Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Using Your iPad at Uni

So a whole semester of uni is over! And I've had the chance to go through it all with my trusty iPad! When mates at uni walk by and see me with my iPad the first thing they usually ask is "Is it worth it?"

Simply put, yes it is! Having said that, the tablet experience is a whole different and new paradigm of computing compared to a netbook or a laptop which run full fledged operating systems (Windows, OS X) and it takes early adopters such as myself to really suss out what this device is capable of doing - it's what we live for! I'm happy to say that over the course of the semester my iPad has only been able to do more and more things with far more efficiency since day 1 of it's launch, and there are no signs of stopping!

So for those of you who are still on the fence or skeptical about what the iPad can do vs a laptop, here are some observations and answers which may help you out!

Let's begin with the basics. Here are 2 absolutely barebones essential apps for every uni student with an iPad:

Dropbox (free app, free service)

I cannot express how vital this service is, and the best thing is, it doesn't cost a cent! Simply put, Dropbox is a "virtual folder" which is shared amongst all your different devices - your home computer, laptop, smartphone, tablet, you name it! This means if you add a file into one computer's dropbox, it will appear in every other device's Dropbox!

Here's a typical scenario: I have lecture notes to bring to my lecture and I have Dropbox set up on my home computer and iPad. All I have to do is drop the lecture notes into my dropbox, and head off to uni. Once in class, I use the Dropbox app on my uniweb-connected iPad to open up the lecture notes which I dropped in earlier. Note the same can be done with a laptop, if you so desire. It effectively eliminates the need for a USB stick or the need for you to tediously download the same file onto both computers! It's simply amazing and without it, the iPad experience at uni simply would not be feasible.

Honestly though, I think every uni student should have this if they own more than 1 computer. It just makes life a lot easier. Dropbox actually has a referral program where you both get 250mb of extra dropbox space for free if you refer a friend! If you want to get it, use this link!! GET DROPBOX FROM ME! =D

GoodReader for iPad ($2.49)

This app truly gives you bang for your buck. for $2.49 you have everything you need to both organise your files AND annotate them! Annotations were actually a newly implemented feature and previously, only iAnnotate could do that, and that app was very costly in comparison ($12.99) so adding this feature without upping the cost makes this app a must-have!

The purpose of GoodReader for a uni student is to be a file management system. iPad apps run in their own little sandbox and so there is really no "file explorer". Luckily this app's sole purpose is to be a file manager and this it does well. It has Dropbox support integrated into it so you can download a hard copy of all your lecture notes whenever you get to class.

The killer feature of GoodReader is it's new ability to annotate all PDFs. You can highlight text, draw free-hand, or add in annotation bubbles. These are all viewable on any Windows or Mac computer and are of course, printable. Once you're done with annotating, it will prompt you whether to save to the original document or save an annotated copy. I suggest saving a copy, since you will want to re-upload it back to Dropbox and you will be able to tell which one is annotated and which one isn't. Uploading to Dropbox is also integrated into this app!

WARNING USYD STUDENTS : I had trouble accessing Dropbox via the usyd wireless VPN and I haven't really tried looking for a solution since I only go there occasionally. UNSW does not have this problem!


Any iPad used for typing MUST NEED A CASE, otherwise typing will just look plain awkward. The official Apple case is pretty decent, and an alternative I would recommend if you don't mind a bit of bulk is the Marware Ecovue or Ecoflip.

The Official Apple iPad Case in typing mode

The Marware Ecoflip / Ecovue cases in typing mode

Once your iPad is angled in such a fashion, typing is pretty similar to typing on a keyboard, except its more like tapping on a solid screen and there is no tactile feedback. There is definitely a learning curve but by mid-way through the semester I was already touch typing in lectures. Autocorrect really helps on the iPad where it fails on the iPhone, since you tend to type proper english words during a lecture rather than slang words like LOLLLL or AAHHH which never bode well with auto-correct.

Now that we've equipped our iPad with the necessary gear for university use, we can now look at some of the other neat features which the iPad excels at compared to netbooks and laptops.

Saving money and the trees!

You can use iBooks (a free app) to view your textbooks or you can just read it from GoodReader. Using your iPad to replace textbooks comes with many advantages, but isn't without its drawbacks.

Firstly, it will lighten up your bag if you bring textbooks with you a lot! One iPad is about 700g, which is lighter than most textbooks already! Imagine having 4 textbooks in your iPad, and already, you are saving a considerable amount of effort and uncomfort compared to lugging around 4 huge textbooks in your bag. If you tend to keep your textbooks at home, then this may not apply as much to you, but I can definitely say it's good to have the option of having access to your texts at anytime on the go.

Speaking of savings, if you know where to look for textbook e-books, then you won't have to spend a cent on them! This semester, I was able to find ebooks for 2 of my courses. 1 course didn't need any, and another course didn't have the e-book version, but luckily I was able to borrow it off my friend. The amount I saved this semester alone has already paid for half of the iPad. It will only take another semester for the iPad to pay for itself just in textbook money!

Here are some ebook websites which you can browse around for textbooks or even books in general:

I'm not a big reader myself, but for book enthusiasts out there, think about having your whole bookshelf of books ready to read at the touch of a finger, all in one handheld device!

The biggest drawback of e-books is the slightly difficult task of switching back and forth from 2 non-consecutive pages. I found that pages which referenced figures or tables which were on a different page made it a bit tedious to keep switching back and forth, especially if they were more than a few pages away. I can only hope that a developer will somehow tackle this problem in an app.

I'm also quite happy to say that I have not printed out a single page of uni material this semester. The amazing thing was that I wasn't even trying - this was simply a side effect of going digital with a tablet device! Imagine the amount of paper we could save if we all used tablets!

Going digital is a big leap and saves me about half cardboard box of printed scrap paper which I will never see again and just take up space in my cupboard. Having a digitised version of all my annotated notes will also make it easier for me to find something down the track, since I can just do a search for all the files which I've created.

iPad Vs Laptop

Firstly, you wouldn't read e-books on a laptop. The form factor is just not right. It's too big and bulky and doesn't have the instant-on nature of the iPad. It's simply not intimate enough compared to a tablet device for e-book reading. It's a breeze to whip out an iPad on a train or bus and makes for an excellent commute buddy.

Interestingly, I found that when I used my iPad during a lecture, I was more attentive than on the days where I had a laptop with me. This effect is two-fold:

The touch interface makes for a more interesting and novel way of annotating and viewing notes, and engages you more than a keyboard.

Also, the fact that only one app at a time can be visible on the iPad makes it less likely for you to switch to a browser app to bludge on facebook, something which is is just too easy to do on a laptop! It tends to force you to just stay on GoodReader and just focus.

However, the iPad has it's own drawbacks!

Most importantly, the fact that it can only view one app at a time severely limits it's a ability to view several files at once. This is kind of relieved with iAnnotate's ability to view tabbed PDFs, but is still just not the same as having a few pdf docs open on a laptop, both visible at the same time. As a result, I found myself needing to use my iPad with either a laptop or a lab computer to study while at uni. Dropbox makes it possible to access your files from any computer with a web browser, so it's yet another reason it's so vital for the iPad experience.

Also, I've found the wifi radio to be slightly weaker on the iPad than a normal laptop, so in places of weak reception, the iPad will tend to drop out before it. Personally this issue doesn't happen in any of my classrooms, but when out and about at uni, it's sometimes difficult to get a lock on a signal.

The iPad is technically equipped for word processing, spreadsheets and presentations, such as assignments or reports, but in the end you'll find that it's much more productive to just use a laptop or computer for these tasks. The iPad is more geared towards viewing and annotations on would be it's limit in terms of editing and content creation. It by no means replaces exercise books either, as handwriting apps are still in their early days, although developers are making good strides in realising the potential to one day do so.

If you're wondering whether the iPad can hold it's own against a netbook or a laptop for uni, it definitely can. With apps like GoodReader and a dropbox account, you can't go wrong when it comes to annotating lecture notes. However, if your course doesn't usually need to use free hand drawing to annotate or if you prefer to summarise what the lecturer is saying by typing it into a doc, then the iPad is probably not for you. However, if you're comfortable with reading textbooks in e-book form, then an iPad could potentially be saving you hundreds of dollars. The scope of this blog post covers only one of the many facets of the iPads capabilities. It is certainly paving the way for the future of computing and there is still an amazing amount of potential which has yet to come.