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What The iPad Will Mean For Otaku

If you haven’t heard of the Apple iPad, which is due to hit store shelves tomorrow morning, then you’ve probably just returned from a long journey into another dimension fighting an impossibly tough foe on behalf of a civilization that considers you their only hope for survival. Or perhaps you were off frolicking with your mail order bride who turned out to be a powerful goddess who can grant your every wish (and get you into a ton of mischief while doing so). Or [insert other random contrived anime plot here].

In brief, the iPad is Apple’s answer to the tablet and netbook. Based on the iPhone OS, it’s a tablet computer that Apple is positioning to fill a perceived gap in functionality between a smartphone and a laptop computer. Since it’s based on the iPhone OS, and uses similar (though scaled-up) hardware, it has many features similar to the iPhone and iPod touch; however many user interface elements have been designed to take advantage of the much larger screen (a 9.7-inch (25 cm) LED backlit multi-touch display at 1024×768). And at $499 for the base model, the price is really quite reasonable considering the power and capabilities of what you get (IMHO of course).

Of course, reaction on the Internet to the device is bitterly divided. (Kind of like American politics. Sigh.) The true fanboys are lauding it as the best thing since sliced bread, while the haters are calling it “just a giant iPod touch.” But I think that the detractors are missing the point here. Yes, it IS a giant iPod touch. And that giantness is what makes the device work. There are things that you just can’t do (or you can do, but very poorly) on the iPhone or iPod touch because of its limited screen size. The larger screen of the iPad makes these applications possible. (Yes, she was right when she said “size matters.”) Here is why you, the otaku, should get really fired up about this device.

The first, and most obvious, is video playback. Sure, you can play video on your iPhone and iPod touch (or even video iPod). But you’ll probably lose your eyesight trying to watch it on that tiny screen. There are, of course, dedicated video players with bigger screens such as the Archos. But even those pale in comparison to the iPad’s generous 9.7 incher.

Where do you get video content then? Well, the iTunes Store has a fairly decent selection of anime titles, and at $1.99 per episode or roughly $35 for a full season, the prices are pretty reasonable. (Insert standard disclaimer about how different regions have different content in their respective iTunes stores.) Of course, you could always convert your own DVD’s into H.264 video files and load them on yourself, using tools such as HandBrake, RipIt, and AnyDVD. (Insert standard disclaimer about how, technically speaking, this is against the law thanks to the DMCA, but unless you’re planning on selling them, you probably won’t get caught, but it’s still technically illegal, and how you should only do this with DVD’s that you honest-to-God own.)

Then there’s always streaming video. Two major streaming video providers have already tossed their hat in the ring. Netflix, the uber-popular DVD-rental-by-mail outfit, has been offering streaming video to go along with its rental service for several years now; and yes, they do have some decent anime content. Not a whole lot, but it’s growing day by day. They now have an iPad app (free even!) that will let you stream any of Netflix’s streaming titles to your device. The best part is, if you start watching something on your computer, and then have to leave the house or something, you can pick up on your iPad right from where you left off, and vice versa.

And everybody’s anime streaming site Crunchyroll has also committed to creating an iPad app. Currently they have an app for the iPhone and iPod touch (also free!) that will let you watch any of their streaming titles; this app should work on the iPad’s compatibility mode, so you can get your Crunchyroll on until they finish their iPad-native app.

Also, it is rumored that Hulu will be making an iPad app too.

Of course, there are plenty of other sites out there that stream anime, legally or otherwise, including the websites of most (all?) of the big anime licensors (FUNimation, Bandai, etc.). The problem with these, of course, is that they use Adobe’s Flash, which the iPad will not support. But this won’t always be the case. The web is moving in its own slow, ponderous way to adopt the HTML 5 standard, which includes built-in support for streaming video, obviating the need for Flash. And the iPad supports HTML 5 perfectly. I suspect that once the iPad hits the masses, there will be a flurry of websites converting over to HTML 5. In fact, some of the big players have already done just that.

Are you into manga? Well then you’ve got reason to sit up and take notice too. Manga is definitely something that does NOT work well on an iPhone or similarly sized device. The screen is just too darn small. Either you have to squint and try to read micro-print on a full-page display, or you can zoom in and be faced with the prospect of having to scroll around to read everything. This is probably why those very few manga/comics forays on the iPhone failed so miserably. Of course there are e-readers such as the Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble Nook. Sure, they have bigger screens; but they are (so far anyway) only black and white, and the weird “flashing” effect when the e-ink screens refresh is off-putting to some.

Well, there are some exciting things afoot. Marvel Comics has released an iPad app (free!) based on the Comixology technology. And it looks really awesome. In portrait mode, you get the full page, though at about 80% of the size of a traditional comics page. Even so, text and graphics are crisp and easily readable thanks to the iPad’s excellent screen technology. But turn the unit on its side (in landscape mode), and a new viewing mode becomes available. You zoom into each panel of a strip, and tapping on the screen brings you to the next panel in logical order, all the while highlighting moments of dialogue or action. This is a fantastic way of viewing comics, and Andy Ihnatko, beloved tech pundit and well-known comics fan, really likes it. I’m sure that manga publishers will soon sit up and take notice.

If you’re an artist, you have cause to celebrate as well. Using the giant iPad screen and touch surface as an artist’s canvas is only natural, and with programs such as SketchBook Pro and Brushes, it’s really quite simple yet powerful. Several months back, an artist made a big splash in both the tech and art community, by creating a New Yorker cover using an iPhone. Imagine what you can do with an iPad! I wonder when we’ll start seeing people sitting at Artists’ Alley not with paintbrush or pen, but with an iPad instead.

And finally, with its large screen and native PDF support, the iPad makes an excellent PDF reader. When you consider that many anime conventions make their schedules, program guidebooks, etc. available in PDF format, this can be quite a handy thing to have. It’s admittedly a small thing, and wouldn’t make sense as the sole reason to buy an iPad; but if you bought one for any of the reasons above (or other reasons of your own, perhaps) it’s a nice extra.

Tablet computers are certainly nothing new – Microsoft has been trying to market them for years. But they have always failed miserably in the common consumer market. One possible reason why is because they were trying to extend the desktop computer metaphor onto the tablet, by using standard desktop operating systems (i.e. Windows). In taking their already-successful mobile iPhone OS and scaling it up to tablet size, Apple has done what Microsoft and countless other companies have failed to do — deliver a compelling tablet experience that just works.

Exciting times are upon us!

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