When Apple's iPad first appeared last spring, it arrived with such a gush of hype that I thought it could never live up to what was expected of it. But secretly, I hoped it would become the ultimate Swiss Army knife cockpit gadget, able to do navigation, grab weather, file flightplans, perform weight and balance and a hundred other things. I'll admit it, despite the overpromising, I wanted to fall in love.
After four months of flying with the thing and using it for all sorts of aviation-related and other tasks, I'm not in love. For me, the iPad has been amusing, sometimes entertaining, but ultimately disappointing. It's like a hot date that looks good but is so bland you don't even want to come out of the dugout, much less skip to second base.
This shouldn't be so. The hardware is terrific, the display is breathtaking, it has excellent battery life and most iPad apps are brain-dead easy to use. So what's the problem? It's lack of convergence. You remember convergence, the theory that all technology was converging on the notion that a single gadget would do everythingprovide e-mail access, do multi-media, take pictures, have a phone and also powerful computing capability. It was understood that convergence devices would be compromised and wouldn't perform as well as a dedicated computer, but would be adequate.
That's where the iPad misses, in my opinion. It just isn't adequate. In the iPhone, at least, Apple has a good multi-purpose gadget that does all these things reasonably well and you can also make a call on it, which you can't with the iPad, so I end up carrying it, plus a cellphone and because the screen and keyboard just aren't up to the task, I also carry a laptop for serious e-mail handing or more involved writing. The iPad isn't the single go-to device I was looking for, although for some buyers, it has become just that. For me, it isn't for creating things, it's for looking at things.
But even for looking, it's limited and here, the iPad's shortcomings as a cockpit computer/display/navigator have a direct parallel to its general utility, or lack thereof. There are a couple of moving maps for the iPad and although these have some compelling features, they aren't good enough for me to leave my aera or GPSMAP 396 on the ground. On our swing up the west coast earlier this month, Marc Cook and I tried to press the iPad into service to supplement the broken XM weatherlink. It failed miserably. Even when it had good 3G coverage, which it doesn't always have, the NEXRAD views are too limited and static to be of tactical use.
Even on the ground, the iPad's NEXRAD capability is a faint shadow of what I've become accustomed to through using WeatherTAP. The iPad can access this through wireless or 3G and emerging apps improve weather getting, but since I still have to carry a laptop, I tilt toward using that instead of the iPad. It's faster and easier to use, so grabbing it instead of the iPad works for me. The iPad's size is still an issue. After testing various mounting options, I've concluded the yoke is the best place for it, even though it consumes all of the space between the yoke horns.
The iPad does do at least one thing really well: plate reading. There are a handful of apps providing this function and all of them work well enough to supplant paper. Prices for these services are a good value. As a chart reader, the iPad is less impressive, but if you're willing to adapt to the display's limitations, you can make the charts work well enough.
And that's the nut of it, really. "Well enough" is not great. It's not even good. It's one step above mediocrity and this is, unfortunately, the state of play for most technology that's oversold. These gadgets do a lot of things adequately, but rarely do anything really well. They force you to adapt to their quirks and inadequacies, rather than the other way round. Maybe they deliver a slam-dunk something or other, but often, they just don't.
For things like navigation and real-time weather in the cockpit, I haven't devolved to the point that I'm willing to accept barely adequate in exchange for trendy technology that other people seem to think is the second coming. I like bright shiny objects as much as anyone, but unless it delivers something useful and practical, I'm inclined to leave it where I found it.
Still, I wouldn't mind falling in love.