The conundrum with the iPad is that it’s exciting to consider a sleek new form factor for getting news, movies, TV shows, games and web browsing — but it’s less exciting to be first in line to pay the most for the least. We all know the first version of a technology product costs the most and is missing the most features. So I considered myself lucky to get to play with an iPad on loan before delivering it to someone in Europe (where the iPad isn’t available yet). I get to test drive it, but don’t have to pay.

So I brought in my junior device expert (and 7-year-old son) Julian Glaser to help me compare the new iPad to the Kindle 2 and the iPhone. Julian helped me test out the Kindle 2 in a Glaser & Son review on MediaShift last year. While I was interested in how web surfing, typing and news apps looked on the iPad, he was more keen on gaming and reading books.

We braved the masses mid-week at the Stonestown Galleria Apple Store in San Francisco, where the 16GB models quickly sold out. We settled for the 32GB model for $599 along with a $40 case. The store was filled with high school kids hanging out after school who wanted to test drive iPads, but not buy them. The Apple Store was starting to look like the bowling alley arcades from my childhood.

Julian had not experienced the iPad hype, and had no idea what it was all about.

“So it’s like a big iPhone but it lets you read books?” he asked.

“No, you can actually read books on an iPhone too. There is a Kindle app on the iPhone,” I told him.

“Oh yeah, I’ve seen that,” he said. “But what kind of games are on the iPad?”

Julian had already spent hours on my iPhone playing games and downloading his favorite free ones (and earning money with chores to buy paid apps). So we gave the iPad a spin, downloading some games, news apps, and books — paying for some, and getting others for free. Below is our first take on what we liked and didn’t like with the iPad, and how it stacked up against the Kindle 2 and iPhone.

Design/Interface

There is no instruction manual for the iPad because you don’t need one. If you’ve used an iPhone or iPod Touch, you know exactly what does what on the iPad. There’s the volume switch, the main (or “home”) button on the bottom front, and the place to plug it in or connect it to your computer. One new switch lets you lock the portrait/landscape flip that happens when you rotate it. Otherwise, it’s all simple and neat. Similarly, the iPhone operating system is familiar and easy to navigate.

When I pushed the front button mistakenly in trying to turn it on, Julian grabbed it and pushed the Power switch and laughed at my mistake. About the only design flaw we found was the weight of the iPad, which feels heavy after a lot of reading. Perhaps future iPads will have lighter batteries. And the virtual keyboard takes time to master, being bigger than the iPhone virtual keyboard and smaller than a regular keyboard. However, I got over my initial frustration with the iPhone keyboard, and figure the same would be true with the iPad’s — practice over time would make it easier.

Games

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Julian playing the Labyrinth game

Julian’s major concern was the games. Would they have what he wanted, and would he have to pay for them (with my money)? He quickly navigated the App Store to find the category of his choice (free games), and downloaded Labyrinth Lite HD, Fast & Furious Lite, iPlay Bowling, Air Hockey and his iPhone fave, Rat on the Run. The quick downloads and big screen were a great combination, meaning he’d get to gaming faster.

The Labyrinth game was an inventive take on the old Wooden Labyrinth tilt maze where you try to keep the metal ball from rolling into holes in the top. This game included magnets, cannons shooting at you, and buttons that opened gates. We were both hooked on it. Julian’s favorite iPhone game, Rat on the Run, gave him a lot of enjoyment, even though it was basically ported over and didn’t have anything new on the iPad. Even without iPad-specific features, the games wowed us just by offering more screen space and vibrant colors.

Here’s Julian’s take on games while playing Air Hockey:

News Apps and Browsing

I was curious about the various news apps for the iPad, so I downloaded apps from the New York Times, ABC, NPR, BBC, USA Today and Reuters. The only magazine app I saw was the Time magazine app for $4.99 per issue. I liked that the N.Y. Times and USA Today apps used the bigger screen real estate to mimic the look of a print newspaper, with stories laid out on what looked like a front page. By clicking on the first couple paragraphs of a story, you could see the whole story. That alone was a bonus in reading on the iPad vs. the iPhone, where you’d need about 10 finger swipes to get to the bottom of a story. On the iPad, in many cases, the whole story filled the page.

What I didn’t get to experience was a news app that really used the iPad in an innovative way, combining text, video, audio and photos in an integrated manner. Sure, Reuters did have video alongside stories, but they seemed more web-like than app-like. I did enjoy USA Today’s “Day in Pictures” feature, as those photos really popped on the iPad. What was more surprising was how good it looked to just fire up Safari and browse news sites like NYTimes.com, where the videos played without a hitch. Being able to double-touch to make text bigger or smaller worked easily. I did notice that videos didn’t load correctly on the CBSNews.com home page.

Books

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Kindle vs. iPad screens

Is the iPad really a Kindle-killer, as we’d heard? There’s no doubt that when we put the iPad side-by-side next to our Kindle 2, it made the Amazon device look like an old TV set from the ’50s. The black-and-white Kindle looked gray and old next to the color iPad with its massive screen. While we didn’t read long enough on the iPad to know if the backlit screen would cause our eyes to hurt, we did know from experience reading on the iPhone that it wasn’t too bad for a few hours.

On the positive side, reading books was easy and pages turned with ease. Picture books for kids looked much better in color on the iPad, and images were laid out within the text. On the Kindle 2, many picture books had strange formatting that broke up images from the text. On the not-so-good side, Julian couldn’t find most of the books he wanted in the iBooks app, and ended up settling for a Berenstain Bears book about Sunday School. Search after search came up blank for him in the iBookstore. But both of us liked all the free books that were available because their copyright had expired.

Hear Julian talk about why he liked reading books on the iPad more than on the Kindle:

Screen

The big screen on the iPad is simply gorgeous, and makes it easily the device of choice when it comes to movies, games, photo-viewing and even web browsing. It’s tough for the iPhone to compete with the iPad when it comes to all that multimedia entertainment. It seems like a natural for viewing shows or movies on the road for kids, but the bummer is that there’s no way for it to play DVDs. I noticed that it does get fingerprinted up pretty badly after a serious Julian gaming session, but I don’t really see the fingerprints so much when the iPad is on. Having a case that lets you stand the iPad up on a table could make a difference in reading newspaper or magazine content at breakfast, or watching a movie on the go.

Pricing

There are two ways to look at the pricing of the iPad: 1) It’s too expensive for what it can and can’t do. Other devices can do all the things an iPad does. 2) It’s cheaper than most laptops and can do most of the things a laptop can do, while taking up less space. So perhaps the iPad fits in the category of “netbook” as a compact laptop, but it has no physical keyboard. There’s a better chance people will opt for an iPad when they have more disposable income, the features improve, the prices drop, and their other devices become outmoded.

Bottom Line

The iPad is a simple-to-use, elegant device that takes the tablet computing genre and does it better than anyone else. The battery life is long and impressive, and the speed at startup and while using apps is better than any laptop around. It is missing some key elements such as a camera, USB port, Flash support, expandable memory and swappable battery, but it’s possible those features will come in time.

The iPad is a bundle of possibilities and potential. While the first apps out of the gate were decent, it’s the apps that will make the iPad a must-have for a broader group of people. While news apps look great, especially with integrated photos and video, there’s still a wide range of “what ifs” to come that could get people to pay more for traditional journalism. The biggest one being: What if the news experience on the iPad was really built for multimedia, really built for interactivity and really worth paying for?

And the bottom line for Julian was what came out of his mouth when I asked him if he wanted to use the iPad before he went to school yesterday morning: “iPad! iPad! iPad!” He was hooked.

Hear Julian sing his iPad song:

More Reading

Apple iPad Review – Laptop Killer? Pretty Close at AllThingsD

Apple iPad WiFi review at PC Magazine

iPad Reviews – The Good, Bad, and Ecstatic at PC World

Review – iPad Apps Cool, but How Many Will You Buy? by AP

Looking at the iPad From Two Angles at NY Times

Verdict is in on Apple iPad – It’s a winner at USA Today

What do you think about the iPad, if you’ve had a chance to review it? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.