Thursday, November 4, 2010

Working with the iPad

After some soul-searching (and a not-inconsiderable amount of budget-searching), I purchased an iPad. I thought it might be useful for anyone on the fence about buying one, or buying a different tablet computer, for me to describe some of the reasons I made the purchase, and the good and bad I've discovered so far. I'll start by admitting that I have a low boredom threshold. Combine that with a lengthy commute often made lengthier by unexpected delays on the rails and we have a recipe for a very irritated bureaucrat. My morning routine had been to take the Washington Post with me, and the forty minutes or so I had between waiting for the train and sitting on the train was just about the right amount of time to skim the major articles, read a few completely, look at some headlines, and do the crossword puzzle and Sudoku. I became increasingly irritated with the Post - between politicizing everything* and raising the price of the paper while simultaneously reducing the quality** - and cancelled everything but the Sunday paper.*** I tried substituting a free tabloid-sized newspaper, but the thing was woefully short of news. And the crossword puzzle wasn't as good.**** On the way home, I'd read a book and listen to music. Perhaps I'd throw a magazine in the bag for variety, or in case of a delay. Books, magazines, MP3 player, newspaper, food, and the usual assortment of junk created a very heavy bag. Consequently, one of the main motivating factors was a way of amusing myself while commuting.

A second factor in the decision was the potential for using my personal device at work to use the Aetherwebs for purely personal purposes. At work, while my employer graciously has a de minimus personal use policy for the Aetherwebs - essentially, small amounts of Aetheric use are tolerated, provided that the sites visited do not involve gambling, gaming, naughty pictures, or file-sharing - I find myself constrained in where I can click. Some innocuous sites, such as Dame Ordinal's Aetheric journal, are blocked for no comprehensible reason. Various SL-related sites, including the discussion forums, are blocked as being "gaming" sites, even though one cannot actually play a game on them. I worry that sites such as the Steamlander forums will eventually be blocked.

Related to the above is my increasing inability to transfer files from home to work. Sites such as Dropbox are blocked, so, for example, I can't work on a blog entry at home and finish it at work during lunch without resorting to emailing myself the files (annoying) or putting the files on a flash drive (even more annoying, and technically prohibited at work).

Third, having the ability to work anywhere without having to tote a laptop seemed like a plus. Even the lightest laptop seems heavy after lugging it through an airport, or standing on the subway, or walking several blocks with it slung over a shoulder.

Having said all that, the specific reason I bought the iPad when I did was my trip to Alaska. I wanted to be able to back up my photos, and the iPad plus the Camera Connection Kit (which takes SD cards, or connects directly to the camera via a mini-USB port) is a great deal lighter than a laptop computer. This worked perfectly, and my the end of the trip I had 800+ pictures of widely varying quality on the device. I also paid for small amounts of WiFi access in order to download email (using the default Mail app) and my RSS feeds (using Reeder).

Does it work the way I envisioned? A qualified "mostly."

The screen is a delight, and the size of the screen makes the iPad a much better alternative than a mobile phone for nearly any application. Web pages are legible, email or tasks can have multiple columns, videos are watchable, and even screens that are mostly text are easier to see on the bigger screen.

The iPod app works fine. Having hardware buttons to change the volume is an improvement over my ancient iPod Touch. On the downside, I haven't been able to drag and drop music from iTunes into the iPad; I can only choose to transfer specific playlists or all music from specific artists; the latter is a non-starter for certain artists whom I've been collecting for years. Still, it's a workable solution, if I can fight the urge to place the iPad on my shoulder as though it's a boombox from the 80s. This is one application where bigger isn't necessarily better. In some ways, my old Nano was the perfect music player: it could go anywhere, it was easy to access and easy to store, and the controls were intuitive and didn't require a lot of movement. However, sacrifices must be made to reduce the number of gadgets I tote with me to and from work.

Both Kindle and iBook work well. I've been using Kindle more than iBook only because the former has far more titles. The iPad is a little heavy to hold for long periods, but it's easy enough to hold in one's lap or on a desk. As good as the screen is, I find it a little tiring on the eyes to use the screen to read for an extended time. Still, it beats throwing a book or two in the bag just to have them for the occasional down time.

Web access is very good over WiFi and so-so over AT&T's network. (I've discovered all the dead spots on the train line.) Safari works just fine, and the 10" screen is a pleasure to use, rather than squinting at a cell phone screen. The downside is that the cheaper data plan (250MB) doesn't last long when viewing web sites, such as the Washington Post's, that are graphics-heavy. As a consequence, one of my main plans - read the paper on-line while on the train - has been scrapped. The 250MB limit doesn't seem to be a constraint for downloading email, using Twitter (I have the TweetDeck client, mainly because I use it on the Mac and PC, so I don't have to remember yet another interface), and occasionally downloading my RSS feeds when I forget to do so at home via WiFi.

Speaking of RSS feeds, Reeder works great. It syncs automatically via WiFi when it's first opened, so I only need to remember to do so before I leave the house and I have the previous day's feeds with me. I can't leave a comment while off-line, so I use Reeder's "favorites" feature to flag posts I want to deal with later, when I'm on-line.

The virtual keyboard is good, at least in portrait mode. It took some getting used to, and I can't touch-type on it, but I've gotten reasonably good at two-fingered hunt-and-peck typing. I wouldn't want to use it for writing a report, or the Great American Novel, but it's fine for dashing off a tweet or a short email or blog comment. It's possible Santa Claus will provide a physical keyboard for use in the office; if so, we'll see how that goes.

The other indispensible app I have on there is 1Password. I have the Mac version, and am trying the PC beta version, and bought the iPad app as well. 1Password syncs to Dropbox, which also has an iPad version, so I no longer have to remember all my passwords when I'm away from home. My earlier solution was to use the PC program eWallet run off a U3 flash drive; the U3 business allows me to get around my locked-down work computer, to which I lack Administrator rights. (Don't tell my IT department, as merely connecting a non-approved flash drive is a no-no.)

Perhaps the biggest annoyance is the lack of an easy way to move files on and off the device. Apple's solution is to do it through iTunes, which requires a physical cable. This is not only incovenient even at home; it's a non-starter when on the go. A work-around is to email the file to one's self, but that's an inelegant kludge. Dropbox-friendly apps that have both Mac and iPad versions are a big help - in addition to 1Password, I have Simplenote on the iPad and Notational Velocity on the Mac, with the two accounts linked through Dropbox. I'd like more apps to do that.

I have the feeling that the iPad, as useful as it is, would be even more useful with some minor tweaks: better file I/O, less weight, improvements to the iPod interface. If I had to do substantial work on the go, a laptop would probably still be a better solution. For what I need, a laptop is - usually - overkill, and the iPad works just fine. And keeping down the number of devices that travel with me is a big plus.

* The crowning moment was when the editors managed to work a picture of the First Lady into all four major sections: a campaign-style photo op in the front section; discussing fat children in Metro; a gratuitous photo in Style in an article largely about something else; and a photo in Sports, throwing out a baseball at a game the night before. But I digress.

** The photos have become enormous, leading me to believe that the paper pays by the photo, not the size of the photo, so having more picture and less text on a page is a cost-cutting move. A year or so ago, the Post eliminated its Sunday book review section. This year, the weekly TV guide became a separate fee. The number of typos and cringe-inducing phrases has increased, suggesting they laid off too many editors. The paper also let go most of its reporters not based in the Washington, DC area, choosing to rely on wire services and affiliates to gather news.

*** Last footnote, I promise. For those whose political orientations may lean left, just imagine that your only full-fledged form of print news was owned by Rupert Murdoch. Oh, I see the nods now. Okay, we're on the same page.

**** So I lied. I also enjoy doing the Sudoku puzzle, which the tabloid newspaper carried, but its version violated the symmetry that a Sudoku is supposed to have (i.e., if the upper-left box of nine had a single number in it, in the center, then the low-right box of nine must have a single number in the center).


Fogwoman Gray said...

Thank you so much for this post!
During my recent sojourn in the southern reaches of North America I was without any access short of the hotel's guest computer in the lobby. I was contemplating the iPad vs laptop vs smartphone.
I also have many of the same work constraints as you do, with more sites blocked daily by that blasted barracuda!
You also have my sympathy on the newspaper issue. The Anchorage Daily News online is a popup/dropdown/comment filled horror. The english language weeps at the content thrown on randomly, and apparently by someone looking out a window...
But I digress. Thanks for the helpful insights, we will leap forward into the portable computing age very soon.

Rhianon Jameson said...

I'm glad you found my musing useful, Mrs. V!

Your mention of hotel guest computers reminds me of another use for these devices: checking in for a flight while on the road. (This is particularly useful if you fly Southwest Airlines and like to check in 24 hours ahead of time in the hopes of getting a decent shot at a window or aisle seat.) I no longer have to beg someone with a land line to check me in and then pray he or she remembers.

You have my sympathies about the Anchorage Daily News. I complain a great deal about the Post, but I've seen a number of small-town newspapers, and they're generally horrible beyond belief, between bad writing, bad spelling, bad grammar, and bad reporting. I should count my blessings that the Post, despite declining in recent years, still hires real journalists. :)