iVacation Chronicles, Pt. 6: Browsing

Posted by Pierre Igot in: iPad
November 2nd, 2010 • 11:20 am

This is the sixth installment in my series on using the iPad as a laptop replacement during a vacation in France back in August 2010. The first five installments were:

When it comes to web browsing, the iPad obviously offers a much more pleasant experience than the iPhone/iPod touch, simply because of the larger screen size. While many sites are not optimized for iPad browsing at all, they are still relatively comfortable to read and use with the iPad, because you don’t need to magnify controls in order to be able to click on them as often as you would on the iPhone/iPod touch. It’s still required sometimes, but not often enough that it really hampers the web browsing process significantly.

The lack of support for Flash animations is of course an issue. While many sites are offering HTML5-based alternatives, there is no denying that there are still lots of Flash-based sites out there for which the iPad offers a fairly crummy browsing experience. What I found the most frustrating was the fact that, for many such sites, instead of displaying some kind of icon that would at least indicate that there was something there that Safari was unable to render, Safari on the iPad would often just display a blank area.

For sites that use lots of white space to begin with, this can be rather confusing, especially if you are not familiar with the no-Flash situation on the iPad. My wife, for example, couldn’t care less about the politics involved in the absence of support for Flash animations in iOS. She does not follow what is going on in the tech industry and just expects a web browser to display the web pages she wants to visit.

She is somewhat familiar with the fact that Mac users are still a minority and that Safari is not the only web browser out there and that sometimes web sites don’t work as well in Safari as they should. But that’s the extent of her awareness of web standards and other related issues. I’ve shown her how to use Firefox on her laptop when needed, but I don’t think she does this very often.

On the iPad, of course, Firefox is not an option, and Flash is simply not supported at all. So when she was browsing the web on the iPad and encountered a site that didn’t seem to work properly, she would simply turn to me and ask me: “What’s going on?”

I had to explain the whole situation as succinctly as possible, and her usual reaction was simply to give up on the site altogether.

How often did this happen? Not more than a few times over the course of our three weeks of vacation. There aren’t many sites requiring Flash that she absolutely needs to be able to visit, and in my case the number is probably even lower. (I use ClickToFlash in Safari on my Mac Pro and for me browsing the web on the iPad is simply the equivalent of using ClickToFlash with no option to click, which I don’t do very often anyway.)

Still, for those sites that do use Flash animations, I do wish that iPad’s Safari browser would more reliably display something indicating in a user-friendly way that it cannot display the Flash-based content.

Another issue with web browsing on the iPad for me (and to a certain extent for my wife) is window management. It simply is not entirely obvious that multiple windows are handled via a thumbnail-based interface accessed through a specific button in the Safari toolbar. In particular, there are still a number of web sites out there that automatically open things in a new window when you click on certain links, whether you want them to open these things in a new window or not. While this behaviour is fairly obvious when using Safari in Mac OS X, because you can see the new window popping up on top of the current one, in Safari on the iPad all you get is a visual animation that is not much different from a regular window refresh.

And so it is not always obvious to the average user, after clicking on a link, that the web site he was visiting has just opened a new window, instead of replacing the content of the existing window. Yet this makes a big difference, because if you want to go back to where you were, instead of tapping the Back button, you have to tap the button for window management and then go back to where you were using the corresponding thumbnail. This is far from obvious to the average web user on the iPad, especially since he cannot always expected to remember that the web page he’s been reading for the past five minutes was actually opened as a new window and did not replace the previous site in the same window.

One solution to this problem would be for Safari on the iPad to completely ignore code that insists on opening things in a new window. I don’t know if it’s a completely realistic option, though, since sites can open new windows for a wide variety of purposes and there might be situations where such a behaviour is indeed preferable. Still, it makes for a user interface that is more confusing than it should be.

The other aspect of window management that I don’t particularly care for in Safari on the iPad is that the simple process of closing a window requires two taps: one to bring up the window management screen and one to tap the close button on the thumbnail of the window you desire to close. That’s one tap too many as far as I am concerned. If there has to be such a thing as a window management button in the Safari toolbar anyway, I don’t see why there can’t also be a button to immediately close the window you are currently viewing. I know that space is at a premium, even on the bigger screen of the iPad, but I just cannot get used to having to complete a multiple-step process just to close a window.

And finally there is the major issue of automatic page reloading. Far too often, if you have multiple windows open in Safari on the iPad, when you tap on a window thumbnail to bring it back to the foreground, Safari does so, but also proceeds to automatically reload the entire page.

I am not sure why it does this. It doesn’t do it all the time, but it does it far too often for my taste. I don’t have an iPad with a SIM card and a data plan with a wireless carrier, so the issue is not bandwidth usage per se, but simply the fact that, even if you have good bandwidth with your wifi connection, reloading a page will take time, and during that time you’ll have to wait.

I suspect that it has to do with cases when the page loading process was incomplete the first time, because a specific item on the page failed to load. On the iPad, it seems that, if there was any failure to load any element on the page, no matter how small and irrelevant the element was, Safari automatically attempts to reload the entire page when you bring it back to the foreground.

And it’s massively irritating. It is especially so when the page in question contained an embedded HTML5 video clip that took a while to load, because Safari will now have to reload it in its entirety! In other words, if you don’t want to waste an extraordinary amount of bandwidth and time when you want to view a video clip on the web in Safari on the iPad, you have no choice but to go to the page and wait for the video clip to load, without attempting to do anything else with the iPad (like reading another web page) during the process.

This is something that might be addressed in the forthcoming iOS 4 update for the iPad, which will introduce support for multitasking, but the very behaviour of Safari itself will have to change. It simply must not attempt to reload a page unless the user instructs it to do so. No matter how many errors occurred during the initial page loading, the page must be displayed as is and it’s up to the user to decide if he wants to reload the page or not.

Unfortunately, like Mail automatically checking for new mail on the iPad even after you have switched all mail checking settings to manual, Safari on the iPad annoys and wastes bandwidth by automatically doing things that you would like to have control over.

I can understand (even if I don’t agree!) Apple’s engineers assuming that desktop Mac users have an infinite supply of bandwidth, but this is simply not the case with a mobile device such as the iPad and the situation will remain the same, with bandwidth restrictions, for many more years. So Apple has to change things here.

Finally, while 1Password’s Agile Web Solutions offers a version of its password-management application for the iPad which works reasonably well, it should be noted that there is no Safari integration whatsoever. So if you are used to 1Password filling out web forms and entering your passwords for you on your desktop Mac, on the iPad you will have to revert to a multiple-step approach:

  1. In Safari on the iPad, visit a web site that requires a password you have in your 1Password database.
  2. Switch from Safari to 1Password on the iPad, unlock your database, find the password and copy it to the Clipboard.
  3. Switch back to Safari and paste the password.

Thankfully both 1Password and Safari on the iPad support cut-and-paste. Otherwise, it would be really painful! (It also looks like the contents of the Clipboard don’t automatically get flushed, even if you turn off your iPad. Keep that in mind if you are worried about your iPad getting stolen and someone being able to open it and see that there is something that looks like a password stored in your Clipboard.)

One last note about Safari on the iPad: For some reason, if you are a MobileMe user, Apple’s web site prevents you from using MobileMe’s features in Safari. It forces you to use the Mail application for e-mail, Contacts for your address book, etc. You simply cannot log in on the web in Safari. I am not sure I completely understand the reasoning here, even though the applications obviously offer an optimized UI for accessing the MobileMe features. It seems to me that the MobileMe user should still have the option to log in on the web if he wants to.

All in all, I have to say that Safari on the iPad was a perfectly adequate solution for casual web browsing or even for more important stuff like checking one’s bank account, etc. It had some shortcomings and some frustrating aspects, but nothing that my wife and I couldn’t live with, for a few weeks at least.

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