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The iPad: what is it good for?

It goes on sale on Friday, but it’s one of the most keenly anticipated technology launches in recent years. So why has the iPad become such a focus of attention, what is it really for and, oh yes, is it any good?

Critics have said it’s nothing more than an oversized iPhone, though frankly, that doesn’t sound too shabby. It certainly has a display and interface which are instantly recognisable to iPod touch and iPhone users – all the iPhone’s 200,000+ apps work on the big screen, too, and around 5,000 iPad specific apps are also available.

So the range of things you can use it for is pretty wide. This is both the iPad’s strength and weakness: it does so much it can be hard to get an idea of what it is.

Apple recognises this, saying that the iPad is a whole new category of gadget, that people didn’t know what to make of it, ranging from curious to sceptical – at least until they tried it for themselves.

The iPad’s uses vary according to what you’re doing. Use the cookery apps like Epicurious to act as your companion while you’re creating dinner; play back movies and TV shows you’ve downloaded on the eye-poppingly sharp 9.7-inch screen; create a digital finger painting using the enhanced version of the popular Brushes app, as recommended by David Hockney (though maybe don’t bank on his success straight away – there’s no talent app yet).

Apple is keen to emphasise the iPad’s prowess as an electronic book or magazine. Certainly, the upcoming Wired Magazine app looks amazing, with animations and renderings from Toy Story 3 not possible in the paper version.

And iBooks is a very stylish electronic books app. This goes live in the UK on Friday, but in our sneak preview it was apparent how intimate and seductive it is. Stroke the screen and the page turns precisely with your finger. Unlike Amazon’s Kindle, the books in Apple’s app list page numbers at the base of the screen and how many pages are left in the chapter (perfect for those “How much longer before I can go to sleep, Daddy?” moments). You can easily adjust the backlight so as not to disturb your significant other if you’re reading in bed.

But, whatever you say, it’s still not paper. You can’t read it outside on a summer’s afternoon (though those sunny days are nearly over now, right?) and although the iPad has exceptional battery life, you’ll curse it if it runs out just before the murderer’s identity is revealed. Paper, after all, doesn’t need batteries. And you quickly miss the special elements of a physical book – the sense of how much further the story will last that is evident from the way it sits in your hand, the cracked spine, even the coffee stain.

And although you can carry hundreds of books in a package weighing less than one Dan Brown blockbuster, do you need to?

But that’s not the point of the iPad. Apple’s role is as the great facilitator, creating a blank canvas so that its function comes from the form and applications. When the App Store was launched on the iPhone, many were sceptical that it would be more than a few low-rent extras like tip-calculators and international clothing size converters. But it’s now a massively successful collection of imaginative programs from games to satellite navigation aids.

The iPad is the perfect storm, a coming together of three things: appealing, high-end hardware, the ingenuity of designers creating apps exploiting large-screen real estate and the versatility offered only by touchscreens. Need an extra button for that app to work? No problem: regular buttons have to wait for new hardware so they can be built in, but with touch-sensitive displays you can have as many as you want, now.

There’s a downside to this, though, if you want to use the iPad for text input. Although the Pages app is a powerful word processor app, the virtual keyboard, though spacious, doesn’t suit touch typists. For extended typing, you’ll need a separate keyboard, as even Steve Jobs admitted when he unveiled the product. Most convenient are the plentiful Bluetooth keyboards which connect wirelessly. For the odd email, it’s fine, but not much beyond that.

Apple execs freely admit they’re addicted to iPad. They pick it up first thing in the morning (to check email, see the weather forecast, catch up on news) and put it down last thing at night.

That’s because, for all its obvious features, one of the subtlest but most crucial goes back to that iPhone comparison – like a phone it’s always on, rather than needing to be fired up like a laptop. So if you need to check something online, it’s easily done when the display springs to life at one touch. And though the iPhone is good for internet browsing, the small screen that makes the gizmo pocketable means text can be hard to read unless you enlarge it so there’s only room for a word or two onscreen. Here, even the most myopic will be able to read a whole article with ease.

Always on, and always connected. UK users, unlike their American counterparts, will be able to choose an iPad with 3G connection from day one. So you can browse the internet wherever there’s a phone signal. In the last few hours, the mobile network 3 has announced its data tariffs – the monthly fee for 1GB of data traffic is £7.50, 10GB is £15. There’s no contract to be tied into so it’s a handy way of connecting to email and internet when you’re paying your technophobic aunt a visit.

Incidentally, a word about the iPad’s pricing – the UK is traditionally an expensive place to buy tech. In the US the basic model sells for $499 before tax, or £348. In the UK the pre sales tax price is just £17 more: £365 exclusive of VAT, which is £429 including VAT.

Even so, is it worth it, for a machine that doesn’t even have a USB socket (though there is a cable accessory which allows you to transfer photos from your digital camera to the iPad to display your shots)?

It’s a great platform for games, with high-definition versions of popular iPhone titles like “Angry Birds” where you catapult cartoon birds into matchstick houses as addictive as ever. Then there’s “Mirror’s Edge” a parkour-inspired running game where you charge madly across rooftops and scaffolding, scaling billboards to escape bullets. It’s frenetically exciting and makes train journeys pass quickly, though you’ll be adrenalised when you put it down.

Apple’s biggest problem is the people who haven’t used it which, for now, is nearly everyone. Last week, a survey in the US claimed sky-high satisfaction levels among iPad users. And it’s true, once it’s in your hands, scepticism evaporates. Sure there’s no camera on board and no onscreen keyboard with feedback to make it easier to type.

But the more you play with it, the more uses occur so that within days it’s insinuated its way into your life. What started out as a whimsical luxury, a gorgeous piece of kit, becomes a necessity. Maybe you don’t yet know what it’s for, but iPad’s great trick is that, before long, you will.