Monday, September 27, 2010

Ipad Extravaganza

Another friend is getting an iPad (to which I say, "woo hoo!") and I started doing a writeup of all the things that one should get when I realized that I do this often enough that I should put it in one place, so my plan is this - I'm writing and posting this blog entry and after it's gone live, I'll set up a page based on it that I'll try to keep updated.

A Note on Usage
There's no one way to use an ipad. It's greatest strength is the sheer number o usage profiles it supports. I, for example, could not live without an external keyboard and have gotten just about every writing app I can get my hands on. My wife pretty much uses it for the web, twitter, reading books and watching videos. Other people use it in other ways. I try to keep this in mind as I discuss apps, and you should also keep it in mind as you read. Just because an app doesn't work for me doesn't mean it's not going to be useful for you.


Cases serve several purposes for an ipad. Protection, certainly, but it's also got an important role in how you use your ipad. Generally, you're going to use it in one of 4 ways - you'll hold it in your hand, you'll have it laid flat with a slight incline (for typing on the screen), upright horizontally (for viewing video or possibly typing) or upright vertically (for typing or web browsing). It is hard for a case to do all these things, and if you find one that does there are probably other tradeoffs. Which functions matter to you are going to depend a lot on how you intend to use the Ipad.

The Apple Case - I started out with this case and, were it not for a gift from a friend, I would still be using it. It's slim and light, and it's excellent in the hand and at an incline, and it's good in an upright horizontal position (just need to be careful not to knock it over). Upright vertical is pretty ad hoc. The incline is especially worth noting as this case is exceptionally well suited to typing on the screen in large part because the slope is comfortably elevated. A lot of the nicer looking cases have a very shallow incline, which is less good for typing. Given the quality and the price point, this is the case I would strongly suggest anyone get unless they have a specific reason to get a different one.

The Quirky Cloak - This is my current case, a gift from a friend for whom it was a poor fit. It's got an ok incline and is notably good for horizontal and vertical upright, but it's pretty bad in the hand. The slipcase fits loosely enough to feel awkward, and while the cover is admirably solid, it's also pretty heavy. Despite this, I'm very happy with it because the upright positions are most important to the things I use the ipad for (which is to say, writing)

One thing I will say about this one - I had a part break, and that was somewhat frustrating since I was not doing anything that should have caused a break. However, this frustration was turned into satisfaction by dint of excellent customer service, as I was provided with a replacement with a minimum of hassle.

Apple Bluetooth Keyboard - Yeah, I live with mine. It's an actual keyboard, but it's slim and light enough that carrying it around in addition to the ipad is still smaller and lighter than carrying around a netbook. The onscreen keyboard is perfectly functional for day to day stuff, but so long as I'm writing things as long as, well, this, a real keyboard is incredibly useful. In addition, the extra function buttons for things like controlling music and brightness are pretty handy.

Apple Keyboard Dock- I admit that I dig the fact that this will hold the ipad upright on its own, but I did not end up getting one of these for two reasons. One, the shape of it makes it a little rough to slip into the kind of bag I use. Two, it doesn't play nicely with cases, and I like having a case. (I'm sure it works with some, but I'm unwilling to invest in the trial and error necessary to find out.)

Folding Bluetooth keyboard - I have an old one of these from my days with a Nokia n800, and while it works just fine with the ipad, it's also a little unnecessary - if you're carrying something as big as an ipad, you can afford to carry an actual keyboard.

Keyboard Cases - I haven't seen any of these yet, but they're the next thing to be hitting the market. I'm intrigued, but I worry that such keyboard will be a little too cramped to be worthwhile. For reference, the apple keyboard is about 2 inches wider than my ipad case.

Wall Mount - Ok, you probably don't need this, but for three bucks? It makes me want to find ways to use it.

So, this is the main thing I use the ipad for, and I've put a lot of time and effort into trying different options, and in doing so I've discovered a few generalizations. First, nothing is more important than how you get your writing out of the ipad and on to something else. At the very least, the app should be able to email the document to you, but the better ones will usually allow you to sync through a service (usually either dropbox or simplenote, though Pages uses Apple's mobileMe service or WebDAV). Second, fonts and screen use are both a big deal, especially if you're going to spend a lot of time writing. The ability to choose a pleasing font (or, barring that, the use of a decent default font) and the ability to write in full screen mode are both very handy.

As an addendum, Google Docs has recently announced a dramatic change which will probably make it much more app friendly, so the whole game may end up changing in the near future.

Notably - This is probably the prettiest writing app I have, and while it's only moderately functional (no syncing, just email, no full screen) it simply looks so nice that it remains enjoyable to use. Lots of fonts, nice faux-wood look to it. The limits mean I don't use it for actual writing, but it's my go-to app for taking notes.

Simplenote - Simplenote is also the name of the service this app uses. It's an interface for a free (or very cheap) online notebook that syncs whenever possible. No custom fonts (but at least it uses Helvetica) but it does have fullscreen mode and tagging (like in gmail). It's not necessarily my favorite app, but I find myself using it a lot (including to write this). I admit I prefer Dropbox as a service, but the fact that Scrivener is going to use Simplenote for syncing is enough to draw me towards it as well.

My Writing - This was my go-to app before simplenote. It has most of the same features, and a nice full screen mode, but it uses its own service for syncing. I've never had a problem with the service, but its web interface is not as elegant as simplenote or dropbox, so it's seen less and less use.

Elements - I got this because the icon looks like a composition notebook and the app description sounded like it would have a very clever interface. I was disappointed. It's perfectly functional, even decent, but there's nothing exceptional about it either.

Droptext - A text editor that syncs to dropbox the same way simple note does to simple note. In theory it was everything I wanted. In practice, you need to reconnect to dropbox every time you start it up (rather than it keeping a local copy and keeping it in sync). Annoying enough to see no use.

IA Writing - Just got this one, and it's nice. Excellent interface, dropbox syncing (albeit manually). It has a weird feature that allows you to only highlight the lines you're working on as you write. That seems like a very extreme approach to zero distraction writing, but I'm sure it's good for some people. Thankfully, it's optional. My sole complaint is that it doesn't have a word count, opting instead for a much less useful character count. I anticipate using this one for writing in the future, but probably using something else for organization.

Pages - No one but Apple could get away with charging $10 for this. It is profoundly ok, but it does very little of what you would need it to and it's a bear to get your data anywhere useful. If you MUST format documents for pages, it's necessary, but otherwise either do your formatting on a computer or get one of the vastly more functional apps that is designed for Word docs. (That said, the latest update did at least add word count).

Office HD - Speaking of which, this is my app for handling the .doc format, which I almost never need to do on my iPad. I think I've used it twice. No complaints, but also not something I have a use for, since the functionality I need from word (tracking changes) does crazy things when bounced between versions.

Scripts Pro - I got this with the intent of using it as a bare bones text editor, as it looks quite nice with a typewriter font on a plain background. It actually works decently well for that, but other apps have overshadowed it. However, if you want to write actual scripts, this is pretty spiffy.

Index Card - Not a writing app per se, but useful for writers. It's basically a cork board that can display about 16 small virtual index cards on a cork board at a time (scroll for more), allowing you to edit and rearrange them. You can type more data into a card than it shows, but the real advantage is for anything you'd want to spread and rearrange index cards for.

My Writing Nook - This is a cautionary tale. I loved this app - it had all the functionality I wanted from a writing app until the day it started randomly deleting my files. The loss of several thousand words of effort was enough to lead to a quick deletion.

Ok, I'm not going to break this down app by app. For books there's the Kindle, the Nook and Stanza (oh, right, and Ibooks). Magazines have interesting things like Zinio (which needs to be seen to be believed). They're all good, and the specific features are constantly changing. I mostly use Kindle because I also have an actual kindle, and I still use it for reading, because it's smaller, lighter, has even more battery than the ipad and has no glare. In the interest of fairness, however, my wife vastly prefers reading on the ipad, especially at night since it requires no external illumination.

This is still a pretty wild frontier and there's no telling how things are going to shake out in the marketplace. I feel comfortable betting on Amazon in the long run, even if I'm not entirely happy with all their policies, but the fact that the ipad can support all these readers and more means there's no reason to choose. Pick your favorite and go with it, but know you have other options.

That said, I am going to single out one app as absolutely fantastic: Goodreader. It's a PDF reader that can sync with almost anything (including dropbox). I have a great many RPG texts on my ipad, and good reader is what allows me to organize and read them all.

The exception to goodreader is very nerdy - I sometimes turn my game notes into pdf so I can read them in dicebook, a combination pdf-reader and dice roller. If you don't know why someone would combine those things, it's probably for the best.

Comics also deserve their own mention. The bulk of comic readers (Comics, Marvel, DC, Image) all seem to use the same technology, but have haphazardly different stores. I mostly just use Comics, but I have all the readers because each offer their own free stuff.

Get netflix and hulu plus. If you don't have either service then don't sweat it (though both are FANTASTIC deals and you should consider Netflix) but if you do, then just get them. Also, the VLC player just came out for the Ipad and you want that too - like the desktop version, it pretty much plays everything, and by everything it may well mean "DVDs you ripped rather than rebuying in digital format"

Internet Foo
So, the built in browser is pretty serviceable for me, enough so that I haven't swapped it out. The mail client has made my yahoo mailbox into something useful, but it's less useful than the gmail web interface. But for specific web material (social media and whatnot) specific apps tend to be useful.

Twitter is, of course, the big one, but this just took a left turn. There are lots of good apps out there like Osfoora or Twitterffic pro, but Twitter just released a free client which is, to be honest, pretty fantastic. It kind of sucks at handling direct messages and is weak on spam blocking, but it's free and backed by the service, and that makes it the 800 pound gorilla. If you have strong opinions about twitter clients then absolutely shop around, but if you don't must get Twitter and call it a day.

RSS is almost as important to me, and there are two ways to go about it. NetNewsWire is pretty solid if you want to work purely through an app, and I'm fond of them. However, I swapped over to doing all my RSS through Google Reader and I love it. The web interface for it is fine, but on the ipad I use Reeder which is just lovely. It has become my morning newspaper on most days. Times for Ipad seems equally pretty, but I haven't shelled out $8 for it when I;m already quite happy with what I have,

Facebook and Tumblr only have iphone apps, which you can use scaled up in a pinch, but that kind of stinks. Sorry, no love there.

Instapaper is the software front end to what I can best describe as a web clipping service. You set up an account, set up a bookmarklet and then when you find a long article on the web that you might historically have printed out to read later, it clips the article (and just the article) and presents it in a very readable format. It's one of those things which you will either use never or all the time.

There's no Skype client for the ipad yet, but the iphone one works fantastically well. Between the quality of the speakers and quality of the microphone, the Ipad is pretty much a perfect appliance for skyping (though I still want an actual Ipad app).

The thing that is most noteworthy about ipad games is their support of asynchronous play. That is, rather than all players needing to be on line at the same time, you take your turn when it comes up and you'll get notified when you have another turn. This allows people to play lots of games with lots of people at their convenience rather than need to be available all the time.

I probably play more Carcasonne than anything else. It's technically I iphone game, but it scales up _beautifully_. Great game. Great app. Can't say enough nice things.

Words with Friends is another great one, albeit one that I've totally slacked off on lately. It is not scrabble, but close enough.

Plants vs. Zombies is a classic for a reason. I'd beaten it on my desktop but still enjoyed it on the ipad. The interface is wonderfully suited to it. Popcap hasn't put out an Ipad version of Bejeweled yet, but the iphone version scales up pretty well.

I have Galcon Fusion only because Galcon was probably my single favorite game on my ipod touch. However, I haven't had a chance to play it yet.

Someone mentioned to me a game that was basically like playing solo EVE but I've totally forgotten what it was, so a reminder would rock. Edit: Eric kindly pointed out the game, it's Warpgate HD, and I look forward to trying it.

Angry Birds is frustrating fun.

Days of Wonder's Small World is fantastic and, I hope, indicative of the kind sof apps they'll be producing. If they come out with a Ticket to Ride app, I'm all over it. My one concern with Small World is that if you haven't played the board game, I'm not sure how easy it is to get an understanding from the app.

Lots of cool art apps for the Ipad - it so clearly gives itself to drawing that it's unsurprising that there are zillions of them.

For straight art, I use Sketchbook Pro. It does everything I want from a paint program and the price is decent. I've also gotten decent use out of Sketchpad, Doodle Buddy and iDraft.

I wish I could justify spending $50 on omnigraffle because I have it on my Mac, and it is so good that I don't doubt for an instant that the ipad version is worth it. But my need for powerful diagramming an illustration on the ipad is too small to justify the cost (though, man, when omnioutliner comes, I doubt I'll be quite so strong). In the meantime, the much less expensive (and less powerful) Dabble does what I need when I need an ad hoc diagram.

Business and Productivity
Numbers - Another one from apple that I would kind of dismiss as overpriced - the functionality that I like in Numbers on the desktop translates poorly to the ipad. However, they added one fairly neat function that jazzes things up. Spreadsheets can more or less automatically generate worksheets for filling them out. That is to say, if you do clipboard work, it can more or less automate it. That's pretty spiffy.

Keynote is probably the best of the iWork apps as it works pretty well on the iPad as an all-purpose display widget. You can use it to make presentations of course, but you can also keep your notes for speaking or the like. It's fun but probably not a necessity.

There are a large number of apps for tracking lists of todo items and most are good, but few are truly fantastic. Todo, Taskpaper, Things and Informat HD are all solid, and I imagine that Omnifocus is pretty good too. But the problem is, of course, that either they'll all do the job, or none of them will. If you're not picky, they're all great. If you're picky, each one will lack in some small way.

The one thing to note is that, like the writing programs. the more useful ones sync up with a remote service. Taskpaper uses simplenote, but most of the others either use Remember the Milk or Toodledoo (Which also have their own apps). It doesn't make a huge difference which service it is, but it's a nice feature to have as it allows you to sync across devices and be able to manage lists from a desktop

One slightly specialized but interesting app is iAnnotate, which is designed to annotate PDFs. it's one of those things you probably don't need to do, but if you do it's good to have the right tool for the job.

Showing Off
Some of these are useful apps, but mostly these are the apps you want to bust out if you want to show off (for others or yourself) the really cool things the ipad can do. By and large they're hard to do justice with an explanation, but they're well worth a look.

Flipboard is probably the best way to look at Facebook on the ipad. It's effectively a magazine interface for any kind of feed, from facebook to twitter to random RSS. It makes the internet read like an issue of the Economist.

Uzu and Gravilux - Both of these are cool particle effect widgets. They just look neet.

- Imagine an infinite cork board that you can tack all manner of things to, including other corkboards. It's the kind of physics-defying interface that only a tablet can provide.

Epic Citadel - This is a proof of concept of the Unreal FPS engine running on the Ipad. It looks unbelievably good.

Square - This, combined with a little free reader you can have mailed to you, will allow you to take credit card payments on you ipad with minimal setup. Again, this is one of those things which is either very exciting or utterly useless.

Starwalk - It's a window into the night sky, very nearly literally.

Stuff that didn't fall under any other category.
TED Mobile - An iphone app, but it scales up to the ipad fantastically. As an app it's just an app, but the TED talks are totally worth it.

Evernote - I don't really use Evernote, but I know some people swear by it. It's a note-taking and clipping app that syncs to an online service. It's a good all purpose repository of everything and the Ipad app is pretty good.

iThoughts - Solid mind-mapping software


  1. Someone mentioned to me a game that was basically like playing solo EVE but I've totally forgotten what it was, so a reminder would rock.

    The game is Warpgate HD

  2. Is it critical to procure an Apple-branded bluetooth kbd?

    This is such a helpful post.

    iPad arrives tomorrow. WOO.

    -- c.

  3. @chuck - any bluetooth keyboard will do, but I'd recommend the apple one all the same. Price difference is not that great, and it's small, light and durable enough that I carry it around without any problem.

    However, if you can get to a Best Buy or Apple Store, test it out yourself to make sure it feels right for you. I love the feel of it, but such things are crazily personal.

  4. If you're waiting for OmniOutliner, look at Carbofin's Outliner which is pretty good.

  5. Carbonfin is pretty good, but I have difficulty giving it a fair shake because its keyboard integration is weak (which is an improvement from its previous "nonexistant"). This is not a real problem for the app, but it's a real problem for me using the app because, as noted, I'm keyboard-guy.

    Still, it probably deserves a nod.

  6. Thanks for putting the time into putting this together. Bookmarked for when the time comes for me to jump onboard.

  7. Fantastic list of stuff! Some of this is worth noting even for folks who don't have an iPad nor will anytime soon.

    Have you by any chance encountered a to-do list app that does task chaining? I.e., show me my next action, and when I finish it, show me the next thing to do in that project? It seems such an elementary concept, but I have not once encountered an app or service that does it without terrible kludgery.

  8. @Sabercat I believe that Omnifocus has that capability, but I can't swear by it. Of course, it's also the priciest of the lot.

    Beyond that, I have yet to find something with that feature and this is frustrating because, as you note, it would seem to make _sense_, and most of these apps are perfectly capable of handling ideas like "projects" so it does not see it would be too great a challenge. But I'll keep looking.

  9. PlainText (from the guy who did WriteRoom) is now live. It is a cleaner editor than iA Writer and Dropbox syncs. Haven't used it heavily though.

  10. The apple case does not work well with the standard keyboard. I've had to hack a rectangle off the back of my case so that it will dock properly.

    Thanks for the many ideas Rob!

  11. Epic post, Rob.

    I think the sequel should be the apps you use on your Mac and how they work with your iPad.

    Just saying. I'd find it *very* useful.

  12. For Game Masters: Dicenomicon. Hands down the best diceroller/gamer-math utility.


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