Revisiting an academic’s use of the iPad

With the introduction of “the new iPad” (i.e., iPad 3) I thought it would be a good time to update one of the most popular posts on this blog. That post was about incorporating an iPad into my daily work and play routine. It was written when the iPad was first introduced in 2010 and was mostly an exploration of some initial impressions and app suggestions from the perspective of an academic (non-student, higher education).

Based on the incredible popularity of that and the updated post it’s clear that many academics would like to incorporate the iPad into their workflow. My work is probably very similar to a generic office worker: lots of reading (mostly scanned journal article PDFs, writing, light note-taking, presentations, & data analysis.

In the years since I got first got the iPad, I’ve slowly learned what tasks can best be accomplished with the iPad and which should be left to the computer. I’ve also downloaded and deleted a large variety of apps whittling down until I find one (or three) that works best.

I’ve also since moved on to the iPad 2. It was a nice upgrade because it was dramatically thinner and lighter than the original iPad which made holding it more comfortable. The increased speed also made reading the scanned PDFs more pleasant. This is why I can’t wait for the iPad 3: more speed and higher resolution screen will significantly affect my most frequent tasks (see below).

This post is organized around my common work tasks and the apps I use most frequently. I don’t discuss the built in mail program, calendar, or web browser (which are heavily used).

Reading PDFs

Most of my library of thousands of PDFs are scanned journal articles. A smaller but growing portion of the newer articles are non-scanned PDFs that were created by the publisher. The difference is that the scanned PDFs are usually bigger and slightly fuzzier.

My original suggested app was iAnnotate mainly because of its ability to directly annotate PDFs with notes and scribbles. But I kept Goodreader for just plain reading because it seemed faster and more intuitive. Fortunately, Goodreader has kept improving and it’s now my most-used PDF application. The best feature is integration with Dropbox; so I only have to point it to a folder to download a semester’s worth of PDFs.

As good as Goodreader is, there are times when I need to move between PDF pages quickly and would like an alternative to page flipping. In that case I use PDF Expert since it has a nice birds-eye view of 9 pages but it just seems slower in page rendering.

Light Note-taking

I still use the iPad for light note-taking in meetings or by myself. I find it sufficient for most of my needs especially if you add a few accessories. In my previous post, I mentioned Evernote. I don’t really actively use Evernote much anymore. I can’t quite put my finger on it yet but it’s just not the right app/service for me. I notice that I tend to just dump things into it that I think i’ll need later but end up not needing.

Instead, I use a few note taking tools; none of which are preferred yet. The software keyboard is still sufficient for 80% of my needs. I’m able to type relatively fast and error free. For typewritten notes, I’ll use the built-in Notes application (which syncs to cloud services).

Simple, clean, and free!

When I’m traveling light (and I always am) but I know i’ll need to type out some e-mails or do some other writing, a great hardware accessory is the low-cost Amazon Bluetooth keyboard. It’s only about $35 (half the price of the metal Apple-branded accessory keyboard) and has a relatively nice feel for such a small keyboard. The great thing is that I only take it when I REALLY want a hardware keyboard which is not all the time.

Very thin, very light, about the same height as the iPad. It's slightly smaller than Apple's bluetooth keyboard.

On the rare occasion that I need to capture handwriting I don’t have a favorite app; instead there are 2 or 3 that each have something the others do not. As an aside, some people think they want hand writing but I’m not one of them. My handwriting is horribly mangled and unreadable unless I concentrate. Plus, handwritten notes are not usually text-searchable.

First, my usual app is called Notes Plus. It recently underwent a major upgrade with some pretty amazing features like split-screen viewing of a web page while you take notes and audio recording:

But I really hate the silver/metal look. I sometimes alternate and use Ghostwriter for handwritten notes or if I need to make a drawing:
Ghostwriter; zoom mode to write more precise text. The shaded zoom window moves automatically.

Both of these applications export their notes into Evernote, Dropbox, or plain PDFs. When I am handwriting (again, which is probably less than 5% of the time) I use a cheap stylus from Amazon.


Finally, I’ve been editing presentations more on the iPad since switching to the Keynote presentation app on my desktop. When I need to organize my lectures or work on a presentation, the Keynote iPad app is surprisingly powerful but easy to use. I’m amazed that so much functionality could be built into a touch-only app:

I still use my laptop to actually give the presentation because I like to view the upcoming slide and the iPad currently just mirrors the current slide. I also use in-class clickers which require a laptop.

Other Useful Utilities

Finally, there are a few add-ons or apps that I find useful. The first is Wikipanion (yes, it’s OK to use Wikipedia). Wikipanion is a nice app front end to Wikipedia:

Wikipanion view of Wikipedia

The second, Offline Pages, is an app that allows you to download full web pages or websites for off-line viewing (e.g., on a plane).

Finally, there are times when you want to send a link or snippet of text from your desktop computer to your iPad. A useful app/service is Prowl. When you sign up for and then install the Prowl app and browser extension, you can send links directly from your browser to your iPad.

Another bonus is that once you sign up for the Prowl service and install an app on your desktop computer, you can also send text snippets from anywhere on your computer (e.g., a telephone number, address, paragraph of text) to your iPad.

What I Don’t/Can’t Do

Data analysis/Programming

Based on the number of hits the iPad posts have received from the following search term: “SPSS and iPad” there seems to be a bit of a demand…are you listening IBM?

To be honest, I don’t know if I want to be analyzing data on the iPad anyway. However, most data analysis is pointing and clicking so knows; who maybe some creative developer will create a data analysis application perfectly suited to a touch only interface.

I do a fair amount of programming and it would just be unbearable to do that on an iPad.

10 thoughts on “Revisiting an academic’s use of the iPad”

  1. Yup, I use Papers on my Macs and like it alot! However, the iOS client seems to be neglected as it isn’t so great a reader as Goodreader. I hope it receives an update because the possibility of having my annotated PDF library sync with my Papers for Mac library would be awesome!

  2. I quite like it! Something that synced annotations as well as notes would be great though. I really like Devonthink as well, but the ipad client is quite limited.

    1. After I got the new iPad, none of my existing PDF readers were able to take advantage of the retina display yet–except Papers for iPad. I just noticed that it was updated and it’s now a great companion to the desktop app. I have my complete PDF library on my iPad and can read papers in retina resolution (that is, almost laser-printer page resolution). What that means is that I comfortably read without zooming. It also now syncs annotations, highlights, etc. Here’s a screenshot of a full-page PDF paper:

  3. Am very curious to people’s experience of reading scanned PDFs on the new iPad.
    Do they definitively look better on the new iPad as compared to iPad 1,2 ?

    I read a lot of those scanned PDFs from a variety of sources and getting better readability on these is for me a major factor in deciding to move from iPad 1 to the new iPad.


    1. This is something you really should see in-person at your local retailer (or a friend who has the new iPad). For me, it’s a definite YES. The improvement is even greater when you have native (not scanned) PDFs of journal papers. I used to have to zoom in a bit to read columns of text. Now I can read a full page, just like reading a printed page. The benefit is not something that can easily be represented on conventional density displays.

      1. Thanks for your reply. Based on this, what I read and saw, decided to upgrade from the iPad 1 to the iPad 3. And indeed it is a definitive YES. Think over 95% of my scanned PDFs look much much better than before. The ones not looking beter being low resolution scans probably. My prime usage of the iPad is reading various content and like you said, can do so now full page without any zooming. When I looked at the first e-readers 4-5 years ago, hoped it would be possible someday to read in color and high quality, books, magazines and such. Never expected this dream to become reality so soon.
        Like your discussion of apps from an academic perspective very much. Keep up the good work !

  4. Great post, Richard! Like others in the comments, I also want to say something about reading PDFs on the iPad.

    I am a big fan of PDF management systems such as Sente and Papers, and I think both of them have good (Retina Screen ready) iPad companion apps. More annotation based apps (like Goodreader or iAnnotate) might look better at first sight because they better incorporate analogue workflows (e.g., freely drawing highlights), but in the long run I think academics are better served with dedicated ecosystems such as Papers and Sente. I am reviewing both solutions on my blog here:

    I also whole-heartedly agree on using a keyboard for longer writing sessions. I am using the iPad more and more for distraction free writing, especially now in the warmer months I just take it to the park. I think though that, unless you have a wireless keyboard already lying around, I would rather go with a dedicated keyboard case. Sure, a good keyboard case is about twice the price of your solution (or about the same price as the original Apple keyboard), but you are more flexible with it. For example, it would be difficult with just a keyboard (and dock) to write without a table, just sitting on a park bench or under a tree (academia is awesome in the summer, isn’t it?!). See this link to figure out how and what keyboard case would fit your writing style:

    I am blogging a lot about the use of the iPad in research, teaching and learning. Feel free to drop by at for more infos.

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