May 5, 2010

My Secret iPad Weekend Revealed!

I call this: computers,mac,tech — Posted by KP @ 3:33 am

The new iPhone prototype isn’t the only secret in town. For the last several weeks, I have been part of a vast interstate conspiracy. My co-conspirator, who I will refer to by her code name, “Mom,” had enlisted my help to pull off the greatest Apple-related surprise of all time: to buy my Dad an iPad.

That may seem really simple, but I assure you, it wasn’t.

First of all, you must understand why this mission was so important. Dad had been in the hospital a few weeks back, and had to have a couple operations, and he’s been generally immobile and uncomfortable for weeks. When he first had his surgery, Mom felt bad and decided that although they otherwise wouldn’t really have the budget for an iPad, life is too short not to have one, and he really needed something to cheer him up and keep him occupied during his recovery. And honestly, my parents are the perfect audience for the iPad (I am not), and I’d been telling them this for… well, as long as we’ve known about the iPad.

First Complications

Mom called me up while he was still in the hospital because she wanted to get one right away, and wanted my advice about which one, and would need my help setting it up over the phone. I hopped over to the Apple site to check the specs and everything, and was hit with the first major roadblock that I hadn’t even thought about: it requires USB2. Both my parents’ Macs are from early 2002, just a few months before Apple began shipping computers with USB2.

Dad has an iMac that he got from his old job, which wasn’t even that great of a machine when it was new. It doesn’t even have a DVD drive, which is why it’s still running Panther. Panther. I don’t think it’s really possible to anticipate the frustration that causes when trying to work with it. Like he wants to know why he can’t open some websites. I said, “probably you’re running a really old browser, and it just needs to be updated.” Well guess what, you can’t get an updated version of Safari on it, and you can’t use Firefox 3 either. I had been planning on my next visit to try and get DVD sharing working to install Tiger, which might barely run.

But in light of this USB problem, it was obvious that something more drastic needed to be done about this whole ancient-computer problem. Mom was practically ready to go out and buy him an iPad and a Macbook. But by this time, Apple had just released the i7 Macbook Pro, and my current machine had been showing enough signs of imminent death that I knew I had to buy one the day I got home from tour. So I said, “Look, I’ll have a new computer by the time I get home, my Powerbook isn’t much newer than the ones you have, but it’s a lot more advanced, and it will be a lot better than what he’s using now, and I won’t need it.” The problem would have to wait a couple weeks until the tour was over, but we had an economical solution.

Secondary Complications

While my computer was dying for the last three weeks of the tour, I called a lot of Apple Stores. Every city we were in, I knew how close the nearest Apple Store was, and if they had 15″ 2.66GHz Hi-res anti-glare Macbook Pros in stock, just in case I needed one. While doing this, I also inquired if they had iPads, since if I ended up buying the MBP I would just buy the iPad at the same time. This revealed the second complication: you couldn’t find an iPad anywhere. Now Mom and I were getting worried that we wouldn’t be able to get one before my totally-not-suspicious visit on my birthday. I forgot to mention, we had planned that to be the day of the surprise.

When I got home, a week before the planned surprise, I began working the four Apple Stores in New York (I had been calling the flagship store on Fifth Ave. the whole time, pretty much any time I called another store, to see what my odds were like at home). I already had my Macbook Pro because the old one died completely in Philly. An employee at Fifth Ave advised me that they get surprise shipments all the time, but usually sell out in a couple hours, so my best bet was to just keep calling and if I hit a time when they were in stock, race to the store and get one.

I took this past Friday, April 30th, off from my search, because it was the day of the release of the 3G iPad, which I did not want, and I knew all Apple Stores would be a madhouse (and actually shut down for a couple hours in the middle of the day to prepare for the event).

But my hunch was that my last opportunity, Saturday, would be my best bet, as the availability of the 3G iPad would dilute the demand for the wifi one, and that stores probably received a big shipment of both for the launch of the 3G.

So when I got up on Saturday I called the closest store — the new one at Lincoln Square. They did indeed have wifi iPads, but only 16GB. I wanted 32. But it was an option. I would have to confer with Mom. But first I called Fifth Ave. The guy I spoke to said, “We have limited quantities of the 64GB.” Soho and 14th Street were plain sold out. So I called Mom (after spending a good five minutes on the phone talking to Dad while Mom finished watering the plants or something, trying not to give away my urgency in talking to her.) When we got on the phone in privacy, we conferred about our options, and decided that the 16GB would probably be too small at some point, so it was better to go for the 64, if any were still left, so that we could go ahead with the surprise.

So I raced down to the Fifth Ave store, which was absolutely insane on a Saturday afternoon. There were so many different iPad lines, and I was sent to the wrong place at least four times before I found the right line. Unlike the stores I visited on tour, or even the other ones in New York to a certain extent, which are selling their wares to the local neighborhood, the Fifth Ave store is really where the whole world comes to buy an iPad. Now I’m not just competing against the entire population of New York, but apparently also France, Japan, Latin America, and who-knows-where-else.

After a stressful time on a long line, I finally made it to the front, and was sent off to a corner register near the Genius Bar, all alone, where it was suddenly quiet and serene.

“Which one would you like?”

She reaches to the shelf behind her and selects a simple white box and places it on the table. Scans it with the fancy new iPhone checkout machine.

“Credit card?”


“Sign here with your finger.”

“Is an email receipt OK?”

“Here you go.”

And I put the bag into the messenger bag I had selected specifically for its iPad-sized carrying properties, and disappeared into the Central Park afternoon with my precious cargo.


When I got upstairs, I took out my phone (where my receipt had just come in — I checked it showed the correct model of iPad) and shot off a quick email to Mom simply saying “Mission successful! On my way home.” We had agreed weeks earlier not to say too much in emails just in case Dad should come by her computer. Now Mom checks her email usually a couple times a day. Clearly she had been checking it obsessively since I called her, because five minutes later she wrote back — in all caps — about what a wonderful daughter I was.

As I made my way home, I felt like I was a secret courier carrying sensitive spy materials over some border. Finally I got home, and very, very carefully did the unboxing. I really wanted to preserve as much of the unboxing experience as possible for Dad, so I cut the shrink-wrap so that only the bottom came off. I used my cable so that all of his accessories could stay wrapped up, and I found to my delight that the iPad touchscreen could be used through the plastic cover that wraps around the whole device itself. I carefully lifted the flap at the bottom so it could be plugged in.

The next 10 hours were spent preparing it in every detail possible. Part of the surprise, maybe the hardest part, was that I wanted to hand him this magical and revolutionary slab of awesomeness, and it would already be filled with all his music, his favorite movies, some TV shows, the most necessary apps, and some books he might like (we have a very similar taste in books, which is helpful).

Some CIA Stuff

The original plan would have required at least several hours at my parents’ house to transfer all his files from his old computer, and then sync everything to the iPad, while hiding the fact that anything was going on.

But when I got home with the iPad and called Mom, we got on iChat, and she helped me to set some stuff up. Dad knew I had been planning to install Tiger and do some major work on his computer on my next visit, so on that pretext, Mom turned on his computer, and while screen sharing through iChat (which is a really awesome, Apple-like, just-works implementation of VNC) I then installed a VNC server on his computer and — get this — using VNC to control my Mom’s computer, used VNC to control my Dad’s. So it was like a screen within a screen within a screen, which was kind of confusing at times. You have to remember, he’s on Panther, so I can’t just do iChat screen sharing with him.

Anyway, much to my relief, his iTunes library was only a little over 2GB (which surprises me). Through a mix of several methods, over the course of many hours, I uploaded and downloaded his entire music library onto the Powerbook. I used three methods simultaneously: iChat file transfer, uploading to my iDisk, and uploading to my website FTP. In this way I hoped to overcome the bandwidth limitations of each. It seemed to work OK, I guess.

I also took his contact file from Entourage and imported it into Address Book on the new computer. I set him up with a GMail account, because they have Optimum Online as their ISP and the email it comes with is from the dark ages, only supports POP, and only supports SMTP from your own house connection. Dear God, if you must use them as your ISP, don’t ever try to use the email, just get a free account from Google or Yahoo or something.

While all this was going on, I bought him some movies and apps with my iTunes account (thankfully Apple has finally instituted the ability to give a specific app as a gift), and then activated them on his new computer.

The most important part, I told Mom, was keeping him away from his email while all this was happening. No doubt the process of registering the iPad, being gifted apps, and downloading free apps, would trigger a series of emails from Apple, like the one that came through this morning entitled “Your New iPad.” To ward against this, I added a rule to Entourage on his current computer that if any mail came in with the sender, subject or message body containing “Apple,” “iTunes” or “iPad” it would be immediately marked as read and moved to the spam folder.

When all was said and done, both the computer and iPad were set up and ready to go. Mom said I should work for the CIA. But as I told her, I don’t think the CIA would put me to work doing something as innocuous as surprising somebody with an iPad. I should also mention that this kind of work is much easier when you know all of your quarry’s passwords — or at least have access to his computer and the administrator password to check his keychain.

OK, OK, the iPad!!

So the bonus to this exciting experience of course was getting to spend about 10 hours playing with the iPad. Some thoughts:


  • Very pretty. It feels very solid and well-built. Typical Apple.
  • One of the movies we got for him was Avatar. We just watched a minute of it. The HD video is amazing.
  • The UI for the default apps is great. I especially wish I could have a calendar that’s so easy to read on my iPhone. Just having a week view would be wonderful. I set up accounts for my parents on my Google Apps domain so they can subscribe to my work calendars and see where in the country I am, when I have shows, etc. Seeing my schedule on the iPad was really cool. It’s the one thing I’m really jealous of.
  • The iBooks app is really nice. I like that they have brightness controls easily accessible. On the night the iPad spent with me, I will confess I read a book sample chapter in bed, just to see what it was like. It’s by far the best ebook-in-bed experience I’ve had.


  • It is kinda heavy. At times my wrists were getting tired from holding it a certain way. But I think some of that may be because it was still in plastic and I was holding it very delicately so as not to smudge or wrinkle the plastic. When reading in bed I rested the iPad on my stomach. Holding it up for a while probably would have been annoying.
  • Doesn’t come with some of the default apps from the iPhone (weather, stocks, calculator, etc.). I don’t consider this a con so much, as a lot of people end up replacing those apps with something better anyway, and there are several free options. But the big one is no Clock app. This is more important because until third-party apps can multitask, there’s no way to set an alarm that will stay active if you leave the app. I know the iPad is not an iPhone, but this seems like a feature you’d still want no matter what. If Mom had an iPad in the kitchen she’d want to set a timer for the oven or whatever, and then hop over to the iPod app or something while waiting for it to go off. That seems like a big oversight to me. Hopefully in a few months OS4 will come out for the iPad and it will be a non-issue.
  • Summary

    Well Dad was completely surprised, and thrilled with his gift. When handed the package, he thought we had gotten him some sort of computer accessory, but he’s savvy enough to know that when he opened the wrapping and saw “64GB” on the back of the box, there were a very limited number of things that size that contain that kind of storage.

    The whole event was basically a big Apple commercial. He has learned from years of working with Macs and iPods that you don’t need an instruction manual or technical knowledge to work something, and you won’t break it by trying things out. He just started poking around exploring how to make things work, and discovered things I hadn’t found yet either. The biggest discovery was that on the iBooks app, the page-turning animation actually changes based on how you “grip” the page with your finger (i.e. if you turn from the top it shows the top corner curling over, and so forth, basically mimicking perfectly whatever motion and speed you make with your finger).

    From my perspective, I still feel that the only time I would really use an iPad would be in bed. It would be great for reading, watching videos, and light web surfing without having to drag my entire laptop into bed, or squinting at the tiny screen on my phone.

    My fears about having yet another device to keep in sync were pretty much eliminated. Most of the syncing I would care about is over-the-air, and I wouldn’t mind plugging it in to sync new apps and media with my Mac any more than I do with my phone. If money was no object, I’d probably get one (with 3G), but I can think of very few occasions where I would take it with me out of the house, in place of my MacBook Pro.

    All that being said, when the day was over and it was time to go home, I was rather sad to leave it behind, even though I have no idea what I’d really do with it. And that, my friends, is what they call the Reality Distortion Field.

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