Lunch & Learn: Research and Writing on the iPad with Will Howarth

iPadHowarth.jpgImage courtesy remiforal, Flickr. Licence: CC.

Will Howarth, Professor Emeritus of English at Princeton, spoke to a large Lunch ‘n Learn audience on February 16 about how he uses his iPad as an essential companion to reading, writing, research and travel.

Howarth began the talk by describing his long search for a lightweight, portable device that would be convenient for use while writing and traveling. From small-format computers of various vintages, to PDAs, Howarth has found the iPad to be the best solution to date. Its light weight (24 ounces), long battery life (approximately 10 hours), responsiveness, and the availability of useful applications have made it one of his favorite tools for productivity.

Howarth showed the basic mechanics of navigating several iPad screens, and using the screens to organize applications by function. He also demonstrated how to customize the persistent tool “dock” that appears on all screens, useful for storing one’s most commonly used applications.

Howarth’s preferred layout is to have news and information applications on the first screen of his device, writing tools on the second, and on the third screen, a miscellaneous assortment of apps that are either not fully tested, or exiled as being of secondary importance.

Citing the limitations of the virtual keyboard on the iPad’s touch screen for someone with larger hands, Howarth showed his solutions in the form of two Bluetooth keyboards that can be synced to the device to allow typing on a more conventional set of keys. One of the keyboards was integrated into a small carrying case. The other, more suited for desktop use, was a compact stand-alone keypad that allowed for typing on full-sized keys. Another limitation to the iPad is the lack of a USB or other data port that would allow for easy file transfer via portable storage media. However, since several of the applications that Howarth customarily uses have mechanisms to sync and share files among several machines, this shortcoming has been largely overcome by application developers. Howarth proceeded to describe and share his favorite iPad applications for writing and research with his audience.

Howarth’s talk was divided into eight general categories of iPad applications. Reference tools, Database applications for storing and organizing, Readers for books and periodicals, Note-taking tools, Notebooks that sync files between applications, tools for working with PDF files, Storage on Cloud servers, and a Productivity suite with familiar office tools, formed the outline of Howarth’s talk. Each of these categories is discussed separately below.

Author’s note: Although the talk was cut short owing to time constraints, Professor Howarth was kind enough to share his notes with me. This post contains material that may not have been presented in the talk, or was mentioned only briefly last Wednesday.

Reference tools:

Safari

Safari (included with the iPad) is the browser included on all machines using the Apple iOS. Safari on mobile devices can be customized for fast browsing, for bookmarking popular destinations, and customized to take advantage of the highly portable nature of the iPad. Howarth demonstrated how he has tailored his particular Safari toolbar so that he has research tools, particularly remote access to scholarly research collections including Princeton’s Library, available at his fingertips. Among the headings in Howarth’s customized list of bookmarks are Reference tools, Authors, and Libraries.

Wikipanion

Wikipanion (free in the app store) is a tool designed to optimize searching, navigation, and display of entries in Wikipedia. The tool’s graphical display of a Wikipedia entry includes a sidebar outline of main headings in a Wikipedia entry to facilitate navigation and exploration, as well as contextual links to related topics.

Google Earth

Google Earth (free in the app store) is a portable version of the popular desktop application, made even more stunning by the iPad’s high resolution screen. The application includes all of the features and imagery of the desktop version, with the added ability to find your own location on the globe using the built-in GPS features of the iPad. A good companion to travel, Google Earth, like Google Maps (included with the iPad) can help to find local landmarks, businesses and cultural locations.

National Geographic World Atlas

The National Geographic World Atlas ($1.99 in the app store) is another application for maps, this time featuring high-resolution images of National Geographic’s own distinctive cartography. The app features 3 different styles of maps, and can be zoomed down to the granularity of a satellite image focusing on a particular street or building. (Street-level maps are drawn from Bing satellite imagery.)

Recommendations:

The Safari browser should be the first point of departure as a source for reference materials, as the bookmarks can be customized to point to many excellent online tools. Howarth recommends not buying too many reference apps until the potential of Safari is exhausted.

Database Applications:

Things for iPad

Things for iPad ($19.99 in the app store), also available in a desktop version for Macs, is a task manager that fits with the category known as “todo” apps. The app allows you to enter notes, projects, and due dates, in an easy-to-use interface that syncs with the desktop version of the application. Since Howarth uses both versions, he finds it easy to set up lists at home, and have them automatically updated on the iPad. He uses the Categories to set up priorities and to schedule tasks, and uses the built-in lists for “Today,” “Next,” “Scheduled,” and “Someday” to help keep him on track with deadlines.

DEVONthink To Go

DEVONthink To Go ($14.99 in the app store) is a companion program to DEVONthink and DEVONnote, both desktop applications for the Mac. The program can be used on its own, but according to the manufacturer “unfolds its full potential ONLY when used in conjunction with these applications. Howarth uses DEVONthink Pro Office and DEVONnote, and uses the applications together to save web clips, bookmarks, files for courses, notes on alumni trips he has led, and writing projects. A sync folder in the applications keeps the iPad version updated; conversely any changes on the iPad are reflected in the desktop versions at the next synchronization.

Bento for iPad

Bento for iPad ($4.99 in the app store) is a personal database program made by FileMaker Pro. It comes in a desktop version as well, and can sync with Bento 3 for the Mac. The database includes templates for many sorts of organizational tasks, from to do lists, to events, to household inventories, to expenses–even logs for diet and exercise. Howarth uses Bento at home on his computer, and uses the program mostly for listing addresses, book
inventories, lists of films. The application, Howarth notes, can export and import spreadsheets in various formats.

Recommendations:

These apps, Howarth noted, are best suited to those who are enthusiastic users of their desktop counte parts. For those who don’t own, or intend to own the companion programs, similar functionality can be found in the Note-Taking applications, described below.

One major lack in this category of applications is one for organizing bibliographic references. Howarth told the audience he has been in contact with the makers of EndNote, a popular bibliography program among scholars at Princeton. They report that an iPad version of their database is currently in the works.

Readers:

Writing begins with reading, according to Howarth–here are his favorite tools:

iBooks

iBooks (free in the app store) is Apple’s own e-book reader, with content purchased from iTunes. iBooks also has the ability to read PDF documents, which can be included in the library from email attachments sent to the iPad. Items in one’s library can be viewed as book covers on a virtual bookshelf, or in list view, and it is possible to arrange collections within one’s library. Howarth showed an 8-page PDF report written by one of his students that is now part of his iBooks library. The interface controls include adjustments for screen brightness, a search feature, and bookmarks. The interface also has an animated page turn feature, and a “scrubbing” progress bar to slide rapidly from one section of the book to another. Books can be annotated, but PDFs cannot. Although iTunes sells many popular current books, it also has many free offerings, mostly for books in the public domain.

Kindle

Kindle, (free in the app store) an app that share the name of Amazon’s popular e-reader, allows Kindle books to be read on the iPad and the iPhone. There are numerous versions of the Kindle reader, available for most portable devices, desktops, and a web-based version. Content for the app is purchased from Amazon.com, or uploaded by the user. The reader accepts .azw files, .mobi files, .rtf and text files, as well as PDFs. Howarth showed how to navigate his Kindle edition of Deep Creek, a novel he co-authored with Anne Matthews under the pseudonym Dana Hand. The Kindle interface turns pages with a swipe or a tap, and tapping on a word will simultaneously offer the options to highlight the word, make a note about the text, and , and to display the entry for the word in a built-in dictionary,–with links to related entries on Wikipedia and Google. Notes bookmarks and highlights are stored on Amazon cloud servers, and can be referenced and printed through the online interface. The Amazon Kindle bookstore has the most titles of any digital bookstore, including more than 25,000 free titles from Project Gutenberg.

Stanza

Stanza by Lexcycle (free in the app store) is one of the first e-readers ever made, and has been recently acquired by Amazon. Less sophisticated than the other two readers mentioned in this section, it offers annotations, bookmarks, search, and reverse black/white screen view. Stanza is backed by a library of more than 100,000 books, all of them free.

Recommendations:

Working across e-readers can be problematic owing to the fact that formats, citations, annotations, and page numbering are not standard, which as Howarth notes, is a major headache for scholars. One bright note on this topic is the recent announcement that Amazon will include references to the pagination of the print edition on which the Kindle edition is based, which will allow more accurate citations and place finding for readers who are using both paper and digital editions of books. Apple’s threatened restrictions on books purchased from non-Apple apps also has caused some worry among consumers.

Among the three readers discussed here, Howarth declares Kindle the winner, because it is the most affordable and flexible platform for reading.

Note-Taking applications

These applications are ideal for taking, sharing and synching notes with other machines. In some cases, they can provide an alternative for the Database applications listed above. There are hundreds of such apps available for the iPad; here is Howarth’s selected list. Some of these applications have a browser interface that will update information on your mobile device.

Index Card

Index Card ($4.99 in the app store) is a simple non-linear writing tool for the iPad. It allows notes to be captured in an interface that resembles index cards pinned to a corkboard. Notes can be reordered, recolored, written, edited, and “stacked” into projects. Index Card exports a text file of your notes that can be read by most word processors. Howarth finds this a favorite tool for brainstorming, organizing, categorizing by color, and for organizing projects. He shares his cards via email, or using Dropbox.

PlainText

PlainText (free in the app store) is a simple app for editing text on the iPad. It looks much simpler than Index Card, and does many of the same things. Sharing and syncing is done via a Dropbox interface. Howarth and other writers like it because it is simple, elegant, and has a very “paper-like” interface.

SimpleNote

SimpleNote (free in the app store) is a note-taking app, that despite its name, is a little more complex than the other apps mentioned in this section. Howarth uses SimpleNote in conjunction with a Mac iOS application called Notational Velocity (a free, open-source download) that stores and retrieves notes. Howarth finds it a great way to type up quick or related ideas, which auto-sync to SimpleNote. There is also a browser application for SimpleNote that can be used to share ideas with others. There is no choice of font, and the user interface is less attractive than the other two options.

Recommendations:

All three of these note-taking applications have unique strengths, but of the three, SimpleNote is the most versatile.

Notebooks

Notebook apps group items, sync them to cloud servers, allow for exports into various word processors, and allow entry of data either via a web browser or a desktop application.

Springpad

Springpad (free in the app store) is an application that allows you to save notes, tasks, links, images, nearby places, barcode scans (from products, books or media), lists of things (movies, books, wines) in virtual notebooks that organize your materials by topic. It syncs via Springpadit.com to a browser interface that includes a web-clipping tool. Your notebooks can be shared with family and friends using Facebook or Twitter. Howarth likes the application for its organization and synchronization, and notes that it is a very good tool for working with groups. His notebooks, containing items related to Teaching, Writing, Travel, and Local topics were displayed against a background of a favorite picture.

Evern
ote

Evernote (free in the app store) is probably the most popular notebook app for Apple devices. It stores many kinds of files including webpages, PDFs, text, links, audio files and images, and organizes them into notebooks based on project type. Each media type can also be geo-referenced for mapping and searching.  Evernote syncs to Mac, PC, and web interfaces, and the desktop versions are also a free download. The “todo” functions of Evernote are quite good, and works best when used in conjunction with one of the desktop versions (also free). Monthly uploads of up to 60MB per month are free on Evernote; the premium version ($45/annum) allows for monthly uploads of up to 1 GB. The premium version also allows for read/ write notebook sharing with colleagues, whereas the free version is read-only for those you share with.

Recommendations:

Howarth notes that other notebook applications allow writing and drawing and speaking instead of typing, but his recommendation is Evernote as the best notebook app.

PDF Tools

PDF documents are part of the lingua franca of scholarly documents. There are several apps that allow PDFs to be read, annotated and shared on the iPad. Getting PDFs into your iPad can either be via a server, download, file-sharing via iTunes, or as an e-mail attachment

iAnnotate

iAnnotate ($9.99 in the app store) as the name suggests is a tool made for annotating PDF documents ( PDF readers are more numerous.) The tool allows highlights, notes, freehand drawing or writing, bookmarks, stamps, underscoring, strike-through, and tabbed reading of multiple documents. The standard toolbars can be customized with a wide range of possible commands, and the program allows display through VGA out. Search is possible at the document level, or full-library. Markups can be “flattened” for printing and sharing in a way that preserves annotation as an image, or emailed “as is.” Sync is possible through iTunes, Safari, email and Dropbox. The same company makes a desktop PDF companion for iAnnotate calld Aji PDF Service. Using the desktop program in conjunction with iAnnotate makes it easy to manage large libraries of PDF documents.

GoodReader

GoodReader ($2.99 in the app store) is another PDF reader/annotation tool. It allows sticky notes, highlighting, freehand drawing and writing, rubber stamps, underlining, strike-through, and shapes such as arrows, boxes, ovals, and others that can be used to draw attention to sections of a document. Transfer and sync can be done via MobileMe, iDisk, Google Docs, Dropbox, SugarSync, box.net, and WebDAV and FTP services. The application is most versatile in the document types it can read: not only PDF, but MS Office, iWork, HTML, image and audio and video files can be used with this application.

Papers for iPad

Papers for iPad ($14.99 in the app store) is mainly for scholars of science. Although the app is a PDF  markup tool, allowing highlighting and notes, and emailing annotations, the chief benefit of the app is the built-in search engine that allows you to find and download PDF articles in the following databases: CM, NASA-ADS, arXiv, Google Scholar, IEEE Xplore, JSTOR, Pubmed, and Web of Science. There is a desktop version for the Mac that can be used for synchronization, but it also works with Dropbox, iDisk, iTunes and email. PDFs are stored on your iPad, so you need at least 100MB of free space. A limitation in the current version is that although documents are synced between the mobile and desktop versions of the app, your annotations are not.

Recommendations:

GoodReader is a good value for most PDF use, and also works with other document types. iAnnotate has more markup features, and the advantage of VGA-out. Papers is invaluable for a researcher who commonly uses the scholarly databases supported by the application.

Storage on Cloud Servers

Getting documents on and off the iPad, keeping them up to date, and sharing them with people, other applications, and devices relies mostly on wireless forms of document transfer. Cloud servers perform an important function in achieving this goal.

Dropbox

From the numerous times that Dropbox (free in the app store) is mentioned in other entries, you may have concluded that it is a very popular program for file sharing. Dropbox is available for desktop and mobile devices, has a built-in public html file for sharing, and a photo file for making automated slide shows you can send to other people. Using any of the Dropbox interfaces syncs to all others. The free service is up to 2 GB, and the next upgrade takes you to 50 GB for $99/ year.

MobileMe iDisk

MobileMe iDisk (app is free in the app store, but a MobileMe subscription is required) is a popular Apple service that allows you to view and share files from a number of devices. File types from iWork, Microsoft Office, PDFs, QuickTime movies, JPEGs and more, are supported, however files larger than 20MB may not be viewable on all devices. The iDisk has both public and private folders to facilitate sharing. Paid subscribers of MobileMe who have legacy iPhones can subscribe to a service on MobileMe that will find their lost or stolen iPhone.  Owners of the iPhone 4, iPad, or fourth generation iPod touch with iOS 4.2 or higher can get this service with a free account, but storage space still costs money.

Air Sharing HD

Air Sharing ($0.99 in the app store) allows you to mount your iPhone, iPad or iPodTouch as a wifi drive on your computer. It works with Mac, PC or Linux. Mounting your mobile device as a remote drive allows you to drag and drop files between devices for syncing and sharing. Documents can be viewed and emailed. The app also allows you to mount other web-based servers such as MobileMe iDisk, Dropbox, Box.net, WebDAV, FTP, FTPS, and SSH/SFTP, and allows downloads of files from the web. Air Sharing can zip and unzip files, print to printers shared by Mac OS X 10.5 and above or Linux. It has an advanced image viewer for hi-res images, and an PDF viewer that supports large, structured PDF files. There’s a long list of viewable file types that includes most office applications and media files. The HD version is made especially for the large display of the iPad; the same company also makes a fun app that allows you to turn your Apple device into an extra computer monitor.

Recommendations:

Dropbox is the Esperanto of file sharing apps, and you should have this one. Other cloud services can provide extra features.

iWork

iWork for mobile devices started a revolutionary trend in office-type applications. Rather than buying bundled software that includes a word processor, a spreadsheet program, and a presentation program, as is typical, Apple decided to market these applications separately for the iPad. Each app costs $9.99. The unbundled desktop version costs $19.99 each for the same three apps.

On the iPad, files can be shared using email, iWork.com, iTunes, MobileMe iDisk, or WebDAV.. There is one-tap AirPrint available on all three apps that allo
ws for automatic printing on any AirPrint-enabled printer.

Pages

Howarth describes Pages as his favorite word processor, one he customarily uses on both the iPad and his Mac to share files with MS Word users. The iPad interface is described by Apple as “the most beautiful word processor ever designed for a mobile device.” They may be right.

Keynote

Keynote is Apple’s version of PowerPoint, and in Howarth’s opinion, is in many ways better. Presentations are easy to build, and sync between devices (although fonts can be an issue). Keynote is one of the few Apple apps that works with the VGA-out feature of the dock connector on the iPad, which makes it possible to use the iPad as a display, as well as editing, device for Keynote presentations.

Numbers

Apple’s spreadsheet app, which Howarth says he uses mostly for grade sheets, and built-in formulas to make calculations easy. The app has many built in design features so that spreadsheets look less like boring tables, and much more like a polished publication.

Recommendations:

These apps make the iPad a viable laptop replacement. An external keyboard is almost required to get the most out of them, but the applications cost so much less than expected, you can use the money you save  to get a fancy iPad case with an integrated keyboard that makes typing a breeze.

Conclusion

According to Howarth, the iPad is a lot more than entertainment — the constant evolution of apps have made it into a valuable tool for writing and research. New, useful apps are emerging everyday to extend the usefulness of this device.

Howarth concluded his presentation with this video, which he said, makes it clear that research is “the coolest, sexiest work on the planet.”

The podcast for this talk is available here.

The handout for this talk is available here.

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