When I started the Executive MBA distance-learning program with the Naval Postgraduate School, I contemplated what to do for computing resources. My current workhorse is a Core Duo MacBook bought six years ago, which is getting quite long in the tooth. I toyed with getting a MacBook Air or MacBook Pro to replace the aging MacBook. However, being a fan of Clayton Christensen’s disruptive innovation, I wondered if an iPad could “disrupt” the way one accomplishes school work by serving as a substitute for a laptop, perhaps even for physical textbooks. So I took the plunge and bought the new iPad. Although I haven’t ventured into the e-textbook arena yet, I’m here to share my experiences with the first: can an iPad serve as a replacement for a laptop for regular schoolwork?
To spill the beans, my answer so far is yes…with caveats.
My iPad custom lock screen – you have one of these, right?
First of all, I’ve been an iOS user for three years, having owned an iPhone since the 3GS hit the market. My iPhone has a ton of apps on it. My iPad, on the other hand, is much cleaner. In fact, simplicity is the goal and theme when I’m working on my iPad. For instance, I have a number of travel apps and special-purpose utilities on my iPhone that I don’t have on my iPad. Unlike my iPhone, I keep everything on the first page on my iPad, with key apps that I use regularly (and that I’ll cover shortly) on the first two rows and others organized into hierarchies underneath.
My clean iPad home screen
With simplicity in mind, my iPad apps can be broadly categorized as follows:
- Essentials – Apps that make or break the fundamental experience with the device.
- Creativity – Apps that I use for creative expression.
- School – Apps that I use specifically in support of schoolwork. This is where the great experiment lies.
I should qualify what I’m about to share here. I’m interested in getting things done, not testing or reviewing apps. Therefore, what I’m using is what I have found through simple searches and reviews written by others, and what I’m sharing is not an exhaustive search of app capabilities or limitations. I may have even overlooked or missed obvious solutions to some of the shortcomings or problems I’ll mention. However, I expect my experience is representative of the average iPad user.
Let’s get started!
Let’s face it. One of the key reasons for having a mobile device such as an iPhone or iPad is connectivity. Here are the apps I use for that purpose. Sure, this extends beyond the bounds of schoolwork, but after all, a multipurpose device is a useful device.
Browsing – I use the built-in Safari web browser. It simply works, and I’ve had no reason to search for another. The only occasional frustration I’ve encountered is certain websites insist on showing the mobile format versus full, with no option to override that behavior. Other websites (I’m looking at you, Facebook!) yield bizarre behaviors with one tries to interact with controls via the touch interface.
Safari looks beautiful on the iPad retina display
Email – Again, I use the built-in Mail app. It works great for connecting to the Exchange accounts at work and at the Naval Postgraduate School, and was a breeze to set up. The beauty of the Exchange accounts is that they are synchronized between my various devices. (Synchronization is another theme that will recur during this post.)
RSS Feed – For the longest time I used Google Reader in a browser window on my MacBook. It is serviceable, yet can be slow when scrolling through a long list of feed posts. I figured there had to be something better for iPad, and there is: Mr. Reader. It synchronizes with Google Reader and has a slick user interface that permits me to quickly scan and skip posts that I don’t care to read. It also provides mechanisms to open the post in Safari, tweet a link, forward the link to Buffer, or save the post in your favorite offline reader (Instapaper, etc.). I’ve only scratched the surface of its capabilities. The RSS feed reading experience on iPad using Mr. Reader is an area in which the iPad shines.
Twitter – I’m a heavy list user in Twitter, organizing my tweeps into different subject-matter lists that I scan for topical information, such as News/Sports, NASA/Space stuff, and tweeps I’ve met in real life, for example. On the MacBook I was an early adopter of TweetDeck for the Twitter experience, yet I dumped it a few years ago because its Air underpinnings made it such a resource hog. I switched back to the web-based experience and have limped along with it. Unfortunately, having several twitter lists opened in tabs on a web browser becomes a resource drain on the MacBook as well. I searched yet never found a native Mac OS X client that offered a compelling user experience. Surely there has to be something on iPad that will foot the bill…and there is: Tweetbot. Tweetbot offers the full twitter experience in a slick and fast user interface. One of its capabilities I haven’t used yet is its ability to keep tweets synchronized across devices on which Tweetbot is installed. Again, I’ve only scratched the surface of its capabilities. This is another area in which the iPad experience shines, thanks to Tweetbot.
Calendar – One of the most important essentials to me is my calendar. Juggling work duties, classes, and home duties can be a chore, so my calendar is critical to keep me on schedule and out of the dog house. The stock Calendar app is one that doesn’t appeal to my tastes due to its use of skeuomorphic textures that detract from functionality. A clean yet elegant calendar app does exist: Calvetica. It’s clean, simple, and functional.
Password Management – It’s 1Password, all the way. With its capability to store its password file on Dropbox, all my devices share the same password file effortlessly. One drawback with the current version of 1Password: it can’t send IDs and passwords directly to Safari on iPad, something that it does extremely well in the desktop incarnation. I believe this is a limitation imposed by Apple on iOS. Although the AgileBits guys implemented a workaround with an internal browser in the iPad version of 1Password, it doesn’t cut it for me. Maybe iOS 6 will offer an improvement here? I hope so, because the copy-switch-paste-switch-repeat process is tedious.
I’d be lost without 1Password
Unfortunately, there are a couple of letdowns in the Essentials arena for iPad apps. The first perpetrator is the Facebook app for iPad, which is missing a number of features at the time of this writing (such as no Timeline, the “Like” availability is inconsistent, can’t share posts directly). Unfortunately, the touch interface with facebook.com through a browser yields some inconsistent and bizarre behaviors, as I mentioned earlier. Some other shortfalls are in the Google+ app and Flickr app, which don’t offer native iPad apps at the time of this writing. Looking at iPhone variants at 1x or 2x sizes somehow loses a little something, especially on an iPad retina display.
One of the first criticisms of iPad when it was released was of its preconceived limitation as a content consuming device, strictly. “No serious person would attempt content creation on it,” so the conventional wisdom said at that time. Clearly, time has shown the falsity of that statement, with a number of apps on the market for content creation. I’ve only dipped my toe in the water here, but so far I’ve found two apps that offer experiences every bit as good, if not better than, desktop/laptop counterparts.
Photography – One of my first purchases for iPad was the new iPhoto app. I’m a budding amateur photographer and use iPhoto on the MacBook to organize and manipulate my work. I was intrigued by the capabilities touted by the new app for iPad. I also bought a camera connection kit, and gave the setup a whirl with my Nikon D60 and a trip to the Monterey peninsula for a week of orientation at the Naval Postgraduate School. One of my first stops was Pebble Beach and the famed 18th green, seen in the shot below. Working with the iPhoto app for this budding amateur is a breeze, and I’m loving the results I get with it with a few simple adjustments. In some ways, it’s better and faster than its desktop counterpart.
iPhoto looks beautiful on iPad’s retina display
Blogging – On my MacBook I developed a workflow around creating posts in Word, then copy/pasting into a new WordPress post via the web interface. To test iPad’s content creation capabilities for blogging, I searched the web for iPad blogging tools. The one that is mentioned repeatedly as one of the best is Blogsy. I’m giving it a whirl with this post, my very first one created with the help of Blogsy. So far, so good!
I’m very pleased with the content creation apps I’ve used so far.
Now we get down to the rub. Since I justified (rationalized?) the iPad purchase for school, I’ll cover those apps that I use predominantly for school work. There are a couple of wins here, yet there is a key miss – one that prevents me from accomplishing all my schoolwork using iPad.
Although the first two apps I’ll cover could be termed Essentials, they form the center of my schoolwork workflow, and thus I’ve placed them here. They are, of course, the “dynamic duo” of data management: Dropbox and Evernote.
Data Management – The Naval Postgraduate School provides an online collaborative learning environment that is used to distribute class materials, take online quizzes and tests, submit papers to professors, and send messages to students. As materials are posted online, I place a copy into Dropbox. Some may point out that if the documents are already online, why bother with storing copies in Dropbox? Among other reasons, call it ease of mind that I’ll know I have a locally-cached copy of those materials should disaster strike and I don’t have Internet connectivity (at least on the MacBook; the situation with iPad is a little less clear to me, and no, I haven’t played with the Favorites function yet). Another key features is that I can start work on one device, save it to Dropbox, and know that I’ll have access with no worries on any other device. This synchronization of resources and materials is a key component of the kind of flexibility I sought, of being able to do school work anywhere at any time. The Dropbox app also has built-in read-only viewers for many file formats, such as PDF, Word documents, and PowerPoint slides. This is handy for getting a quick view of a document without requiring another app. It’s not without limitations, however. The built-in Word viewer does not preserve all formatting. As long as the document is mostly text with little formatting, this is not a problem. Also, the built-in PDF viewer does not show annotations (something I’ll cover further in a bit). However, for basic synchronization and viewing, Dropbox works great.
Dropbox and Word rendering
Evernote is another key tool. Right now, I use it to organize and share to-do’s with my cohort mates, for storing and organizing online research from websites, and for typing initial ideas or drafts of reports. As is the case with Dropbox, Evernote’s synchronization capabilities means that those to-do lists and notes are available on any of my devices.
Evernote and my completed to-do list for this week, yeah!
Note Taking – I could use Evernote to take notes during the online lectures. So far, I haven’t done that. One class is participation-oriented, and the professor actually discourages us from the distraction of taking notes (she takes notes and shares them with us after class). The other class is taught from slides, and this is where I saw an opportunity to take context-based notes. If I could find a way to write onto the slides while the professor was covering them, that would be a win. For that, I’ve turned to Remarks. The slides are provided to us ahead of time in PowerPoint and PDF, so I chose the PDF version and write on them directly using Remarks. Remarks integrates with Dropbox, again ensuring that my annotated slides are available on any of my devices. The lone shortcoming of this approach is that the PDF viewer in the Dropbox app doesn’t show the annotations. However, they show up just fine in Remarks, as well as on the MacBook with Preview. I’m barely using any of the functionality in Remarks, yet it works quite well for typing notes directly in a PDF document. I might try Remarks’ handwriting feature at some point down the road – right now, I’m happy with typing.
Remarks, showing my markup notes in orange
So, where is that key miss I mentioned?
As of yet, I haven’t found an app or series of apps to work with Microsoft Office documents directly. With the two classes I’ve taken so far, submitting Office-compatible formats is expected. I did some research and found that there are a few apps that offer this capability. So far, I’ve tried CloudOn with mixed success. It can open Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents fine, as long as I’m not at work. For whatever reason, it will not load documents when I’m at work, which I suspect is some kind of port-blocking situation. The blurred scrolling that some have mentioned is real and somewhat disconcerting, as is the fundamental user interaction with Office in a touchscreen environment. CloudOn offers a near desktop functionality for the Office applications, which could be considered a plus by many. On the other hand, small hard-to-read buttons are hard to interact with on iPad. I wonder if the user interaction shortcomings with a full-blown Office interface is the fundamental problem that has led Microsoft to delay the rumored release of an iPad-compatible version of the Office suite…
CloudOn has promise, but doesn’t work from my office
One other minor miss is that I haven’t found a good bibliography-management app. Although I store research information in Evernote, it doesn’t help me with generating bibliography references and citations in APA or MLA format. For that, I’m doing it by hand, which is a tedious chore. If I could find an app that would allow me to drop webpages or PDFs onto it and automagically generate the bibliography information I seek, that would be a major win.
I’m very pleased about the apps I’ve tried that meet, even exceed, the functionality offered by desktop/laptop counterparts. The synchronization feature offered by most enhance the mobility aspect that forms the disruption potential of iPad. I also see a compelling potential in purchasing e-textbooks for iPad. A few apps fall short (I’m still looking at you, Facebook), and if I could solve the Microsoft Office problem, I could cut the tether to my MacBook completely.
Text © 2012 Joe Williams. All rights reserved.
Images via screen captures on my iPad.