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Scott Steinberg: Is the iPad your next big purchase?

Tech expert sees the potential

Much ado's been made this past week about Apple and its iPad, the so-called "Jesus tablet." But let's be frank, coming from both an enthusiastic gamer and technology expert's perspective. This laptop-like, touchscreen computing device - capable of being scribbled on like a notepad, controlled with your thumbs and, of course, running addictive apps and games - leaves me feeling lukewarm from a player's standpoint.

But why start on a down note? Let's look at the positives here, foremost amongst which is the ability for the iPad to play "nearly all" existing 140,000 iPhone apps (although Apple hasn't pointed out which are incompatible) - over 30,000 of which fall smack dab into the interactive entertainment category. As such, you won't have to re-buy treasured outings such as "Dragon's Lair," "Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor" or "Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars - Director's Cut." These games can also "pixel double" to fit the iPad's brightly lit, colorful 9.7-inch display (nearly three times the size of the iPhone's), although the jury's still out on how well all will make the transition. Similarly, controls may present some hiccups, as most of these earlier app titles were designed for play with your thumbs - not an entire hand, as is now possible given the iPad's larger LED monitor.

Regardless, indie developers such as Pangea Software and Demiforce (the latter of who plans to release long-awaited puzzler Trism 2 for the gadget) are quick to heap praise on the device, citing how simple it is to create graphically enhanced, higher resolution versions of existing titles. In fact, many of these games are created with sharper visuals only to be downsampled for the iPhone they say. Countless electronic amusement will also surely benefit from the iPad's larger screen real estate, and both the enhanced field of vision and greater scope of motion-sensing controls afforded. Each of the above studios can't wait to experiment with new play methods, including enhanced multiplayer support and gesture-tracking commands. Even developers better known for their work on traditional PC and console platforms, whom I polled - including Bethesda Game Studios' Todd Howard, Gas Powered Games' Chris Taylor and Team 17's Martyn Brown - have positive things to say about the iPad. Citing the heightened graphical and processing power offered by the machine's 1Ghz Apple A4 chip, all expect better performance from games across the board. That goes double for those which rely on glitz, wow factor and top number-crunching speeds to draw a crowd. As such, it's no stretch to anticipate slicker racing games, first-person shooters and even real-time strategy titles coming for the platform soon, they insist.

But as much as I've heard gushing enthusiasm from folks like Sandlot Games' Daniel Berstein about how excited everyone is for the device though (Taylor's also a huge proponent), as well as the app store's potential to make browsing, purchasing and enjoying games a snap, let's level. That 499 USD base price (itself misleading, given that 16GB of storage is woefully small, and buyers will surely want 3G wireless broadband access and accessories to boot) strikes me as a major sticking point, bound to keep the device from being scooped up by shoppers in similar numbers as the more wallet-friendly iPhone. This means that not only will fiscally-minded game publishers likely take a wait-and-see approach until there's a proven audience for the platform and serious money to be made, ensuring that high-end exclusives, let alone killer apps, are a good way off. As indicated by pleasing, yet hardly mind-blowing conversions of Electronic Arts' Need for Speed: Shift and Gameloft's N.O.V.A., it also means that what we're liable to see in the immediate future for the iPad are mostly slightly upgraded ports of existing iPhone apps for the platform. The big question being as follows: Are you really salivating at the prospect of paying a monthly rent payment for the privilege of playing a mildly enhanced version of Drop7 or Bejeweled?

As a technology and video game analyst, I'll gladly admit to the gadget's inherent upsides. Given that it's a wireless broadband- and WiFi-connected 1.5lb tablet with more power than the DSi or PSP Go, you're effectively getting a portable, user-friendly device that's much simpler to lug around and tap into the potential of than a high-end gaming laptop. But as much as I look forward to the iPad's prospects - imagine a possible 3D version of FarmVille to go, slick ports of Command & Conquer or Grand Theft Auto: Episodes from Liberty City, maybe even a Modern Warfare 2 spin-off featuring in-game downloads and chat options - realize. Given issues with the gadget's high sticker price and recurring costs; the need to educate users as to the device's everyday value and benefits; and how long it'll take developers to really wrap their heads around the power of the hardware at their fingertips, it'll likely be 18-24 months before you really start to witness the device come into its own and recognize its full potential.

Journalistic colleagues and game developers alike also bring up some good points against the iPad's chances of scoring overnight success. Think lower game prices (9.99 USD versus 50-60 USD for titles on set-top platforms), which means less profits for game publishers and reason to invest in the hardware, let alone raise the bar. Not to mention, that is, a lack of momentum similar to that enjoyed by the iPhone, which had been out for some time and in millions of hands before the app store's official launch. Nor can we honestly anticipate that teams known for their work on groundbreaking work on traditional titles like Heavy Rain or Mass Effect 2 will suddenly shift gears, dive in and attempt to push the envelope as much as on rival systems like the PC, PlayStation 3, Wii or Xbox 360. Still, I remain hopeful for the platform's prospects as a casual gaming device that - if Apple can drop prices fast enough, and third-party developers can crank out enough high-quality and innovative software in rapid fashion - may cause you to permanently replace a netbook or one of your handheld consoles.

Apple's certainly watching the interactive entertainment space with interest - with the iPhone, the company literally stumbled into a virtual goldmine. But for now, I find it doubtful that anyone's really looking to the iPad as a primary gaming device, unless they're determined to buy the gizmo anyway to experience peripheral features such as multimedia downloads and eReader functionality. Bearing this in mind, I remain a cautiously optimist: More horsepower, better graphics, huge initial software support out of the gate, the ability to comfortably lay the device in your lap versus having to hold it, and tons of interest from today's gaming elite - what's not to like?

But please, for heaven's sake, despite the ready availability of thousands of impulse buy-priced digital diversions and the eventual promise of better looking, more expansive simulations, role-playing games and arcade outings, don't go rushing to toss out your Alienware when the iPad begins shipping in late March. Between the issues outlined above and prices early adopters pay in terms of actual costs, plus being used as guinea pigs for hardware glitches and technical hiccups, take it from your favorite tech expert. Much as I expect big things from the Apple iPad in the next couple years to come, it temporarily pays to press pause on this one...

Video game expert and TV/radio host Scott Steinberg is the author of Get Rich Playing Games and the creator of game industry documentary series Players Only. A celebrated gadget guru and technology expert, he frequently appears as a technology and video game analyst on broadcast networks like ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC and CNN, and has contributed to 400+ outlets from The New York Times to Playboy and Rolling Stone. For more of his insights, visit www.VideoGameAnalyst.net.

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