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Brier Dudley's blog

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

April 6, 2011 at 10:19 AM

Apple iPad 2 as ultimate remote control? Someday, perhaps

Ever since the first rumors of the iPad began, I’ve been curious about its potential to become the ultimate remote control.

This seemed more likely when Apple gave the iPad 2 the ability to stream video to an Apple TV adapter and share media with computers running iTunes on a home network.

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Streaming media is one of the killer apps for mobile devices. You’ve been able to do this with music for a while, and Netflix and Hulu are taking it to the next level with video, getting people comfortable with paying $10 per month to have anywhere access to huge video libraries.

Amazon.com just launched a “locker” service for streaming, storing and buying music and RealNetworks is preparing a similar service called Unifi that also handles photos and video.

Apple, Google and Microsoft are also working on new online media services that will probably appear over the next year.

I think there’s a huge opportunity for iPads and other tablets to become the control panels for these services. Their touch screens, browsers and fast wireless seem made for finding movies, beaming them onto a TV and checking messages from the couch during slow parts.

Apple’s starting to put these pieces together with the iPad 2 and its latest Apple TV that connects TVs to home networks. They work well together, but the combination is underwhelming, and the iPad is still better for directly consuming content.

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In other ways, the iPad 2 is a wonderful gadget. I’m still not sure I’d buy one — I’ve been using a loaned unit from Apple — but I can see why others will.

If you’re in the market for a Web tablet, it’s hard to recommend anything other than the iPad. It defines the category and set expectations for silky performance, elegant design and an endless supply of applications.

The iPad 2 starts at $499 for the basic Wi-Fi version. If you want to connect on the road, you’ll want one with 3G wireless capability on either AT&T or Verizon networks. They range from $629 to $829, depending on storage capacity, but supplies have been tight since its March 11 debut.

New to the device are basic cameras and a more powerful processor. At 1.3 pounds and 0.34 inch thick, it’s noticeably lighter and nicer to hold with more curved edges than the first version.

But it still has a few oddities that prevent it from becoming a laptop replacement. They include the lack of a back button, memory card slot or USB port. I also find the keyboard and cursor system awkward.

Those things aren’t an issue for casual browsing and entertainment. But combined with the closed nature of a device that has to be managed through Apple’s iTunes, they put the iPad in the category of computing accessory versus essential computing tool.

Still, the iPad 2 is dramatically nicer to use than similar devices I’ve tried recently, including the Android-based Motorola Xoom with a 10-inch screen.

The Xoom (below) has been called a contender but I found its “Honeycomb” software interface to be confusing and raw.

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Even the Xoom hardware isn’t quite done; to get it to work on Verizon’s 4G LTE network, buyers of the initial units will have to send them to Motorola for an upgrade that will take about a week. Unlike the iPad, the Xoom has a slot for a memory card, but it can’t be used without the hardware upgrade.

This is too geeky for most users and too much of a hassle for an $800 device. (There’s now a Wi-Fi only version for $599.)

The iPad is a hit, but my sense is that most consumers are intrigued but not yet convinced they need one or that it’s worth the price.

I’m guessing that will change if prices come down and if Web tablets come to be seen as handheld consoles for managing online media.

For the iPad to become this ├╝ber remote, Apple has to let it work as well with other services as it does with iTunes. Its “Remote” app also has to improve.

You can use an iPad to control an Apple TV, play media libraries stored on a home network and access Netflix and iTunes to rent and play movies. You can use its keyboard to search for a title, for instance.

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But navigating Apple TV’s menu with the iPad is not great. It’s done with gestures — flicking a finger across the pad’s screen to move the “cursor” around the menu on the TV. (In the picture at left you can see the navigation screen; the TiVo remote is just for comparison.)

This is harder than it should be. While flicking across a mostly blank iPad screen, you have to watch the TV to see what you’re doing. It’s like a coordination test and it’s easy to select the wrong thing with an errant tap.

Several companies offer remote apps and even infrared adapters to control a TV and other devices with an iPad. They generally depict a remote control on the iPad, and you tap its buttons to make things happen.

It’s handy to stream content from the home network, but I wish Apple would also accept the DLNA networking standard used by most PCs, game consoles, networked receivers and some phones. Then you’d be able to stream media directly from those devices without first putting it in iTunes.

You can theoretically play streaming videos on the go if you have an iPad with 3G wireless. But this barely worked for me.

Over AT&T 3G, Hulu stalled and Netflix downgraded the quality — to compensate for the connection — to the point it was unwatchable.

Video streaming worked well on Wi-Fi, but I wish the Netflix app let you select a movie on the iPad and play it through a connected TV, similar to how Netflix works on a PC. That would be a step toward making the iPad into a great remote, for Netflix users at least.

Still, there are other reasons to buy an iPad. I’d buy one if I spent my days in business meetings, traveled all the time or was facing an extended period in a medical facility.

But I’ll probably wait until a 4G model comes out. Then I’ll start wondering about 5G networks. Hopefully, the trusty laptop and pile of remotes in the living room will hang in there a little longer.

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Comments | Topics: amazon.com, Apple, apple

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