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In the second instalment of ‘Reviews’ blog posts, I’ll give you my take on the iPad, in the context of what I bought it for. (And a little bit about the general context). There’s a bit of a preface to this review, so if you happen to be looking for information specifically about the iPad as a digital photo frame, you can skip ahead.

Now, most people know me as a sort of a geek. I love computers (Macs), and I love the web (the web). I’m no stranger to gadgets, and I’m always interested in new technology — even if I don’t understand it. Technology appears to be moving ahead very quickly and I find this very exciting. As a graphic designer, I’ve become increasingly interested in UI (user interface) and UX (user experience). I feel more and more that these areas of design — and they most certainly are designed — are going to be the backbone of what makes a great website. More and more, websites are being created that do something. They provide services, whereas in years past they provided information. We use websites, where before we looked at them. Balls… I’ve started ranting again…

Back to the review.

When the iPad was announced (after literally years of speculation and rumour) I must admit I was underwhelmed. For two reasons:

  1. We had had two or three years of touch interface with the iPhone, and the iPad gave us nothing new here (I was personally hoping for a tactile feedback of some kind), and
  2. I couldn’t see how it met any of my needs as a computer user (read: I don’t have an excuse to buy one)

The answer to 1, well, we can only dream.
The answer to 2 however, is, it’s not meant to fit my needs. It’s meant to fit the needs of people who want less from their computers. I see it as a device for mums and dads who don’t need the computing power of a laptop, and don’t want to spend the money. Also, they don’t want the hassle of owning a fully-fledged computer. Even macs have their little issues — IT support for my parents can attest to that. No, the iPad is for people who want to join in on the social web, but without the hassles.

Or

…it’s for people who are after a kick-arse digital photo frame. Like me :)

So, last year, Kelly finally opened the Agfa digital photo frame we had been given a few years earlier as a Christmas present. It went unopened for so long because I thought digital photo frames were a joke, and a waste of electricity. How wrong I was! Once it had been set up, I was absolutely delighted at my enjoyment of seeing images that otherwise would have gone unseen.

You see, all of my images are taken digitally, filed digitally, and displayed digitally. You either need to visit my Flickr page to see image, or sit down at my computer to see them. Neither of these are convenient. Enter the digital photo frame. Now, images can be viewed all the time, while on the couch, or anytime you’re in the same room as the frame. And, obviously the images change, so you always have something new to look at. The most important benefit I think, is seeing images that you would otherwise need to make an effort to see, which usually meant they were not seen at all. In short, I love the concept of the digital photo frame. I recommend it 100%.

Now, really back to the review.

The review

I decided to write this review because I found it difficult finding detailed information about the iPad as a digital photo frame (DPF from now on). Many pages mentioned it has a photo frame option, but that’s about as far as they went. My reasoning for an iPad as DPF was the Agfa frame was too much of a pain to load images onto it, you couldn’t have more than one set of images (albums) playing together, and the sleep feature (where the frame switches on and off at certain times) would wake to the settings screen and not start the slideshow. That last reason really was the deal breaker.

So, armed with my aforemetioned love of gadgets, and my new legitimate purchasing excuse, I took the plunge. And, I must admit I am a little underwhelmed. I say a little, because there are good things and there are bad things.

The good things

The iPad actually has a photo frame option.

I mean, a specific photo frame option. Someone at Apple thought “Hey, maybe people will want to use this as a picture frame.” Apple have done this by the way of a little flower icon which appears on the lock screen (as long as you have photos on the device). Tap this icon and the iPad automatically goes into photo frame mode. This by passes the need to swipe to unlock, then navigate to the photo frame option or app. Nice thinking!

The looks.

Obviously, as it’s been designed by Apple, it truly looks beautiful. No logos anywhere on the front face (which other DPF makers do. Who the hell wants a logo on their photo frame?), and a slick black glass border, with a thin aluminium edge. Plain, but stylish.

The screen.

High res. Crisp. Clean. Sharp. Bright.

Syncing your photos.

The easiest way to get photos onto the iPad is to Sync with your iPhoto library via iTunes, as you would your iPhone. All your events and albums will come across. Obvious, but neat.

Apps.

There are a bunch of photo frame apps out there already. I haven’t tried them yet. Photo Frame for iPad is one I’m interested in. But I’m not sure the extra battery hit from WiFi will be worth it. Obviously, as it’s an iPad, you have the potential to use it for so much more than a photo frame. This is where the prospect of thousands of applications really shines. You’re really buying more than a photo frame here, but I digress.

The bad things

The photo frame option.

While it is a good idea to have a dedicated option to use your iPad as a photo frame, the settings are extremely limited. I won’t cover what’s already been covered about the settings themselves, suffice it to say you cannot change the length of time the images are displayed, and they are displayed for three seconds. Three seconds. Think about that in a real-world setting: you sit the frame down over there on the shelf. You glance over occasionally or you walk past, and you look at an image and think “Hey! That’s great I remember when we went to tha…” *Image changes*

Three seconds might be ok if you sit down with the iPad, hold it in your hands and click the photo frame icon, but for a frame that sits somewhere in your house, three seconds is waaaaay too short. Apple should have given us the option to change the length of time a photo is displayed. Simple as that.

You can get around this by using the photos app. It does negate the photo frame option, because you need to go into the app to launch it (many more taps), but the benefit is there are many more options available to display your photo, including setting the time for each photo. However, it only gives you five options: 2, 3, 5, 10, and 20 seconds. In my enthusiastic use of DPFs, I still think even 20 seconds is too short to display an image. I would think somewhere in the vicinity of 30–60 seconds would be good, but for me, even longer. I don’t want to it and watch my photo frame, I can do that on my computer, I want for it to display a photo that I can glance at, and ponder about for a while. You my disagree — different strokes and all that — but a setting to customise the length of the slide would accommodate all scenarios.

Stand (and position of dock charger).

I made a crude stand out of cardboard and gaffer tape. I did it because there wasn’t a stand supplied. Also I was eager to get the frame up and running. Sure, there are plenty of stands available already, and surely more to come, but I want something simple and unobtrusive. I especially don’t want a stand that comes around at the edges and ruins the beautiful glass/aluminium border.

In a landscape position, which is the position I assume you want your DPF to be, the dock connector is on the right (or left) edge. To plug the charging cable in is to have a white, albeit simple, bit of plastic sticking out the side of the frame. It’s a bit utilitarian. I realise the iPad as DPF is only a tiny bit of what the iPad can be used for, so the position of the dock connector is a small niggle. But as I’m reviewing the iPad as DPF, it needs to be mentioned.

Portrait images in landscape orientation.

One thing I think the Picture Frame option and photo app could do is fill the frame with portrait images. Currently, if you have a portrait image in your landscape oriented iPad it will show the whole image, with large black bars on the sides. Personally, I’d prefer the photo to fill the full screen, and crop the top and bottoms off. The picture frame option has a setting to ‘zoom in on faces’. This could be perfect for a portrait image in landscape mode. Focus on the face. But this is just me.

Battery life.

I’m running the frame without the charging cable attached. So far, I’ve got about 16 hours out of a full charge, with WiFi on (as a test), but push notifications and location settings off. The brightness set to about half way, and Auto-brightness on. This is not too bad I guess. I just plug it in over night if I need to.

Sleep mode.

Or, lack of one. I wish I could have the iPad wake and sleep at specified times. Cheaper, crappier photo frames can do this. In my opinion, it s one of the more important features of a digital photo frame. Who wants the thing to be running while you’re at work, or sleeping?

The screen.

I mentioned the screen earlier. It is crisp. It’s also completely reflective. Ultra-reflective even. This poses a problem if you happen to harbour dark images (like myself). Or if you place the iPad near a window. Be aware of this. You will get reflections. I’m sure it’s possible to get low-sheen plastic film, but it’s hard enough to install on an iPhone. I can’t imagine getting a perfect installation on a 9.7-inch screen.

Smudges.

This thing picks up smudges. It seems to do so more than an iPhone, although the iPhone is much smaller, and you’re more likely to wipe it clean more often. I guess if you’re only using it for a photo frame, this won’t be too much of an issue.

Price.

The iPad is more expensive than most, if not all, dedicated DPFs. It might be twice as much even. But, I think it has a fantastic screen, looks beautiful, and can be used for other things. This is what you’re paying for really, the other things.

If you’re using the iPad as a DPF primarily, you could save a bit of money as you probably don’t need to shell out for the larger storage capacities, and definitely not for the 3G version. I have the lowest storage option (and the cheapest) of 16GB, and WiFi only. I don’t think I’ll ever need more than, or even up to, 16GB of photo events on my DPF at any one time.

Conclusion

Putting aside the fact the iPad is a mobile computer first, digital photo frame maybe 30th, and thousands of other things in-between and beyond, I think the iPad is a great digital photo frame. Despite the cons outweighing the pros almost two-to-one when written out as a list, the end user experience — that is, glancing at or viewing (not watching) a frame sitting on a shelf or table — is simply superb. What it can do, it does well. And most of what it can’t could be fixed in software updates. If Apple could give us more iPhoto (on the Mac) options for the iPad photo app, like the ‘Ken Burns’ effect, and filling the frame, the iPad as DPF would be even better.

…But I wouldn’t hold my breath for that. It’s hard to miss the real appeal of the iPad, as an ultra-portable computer. The photo frame options are a nice add on. I’m hoping they’ll address these image display issues, but I can understand why they’d be low on the list of priorities.

I’d recommend the iPad as a digital photo frame, but not as your first DPF. I’d suggest getting something much cheaper if you’re not sure how much you’d enjoy a DPF. In saying that, if you purchase an iPad, and don’t like having a digital photo frame, you could always use it for something else.

Mini-review: iPad (as… well, an iPad)

As quick review of the iPad as mobile computer, I think it underwhelms as well. I find typing on it to be very difficult, not so much for the on-screen keyboard, but the angle it needs to be to type and view the screen. Coupled with the super-reflective screen, you don’t really have a choice of angles if you’re in a brightly lit room, or outside.

Using the web browser is also a bit tricky, and maybe only needs some getting used to. I find clicking on text links with my finger can be hit-and-miss, again not because of the iPad of software, but because my finger is much bigger than a mouse cursor.

I think touch technology still has a fair way to evolve. Or, maybe more to the point, the web needs to evolve to touch technology. Either way, currently, I’d still prefer to bring my MacBook along. And if you’re tempted to purchase an iPad because it’s new and shiny and exciting, try one out for 20 mins before you buy.