7 days with an iPad (and only an iPad)
Can Apple's tablet replace all other computing devices for a solid week?
You would think that the author of Take Your iPad to Work and the new iPad for Kids book wouldn't have a problem switching over his entire work and personal computing life over to an actual iPad, right? So when my editor approached me with the challenge to use the iPad exclusively for a week, there was no way I was going to turn that down.
For a week I would shut down my Linux and Windows virtual machines and even my Android smartphone and use my iPad exclusively for all of my work and personal computing needs. There would be one caveat: I would still use the phone for the telephony functions alone, since it's the only cell phone I have. But I turned off all auto-updates on my mail and Twitter accounts to reduce the temptation to check those accounts on the phone.
Why choose an inefficient platform when you need to do "real" work? It seems like a lot of people are trying to adjust their work to the device instead of the other way around.
With these restrictions in place, would I be able to manage the workload of a free-wheeling professional writer on my iPad -- and do efficiently enough to also juggle the summer schedules of three active daughters?
Sunday: Getting settled
First, here's the run down of the equipment I would be using. Naturally, there would be the iPad unit itself, an iPad 2 with 3G and 32 GB of onboard storage that I actually managed to snag the first day it was out to get the aforementioned iPad for Kids book started. Before the start of my week, I made sure the its operating system was completely updated, which brought the device up to iOS 4.3.3. (After I finished writing this story, it was subsequently updated to 4.3.4.)
My iPad also has a Smart Cover, which I bought a couple of days after I acquired the tablet, after learning that the thinner device was just too loose in the iPad cover I had for the older model I also own.
The only other peripheral I had for my iPad was Apple's little wireless BlueTooth keyboard, which I knew I would need for writing. Say what you will about the iPad's onscreen keyboard, but here's my bottom line: for brief emails and outlines, it's perfectly fine. But any writing more than that and I need real keys, the little clicky-click kind. I realize that there are way better Bluetooth keyboards out there, but the Apple model has the advantage of being small enough to fit into the satchel that carries my iPad, and does a decent job for what it needs to do. Plus, I got it second hand, so it was cheap.
With my hardware needs settled, I knew the first part of this challenge was going to be easy, since a lot of what I do in my personal computing is already done on the iPad. For instance, I check my Gmail account pretty regularly using the native Google app, as well as Google News for work.
For news and information, I decided to splurge on the paywall version of the New York Times app when it first came out, a decision I am still pondering. The apps for CNN, Politico, my local newspaper, NPR, and TED round out the news apps, and I just use Wundermap exclusively for weather information because it's the coolest and most data-rich weather app I have found to date. I realize that this is a lot of news apps, but make no mistake, the one thing the iPad does very well is let me consume content, and I like to consume.
It's not all rosy, however. My financial institution has a decent iOS app, though it's optimized for the iPhone. Still, I can check my accounts, shift money around, and use my bank's online bill paying tool, so it does the job. But it's the in financial arena that I encountered the first limitation on the iPad, though to be honest I knew it would happen. The reason I still keep a Windows VM around is solely to run Quicken and manage one client account that uses huge Word documents that OpenOffice.org and LibreOffice still can't handle very well. There is no Quicken app for iOS, and Mint.com has nowhere near the features I need to manage my bills and business accounts. For reasons I cannot fathom, Quicken and Mint.com don't talk to each other, either, so any input I did on Mint.com from the iPad would have to be duplicated. So, for this week at least, I did the finances on Saturday and did the next week's finances on Sunday.
I don't have a lot of onboard music, preferring instead to use the Rhapsody app to stream the online music provider's music. Rhapsody is a lot like the recently hyped Spotify that launched in the U.S. after much success in Europe -- only Rhapsody is better, giving me a lot more info on tracks and artists and a nice three-device subscription that lets my kids tap into the service from their devices, too.
So, for Sunday, my needs were set: music, news, email, and weather. It was a light day of computing, as I spent a lot of time in the yard and taking my youngest to camp. In all, a great start to the week, but I was worried about what the next day would bring. Could I get real work done on the iPad?
Monday: It's not nice to fool with Mother Nature
Any trepidations and temptations I might have felt to sidestep the challenge and just work on a PC were immediately destroyed about half an hour after I sat down to work Monday morning, when a massive storm blew into town with 81 mile per hour winds that blew down trees, signs, and power connections for about 55,000 people.
My DSL router is plugged into the uninterruptible power supply, so I knew I had about six hours of WiFi available before I would have to switch the iPad over to a 3G connection. I was glad for it, because cellular service in the river valley where I live can be sketchy indoors.
Using the iPad's screen as a makeshift flashlight (how handy is that?), I gathered up my tablet, keyboard, and coffee and made my way out of my pitch-black basement office to the dining room table. It wasn't much better, given the gloom of the storm outside, and I found myself wishing for back-lit keys. Any temptation to quit were put out of my mind, because what I had before me was it for productivity on Monday.
I have the Pages app, the word processor part of the iWorks suite, and it's okay. But, seeing as I usually write in an Emacs text editor on Linux, I find it rather top-heavy with features. So I tried iA Writer, a beautiful, cut-to-the-chase editor for the iPad that lets writers do the thing they do best: write.
iA Writer is a fantastic app, letting me concentrate on the words on the screen without distracting me with little gadgets and gizmos. The iPad's onboard spellcheck took care of most of my spelling mistakes, though it could freak out a bit when I typed esoteric technical jargon.
Interfacing with the ITworld back-end to post Monday's blog entry was seamless in Safari; posting some other articles to a client's WordPress site was also extremely easy, thanks to the iOS WordPress app.
The power came back on four hours later (we were lucky -- my neighbors across the street would be living without electricity for three more days), but I was already well on my way working on the iPad.
Tuesday: Keeping things organized
In order to see what's happening in the open source world, I use a lot of social media and newsreader tools.
For instance, when I find something in Safari, I use Instapaper to store the link so I can get back to it later. Instapaper is great because I can bookmark a link on one machine and then read the article on another, though I would be doing none of that this week.
My favorite newsreader isn't Google Reader, but rather an app that lets me plug into my Google Reader account: Reeder. Reeder is very useful, because when I find a article I want to share, I can email it (the link or the whole article), Twitter it, or sent it to a number of social services, including Facebook, ReadItLater, Zootool, or (again) Instapaper.
That helps keep my research organized. For communicating on Twitter, my primary social broadcast platform, I use Twitterific and HootSuite. I have the official Twitter app, but try as I might, I just like Twitterific better. But when I need to schedule tweets out, HootSuite is my preferred app; it lets me time broadcasts on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.
To keep everything else organized, I love using OmniFocus, a task manager that is based on the Getting Things Done project management system. OmniFocus lets me input a whole bunch of things to do as I think of them; every couple of hours, I sweep through the list and assign the tasks to projects, set up due dates, and specify the context in which I will complete the task. So, if I have a context for a task of "Errand" one day, I can quickly see if there are any other Errand tasks and hit as many as I can while I'm out and about. OmniFocus is my most expensive app, but I love it.
For calendaring, I tend to use SaiSuke, which has a sweet desktop organizer feel to it. It also syncs up with my Google Calendar account, which is perfect because I have all of my kids' calendars from their Google Apps for My Domain accounts in my account too. That means I can see at a glance any appointment they have set up for me to view. (They have learned that if they want a ride somewhere, they'd better share appointments with me as often as possible.)
With the writing and organizing all down pat, this week was looking pretty good so far.
Wednesday: Bumps ahead?
My personal website, where I post links to all of the articles I have written to date (including this one), runs on a Joomla! platform. A lot of my friends have tried to dissuade me from this, advocating Drupal or WordPress instead, but I really like Joomla! Except for that annoying exclamation mark in the name.
To post content on my site from my iPad, I used an app called Joomla! Admin Mobile, or JAM! for short. JAM! was simple enough to use, but seeing as I had already taken my iPad-only vow, there was one catch: To use the app, I would first have to log in to the site's backend and add a new extension. Fortunately, Safari was able to handle the task, and in just a short time I had complete access to my site's administrative dashboard and was catching up on my site posting.
Potential trouble then started when my client -- the one who uses Word and Office exclusively -- dropped me a line and asked for revisions to a training package I had put together for him last week -- a file I thought was done. I asked him to drop it in my public Dropbox folder, and then proceeded to pull it onto my iPad with the Dropbox app. I was worried, because this was a 100+ slide presentation with a lot of embedded images and presenter notes -- and since notes were what needed to be fixed, I needed to be able to access them.
I needn't have worried. The file downloaded flawlessly and opened in Keynote perfectly, and I was able to run through the presenter notes and edit them without a hitch.
Thursday: The biggest problem with the iPad
I will now reveal a personal obsession of mine: I love watching Le Tour de France. In July, my family pretty much knows that I will be hogging the TV and my computer with coverage of the 21-stage bicycle race. This year would be no exception: even though I had forsaken my PC, I had the iPad Tour de France app (which is awesome, by the way.)
But this leads me to the most frustrating thing about using the iPad, in any context: there is only one window at a time. Yes, there is multi-app capability that lets you run more than one app at a time (which is cool for listening to music and working), but visually you can only see one app at a time, period.
While I was researching material for articles and having to switch back and forth between each app's full-screen display, it got old in a hurry. I managed. But ultimately, working and watching the Tour (or any video content) was impossible. I longed for a picture-in-picture or split-screen functionality. This was particularly maddening because my deadlines are all in the morning, and the Tour's live broadcasts are all in the morning in the US.
Thursday, thank Lance, the app was updated, and I gained the ability to go back and watch all of the stages in their entirety. So, once I got my work done, I could at least catch up with the events of the race later in the day.
Hobbies aside, the one-window limitation is the one thing that I think holds the iPad back as a serious content production device. I get the design goal of the interface, I really do; but simplicity can go too far, and there are times when you need to see more than one document at the same time.
Friday: Navigation limitations
Today it was time to go back to camp and retrieve my youngest daughter from the wilds of northern Indiana. I had lost the written directions (of course), so I reprinted them using the iPad's AirPrint capability, without sweat.
On a whim, I decided to call up the directions in the Maps app (instead of Safari, which is the only way you can print directions) and see how the onboard GPS handled navigation. In a couple of words: not well. My location was always exact, but without a turn-by-turn navigation aid, Maps is useless. Only after I got back did I realize like an idiot that I should have bought something like MotionX GPS Drive HD, which would have done the job. Thank goodness I'd printed out the directions.
The strength of the iPad right now is the consumption of content, and there is no doubt that it can do that well. After a long week, I watched some remastered Star Trek episodes on Netflix and started reading 1776 on the Kindle app.
This is what the iPad is best at, to be sure. It's not that it can't do real work, though. You just have to have the right apps, the right hardware, and be willing to work around the interface's limitations as you go. It can be slower than a PC platform to input content, but not to the point where you go crazy. IN the end, a week with the iPad turned out to be a pretty productive week that enabled me to do everything I needed to accomplish, and get some entertainment in as well.