First look at over-the-counter UK iPad

So… back from the kerfuffle on Regent Street, we've taken one of the UK's first over-the-counter iPads back to THINQ towers for a first look.

We didn't fancy queuing with the hordes outside the Apple Store who'd inexplicably decided not to pre-order their tablets.

So we nipped around the corner to Tottenham Court Road and picked one up at PC World. No frantic scramble. Barely even a queue.

Staff at PC World wouldn't confirm how many of the devices they had in stock, but we counted around 20 going out of the door in the five minutes or so we were there.

What it costs
The Wi-Fi-only iPad starts at £429 for the 16GB version, rising to £499 for the 32GB and £599 for the 64GB. 3G mobile connectivity adds an extra £100 onto the price of each model. We bagged the last 64GB 3G model PC World had in stock for £699.

Most customers, they said, had gone for the pricier models, so they still had a number of 16 and 32GB tablets left.

What it's like
The tablet measures 9.5 by 7.5 inches, and half an inch thick. At 730g for the 3G model, it’s light and easy to grip, making it a much more comfortable proposition to hold and read from than a traditional laptop.

The 1280x1024 screen has a 9.7-inch diagonal: decent enough for browsing and the other entertainment features wanted by most the iPad customers we spoke to.

An ambient light sensor monitors how well-lit your environment is, and adjusts screen brightness accordingly. All the same, we found it near impossible to use in direct sunlight. And in spite of the screen's 'oleophobic' (grease-resistant) coating, if you've got some kind of obsessive-compulsive thing about fingerprints, this device could drive you up the wall.

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Using it
Reservations about the screen aside, we couldn't help but like the thing. It just feels, well… nice. The touch-sensitive screen is very responsive. Using it will come easily to anyone who has used an iPhone, with basic prods to click the on-screen icons and multi-touch gestures such as 'pinch' to zoom in on maps.

Buttons are minimal: there's a Home button on the face of the tablet, a tiny volume control and an on/off button on the top edge.

Like the iPhone, the iPad automatically rotates the display from portrait to landscape depending on the way you hold it, so there's an additional rotation lock button if you don't want this to happen (when you're reading in bed for example).

Where previous tablet formats such as Microsoft's Tablet PC version of Windows took an operating system that was designed for a desktop PC and added a stylus and fiddly handwriting recognition, the iPad is designed for touch from the ground up.

The basic desktop, as sold, is pretty sparse. There's one-touch access to Apple's Safari browser, email, iPod and Photos, plus a handful of useful apps like Maps and YouTube – and a link to the App store to find more.

It's a breeze to navigate around, running a finger across the screen to scroll through apps or access the on-screen keyboard.

Which brings us to one thing we didn't like. While scrolling around and clicking icons is easy, entering text using the on-screen keys is a faff. It's two- or four-finger hunt-and-peck style, not touch-typing. We wouldn't want to use it to write anything of length.

What it's got – and what it hasn't
Inside, storage is provided by solid-state flash memory – so there's no whirring hard disk to sap the battery.

Battery life, by most accounts, lives up to Apple's claim of 10 hours for Wi-Fi only versions, slightly less for 3G. All models of the iPad use Apple's 1GHz A4 processor, a "system on a chip" based on ARM technology that integrates 3D graphics, audio, power management and storage.

Our 3G version had built-in GPS, but be aware that the WiFi-only models don't, so you can't use location-based services.

Unlike its Mini-me - the iPhone - the iPad has no built-in camera, so no Skype sessions via webcam either. The built-in mono speaker sounds pleasant enough, but doesn't go very loud.

If you want to watch a movie on the train, you'll need to shell out for a pair of Bluetooth headphones, as there's no audio-out.

Neither are there any USB or FireWire sockets on the iPad. If you want to get anything on or off of it, you have to do it via 3G, wireless or its built-in Bluetooth [or through iTunes using the 30 pin to USB connector, of course. Sub Ed].

How it performed
As we've said, existing iPhone users will feel right at home on an iPad. There's no multi-tasking – just one app on screen at a time.

Flicking between them is pretty quick – but while its 1GHz A4 processor is more than nippy enough for most tasks (and combined with our reservations over text input), we don't see this as a replacement for a notebook.

In our tests, WiFi also performed slowly – we'll be looking to see if this is to be expected, or due to the already-publicised wireless problems the iPad has suffered in the States, so check back for an update.

Do you need one?
If you want to be one of the cool kids: definitely.

If you're after a souped-up iPhone with a big screen and battery life enough to let you browse in comfort from the sofa... maybe.

The only reason that's not a definite 'yes' is because of Apple's refusal to support Flash. Hollywood studios including Warner Brothers have declined to convert their catalogue to iPad format, saying the Internet is a Flash-dominated environment. So unless they cave in, or Apple decides to rethink its stance, you'll have to get used to seeing a lot of messages telling you that online content is unavailable to you.

If you're after a serious work tool, the picture's a bit less clear.

As a presentation device to hand round to clients, it beats a notebook hands-down. As a workhorse for typing, it's a bit of a chore.

All in all, it's a lovely toy and a must-buy for fanboys. But we think we'll wait for the dust to settle and some basic features such as (cough) printing to be added. Maybe they might have shaved a few shekels of the price by then, too. Here's hoping…