Essential iPad Tools

So I’ve had an iPad for a few weeks now; I’m beginning to learn iOS development and it seemed like a useful thing to have, as I no longer have an iPhone. (I lost it.) Also, I needed something portable to carry other than my aging MacBook Pro, which is definitely showing signs of wear and tear. Most of what I do with computers can be done on an iPad, barring graphic design work; and I’ve managed to get around a lot of the iPad’s limitations.

So I thought I’d share with you the tools and apps I’ve found coolest and most useful so far.

1) A keyboard Several years ago, I described in my Las Vegas CityLife column what I thought was the ideal form-factor for a portable computing device: a touch-enabled tablet that could be carried separately from its keyboard. The iPad gets this half-right, and honestly for most casual use the onscreen keyboard is fine. I can average about fifty WPM on it, which is decent for web browsing, tweeting, writing notes, etc.

However, I want to use my iPad to write long documents (like fiction) and PHP/HTML/CSS/Javascript code. And for that, you need a physical keyboard. It’s not just the tactility of it, though that’s a big part of things; it’s also the fact that the iPad’s virtual keyboard takes up 50% of the screen, and when you’re trying to do serious coding or writing that doesn’t work.

I wanted the Apple bluetooth wireless keyboard, but I didn’t want to spend $70 for it. So I got Apple’s Camera Connection Kit, which includes a USB-iDevice 30 pin adapter. It’s made to stick USB drives into the iPad so you can transfer images onto it, but an undocumented feature is that you can hook other sorts of USB devices in as well…including both QWERTY keyboards and MIDI controllers.

I got a $14 mini-keyboard at Fry’s to go with it, one of the cheap little ones that sysadmins often buy to hook into servers they rarely need to directly access. It’s not bad — it has a steel frame and it’s barely wider than the iPad itself. Keyboard goes into the camera kit, camera kit goes into the iPad. The OS will popup and tell you the device isn’t supported, but it works perfectly well. Supposedly you can control the iPad’s hardware like volume and the Home button with keyboard combinations, but I haven’t figured them out yet.

I’m using it now to type this, and it’s just as responsive as my desktop, typing within the Safari browser. Selecting with the keyboard works perfectly — hold down the Shift key and use the arrows, just like a desktop — though often tabbing around interface stuff doesn’t work the way one would expect. But it’s a marked improvement.

2) Docs-To-Go This was my office suite of choice for the iPad, because it supports uploading docs to Google Docs and to Dropbox, which I use extensively. So far it’s pretty decent — almost fullscreen editing of Word documents. I can’t figure out if there are keyboard shortcuts for text formatting, but I haven’t tried much other than Ctrl-I for italics. I’m thinking of trying out WriteRoom as well, as I have it and love it on the desktop.

3) FTP On The Go / Textastic For code editing, this is my one-two combo. FTP On The Go is a really full-featured FTP client for iOS that also allows text editing of documents directly from the server. The only reason I use Textastic with it is that FTPOTG doesn’t support the only two code editing functions I really need: line numbering and syntax highlighting. Textastic does, though it doesn’t have its own FTP client built in. I’m hoping one of these two apps adopts the other one’s features so I can just use one, but for right now these are a nice set of tools. I also have iSSH for telnetting or SSHing into servers.

4) Reeder I’m a Google Reader junkie. Unfortunately, the default UI for it doesn’t work properly in Mobile Safari and the mobile version is retarded. So I’ve been using the popular Reeder app, which syncs with Google Reader, to read my RSS feeds.

It has its limitations — the most irritating being that it navigates via folders, not individual feeds. I organize my feeds with folders, but there are a lot of feeds I don’t check regularly or want to basically ignore most of the time. For example, my News folder has Google News, Yahoo News, and the Guardian UK’s Culture feed. I can’t look at just one of these with Reeder — they all show up, either organized by the feed itself or by time. I’d rather just be able to only look at one feed at a time.

I just got the River of News app, which seems to be much closer to what I really want in a RSS reader UI, but it seems a bit slow, interface-wise — it loads each item slowly and sometimes cuts off images. But we’ll see.

5) Instapaper Instapaper on the iPad is an incredibly useful tool. You can save entire web pages to it for later viewing. It also reformats the page and strips out everything but the main text and images, displaying it in minimalist black and white. The iOS app downloads the page and stores it locally, so you can read pages even when you’re not online. And you can send things to it from Twitter or Reeder, which rocks — if I find an interesting article in Reeder or somebody posts a link to something, I just send it to Instapaper and check it out later.

6) iBooks I haven’t bothered with the Kindle or Nook readers for iPad, because iBooks does what I want it to do and does it well. The only problem I have with it is that it won’t display PDFs in a two-page spread — the PDF page only shows up one page at a time. But it’s not a deal breaker. It’s also awesome for reading comics.

7) Nanostudio My current favorite app. Nanostudio is a portable electronic music studio, similar to Propellerheads’ Rebirth or Beatstudio. But Nanostudio is more flexible, featuring four dual-oscillator synths and an MPC-style sampler. You can mix down your loops directly into the sampler, export each part of the song individually, record samples from the mic or input, and output your mixes directly into SoundCloud. The onscreen keyboard is actually usable, and I’ve managed to make it work like a ribbon controller. (If you don’t know what this means, don’t worry. It’s music nerd speak.)

I’m sure I’ll come up with more, but this is the basic list.

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1 Comment

  1. Hi Josh, I sent an email to a couple addresses but I don’t think you got them. Summer and I were wondering how things are going. I tried the contact form with no luck, because it seems to be missing! She tried to call, but didn’t hear me say, “He lost his phone. That won’t work.” Anyway, we were wondering how you are doing. Kinda needed a favor too. Send us a message dude. Later, John Martyn

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