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We at TechNorms like to think we’re bright people. We understand most things we come across. However, we were left slack-jawed and baffled by the launch of the original iPad in 2009. It made no sense. Why would anyone want a giant iPod Touch? Why was it so expensive? Why would they name it after a tampon?

Four years later, the iPad is phenomenally successful. It launched a new genre of electronics. Steve Jobs & Company created a third device between computers and smartphones. That’s remarkable.

Today we’re looking back at the device that started it all, the first-generation iPad. How does it hold up four years later? Read on to find out.

Hardware

Apple gets hardware right. The iPadh as unforgiving lines and smooth curves. You can feel the craftsmanship. It comes across as a premium product.

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The front side sports a 9.7-inch glass-covered screen. A uniformly thick black bezel circles the screen. The home button rests at the bottom. When the screen is off, the iPad looks like a strange, futuristic slab.

The sides and back are made of brushed aluminum. The silver is appealing but sadly prone to scratches. The right side has a small volume rocker. Below the rocker is a rotation lock/mute switch. At the top is the sleep button and headphone jack. The speakers and proprietary charging port are located at the bottom.

Apple clearly put care into the hardware. So why does the iPad comes without a case? Using a bare tablet feels weird. Watching movies or reading while sitting down requires awkwardly propping up the screen. Carrying a caseless iPad made us feel uncomfortable. The screen was too exposed.

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A cheap faux-leather case/stand improved our experience. The extra layer provides scratch protection and an easy prop. Unfortunately, you’ll have to buy a third-party cover. This model iPad is incompatible with the official Smart Cover.

The screen is similarly frustrating at a measly 1024 x 768. With the fourth-gen iPad and Nexus 10 sporting Retina-level PPI ratios, the iPad 1 looks outdated.

The screen is good, don’t get us wrong. It’s a bright, colorful IPS display that’s easily visible in sunlight. The screen isn’t bad by any reasonable measure of the term. It just pales in comparison to newer tablets.

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One more note on the screen: We found it to be too bright. The minimum brightness outside of iBooks is much too aggressive for late-night use or in dimly lit environments.

Despite persistently high brightness, the iPad’s battery is excellent. It lasts for days without a charge. The battery handled books, movies, games and everything else like a champ. We loved how little we had to charge it.

The long life comes with two caveats, though. Using Bluetooth is the equivalent of tossing the battery into the woodchipper from Fargo. It dies quickly. Once it does, recharging takes several hours. Leaving it plugged in overnight works best.

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The last problem with the iPad’s hardware is the conspicuous lack of a front – or rear – facing camera. This makes it impossible to take pictures or use Skype/Facetime. Taking pictures with a tablet is ridiculous, but Skype seems like a natural fit. It’s a shame to miss out on video calling.

Network

We picked up a WiFi model, so we were unable to test the 3G connection.

Data users should know that the original iPad supports 3G connections over HSDPA and GSM. There’s no 4G LTE on any iPad model before the third generation.

Performance

GeekBench 2 468
Sunspider 0.9.1 2959.8 ms (Safari, no Nitrous) | 2791.5 ms (Chrome, Nitrous) (Lower is better)
GLBenchmark 2.1 1395 frames (12 frames/sec)
PerformanceTest Mobile 449

 

Apple products have never been about the specs. Other companies like to beat their chests and show off hardware that could run the space shuttle. Apple doesn’t do that. It don’t even like to tell what processors it uses. Thankfully, we have GeekBench to reveal a 1 GHz single-core A4 processor with 256 MB of RAM inside the iPad.

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In any other device, that would be abysmal. However, this is iOS. Apple optimizes its software to run smoothly on minimal hardware. Considering the iPad 1 is working with such weak internals, it’s remarkable how well it functions.

That said, the first-gen iPad’s ancient A4 looks outdated compared to the modern A6 in the iPhone 5. High-performance games and large apps have problems. We saw a lot of crashes with Civilization Revolution, Dead Trigger and the web view in Pulse. Some high-end games like The Walking Dead aren’t even compatible with the iPad 1 because of technical limitations. Games often force close when we try to screencap them for the Weekend Games Corner.

The iPad’s performance is mixed. In most apps, it works fine. However, the weak internals have trouble with high-perfomance activities. There’s a reason Apple put better processors in later models.

Software

iOS 5.1.1 is typical Apple. It’s stable, refined, simple, and compelling. iOS is the most user-friendly operating system we’ve ever used. Touch responsiveness is excellent. Animations are natural and smooth. The learning curve is almost non-existent.

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The iPad’s standout quality, though, is something unquantifiable. Using an iPad feels fresh and exciting in a way that PCs can’t mimic. Seeing content laid out on that large screen sparks something emotional. The effect is hard to describe, but it’s very real. This is the device that convinced us we need tablets at all. It’s remarkable.

After reviewing a Samsung phone last, we appreciated the remarkable lack of bloatware (check out that smooth transition). There are no custom skins to slow down the OS. You get the same pre-bundled Apple apps everyone else does.

The stock apps are good. Music, Notes, YouTube, iMessages and the original Google-based Maps work so well we preferred them over similar third-party apps. Safari offers the extra benefit of syncing browsing data with Safari for Mac as well.

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iOS offers excellent integration with Apple’s ecosystem. Accessing contacts, texts, apps, and media is as simple as signing in with an Apple ID. There is also support for Google services like Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Contacts. Having access to Apple and Google data on the same device is an advantage for people who may be split between the two, especially since Apple won’t lend its data to other platforms.

iOS 5.1.1 still has some nagging problems Apple refuses to fix. You can’t swap the default apps out for third-party equivalents. For some this isn’t a big deal. For others (Safari, Mail, Clock) it is infuriating. Why can’t we delete these?

There’s more trouble with app-level integration. It’s a mess. Android blows past iOS in this respect with its excellent system call setup. That’s nowhere to be found here.

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Speaking of things you won’t find on an iPad, don’t expect any variety in video formats. The iPad is like a petulant child that refuses to play any video that’s not formatted exactly the way it wants. We had to feed our non-iTunes movies through Handbrake for conversion every single time. Talk about tedious.

Then there’s Safari. It’s slow. In-app touch responsiveness and rendering react with the speed of a chess match between two elderly men. The first-gen iPad just doesn’t have the internals to drive Apple’s browser. We had to download Opera Mobile to get a competent browser.

While we’re on the topic of subpar apps, open the Contacts app in portrait mode. Look at it. That is hilariously terrible. It’s not even tablet-optimized. We have no idea how this escaped from a company known for its obsessive perfectionism.

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The final problem is the one that will annoy some users the most. The iPad is subject to the classic Apple trade-off commonly called the “walled garden.” Everything in iOS goes through Apple’s dictatorial control and rigorous approval process. There’s no real flexibility in iOS like in Android. This is good because it keeps out the malware and crappy apps. This is bad because it limits customization and power features. Consider carefully if you can live with that compromise before buying an Apple product.

Apps & Ecosystem

Four years later, and Apple still has the best content selection available for a tablet. The iPad has more– more apps, more movies, more music, more magazines, more books, and more podcasts. Google Play is getting stronger every day, but it hasn’t caught iTunes yet.

The difference is especially noticeable with apps. The iPad has more tablet-optimized apps than Android and Windows 8. General app quality is strong as well. Apple’s draconian approval process for the App Store keeps out the worst crap. The overwhelming majority of apps follow iOS design rules, too, unlike the mess that is Holo on Android.

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iOS app quality is most noticeable in games. The iPad has more and better games from big franchises like The Walking Dead, Mass Effect, Dead Space, Baldur’s Gate, Plants vs. Zombies, Peggle, and Civilization.

The iPad also has a large amount of books, magazines, movies, and music. iTunes has been going for a decade now and has amassed all the media you could ever need.

We were incredibly impressed with support for written content in particular. The iPad is a high-powered reading machine that includes iBooks, Stanza, Kindle, Marvel/DC/Vertigo, personal comic files, PDFs, RSS feed apps like Flipboard and Pulse, Newsstand periodicals, and long-form reader apps like Instapaper and Pocket. It’s a reader’s paradise.

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Reading on the iPad is beautiful. The extra screen size goes a long way. Pages are laid out properly unlike on smartphones. This opens the door for digital magazines like The Daily and Time. Seeing the written word next to built-in YouTube videos and images in digital Game Informer issues is amazing.

The iPad is holds an advantage over dedicated e-readers like the Kindle in its comic book support. The 9.7-inch IPS display renders comic pages without scale or color issues. We read Watchmen and Y: The Last Man in digital form and loved it.

We like the iPad for its multimedia content, but we wholeheartedly salute its reading abilities. As heavy readers, it’s fantastic to carry our entire collection of comics, books, news subscriptions, magazines, and RSS feeds on one device.

Updates & Support

Normally Apple products would earn a higher rank in this category. Cupertino reliably updates its products for at least two years. However, the iPad is four years old. It got iOS 4 and 5 but not 6.

This isn’t a huge deal right now. The latest firmwares did not add much of value. However, the number of iOS 6-only apps will only grow.

Hackability

The iPad is a mixed bag when it comes to modifications. There are serious forces at work fighting over whether you can install anything Apple hasn’t approved on your iOS device.

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On one side, you have the home team. Cupertino does its best to lock down iOS. There is zero support for modifications in terms of OS features or from Apple itself. Apple will never open-source their code or allow installing apps from anywhere other than their store. Getting custom code on iOS requires a PC and digging through rewritten .ipsw firmwares and tedious how-to guides. The walls of the garden are high indeed.

On the other side, the visiting team works its asses off to jailbreak each and every major iOS release. Hardworking hackers like Planetbeing, p0sixninja pod2g, and semaphore consistently find creative ways to break Apple’s security.

These guys even build simple one-click tools like redsn0w and evasi0n that automate the jailbreaking process for us non-developers. The hackers’ great work makes the jailbreak community possible.

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The community for jailbreaking is impressively strong considering they get no official support from Apple. Cydia, the unofficial app store, is full of helpful tweaks that can solve some of the problems we listed previously in Software. Want to change the default web browser? Done. Want to hide Newsstand? Done. Want to use Safari’s Nitro JavaScript engine in other browsers? Done.

Jailbreaking is nice because it provides the flexibility stock iOS lacks. Cydia has support for themes, SpringBoard adjustments, quick toggles, emulators, and unofficial games. Jailbreaking gives the power user much more breathing room.

However, there are serious downsides. First, any firmware updates un-jailbreak the device. Second, installing too many custom tweaks can destabilize the system. There’s some anecdotal evidence that they slow down iOS as well.

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Those problems won’t go away in the future without official support from Apple, and that’s not going to happen. Jailbreaking will remain a second-class citizen in iOS for the foreseeable future.

Final Thoughts

The first-generation iPad is a mediocre rendition of a fantastic device. In historical terms, it’s a landmark machine that launched the tablet market as we know it. It was a great piece of hardware in its time.

That’s the problem, though. Its time has passed. Technology moves at lightspeed. In mobile terms, 2009 may as well have been 1900.

The issue with the iPad 1 isn’t that it’s a bad device. Quite the opposite. The problem is other tablets are that much better. The iPad 1 just can’t hold up next to the latest fourth-gen iPad or Nexus 10.

Our final recommendation is mixed. Go buy an iPad but not this one. There’s no reason to get a first generation. Pick up a newer model instead. There are just too many disadvantages to buying an iPad 1 in 2013.