Apple iPad 1st Generation Review: The Highlights and the Drawbacks

The iPad That Started It All

Man using Ipad
Original Ipad. Mark Tantrum / Stringer Editorial #: 486118324

Apple heralded the iPad, its first tablet, as being both "magical" and "revolutionary." This first-generation model wasn’t quite magical, but it was a terrific luxury device that took the first step toward fulfilling Apple’s revolutionary promise. The reception for the iPad was warm, and its state-of-the-art features were well received.

Apple iPad 1st Generation: The Good

  • Beautiful screen
  • Lightweight
  • Terrific web browsing experience
  • Amazing battery life
  • Bluetooth accessory support
  • Support for App Store

Apple iPad 1st Generation: The Bad

  • No camera
  • No multitasking
  • Not enough native apps

Beautiful Hardware

The original iPad was a physically beautiful, highly usable gadget refined to a state of excellence. The iPad weighed just 1.5 pounds—1.6 for the model with 3G cellular connectivity—and felt great held with either one hand or two.

The 9.7-inch screen was a joy for practically everything, especially games, video, and web browsing. One drawback at ship date was that apps designed for the iPhone didn't look crisp at full-screen mode on the iPad. That quickly improved as apps were developed specifically for the iPad.

The great-looking screen was a magnet for fingerprints and smudges. Apple applied an oleophobic coating to the screen of the iPhone 3GS and later models but didn't do the same with the original iPad. 

Solid Software

The iPad shipped with a modified version of the iPhone OS 3.2 (subsequently renamed iOS), which was tweaked for the iPad’s bigger screen. It offered all the strengths of the iPhone OS but added new features, like menus that presented more information and options in the bigger space. These changes were welcome to anyone who tried to work with long lists or large amounts of data on the iPhone’s screen.

However, the iPad also had its weaknesses: no multitasking, support for tethering, unified email inbox, or powerful business features. In some respects, the iPad felt like a large iPhone, but with the modifications to the new OS, it soon became more like a robust handheld computer that could challenge desktop functionality for many uses.

Because it ran the iPhone OS, the iPad could access the App Store to fulfill its greatest promise and potential. The built-in apps on the original iPad ranged from acceptable to great and included the things you’d expect—web browser, media player, calendar, and photos—but the nearly limitless options in the App Store are what made the iPad so exciting and fun.

The apps that got the most attention at the iPad’s launch—the Netflix and ABC video players, Marvel Comics’ reader and online store, the iWork suite, and iBooks—demonstrated the versatility and potential in the App Store. With it, users were only limited by the imagination and skills of developers.

The iPhone platform had already gained substantial momentum as a gaming platform; the iPad took advantage of that and in time its bigger screen, multitouch features, and motion sensors made it a welcome platform for games that were sophisticated, immersive, and impressive.

A Great eBook Reader

The iPad quickly became a strong and, some thought, a superior competitor to dedicated eBook readers like Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes and Noble’s nook. Core eBook functionality was delivered in Apple’s free iBooks app, which was backed by an online store.

The feature of iBooks that got the most attention was its well-executed page-turning animation, but that was mostly eye candy. Using iBooks was pleasant enough. Pages looked good and had customization options for font, text size, and contrast.

When it came to features—bookmarking, dictionary integration, and links—iBooks worked well and much like other eBook apps, but it was a little sluggish at first, especially when turning pages. A problem that was addressed in a later update.

The iBooks Store was a little sparse at the beginning, but it grew the way the iTunes Store’s music library grew—steadily at first and then exponentially so that nearly anything you could want became available. 

Thanks to the App Store, the iPad wasn’t limited to iBooks for reading. Amazon’s Kindle app was available, as was Barnes and Noble’s Reader, along with many other eBook readers. Comics fans were in luck, with great reader/store combinations from Marvel, comiXology, and many others. 

Browsing in Bed

The iPad offered the best web browsing experience users had ever experienced—in bed or on the couch—and it quickly dominated the mobile gaming and entertainment departments. Browsing on the iPad in bed required positioning the iPad at just the right angle to prevent its screen from rotating. Users quickly came to appreciate the iPad’s screen rotation lock switch, which ingeniously solved this problem. The iPad just felt good in the hand, lap or resting on your knees—certainly better than any laptop.

Not Quite a Mobile Office

Though the iPad looked like it could function as a mobile office tool—after all it had email, web connectivity, word processing, spreadsheets, and many productivity apps—it was not quite developed enough for that. It would be years before iPads could replace computers in business environments.

The onscreen keyboard was an improvement over the iPhone’s, thanks to its larger size, but typing was a choice between going slowly or incurring a lot of errors. Multi-finger typing was a challenge even for accomplished typists, and locating punctuation marks on separate screens broke up typing and thinking momentum.

The iPad supported external keyboards through its keyboard dock accessory and via Bluetooth, but carrying yet another item along with the iPad wasn’t appealing to early adopters.

Surprising Battery Life

Apple's iPhone products weren't renowned as battery powerhouses, but the iPad broke that trend. Apple promised 10 hours of use on a fully charged iPad battery. On a full charge, three hours of movie playback consumed just 20 percent of the battery, indicating that Apple’s 10-hour figure was perhaps a little conservative. Nearly nine straight hours of music playback hardly dented the battery—again, about 20 percent. The iPad battery was also a wonder on standby, delivering weeks of standby battery life. 

Not Without Its Problems

All that said, a first-generation product had first-generation problems. Users reported a variety of problems that included unclear battery charging messages, difficulty waking the device from sleep, slow syncing, and overheating. Perhaps the most widespread problem involved its inability to maintain a Wi-Fi connection and signal strength, which was subsequently addressed in an OS upgrade. 

Who’s It For?

Despite all the good things said about the original iPad, its value to users wasn't immediately clear. It was neither a laptop or desktop replacement nor a replacement for an iPhone or iPod. Apple popularized a new category of device, and it took some time for its potential to be realized.

The iPad was fun to use but it was expensive and not necessary in a house already equipped with a computer and an iPhone. It was a handy portable device for trips, but the promise of mobile gaming hadn't materialized. 

It wasn't until the second generation model that iPad included aspects of a traditional computer and left limitations behind. Developers were able to create even more powerful and useful apps that made the iPad much more compelling.

Most computer users tend to have a fairly limited and basic set of needs: email, web, music, video, games. Most users don’t need to run Photoshop or page layout software or video editing tools. For those power users, desktop and laptop computers continued to be necessary tools. For users with limited needs, a version of the iPad made as much, or more, sense than a traditional computer.

Did It Succeed?

Why, yes it did. With sales of more than 450,000 iPads in the U.S. in its first week alone, it was another hit product for Apple. In time, improvements in hardware and software were introduced. Only a year after the first iPad was sold, Apple introduced the iPad 2, which featured the camera missing from the original model. The 3rd and 4th generation iPads all had faster processors, better battery life, improved cameras, and improved screen quality, which became the story with all subsequent releases.

The iPad mini came along to give users a smaller option for a tablet, while the iPad Air took over the full-size market. The 12.9-inch iPad Pro blurred the line between tablet and laptop.

Just a year after the launch of the original iPad, Apple sold 4.69 million iPads in a single fiscal quarter. Soon competitors with tablets were on every corner, and tablets became the darlings of tech buyers. Apple sold its 300 millionth iPad in early 2016 in a market slowed largely by the rise of large phones or phablets.