April 5, 2011 at 8:02 AM ET
By Josh Belzman
I’m giving the iPad another shot.
A year after purchasing Apple’s first-generation wonder tablet, hating it and quickly unloading it, I picked up an iPad 2. Crossing my fingers, but I think this relationship will last.
The difference this time? The iPad grew up, and I bought in.
The first time around I was lured in by the iPad’s promise but felt let down when it didn’t fit neatly into my digital life. It seemed somewhat unwieldy and unremarkable. More than that, it didn’t seem to do anything my iPhone and laptop didn’t already do. I despised my pretty paperweight and didn’t want to sink more money into it. Rather than app up, I gave up.
We’re different people now. The iPad has shed some fat and become more nimble. There’s now multitasking, dual cameras, a speedier processor, a slimmer and lighter profile, and oh so many apps that cleverly take advantage of the touch screen and the ways in which more of us are using computers and the Web.
I’ve changed, too. I no longer expect the iPad to be all things. I’m writing this on on my laptop, not my iPad. But when it’s time to read, head to work or get on a plane, I’m grabbing the iPad. It’s a portable diversion and catching-up machine. That’s really all it needs to be.
The first iPad threw me off. I wanted to love it but was hesitant to go all in. I ponied up for the 64GB 3G-enabled model but when it came down to it I didn’t want to pay for more broadband access on top of my cell plan. Instead of feeling connected I just felt ripped off.
This time I skipped the 3G option and went with the 32GB model. Wi-Fi is seemingly everywhere and I figure if I find I really need more Web access I can get a tethering plan on my phone. As streaming services proliferate, I’m finding on-board memory is less important.
What is important is multitasking. It wasn’t present when the iPad first came out and in hindsight it seems like the killer app that was missing. With it, I can catch up on the news, doodle much better than I ever could on paper thanks to SketchBook Pro, play a game or do some combination of those things while listening to streaming music, online radio or my own music. This is what the iPad was supposed to be: a svelte device that displayed anything from anywhere while seamlessly switching between apps.
One obscenely priced add-on I was reluctant to purchase but am thankful for now is Apple's magnetic smart cover. At $40, a pastel-covered flippy thing seems hard to justify, but it's the ergonomic aide I was desperately missing the first time around. It functions as a handle, a stand and a protective cover without adding bulk. By God, it just works!
Cost of that smart cover aside, the money I did save by downgrading, I’m using on apps. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that apps make the iPad. And it’s not like they all cost a bunch of money, though a few bucks here and a few bucks there will add up.
More than bigger versions of their iPhone brethren, the best iPad apps are those that turn the device into a unique experience. One of my favorites is Flipboard, which creates an interactive magazine full of images, videos and stories shared by friends on my social networks or curated by Flipboard’s editors and featured contributors like Roger Ebert. There are a bunch of Twitter apps but for me the holy grail is any app that turns tweets and tweeted links into something real.
While it's easy to navigate most of the Web on the iPad, I find myself being drawn back to niche apps. NASA has thrown a warehouse full of pictures, videos and factoids into its app. So now when I come across a cool new space article, my next stop is the NASA app to get background material.
Unlike last year, the NCAA's March Madness app actually worked as advertised this time. It was a revelation to watch games during my commute, and get notifications of upsets. It's still aggravating when a Wi-Fi signal drops or an app freezes up, but that seems to be happening far less this time.
Magazines have taken on new life on the iPad. ESPN The Magazine, The Economist and Popular Scienceall have great apps with interactives, photos and charts that really pop on the tablet. I’m tempted to stop getting the paper versions of these publications.
Video now abounds, even without Flash support (an omission that’s still hard to forgive). I can (mostly) stream my own movies and music using apps like Air Video or watch Netflix and PBS from almost anywhere. Now, if only Amazon could enable its new cloud music service on the iPad, or Apple would hurry up and release its own cloud-based iTunes.
Of course the iPad isn’t so unique anymore. It faces a lot of competition from more powerful tablets and cheaper netbooks. I considered a netbook but decided it wasn't a smaller laptop I was after, but a chance to interact with content in a more immersive way. I played with the Motorola Xoom tablet and was nearly seduced by the specs and Android's Honeycomb OS. But compared to an iPad 2 the Xoom seems bloated. The apps seem less refined.
In the end, all it took was picking up an iPad 2 and playing with a few apps to remember what drew me to it in the first place — and to recognize what had changed. We’ll see if that feeling lasts, but so far, so good.
Josh Belzman is an editor at msnbc.com. He has a hard time deciding if he likes something and tends to make grand declarations that he later rescinds. If you have a favorite iPad app or buying advice, share it below or tweet @JoshEdits.