Why I prefer Ubuntu 10.10 Netbook Edition to the iPad

iPadIf you’ve been following my Twitter feed, I must apologise for my rather uncouth language the other week. I was trying to get something done using an iPad (specifically, testing the Parallels Desktop 6 remote access app), and was finding the whole process intensely frustrating.

Why I prefer Ubuntu 10.10 Netbook Edition to the iPad

I should admit that I come to the iPad pre-irritated by Apple’s attempts to swaddle the thing in a wholly unearned sense of awe. A “magical, revolutionary device”? Please: the telephone was a revolutionary device. It’s like when some 20-year old would-be Apprentice declares “I am the best manager you’ll ever meet”: I want to smack him twice, once for the arrogance and again for the delusion.

And once I started actually trying to use the iPad, I hit practical irritations too. I couldn’t find the download I wanted on the website (all such links being sequestered away in the App Store); I really couldn’t get on with the keyboard; and, now I’m used to Android with its “back” and “search” buttons, I felt lost in the OS and its apps, scared to press a button for fear of never finding my way back.

Half a million customers can’t be wrong?

At the same time, though, I kept thinking that I must be missing something. After all, the iPad is a phenomenally popular device. Global sales are up in the millions, and Apple’s rivals are falling over themselves to get on the bandwagon — even ones who’ve already tried and failed to make a go of the tablet format. Here at Dennis Publishing we’ve embraced the device enthusiastically, with our iGizmo iPad app and – I presume – other projects to follow.

So when real-worlder Paul Ockenden suggested that I should take the thing home for the weekend (predicting that after a few days’ use I’d be “hooked”) I thought well… why not give the thing a chance?

And so it was that, on that Friday evening, I found myself sitting on the sofa at home, iPad in hand, waiting for the magic to happen.

iPad positives

In the event, the iPad did make me smile a few times. The inclusion of an e-copy of Winnie-the-Pooh may be a sneaky attempt to disarm the user’s critical faculties — but if so, it works. The illustrations are so lovingly reproduced, and the sensation of turning the pages so attentively preserved, that even though I suspected I was being manipulated I couldn’t help but warm to the device a little.

During my first evening with the iPad I got along with it a little better than I’d expected

And the Guardian Eyewitness app makes great use of the iPad’s rich, bright screen, to the extent that my girlfriend and I quickly found ourselves discussing the artistic merits of the various photographs and almost entirely forgetting about the medium. For a device like this that’s arguably the supreme achievement.

When we came to YouTube, though, things came a little unstuck. Earlier that day I’d discovered the existence of a German edition of Sesame Street (named, logically enough, Sesamstraße) and I wanted to show my girlfriend the opening titles. Unfortunately, the iPad was unable to play this particular video, for reasons I privately suspected might have more to do with Steve Jobs’ personal politics than any technical limitation. We had to settle for a different clip — and in order for us both to watch, I had to hold the iPad relatively still for the duration. Not terrifically comfortable or practical.

In all, though, during my first evening with the iPad I got along with it a little better than I’d expected. I put it down almost looking forward to the moment when I thought of something else to try out on it.

Which, of course, never happened.

Fit for purpose

It’s not that I deliberately gave up on the iPad — I was actually quite enjoying the experiment, even if the results were mixed. It’s just that, during the rest of the weekend, I didn’t find a plausible reason to go back to it.

For example, I’ve seen it suggested that the device is ideal for “sofa-surfing”; but I already have a notebook in my front room, and since I don’t have to physically hold up its screen, that works rather better for me. Nor did the iPad integrate with my other networked devices in any useful way. And for creative tasks, such as photo processing — well, my preferred packages don’t run on the iPad, and there’s no easy way to get my photos onto it anyway.

Indeed, as I packed up the (now very slightly dusty) tablet on Monday morning, I found myself wondering what actual use all these apparently satisfied customers have found for their iPads. And on checking the iTunes app chart, I discovered the answer: the top ten paid-for iPad apps included five games, a Facebook client and a world clock. There’s your “magical, revolutionary device.”

Perhaps even more telling, the highest-selling “real” application was Apple’s word processing app, Pages, riding high at number 4 in the chart. This for a device without a keyboard? Even Mr Ockenden, in this month’s Real World Computing column, admits that “anyone would be mad to type anything longer than three or four paragraphs on an iPad.” When that’s the number one practical use for an iPad, I find myself no longer feeling like I’m missing something; rather depressingly, I have to suspect that iPad users are.

The small factor

And yet, and yet… on returning home that evening, I couldn’t help but notice how much space my notebook takes up on the coffee table — and how needlessly overpowered it is for the tasks it’s mostly used for. I didn’t find myself hankering to be back in iOS, nor did I long to gaze again on the shiny screen and snappy front-end of the iPad, though I do see the appeal. But I understood, in a way I hadn’t previously, the attraction of a device somewhere between a smartphone and a notebook, one that trades off raw power and versatility for compactness and battery life. I guess that’s what people mean about having to use the iPad to appreciate it.

I understood, in a way I hadn’t previously, the attraction of a device somewhere between a smartphone and a notebook

All the same, the iPad keyboard is a huge problem for me (even when simply browsing the web, I’m not the sort to keep my thoughts to myself). And even if I could learn to overlook that, the need to physically hold it up would still turn me off, as would Apple’s autocratic walled-garden environment.

So I have, if you’ll pardon the expression, “thought different.” My notebook is gone from the coffee table, but it hasn’t been replaced by an iPad: instead, in its place, sits an Asus Eee PC running Ubuntu 10.10 Netbook Edition. It may not feel quite so zippy as the iPad, but it’s perfectly responsive: if you’re used to the plodding pace of Windows on a netbook, I strongly recommend switching to Ubuntu, as the difference in performance is like night and day.

To be sure, the Eee PC doesn’t have the battery life of the iPad. Nor does it wake up quite so quickly, though the difference is only a matter of seconds. But it has a similarly dinky footprint, plus a keyboard, a self-supporting screen and an open ecosystem (unhindered by egos and embargoes), that I’m much happier to buy into — not to mention conveniences such as USB ports and an SD card reader.

And the funny thing is, it would never have occurred to me to give the Eee PC a chance but for my experiences with Apple’s effort. So in a very small way, I suppose the iPad has been a revolutionary device… though not in the way Apple intended.

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