consider either of these applications to fall into the category of "productivity," it doesn't matter. For me, productivity is creating something or advancing something that has already been created. It's the making of video games, not the playing of them. It's the writing of books, not the reading of them. It's the making of movies, not the watching of them. At one point, the United States was one of the world's great producers. Gradually, we are transforming into the world's #1 consumer. Consumption is not a bad thing in and of itself, but it becomes problematic when it grossly outpaces productivity. The iPad has been created for consumption. It's the ultimate leisure device, and the one thing I would want with me if I was stranded on a desert island.

Unlike its older, smaller brother, the iPhone, the iPad boasts a comfortably large screen that makes it useful for applications that were frustrating on the smaller frame. Games are easier to play. It's now possible to watch video without squinting and the speakers are large enough that earphones are not required to understand the dialogue. While I wouldn't want to watch a Hollywood blockbuster on my iPad, it's adequate for smaller productions. One of the first things I did in late December, as the Boxing Day storm howled outside, was to watch several older films via Netflix's streaming video service. I never had the desire to switch to the larger screen of a television. Looking for Mr. Goodbar and Marathon Man looked just fine in 8"x6" glory.

Before obtaining an iPad, I used the Kindle for most of my reading. I'm willing to give up the niceties of a print copy for the benefits of an electronic one - instant downloading, lighter weight, and not having to hold open the book being three of them. (Also, with paperback and hardcover fiction, I have an incurable urge to skip ahead, often ruining the ending. I don't do that with the Kindle.) I know the Kindle's "ink" is intended to closely resemble that of an actual book, but the iPad's backlit display makes things easier on my imperfect eyes. So I can use the Kindle app on the iPad, and it has worked to good effect.

One of the best features of the iPad is web browsing. Although the iPhone features it, web pages are so miniature as to be almost useless without a lot of scrolling and re-sizing. On the iPad, however, the screen is large enough to make Safari's integration a useful feature. One of the first things I did on Christmas Day was to check out how ReelViews looked and I was pleasantly surprised at the result. Not only does it look right, but it functions perfectly (or at least as perfectly as it does on any of my PC browsers).

The biggest thing the iPad (or any similarly sized tablet for that matter) has going for it is portability. It's lightweight and, although it doesn't fit in my pocket, it's no more bulky than a pad of paper or a Kindle. It's more portable even than the most compact netbook. The battery life is excellent. I often go days without needing to recharge and I use the device for several hours every day. I believe the advertised battery life is 8-10 hours (of use), but in my estimation it's probably a little higher. There's no camera, but the last thing I need is *another* device that allows me to take pictures of my son. I think my parents have about 100 photos of me in my first 2-3 years of life. With the advent of digital photography, it's not hard to accumulate that many in an equal number of weeks.

So I can open my iPad and watch a movie. When I'm done, I can do a little finger dance and bring up the latest chapter of a book I'm reading. Then I can check my e-mail and browse the web while listening to the radio via another app. Next, I can bring up one of a number of computer games and pretend I'm back in an '80s arcade before venturing out to conquer the world on a stripped-down version of Civilization. Before I realize it, the day is gone. The iPad is a thoroughly enjoyable time sink. If I didn't have a wife, a son, and a job, it would be easy to get lost in its hypnotic allure.

Much as I enjoy the iPad, there's something about it that bothers me on a fundamental level, and that has to do with the aforementioned lack of productivity. In the United States, we have traded innovation for consumption. There's nothing wrong with playing, but we have elevated it to life's goal. Work is something we do so we can afford to play. Productivity for productivity's sake is an archaic idea. This country is slowly stagnating. I don't blame the iPad. It's a symptom of a problem that has been gradually developing. The iPad is an example of how a smart group of people have found a way to push technology and exploit this societal weakness.

Am I conflicted? Yes, but not about the iPad. It's a fine device whose flaws will no doubt be smoothed over in subsequent releases. One thing about technology - you can't get it all right the first time or no one will buy the upgrades. What disturbs me is how easily I can be seduced by the iPad. When I sit in front of the computer, I end up writing. Sure, I read and browse, but it always ends up with me tapping away at the keyboard communicating something. Not so with the iPad. The annoying keypad isn't the only barrier. The iPad is designed for fun and although writing may be many things, it is rarely "fun." It is, however, fulfilling. And when I give up that kind of fulfillment for the shallow, ephemeral satisfaction of beating the computer at Monopoly or watching a dozen viral videos on YouTube, I have cheated myself. And the realization I have cheated myself makes me feel like shit.

In the end, the iPad is a distraction. What could be a great little way to kill time when it needs killing can turn into something unhealthy. I'm currently fighting the seduction and feel confident I'll win the battle. But I wonder how many won't try or, worse, how many don't see this as a battle or believe that a loss is something to embrace.


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