Ipad Suggestions

Last Updated: 12/02/2010

This was inspired by another friend getting an iPad. As I started doing a writeup of all the things that one should get, I realized that I do this often enough that I should put it in one place, And this is that.

A Note on Usage
There's no one way to use an ipad. It's greatest strength is the sheer number of 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. When the ipad came out this was definitely my go-to suggestion for a default case, but as the market has matured I can no longer say this is so. With a price point of close to $40, it's comparable to or more expensive than many of the other options on the market with little to truly distinguish it. It's a perfectly reasonable choice, but I would say it is no longer the de facto 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.

My friend Matt was up visiting recently and got to show off his case, Pad & Quill's Case Vol. 1. It is, I admit, very pretty, lookign like a large moleskine notebook (a look I am a sucker for). He was good enough to write up a review of his experience.

I have also been impressed by my friend Eric's Otterbox Defender. Eric works in a lab, like, one with bubbling test tubes, lab coats and all of the above, and also does a lot of field work. He went with the Defender as the best protection for heavy use, and having seen it in action, I can see why.

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.

Ipad Camera Connection Kit - For me, this was a well spent $30. It's two adapters, one for an sdcard and one for USB. Camera + Ipad is a great combination, especially with 3g, since you can upload and review your photos on the spot, and even touch up, post or mail them out as appropriate. That alone has made the purchase worthwhile, but as a bonus, the USB adapter can be used for more than must photographs. Technically, nothing else is supported, but its worth experimenting with other peripherals - despite warning messages, many of them (such as keyboards) have worked just fine with the adapter.

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.

Addendum: Some time has passed, and I had one bad experience with the Simplenote Web Client - I lost connectivity so my writing got lost, but I had no visibility to this. They've subsequently fixed that, and I've had no problems with the apps. This has made me a little gun shy, but not enough to stop my using it. I am, however, a little more mindful of noting when I've synced. Plaintext is still my go-to writing app, but for a number of less writing-ey things (like keeping shopping lists) I've been leaning on Simplenote more and more.

That said, I do encounter a lot of data duplication problems with Simplenote, pretty much any time the network gets wonky. I have ended up with 5 different copies of the same document. One one hand, it's nice that it's not being lost, but on the other hand it's pretty stupid. Net result, I'm unlikely to use it for anything more substantial than lists.

Plaintext is free, lovely to look at and syncs with Dropbox. It's the free offering from Hog Bay Software in advance of their forthcoming (hopefully soon!) Writeroom port. It lacks some features, like wordcount or the ability to move documents around folders easily, but the interface is gorgeous and the syncing has been rock-solid. It is smart enough to piggy back on Dropbox's ability to detect conflicts, and it will make sure all potential versions are preserved. What's crazy is that while its folder-handling is only ok, it's still better than IA Writer, which is the only other app that can challenge it on appearance and syncing, and Writer isn't free. Odds are good this is going to be my go-to app until Writeroom comes out.

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.

In the category of things I can't believe took this long, there's now Viz Manga viewer, for reading manga. It's great app, since the page size translates easily into the form-factor of the Ipad, so much so that it's a shock that this is the first (especially since the $5 price point for books seems more reasonable to this unsophisticated reader). it's not flawless- the library is only so deep at the moment, though it hits the big names like Naruto, Bleach and Dragonball. Annoyingly, purchases are not made through the iTunes store, so you need to set up a separate account if you wan tot buy things, and that annoyance has, I admit, kept me from doing more than looking at the free content so far.

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, band with the 4.2 changes, i find myself using it more and more for all my mail accounts. 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).

Instant Messaging was kind of a dead zone until recently. Before 4.2 and multitasking, there wasn't much point in it, but now that an IM client can run in the background, it's much more appealing. Unfortunately, the iPad option for chat are a mere fraction of those available for the the iphone, and you are currently left with two choices: buggy or expensive. For buggy, turn to IM+. It works well enough if you don't mind occasionally not being able to see what you're typing. That said, they had a recently patch with fixed many of these problems, but not all of them. On the expensive side, you can drop ten bucks on BeejiveIM and it will actually work pretty well. I admit that repeated frustrations with IM+ drove me to Beejive, but that may just be my tolerances.

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.

For diagramming, broke down and dropped the $50 on omnigraffle and it's really fantastic. The thing that sets it apart from other drawing programs is how effectively it edits material. That is to say, it's not hard to draw good diagrams with many apps, but the handling of objects tends to be a little rough. With Omnigraffle, it's slick as heck, and I have already produced numerous diagrams with a few minutes of doodling. (And now I go back to waiting for omnioutliner to come out).

A solid but much less expensive (and less powerful) option is Dabble, which can do enough to provide the occaisional 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.

I was listening to a podcast the other day and, in speaking with the creators, discovered it had been recorded on an iPad. The sound quality was fantastic; good enough to merit looking into. There are a lot of recording apps available, but these two stuck out.

Voice Recorder - this is the app the podcast in question used, and at 99 cents, it seems like a steal and a half. I've experimented with it some and the quality of the sound is fantastic. Assuming you have software on your computer where you'll do any editing, this seems to do everything you might need.

Caster Mobile Studio is a full featured editing and publishing studio for the ipad. At least in theory, you could record, edit and publish a podcast, all from the ipad using this app. It's pretty spiffy, and they're smart enough to offer a free version with all the features but a 3 minute time limit, so you can play around before buying.

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 neat.

- 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. That said, if they ever add strings to the model, it will suddenly get a lot more useful (for mind mapping, diagramming and such)

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

iCardSort - The premise of this app is simple - it's a surface that you can create and spread small cards on which you can edit and manipulate. It has just enough bells and whistles to be useful, but not so many to overwhelm the simplicity that makes this so useful. Specifically, this is useful when you want a lot of cards with a small amount of words on them (the way I use post-its for the Leverage). If you need more detail on the cards, Index Cards is probably a better match, but it doesn't offer nearly the same flexibility in sliding cards around, making piles and so on. Oh, and it's free. Totally worth it.

Change History
10-11-2010: Updated Simplenote. Added Plaintext. Added Recording Section, including Voice Recorder and Caster.
10-13-2010: Updated description of apple case, added Camera adapter.
12-02-2010: Updated Omnigraffle, added iCardSort, Viz manga, some cases and IM clients