A Month with an iPad

A Month with an iPad

Since April 6 I have attempted to live almost entirely on an iPad as my only mobile computer — I still carry my iPhone with me everywhere and did use it to do routine things like mobile email, updating Twitter, and the like. During that time I have learned quite a bit about the device and how I interact with my computing platforms. I’ll try to sum up most of what I learned although I am still coming to grips with some of my experiences. Here’s the thing, the iPad is a little difficult to sum up — it isn’t a laptop and it certainly isn’t an iPhone. It lives somewhere along the path of computing, but fits much more into the lifestyle support category than strictly in the computing space. It is both really easy and radically complex — easy in that it is simple as hell to use and complex in that where it fails it makes things so much harder. Let me try to address a little of both.

Work

Overall if I am honest, I can do about 85% of my work from the iPad itself. If I describe my work life it gets added up like this — I do email, I go to a lot of meetings, I browse the web for information, I create information on the web, I read a ton, I design and give a lot of talks, and I create and edit a ton of documents. That pretty much makes up what I do aside from talking to people and doing day-to-day management.

It is without a doubt the best email experience I have ever dealt with. The way the built in iPad Mail app works is amazing. I deal with a ton of email and the ability to quickly filter things is a stunning UI breakthrough. Using my fingers to get rid of stuff is so much faster than using a mouse to check little boxes — speed counts when dealing with something as mind numbing as email. The faster I can get into my inbox, make sense of things, and get out the better.

The iPad is superior at meetings for several reasons … I’ve already written about how much it stays out of the way of interacting with others and after a full month I still feel that way. It is a natural in meetings unless you are taking a lot of notes and then I find it falls down a bit. I have learned to type on it very fast so it has gotten better, but the lack of google doc editing is killer. As a matter of fact this is the reason why I can’t really do all areas of my job on it — I am just too embedded in the google docs World. I have had a harder time dealing with that than when I switched away from Office for a year. Until I have a good way to edit those documents it is destined to not be a primary machine.

Consuming anything on it has been a pleasure. Browsing the web, watching TV shows and movies, and reading are all first class activities. As a matter of fact I much prefer it to my laptop for reading online. Navigating makes more sense and I can still pinch and zoom pages to get a closer look. I miss not being able to do that with my laptop. Creating text content for the web is easy and natural as well. Where things fall down is when you need to multi task — grabbing a Flickr picture to put into a blog post is a complex task that requires a good deal of thought. I can do things like that, but I have had to relearn the steps and have had to understand how the machine multi-tasks from within apps instead of switching from window to window. It isn’t bad because I think there are some things that just work better this way. The other thing I’ll mention here is that not being able to bounce from window to window has pushed me to focus a little more on doing tasks one at a time.

The iPad falls down when dealing with non-web content. Keynote works really well and I can create presentations with relative ease — something I do quite a bit of. The problem lies in the restrictive way content gets to the device. I get that Apple wants us to travel through a USB cord to iTunes, but not taking better advantage of iwork.com or even Mobile Me seems very last decade to me. They insist on making us email files or using a crazy move interface to get stuff on it … and then once it is there it is a copy, not a truly synchronized version. Why not let me use a folder on Mobile Me that I can keep a single in sync file? This is something that I hope Apple changes — copies of files being emailed around is plain old stupid. Without this limitation and the ability to edit google docs this thing would be close to perfect. Without them, you better have a computer around.

One other thing we are learning is how nice these can be as loaner machines for staff. Our IT group can manage a couple that can be simply handed to a staff member and synced from their own Mac for a trip. It isn’t without some details to deal with, but we are planning to keep a few 3G iPads ready to go for people who need Internet access while traveling — it is actually much more reasonable than buying USB cell modems for staff.

Life

The iPad is a joy to use at home. I mean that. It is the best device for work/life balance … it is fast as hell as tasks such as email, looking something up, checking my calendar, and showing pictures. So much faster than going to get a laptop, opening it up, waiting for it to connect to wifi, and launching applications. In the time it used to take to do all that I am already back to the conversation I was having that spawned the need to look something up in the first place. I no longer need to take my laptop home and that has been a very positive change for me.

My wife and kids love to use it for all sorts of things. The App Store may piss a lot of people off, but to easily discover kids apps and games it is killer. Before this I would have never purchased Dr. Seuss books or Scrabble … I honestly wouldn’t even know where to go to buy that software. Yes the apps cost money, but that is what I would expect. My three year old can use with such ease it is mind bending. My wife wants to use it to play Scrabble and surf the web. My daughter wants to use it to read books. And I just want to be able to use it.

Exploring the iPad

This leads me to another observation and that is it really needs to have some sort of user account environment. I trust handing it to anyone in my family, but I do get a bit nervous demoing the iPad with other people. When I pass it around a room it is fully logged in and that means my email, Evernote, and other apps are ripe for browsing. The thing is that people, when they touch the iPad, want to use it. It would be nice if I could have a guest account on it that would allow me to hand it around a room without worrying about it.

Consuming media is a first rate experience. I’ve gotten back into video and audio podcasts so I always have fresh content on the device. The screen is beautiful and all of the media capabilities are really nice to work with. When you combine that with the battery life, you have a device that you nearly never worry about charging. It is truly the first device I can take with me for the day and not worry about it running out of juice — ever. I can actually go multiple days without plugging it in.

Apps

I already mentioned that I am not as upset about the App Store model as some people, so I’ll just share some of the Apps that I actually use. I thought I would use the iWork suite more, but have only really extensively used Keynote. I’ve done a few documents with Pages and it works well, but getting files on and off of the iPad doesn’t support that kind of work in my opinion. Below are the Apps that I use the most … beyond those, I live mostly in Safari and use my browser to access news, social networks, and stuff that on my iPhone I use apps for. At any rate, here are the top Apps for me:

  • Safari is very fast and I’ve found I like browsing on it more than I do on my Mac.
  • I’ve already sung Mail’s praises, so I’ll leave it at that.
  • GoodReader is a must for managing access to files across cloud based storage environments. It takes the place of the Dropbox app and the iDisk app.
  • YouTube, the built in iPod/Video app, and Netflix app are simple genius for consuming content. The YouTube interface is easier to use than the website.
  • 1Password is a must and there are easy ways to integrate it with Safari.
  • NetNewsWire is a strong RSS reader, but what makes it so well designed is the Instapaper, Twitter, and Email integration. It allows for strong multi-tasking from within the same application.
  • Evernote has become my full on outboard brain and the syncing with my Mac is killer.
  • Twitterific is my Twitter client of choice and I do use Twitter quite a bit on the iPad.
Evernote for iPad

Conclusions

Again, it seems like the iPad is a very capable machine that does support a vast amount of tasks that one must do to keep it going at work. It is a joy to use at home and I can still easily keep up with things I need to do in the evenings and on weekends. Until google docs cannot be created and edited (either in the browser or in some sort of app) I cannot use it full time. It hasn’t pushed me to retire my laptop to the corner, but one thing it has pushed me to do is switch from a 15″ machine to a smaller 13″. The small form factor of the iPad is unreal and it made my MBP look like a tank.

The other thing that I believe needs more work is Apple’s model for keeping files in iWork synced. Passing around versions is something that is simply crippling. I can see myself traveling with just an iPad, but I’ll have to be very thoughtful of what I will need before I go. One thing I have started to do more of is take advantage of my iDisk and Dropbox storage spaces so the contents are always available via GoodReader. If Apple gets serious about cloud services I can see this thing supporting upwards of 95% of the work I need to get done while traveling.

The machine needs a way to lock people out of certain apps so it can be passed around a room. I doubt they’ll add accounts, but perhaps a way to authenticate apps on an individual basis? I am really interested to see how students respond to the device and if it can actually be used to support their workflow. I think you actually have to spend quite a bit of time with one to start to understand how it can be used in partnership with your desktop machine. I have made changes to the ways I do things based on what I have learned and most of it has been positive. Will I continue to use the iPad as my only mobile device? No, but I will continue to use it heavily.

6 thoughts on “A Month with an iPad

  1. This is one of the best, most comprehensive, and realistic evaluations of the iPad in real-time use that I have seen. Thanks, Cole!
    Any suggestions for posts that highlight the iPad’s benefits in the classroom or for teachers? Once I see that, I can convince all necessary parties that buying one is necessary!

  2. Hi Cole,
    Thanks for the great review of your one-month iPad experience at work, home, and wherever else you have been. I have used my iPad for about two-weeks but nearly as intensively. Although I will be posting my reactions in the near future, in brief my experience has been similar to yours in several ways. IMO the lack of integrative note-taking is lacking, especially when reading ebooks, PDF’s, and resources online.
    I regularly use Dropbox with my iPod touch to read PDF’s that I dump into an “ebooks” folder and have extended that feature with GoodReader on the iPad. To my pleasant surprise PPTs and Keynotes in my Dropbox presentation folder open into Keynote for iPad using the Dropbox app, thus bypassing USB cabling and iTunes synchronization.
    Thanks again for your insight.
    Joe Fahs

  3. I’ve not had as positive an experience with the iPad as you. Reading it outdoors, near windows or under skylights, is an exercise in frustration — the glare makes the device completely unusable except as a mirror. See, for example, this picture of the iPad at my bus stop – http://hphotos-sjc1.fbcdn.net/hs276.snc3/27950_10100311381620624_9313765_69262423_3726330_n.jpg. I’ve also tried the device on less sunny days; the results were just as terrible. I’ve had serious issues with 802.11; the device can’t associate with some APs, with others it won’t get a DHCP lease, and with others it frequently drops the connection. This has happened at multiple locations. Allegedly, Apple is working on an update to fix the issue, but I’m not holding my breath (for nearly $1000, I expect something as simple as 802.11 to work).
    The software isn’t much better. Many of the apps crash frequently (several times a day). Safari is big culprit here. It reminds me of the app instability problems on iPhoneOS 1.0. Safari seems unable to cache content for more than a few seconds — it’s constantly reloading pages when I switch between tabs. Coupled with the frequent 802.11 drop-outs, this is an extremely slow and frustrating experience. The inability to open tabs in the background seemed like a minor annoyance at first, but has become a serious irritation. I’m constantly having my thought process interrupted by the obnoxious tab switch UI effects in Safari. Why can’t I just tap-and-hold on a link, and select an option from the pop-up menu to open a link in the background?
    I have to disagree about Mail. It’s terrible. Just unspeakably awful. You can’t turn off HTML email. It’s incompatible with automated message filtering. The app doesn’t support running filters on the client. Filtering on the server isn’t any better experience since Mail only checks your Inbox for changes (if messages are moved to other folders, you have to manually check each of them). These are all easy, easy problems to fix, and it’s inexcusable that Apple hasn’t addressed them yet.
    The device is much slower than I expected. Apps take between 10 – 15 seconds to load. This doesn’t sound like much, but coupled with the single-tasking nature of the OS, it is. For example, if I’m polling my RSS feeds, I have to sit and stare at the app as it downloads the XML. I can’t just fire up the app and switch back to something else while it downloads in the background. Or, if I’m reading an ebook and go look up something in Wikipedia, there’s a significant delay switching back to the ebook reader app (why can’t the device just leave the process in memory, suspended?)
    I’ll not comment on the klunky nature of many third-party apps, except to say that many need major work (the NPR and USA Today apps are just awful).
    All of this is a shame. The device has a nice form factor, and is nicer than a laptop for passively consuming certain types of content. It’s nice to watch a video podcast in a dark room, for example. But I can’t justify the cost given the very, very, rough nature of the platform.

  4. Hi Derek … admittedly we are using the device in different ways — I have not sat out under the bright sun or by a window reading. I have sat under our umbrella outside reading and it has been fine. I am also surprised that apps take that long to load for you … the only app I find a little frustrating at times in NetNewsWire as it does seem to take a bit of time to load all of my subscriptions — and I have a lot of them (probably too many as I have a ton I no longer read).
    I do love the mail app as it fits the way I do email — on the iPad it is mostly triage. I always feel like I am fighting through the barrage of “emergencies” that fill up my inbox. I don’t do a lot of client side filtering so that isn’t a problem for me.
    I have on occasion had some wifi issues, but they aren’t anymore annoying than the ones I have with my MBP. At times it says I am connected, but can’t get out. Turning wifi on and off has fixed it for me. This happens maybe once a week or so. At any rate, I appreciate your comments and can tell that it isn’t ready for you.
    I am still very much enjoying spending time with it and continue to discover things while using it. BTW, that picture is actually very cool

  5. I don’t think we are using it that differently. I’ve been using ET’s iPad for about two weeks, and I’ve used it in the same situations that I use my laptop, netbook, Kindle, and smartphones – sitting at my kitchen table, on my (covered) back porch, in my living room in an easy chair (by a window), at the bus stop, on the bus, and so forth. I’ve used it to browse the web, watch video, read the news, read books, play a few games, and do email. I haven’t gone out of my way to find situations that would cast the iPad in a poor light (pun not intended).
    I don’t want to hate on the device, but it falls short of many of my expectations. Unlike my Kindle, I’ve never lost myself in a book on the iPad. The device is always “in my face” (typically because I constantly see my face in its screen). I don’t find the UI that intuitive (an experience shared by others – http://www.useit.com/alertbox/ipad.html). The non-extensibility of the apps is frustrating (especially compared to the Android device I’m using. For example, if I install a twitter app, many other apps instantly gain a “share via twitter” option. That doesn’t happen on the iPad/iPhone platform). With work, the software issues could be fixed, but I’m not too optimistic given Apple heavy handed history with their mobile platform.
    I’m also reluctant to throw money at Apple given their App Store policies, which I’ve discussed before. I fail to understand the rationale behind most of their policies (e.g. a Nancy Pelosi bobblehead app is banned because it’s too political, but _Going Rogue_, _Game Change_, and _The Audacity to Win_ are allowed in the iBook Store?!)

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