The iPad as a Grad Student Tool

It appears we’re on the cusp of tablet devices really breaking out and becoming truly ubiquitous. In past weeks I have fielded numerous inquiries from fellow grad students and professors who are considering whether or not to get a tablet. So, I’m going to try and capture my thoughts on the subject all in one place.

First, my experience is with the iPad. There are other devices like Kobo and Kindle. I haven’t really used these others, so I’m not going to do a comparison, and what I say about the iPad may or may not apply to other devices. I have the original iPad, wireless only. I decided not to plunk down the cash for a 3G model and plan, and I haven’t missed it. But then, between home and campus, I’m rarely out of reach of a wireless network, and if I really need one there is always a coffee shop nearby. Those in non-urban environments may find no-3G limiting, though. Since getting my iPad, I’ve pretty much stopped using my iPhone for anything other than as a phone, music/podcast player, and for Google Maps. (Both music and maps are more handy on the smaller device.)

I’ve had my iPad for some nine months now, so I’ve got considerable experience in using it and have settled into methods and routines that work for me. I haven’t exploited the full potential of the device and my comments are based on my idiosyncratic use. Finally, I have no personal stake in or affiliation with Apple. While I am generally impressed with the quality of the company’s products, I’m not an Apple fan boy, and even when living in San Francisco I never had any desire to attend Macworld, and my PCs have always been Windows-based. So I believe I’m objective on that score.

My bottom line assessment is that every grad student in the humanities needs a tablet. Keep that in mind when I make a negative comment or outline the device’s limitations. They are great, but an iPad is not a complete replacement for a laptop.

What the iPad is really good at:

  • Reading. Untethering from the PC and reading on a tablet is simply wonderful. The iPad is easy on the eyes and can be read in any indoor lighting conditions. And the ability to take and especially search digital notes is priceless. More on this below.
  • Web surfing.
  • Reading Email.
  • Social media apps, like Facebook and Twitter.
  • Video. While the iPad doesn’t do flash video, it can play other formats. The resolution is superb, and it’s much more relaxing to watch on the tablet than it is sitting at a computer. A television is still the best device for video, though.
  • Storing massive amounts of data. The storage capabilities are truly impressive. I use only small fraction of the available storage space. In fact, I can’t imagine that I’ll ever have to cull files to make room for more, unless I start using it as my preferred video device over my television. But I don’t have any music or many movie files on my iPad. If I did, storage would be tighter.
  • Inexpensive software. Say what you will about them, but iPad apps are very reasonably priced. A $5 or $10 iPad app would cost $70 on a PC, and most are under $5, if not free.

    Functions I’m on the fence about:

  • No Flash movies or animation. This is always brought up as the big iPad drawback, but frankly I don’t miss it all that much. (I only mention it because everyone else does.) It’s a minor annoyance to find a website with a video that won’t play, but then I realize that I should be working and not watching videos.
  • Presentations. My assessment here is limited because I haven’t used the presentation apps much, and it may move up to “really good” as I use it more. (Back when I worked in Silicon Valley, I would have worked this function to death. That’s one difference between corporate and academic culture.) I’ve used this function exactly once, and, after a bit of fumbling because I’d never used the prezo apps before, it worked fine. The iPad requires a special dongle for the video interface, another $30.
  • Games and distractions. They’re fun, but it’s too easy to slip from reading journal articles to playing solitaire or Scrabble.
  • Lack of wireless syncing. Having to physically plug into your PC to sink is a pain. But there is probably a good security reason for not allowing wireless sync. (I can’t imagine any other reason why they wouldn’t have this.)

What the iPad sucks at:

  • Reading critical editions of literary works. More below.
  • Finding the right edition of ebooks to buy. More below.
  • Reliance on iTunes as PC interface. It may work better on a Mac, but iTunes for Windows is the absolute suckiest piece of software ever put out by a major firm. It’s a train wreck. More below.
  • Multi-tasking. Switching between apps is slow and cumbersome. Other than the basic apps (e.g., the clock/timer, music player), you can’t run apps in the background. Switching from reading a book to look something up on the web is a pain.
  • Wordprocessing. More on this below.
  • Uploading docs to the device. It may be easier with a Mac, but it’s a pain on a PC.
  • Sharing docs between apps. It simply can’t be done. You load documents into individual applications and there they stay. Edit a doc in your word processer and the new version is not available in your reading app.

The iPad is a fantastic reading device. I’ve read all of Moby Dick, Middlemarch, Moll Flanders, Gulliver’s Travels, and a mess of Shakespeare and other works on the iPad, and it is much better than bulky books. The screen is easy on the eyes and you can use it all day without strain. For those who don’t like “reading on a computer,” the experience is entirely different. It’s much more like a book than a screen. In addition, it is ideal for journal articles, which are usually available in PDF format. Now all your reading is available on one easily portable device. The reader apps all allow you to highlight and make notes, and you can search your notes to quickly find that passage later on—a killer function that makes e-reading far superior to print, where you can spend hours searching for that annotation that you know you made somewhere. That’s something you can’t do with penciled notes in a margin of a physical book. The iPad is not, however, great in direct sunlight—too much glare. But while outdoor reading isn’t optimal, I’ve yet to find an indoor environment where the device doesn’t work like a champ.

But not all is perfect. While the iPad is great for general reading, it has its limits.

The reader apps are simply not up to handling critical editions of works. Because the reader apps like iBook and Kindle continually reformat the pages, you don’t have ready access to textual apparatuses, marginal glosses, or notes. Citing page numbers from e-editions is also a problem; they’re never the same. (Although I’ve noted that some Penguin e-editions also display the print page a passage corresponds to. But you still can’t tell where the page breaks in the print edition are, so finding precise location of a particular passage is still problematic, although you can get it down to within a page.) For instance, I plunked down the $13 for Jill Mann’s Penguin edition of The Canterbury Tales, even though I own the print edition, because I thought it would be handy to have on the device. It was a mistake. The marginal glosses were converted to notes, turning the text into an unreadable alphanumeric soup. Another factor is cost and obsolescence. Critical editions are expensive, and for ones that I really care about I don’t want to have to repurchase every few years. A print edition will still be readable in a few years, but you can’t say that for an e-book. Now if academic publishers would offer free e-editions to those who pay full price for the print version, it would be the best of both worlds.

There are some experiments to produce stand-alone apps for critical editions. As an experiment, I paid the $14 for the iPad app for T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land to see if it handles the critical functions better. (It’s not medieval, but it’s on my comps reading list, so it is useful to me.) The app is fantastic. The software provides ready access to annotations, and you can flip back and forth between the edited version and images of Eliot’s typed manuscript with Pound’s comments scribbled on it. The app also includes videos of Fiona Shaw reading the poem and critical commentary by Seamus Heaney and others. It works great, but it still has portability (between devices) and obsolescence problems.

The iPad also cannot display PDFs that are formatted with the JPEG2000 format. This is not a problem with journal articles, which are generally text based and don’t use images of the pages, but many Google Books are actually PDFs of scanned images using this format, not text.  The iPad handles normal JPEG images just fine, but many Google Books files are scanned with JPEG2000 and are unreadable on the device. To read these, you need to convert them, and this requires the full version of Acrobat, hefty computing power, and a lot of time. (My PC, which has a lot of horsepower, crashed trying to convert some books.)

Another problem for those that are serious about their literature is that the Amazon and Apple store fronts are terrible. It is essentially impossible to tell what edition the e-edition you are acquiring is based on. This is not a problem with free versions because you lose nothing by downloading, but if you’re paying money, even if it’s only $0.99, the cost can add up. Many of the free editions are based on poorly scanned nineteenth-century editions and are rife with errors; some so much that they are essentially unreadable. Even my Penguin e-edition of Moll Flanders had the consistent error of goal for gaol (although that’s a spell-check/editorial problem, not scanning). The store fronts simply don’t give the necessary information about the edition being proffered, and what info they do give is often wrong. Many of the links from the Kindle version to the hardcopy versions on the site link to different editions. (The problem is the Silicon Valley mentality where engineers think they know it all: “Who needs librarians or people who study how books are made and used? I can read, therefore I can design a site/application for readers.")

As far as reader apps go, both the Kindle and iBooks apps are free and generally excellent (aside from the critical edition problems). Functionality is the essential the same on both, so there’s no reason not to have both. Buying e-books and downloading them to the device is a breeze. I would also recommend the Goodreader app. It’s cheap and great for PDFs and generic docs. One drawback is that it’s a pain to move docs from your PC to the iPad. Downloading directly is easy, but uploading from a PC is clumsy and time consuming. You can drag and drop from a directory to iBooks, but you can’t to Goodreader, which is generally a better app for PDFs. And the iPad architecture doesn’t allow apps to share documents. You have to load them separately for each app.

This is the main reason the iPad is not a replacement for a PC. The iPad is fine for typing quick notes and annotations, but I wouldn’t want to use it for any serious word processing. The virtual keyboard is very limited and takes up screen space that really should belong to the document. I also find that I need multiple windows for moving between my text and source documents and web pages when I’m writing, and you simply can’t do this with the iPad. And a proper desk and chair is really required for writing; setting up a ergonomic workstation around an iPad is difficult. (There is an external keyboard for the iPad, but I haven’t tried it. The extra device is also one more thing to lug around and makes the iPad as cumbersome as a full laptop.) All of which leads you to the conclusion that you need a real PC for any serious writing.

Finally, iTunes. You use iTunes for managing files on your iPad and iPhone. Frankly, this is the worst piece of crap every produced by a major computer company. Its Windows implementation is unbearably slow, taking 2-3 minutes to load and up to 30 seconds to register key strokes or mouse clicks. It’s a bandwidth hog, slowing down your computer’s internet access to the point where it is impossible to work with iTunes running the background. I have seriously thought of abandoning my iPhone and iPad simply because this piece of software is so bad. I suspect the experience is different for Mac users, but if you use a Windows PC, think long and hard about going the iPad route simply because this essential piece of software is such a piece of crap.

Recommended Apps
I’m not going to list a wide spectrum of apps I like, but only the ones that I find relevant to my academic work. Prices are in U. S. dollars.

  • Goodreader. Indispensible for reading PDFs and other documents. $4.99.
  • Kindle. Amazon’s reading software. Free. (You pay for the books, of course.)
  • iBooks. Apple’s reading software. Free. (Not including books.)
  • Pages. Apple’s word processor for the iPad. I said the iPad is not ideal for word processing, but having the capability when you need it is worth ten bucks. $9.99.
  • Numbers. Apple’s spreadsheet for iPad. $9.99.
  • Keynote. Apple’s presentation software for iPad. I haven’t used it much, but I imagine once I start lecturing or delivering conference presentations, this will be more useful. $9.99.
  • 2Screens. An independent presentation app that is more flexible than Keynote, allowing you to easily play video, show websites, and other material you haven’t placed in a pre-prepared presentation. $4.99.
  • Lexidium. The ultimate Latin dictionary. It includes the full text of Lewis and Short and can parse words using Whitaker and Parsimonious. If you do Latin, you need this. $3.99, and the Parsimonious plug-in is another $3.99.
  • Old English Dictionary. Based on Bosworth Toller, this isn’t nearly as good as its Latin cousin, but it is handy. $1.99.

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