Raph’s Website » Playing with the iPad

I have an iPad, as of about a week ago. I have now had the chance to try it out on a trip, as well as general home use, and I think this sort of form factor is probably the future of computing for most folks. It’s clearly early days still for slates like this, but you can see the path from here, and it is an interesting one, with variations depending on who needs to use the tablet. In the meantime, with some trickery, it can do most of what I would need to replace a laptop. Basically, I am now carrying it everywhere, and on my trip I booted up my laptop exactly once, and it was to create and display a presentation — I didn’t have a VGA adapter yet, so I couldn’t project from the iPad.

I have already spent over $100 on apps for it, and thought I would share some of my thoughts. I tend to favor free and cheap apps, actually, so the below is me trying to be a skinflint and failing!

It’s a decent art platform, for example, except for the lack of a stylus and pressure sensitivity. The drawing tablet capabilities of my old Toshiba M400 destroy it. But there’s laptops out there now with screens that work as either capacitive finger multi-touch or stylus devices… so I can see that niche getting filled. In the meantime, Sketchbook Pro ($7.99) makes for a decent drawing app, though the fact that you have to adjust a slider constantly to affect opacity or line width is annoying. For more natural sketching, you can try out Wondershare iDraft (free!), which varies line width based on speed, but lacks most everything else. Both go better when paired with a Ten One Design Pogo Sketch Stylus. Still a long way from a proper Wacom pen, but better than nothing. I had real trouble fingerpainting…

A stylus is also pretty much a must if you plan to write anything in handwriting. They asked me to sign the credit card on an iPhone when I bought the iPad, and I laughed at how bad the signature was… you just don’t write with fingers with that sort of precision, sorry! The iPad also lacks handwriting recognition support, and the selection of apps for note-taking are very keyboard-centric. What I was looking for was something that felt like a pad of paper, and instead, I mostly found text editors. I mix diagrams and text liberally in notes, so the fact that most notes apps don’t let you do this seems like an obvious oversight.

Among those that do, I preferred Notes Plus ($4.99), which translates all your strokes into vectors, for the simple reason that you can write in a zoom window, so your text is actually handwriting-sized instead of poster-sized like in most apps; smartNote ($0.99) offered similar features, but the zoom window wasn’t there. I do miss having an erase tool that isn’t based on shape selection, though. Both apps let you type or sketch, and neither offer handwriting recognition — for that you would have to go with WritePad, which is again, just a text editor so I didn’t try it. The industry leader in notetaking, Evernote, doesn’t do ink yet in its iPad version, and I haven’t tried Penultimate because you can’t type into it.

A pleasant surprise was the way the musician community embraced the iPad. There’s a pile of pro-grade apps for music creation. I won’t try covering the kajillion instruments, but two pleasant surprises were AC-7 Pro ($9.99), which turns your iPad into a wireless Mackie control surface — I can control my digital recording software through it, with sliders and knobs on screen! — and MultiTrack DAW ($9.99), which is what it says — even including loop-based tools. And I should mention that Voice Band which is an iPhone app, is really neat — it generates MIDI data off your voice. :) I look forward to getting a Camera Connection kit (Wednesday, I hope) and hooking in a good USB mic into this setup, and seeing what happens, when recording jam sessions and the like. I have my eye on a Blue Microphones Yeti USB Microphone, which is reasonably priced for the quality mic it is.

For web purposes beyond browsing, I found that the WordPress app (free) was a universal app, and while I kept around the old version of this app on the phone, on the iPad I use the newer one with no issues. The best cheap RSS reader I found was ZeFeed (free!), which beat out xFeed (also free) mostly because of its organizational structure and interface. ZeFeed is a bit slow to launch, and marking everything as read is obscure (tap the ribbon, the listing will flip to a mark read button). none of these offer OPML import, unfortunately. And I use Twitteriffic (free) for Twitter, which is nice because it’s what I use on the phone too. I also use the official Facebook app (free), and man, it is terrible. I hear there are alternatives…

Accessing my files on my webserver and even editing files up there was easy with FTPOnTheGo Pro ($9.99). You need the pro version because the non-pro is just for iPhone/iPod. It lets you edit files remotely, FTP up and down, etc. Of course, the fact that iOS does not have a filesystem is an issue that causes every app to include attempts at parsing every file format known to man — this one will attempt to display JPG, PDF, DOC, XLS, PPT… it crashed on some of my more complex PPTs, but so did every other app. :(

In fact, the single biggest letdown with the iPad is in fact the ridiculous hoops that lack of filesystem makes you jump through. None of the slideshow apps seem to let you see the slide both on the iPad and on the projector at once, Apple’s own Keynote ($9.99) included, which for me is a huge problem when giving presentations. You have to use iTunes to transfer files in and out, which basically locks you out of working easily on the road. To add insult to injury, Keynote choked on almost every PPT I gave it.

So I bought Quickoffice ($14.99), which let me mount the iPad as just a network drive on my PC, which was awesome. But it doesn’t let you edit Powerpoint files, though you can try to view them (editing is a promised feature). It did better at at least showing the slides, but then you can’t project them! (Projecting things on iPad is app by app, which is stupid and no doubt some crazy Apple restriction). So I tried Goodreader ($0.99), which does support VGA out as well as displaying darn near anything… but isn’t an editor of any sort. And getting files between the two, well, you email them to yourself. Ugh.

I often need to pull up webpages on a projector too. For that you can use Expedition VGA ($0.99), which apparently is intended to grow into more of a presentation tool than a browser. Of course, getting files into it… well. I tried AirSharing HD ($9.99) but had trouble getting it to mount as a network drive on XP. It basically attempts to give you a filesystem. In the end, I may frequently resort to LogMeIn Ignition (a whopping $29.99) which gives me remote desktop access.

Other work-type stuff I have not messed with enough to form an opinion: ToDo and Dragon Dictation. But overall, I’d say that the iPad serves better as an office tool for non-traditional jobs, like art or music, than it does for pushing paper or giving presentations. Which is interesting, and odd.

I am using Stanza (free) for eBook reading. It does a bunch of ebook formats (though not LIT, alas, I have a bunch of those). It does well with PDFs which were useless to me on the iPhone, but are great and exactly book-sized here. I was able to bring in my song circle fakebook, which is 500 pages of PDF, and it worked. It also reads CBRs, which I haven’t tried yet, but basically gives you access to comics. And it does connect to both a pile of exisiting eBookstores, and to arbitrary URLs as well.

The idea of transcoding video content to the iPad made me shudder, so I was very happy to find yxPlayer ($4.99), which is basically yxFlash for the iPad, and handles playing a variety of movie formats. Alas, no VGA support.

Lastly, it is a very good game machine, but more importantly a game machine that enforces incredibly simple UIs. It is no surprise that the games I have liked the most are ones where the touch screen is embraced, like the arty games Osmos, Auditorium, Spider (newly in HD as of yesterday) & Trundle; puzzle stuff like Drop7, CrossFingers, Colorbind; super casual things like BirdStrike, Tiki Premium, and everything in the Chop Chop series (Ninja, Runner, and Tennis). Also, I was happy to find classics, like Frotz (basically, the entire IF archive at your fingertips!), Troika (think Set), Blokus HD, and that the pixel-doubled Archon for the iPhone holds up very well. I scarf up probably a game a day, often via free promotions, so this list is very very far from exhaustive.

What am I missing, and what rocks?

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