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Being productive with the iPad: setting up

I recently picked up an iPad, and I'm loving it.  Not because it's "cool," and not because it's one if the It Toys of the summer, but because it seems to me to be (potentially) quite a great tool for productivity.  Of course, I'm new to the iPad (and so is everyone else), so I'm still getting my sea legs.  But if the early returns are a good indication, then it's got great potential.

In some ways, the iPad is just a really big iPod Touch: no camera, no phone.  But just the "really big" part is enough to change the rules of the game, and Apple's sometimes subtle changes to the interface to take advantage of the "really big" part open up lots of possibilities.

You can read about my first impressions of the iPad at my other blog, where I wrote about it more from a design point-of-view.  Here, I will focus on the productivity side.

What drew me to the iPad is it's power, which is significant, and it's weight, which is anything but.  I used to tote a 13" MacBook Pro with me when I travelled for work.  It was the smallest, and therefore the lightest, Mac laptop.  It was also the cheapest, which didn't hurt.  But it was still too heavy to lug around at research conferences (once you add the charger and other indispensable extras, and not big enough to give me useful screen real-estate when I was just using it at home.

The iPad changed things up for me.  I can bring the iPad with me when I travel, and it weighs next to nothing (compared to my laptop).  Indeed, it's even more portable than a laptop, and I bring it with me to more places because of that than I ever did my laptop.  While it isn't as powerful as a laptop, it's good enough to do the important things - thanks to some impressive apps.  Given the iPad, I can get a bigger laptop, with a better screen, for home use.  So I went from a 13" MacBook Pro to an iPad plus a 17" MacBook Pro.  Obviously more costly, but also 'way more effective.  I got a laptop instead of something like an iMac because I can move the laptop around the house and even hide quite quickly when guests are around.  Indeed, in a pinch I once just closed it and put it on a bookshelf amongst a bunch of large picture books.  No one even knew there was a computer in the room.

Now, since the iPad and the iPhone (which I also have and adore) are basically the same kind of device, one might be tempted to run the same apps on both.  But that isn't a good idea, for three reasons.
  1. You'll need to sync both your devices regularly, if not often.  Say you add an appointment on the iPhone using one of the better known task managers, such as Pocket Informant.  To make sure your iPad knows about the appointment, you have to sync the iPhone app to whatever service you're using, then sync the iPad to those same services.  Of course, you could use Mobile Me to push sync to all you Apple devices, but that will cost you $109 a year (in Canada at least), and it would limit you to apps that sync with Mobile Me.  I prefer to use free stuff, like Google Calendar and Toodledo.  In any case, all this syncing around is a recipe for disaster (when, not if, you forget to sync something) and it's also a meta burden on your time.
  2. That app you love on the iPhone because of it's sweet interface may not have such a sweet interface on the iPad.  Some developers have really tried to keep a certain integrity between the iPad and iPhone variants of their software (Pocket Informant and Taska are good examples); others have not.
  3. There are price differences between the iPad and iPhone versions of some apps.  The iPad versions tend to cost more.  Even worse, some apps will download for free on the iPad if you already have them on your iPhone, but others will ding you again - and you won't find out about it till you've already committed to the purchase.
So, my advice is this: if you have an iPhone and an iPad, try to keep each app on only one of the two devices.  And if you have both, you'll want to consider each app separately to decide on which of the two devices it should live.

First of all, check to see if that app is even available for the iPad.  iPhone apps will run on the iPad, but they will only use one iPhone-screen's worth of the iPad's screen.  Not much fun.  Fortunately, the App Store clearly distinguishes between iPad apps and iPhone apps.

Then, if the app does have an iPad variant, read over its description and look carefully at the screen-shots; you really can't tell what the interface will feel like till you download (i.e. buy) it, but sometimes you can get a sense of it.  If there is no iPad variant, then you need to decide how important it is.  You might consider switching to a related app for the iPad.

The key here is to weigh the importance of keeping the app on the iPhone versus using a different app on the iPad.  Remember, you don't want to have the same apps on both devices - not for "productivity" purposes anyways.

Take your time deciding.  It's better to be slow than wrong.  Sleep on it; ask a colleague or friend; let it swirl in your brainpan for a while - maybe a few hours, maybe a few days.  Don't dwell on it or you'll just tie yourself up in cognitive knots; think about it hard for 15-20 minutes, then try to forget about it for a while.  Your brain will keep working on the problem even if you yourself don't.  Consciousness is funny that way.  After a time, the answer will become clear to you.

Of course, given how economical apps are, you might also download a few alternatives and play around with them a bit.  If you can afford to do that, it's certainly the way to go.  Nothing like taking them out for test drives to really let you understand what each app has to offer.

So far, I've decided to keep my task manager only on my iPhone (currently I use Taska).  That's to avoid the whole sync problem that I mentioned above.  My iPhone is almost always with me because it's pocket-sized, so it's the logical candidate for that.

I've moved my iBooks library to the iPad - it''s just easier to read on the iPad's screen.  (That happened when I first synced the iPad with iTunes.)

I've also moved reading email and news/blogs to the iPad.  While it's good to be able to fire off a quick email from my iPhone, I can actually get quite a bit of real work done on the iPad.  This is highly dependent on your email and RSS reader apps.  Since the iPad is essentially a big iPod Touch, it suffers from many of its shortcomings - the biggest one, I think, is that it runs the mobile version of Safari.  Seriously, there's 64 GB of memory in my iPad - isn't that more than enough to run a real browser?

Fortunately, as far as  email and RSS goes, salvation has come in the form of a wonderful app called G-Whizz!  It is a "front end" for a number of the Google services, including Reader, Gmail, and Calendar.  What's particularly good about G-Whizz! is that it can run the "desktop" versions, rather than the somewhat lobotomized mobile versions, of these three services.  This means that I get pretty much every function out of Gmail, and Calendar, and Reader on the iPad as I do on my desktop.  (Gmail Labs seems to be missing as of this writing.) I've found G-Whizz! to be quite robust, and subject to very little weirdness on the iPad.  One example of a little thing that had me going for a while: I couldn't figure out how to scroll a news article in Reader, or an email message in Gmail.  I posted to the G-Whizz! Google Group, and got a response literally within minutes.  Turns out that to make a pane scroll, the standard iPad interface is to swipe vertically with two fingers instead of one.  To quote Johnny Carson, I did not know that!

I find reading news with Google Reader via G-Whizz! especially gratifying because I can tag and share just as I would at my desk, but I can do it anywhere and in greater comfort with the iPad than with my laptop.  Since I got G-Whizz! on my iPad, it hasn't even occurred to me to read news on either my laptop or desktop.

Another fairly obvious use of an iPad is to take notes.  The biggest reason to move note-taking from my iPhone to my iPad is the bigger keyboard.  Granted that the iPad's keyboard is only virtual, but it took me only a few minutes to get  used to it.  Even though the key layout isn't exactly standard, I found that I can type pretty darned fast.  This is, for me, a huge selling point.  And if you type a lot, it should be for you too.

The Land of Notes Apps for the iPad is rather like the mythological Wild West at the moment, with a wide variety of generally crappy software, with tremendous repetition of function, and only a few really interesting exemplars that are both usable and robust.

These apps generally fall into three categories:
  1. Scrapbooks & journals.  These apps let you track your own life for your own benefit, usually let you include images (though often only one image per entry), and emphasize their aesthetic appeal (use of colour, font, background images, etc)
  2. Handrwriting apps.  These apps are based on letting you use your thumb or a capacitive display stylus to "write" on the screen.  This includes handwriting recognition apps.
  3. Document preparation apps.  These apps are basically stripped down versions of iWork (or [cough] MS Office).
I haven't yet had time to look too deeply into these apps, and my primary concern is document preparation, because I need it for work.  Also, I need to be able to sync my documents with Google Docs, which is the de facto document sharing and collaborative editing medium for most of my colleagues and students.

Given these constraints, there are two iPad apps that seem to be at the front of the pack: Office2 HD, and Documents To Go (Premium).  Documents To Go supports Word, Excel, and (that's why the Premium version) Powerpoint; however, it has quite a clumsy interface and the process of syncing with Google Docs is, quite frankly, bizarrely complicated.  Also, it's default font is far too small, and I can't figure out how to change it.  For a guy like me, who needs reading glasses, this is an unnecessary inconvenience.  Office2 HD has a much cleaner interface, and syncing with Google Docs is easier.  But it doesn't support Powerpoint (and what academic doesn't just looove Powerpoint?)

If your needs are anywhere near mine, go with Office2 HD; it's not perfect, but you'll likely spend less time futzing around with the app and more time getting stuff done.

So, I've only had my iPad a couple of weeks, but I have sorted out that it's great for email, reading news, and pretty darned good for document preparation, and I've found some apps that are quite satisfying if not wonderful.

There's other things I want to look into - handwriting recognition and drawing tools in the near term - and I'll have something to write about those soon.  And, of course, I will consider a few of the available task managers.

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