5 minutes with an iPad

15 April 2010

Earlier today, I had a chance to play with the iPad. I could have spent an hour or more with it, but instead elected to spend only 5 minutes. Spending this little bit of time absolutely confirmed what I was thinking and gave me a good idea about what I might do with one if I had one and it also exposed a surprising issue – poor ergonomics from a few simple design decisions.

Travel (Entertainment)
Starting in the mid 1990’s I travelled frequently. This continued well into my last job. The majority of my travel was either direct flights to a US city (at least 3 plus hours) or international flights to either Asia or Europe. I remember buying my first portable DVD player. It totally changed how I travelled since now I could be entertained during those long flights. Generally I would pack one or two batteries, half a dozen movies and my trusty Bose headsets. When I took trips with my kids, we purchased another portable DVD player for flights. As technology progressed and I was able to procure super light-weight laptops and/or ultra portables (prior to the netbook craze), I used those to entertain me by watching movies and TV shows that I had saved to the hard disk. I’ve been doing this for the past 8 years and until today, didn’t envision changing my habits. From my brief time with the iPad, it’s clear that this is a great maybe even phenomenal entertainment device for travelling. Taking one on a long trip and having a large collection of media available as well as games and other forms of entertainment (books) is very easy to imagine. In fact, it fits in with exactly how I’ve used technology in the past.

There are however a few barriers to entry:

    Encoding. Today my media (and I have a lot of it) is encoded in a specific codec that is not native to the iPad. In addition, most of the media is encoded at high bit rates so that the overall image quality is maintained even things that have been stored years ago when the device playing it back wasn’t capable of fully rendering the content in the best form. While I could re-encode the content, the storage capacity of the iPad is limited and the ability to transfer content to the device isn’t always available since I need to always hook it up to a PC in order to transfer my own content. Over time, I see this as less of an issue as I can always switch my initial encoding scheme and with the appropriate cloud based software I could re-download content to the device.

    Cost. There is an initial cost for the device and I’m not yet in the position to have enough disposable income to justify the purchase. When and if I have the need to replace one of the portable computers in the home (or even one of the portable DVD players), then maybe this might be a consideration. In addition, once you buy all the necessary applications and accessories, it adds up pretty quickly.

The surprising issue is ergonomics:

    Edges. The screen of the device is obviously gorgeous, but the detailing on the edges of the device are sharp. The front face of the device is flat. Around the edge of the device there is about a 15 degree slope for an eighth of an inch before the transition to the side edge. This final transition between the front surface and the side is very sharp. The edge of the device is all one piece, but this transition really is much rougher than it needs to be. Apple’s design sense for the last several years have been full of straight cuts and sharp angles, but on a device that is meant to be held in the hands this is a big mistake. The corner should be rounded so that it doesn’t scratch the palm and fingers that are holding it. In my brief time in evaluating the device in the store, I scratched my hand pretty well.

    Weight distribution. As many have mentioned the device is heavier than might initially be expected. (Of course with all that necessary battery life, it’s actually lighter than many other designs.) For a long period of time, holding the device without support from either on the back or bottom edge is not a feasible solution – this is to be expected. However the device is really unwieldy when you try to hold it with a single hand – particularly when in portrait orientation with the right hand. From my quick usage, I found that the device is slightly biased to the left side. Given the overall interaction model for the device, I would have expected the weight to be distributed evenly to allow for multiple approaches to holding the device. The result for me is that a simple one-handed usage even for a short period of time is going to be very limited unless the user rests the device on their fore-arm by wrapping their arm around the back of the device. In which case you’d want to bias the weight in the other direction (for a right-handed user) if it’s not going to be distributed evenly.

At the end of the day, while I can longingly desire the device, it doesn’t quite hit my threshold for replacing a currently working solution for travel entertainment; and with some simple poor ergonomics design elements, I’m even less inclined. Of course it’s not all that hard with the right knowledge to build a solution with other technologies and get the design/ergonomics right – If you’re interested in doing that, I can definitely point you in the right direction.

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