The iPad

Apple products have always been the epitome of technological chic. Their signature white ear buds, glossy screens and oh-so-stylishly simple logo keep users clamoring at the doors of blindingly bright stores located in nearly every shopping mall in America. Every time CEO Steve Jobs gives a keynote address to reveal the newest in Apple technology, the world awaits his newest creation with bated breath.

But the iPad, Apple’s latest release, arouses more skepticism than previous products. Users and reviewers seem polarized between admiration and contempt for the device. Perhaps it’s because it doesn’t seem much more than a super-sized iPod Touch (iTouch), or perhaps it’s the blatant lack of integral features that leaves expectant consumers disappointed and wanting more.

Walking into any Apple store, however, is like entering a sacred, white shrine, pristine and dedicated to the worship of the newest innovation. Colorful marquees featuring vivid pictures of the iPad, alternating with phrases like “revolutionary” and “magical,” line the walls. Employees flit throughout the store, with a friendly reminder to “Ask me about the iPad!” inscribed upon their stylish neon t-shirts. A massive throng of devotees surrounds the table where the iPads lie, gleaming, vying for their turn to drool over the product.

At first glance, the iPad looks undeniably cool. Its slick screen and aluminum back combine to create a barely-there device just half an inch thick, weighing in at a whopping 1.5 pounds.  It fails to fit comfortably using one hand, but certainly lives up to Apple’s conventions of spiffy portability, and with its crisp high-resolution display, looks aesthetically otherworldly. The interface looks exactly like that of the iTouch, which makes it easy to navigate and manipulate, even for first-time users.

The touch features are equally as impressive. The iPad provides the same smooth scrolling, flicking and magnifying as its earlier counterparts, responding beautifully to the lightest stroke of a finger. Pictures are vivid and clear, and video playback is flawless. Websites show up nicely the way that they would on a laptop, a big step up from the mobile versions of the sites that appear on iPods and iPhones.

The iPad features a variety of applications, including the option to buy or freely download more from the iTunes app store (which refutes the claims of many critics that it doesn’t include key apps, like a calculator — hello, just download it later?) As always, there is an app for nearly everything.

One of the most enticing applications is that of iBook, which, akin to Amazon’s Kindle or Barnes and Noble’s Nook, allows users to download books and read them directly on the device. The interface is fantastic, allowing the turning of pages with the same flicking motion that one would use for a book, and switching easily between one- and two-page formats. Apps for Marvel comics and newspapers like The Wall Street Journal are also available, all making the best use of the iPad’s high-resolution 9.7 inch display, and giving the user the feeling of carrying an electronic newspaper or novel snugly in his or her bag.

However, for all of its innovation, the iPad is less than satisfactory in many basic areas. For example, typing is a complete nightmare. When the screen is situated vertically, the electronic keyboard is miniscule. When turned horizontally, the keyboard is just big enough to fool the user into thinking they can type normally, and just small enough to make entering any text longer than a URL frustrating.

Despite the fact that e-mail and word processing are easily available on the iPad, they are rendered partially useless because of the difficulty of typing. Still, this is a problem that can be overcome, the way most iPhone users have mastered touch-typing on tiny electronic keys. Apple also sells a keyboard dock that the iPad can easily plug into, but for users on the go, carrying two pieces is often more trouble than its worth.

In fact, many of the accessories that Apple sells to accompany the iPad seem to be designed to help alleviate its many basic flaws. The device, despite portability, becomes cumbersome to hold for too long when watching a movie or reading an electronic book, so Apple provides a case that also doubles as a stand to keep it upright. It lacks a camera, which eliminates lovable apps like PhotoBooth or any form of video chat, but a connector can be purchased to download pictures from another device. It also lacks the ability to multitask with several apps at a time, and has no USB port either (yet another accessory).

The biggest flaw of the device is that the most basic model, advertised for the low price of $499, is only usable in areas with Wi-Fi, while the 3G upgrade (which connects exclusively through AT&T) is an extra $199. These shortcomings have many users wondering whether the device is just inherently flawed or whether Apple is intentionally leaving things out for a later, upgraded model.

Despite some claims that the iPad signals the end of the computer mouse, or that it will revolutionize the electronics industry, many question the iPad’s ability to replace their everyday Smartphones and laptops. The simple answer is that it isn’t supposed to. In fact, it is designed to be the link between these two devices, not a substitute for either. Still, this calls into question what the use of the device essentially is. It cannot live up to a laptop, especially for college students and corporate moguls who need a machine that can do basically anything. Yet its more usable than a Smartphone, with a bigger screen providing for a wider array of uses and applications and making it easy to watch movies, send e-mails, play games and listen to music on the go (though it cannot make calls or take pictures).

Undoubtedly, the iPad is a pretty device that revolutionizes tablet technology and makes mundane tasks visually appealing … but what exactly does the world need it for?