iPad: Great... and lousy

After a teacher at our son’s school touted an iPad program for tracing letters — “Intro to Letters” by Montessorium — my wife decided it was time to buy an iPad. We envisioned our son learning Chinese characters with some of the apps, drawing pictures with his fingers (rather than the mouse, as he has on my computer), learning math, etc. And we envisioned ourselves watching educational videos while relaxing on the sofa, while exercising at the YMCA, etc.

Several weeks later, all these things have happened, much as we anticipated. It has become a very useful tool. Perhaps most usefully, my wife has been able to watch some great Stanford university lectures on machine learning at the gym and will likely start watching them on her train rides to/from Manhattan next week.

And we’ve found some unexpected uses. Whenever our 1-½-year-old daughter sees me sitting at mommy’s computer, she begs me to watch videos of babies on Youtube. But mommy’s old computer is ridiculously slow. And both our kids end up sitting on my lap waiting and waiting for videos to play. No longer. We can now effortlessly and comfortably watch babies or baby pandas or baby elephants or trains. And the kids enjoy putting their finger on the iPad to choose the next video.

Real estate apps — like Trulia and Zillow — are fabulous on the iPad. And I enjoy some apps I’m using to read Chinese news (The Financial Times, The People’s Daily, etc.) and watch Chinese TV news (CCTV). I can just carry the device as I roam around the house. And as I wade through the apps, I keep discovering interesting new stuff, like talking children’s books in English and Chinese, some of which also highlight the words as they’re read and read them when you point at them.

But the iPad has a dark side. It’s incredibly, annoyingly difficult to transfer data to the device. Want to download a PDF from the Internet to view later? Too bad. Want to download a video from the Internet to watch later? Too bad. Want to download free (and legal) books from Gutenberg.net to read on your iPad? You can’t download files and save them to your iPad.

If you have iTunes on a desktop, you can put data onto your device through iTunes. But that data goes only where Apple wants it to go.

And if your Apple computer is running too old a version of MacOS — as my wife’s does — you can’t use iTunes to sync with an iPad. And if your computer runs — as mine does — Linux (Ubuntu), you can’t use iTunes at all. I have a ton of photos I’d love to copy over to our iPad, but I haven’t found a way to do so that doesn’t involve copying them all to my in-laws' Windows computer (the only computer in our house that can sync to our iPad), then loading them into iTunes and then syncing them. The same is true of videos. I’ve got many programming-related videos on my laptop that I’d love to watch on the iPad. But copying them over via iTunes on another computer would take forever. My laptop can see the iPad’s hard drive and copy files over to directories, but doing so accomplishes nothing, apparently because the files are useless unless registered with apps via iTunes.

Virtually everything happens through an app. And apps aren’t easy to search through. I’d like to see, for example, just the free apps. But that’s not possible. I’d like to see just the book apps written in Chinese, but you can’t do that either. I apparently must page through all 180 pages of book apps to determine which of the 8,054 book apps interest me. (I’m also unsure whether it’s even possible to enter Chinese characters on the iPad. If not, how can I search for Chinese content?)

Interestingly, China’s Communist Party newspaper, The People’s Daily, recently ran a negative review of the iPad. According to The Christian Science Monitor, The People’s Daily complained the iPad is too locked down:

“There are many disadvantages” to the gadgets, it wrote. “For example you cannot install pirate software on them, you cannot download [free] music, and you need to pay for movies you watch on them.”

OK. The Chinese government complaining that the iPad makes it hard to steal software, music and movies is pretty revealing/embarrassing. But China has a real point. It’s really hard to download content to the iPad or transfer content you own — or even free music and videos — to the iPad, esp. if you’re running Linux.

The iPad seems like the ultimate device for viewing family photos and videos, but I can’t get our thousands of photos and videos onto the device.

Posted by James on Sunday, October 24, 2010