What's On My iPad Mini

My friend Marcus Zarra recently asked me if I would write an update on how I'm using my iPad for productivity. How has my hardware/software workflow evolved over time? I think the last time I wrote about this was pre-iCloud so I thought an update was well overdue. Also, as I recently moved to an iPad mini for most of my daily iPad use, it's been an interesting and useful chance to think through the use cases once more.

I guess the first thing to say is that the 'reboot' onto the iPad mini has been largely very smooth. I made what, in hindsight, was a mistake in jumping on a 16GB WiFi iPad instead of waiting for a 32GB LTE version. I guess I didn't know that I was going to like the mini so much but I haven't bought a WiFi-only iPad since my first iPad and I doubt I'll ever do so again. Cellular networking is absolutely essential to the way I work.

It's probably worth mentioning here how I get that cellular access. I have been with the UK carrier Three for a few generations of iPhone and I have been very pleased with their coverage in all the areas I need coverage (your mileage may vary). I don't have a contract. I just buy their pre-paid data SIM package and use it until it runs out, then get another. Typically, I'll buy their 3GB SIM, valid for 90 days, which costs about £20. There's also a 1GB/30 day/£10 package but I get the bigger one just to reduce the frequency of running out of data or time. We don't have prepaid SIM packages for LTE yet in the UK so I'm still slumming it on 3G.

So, what do I do with this thing?

Cloud Services

I use three main cloud services: iCloud, Evernote and Dropbox. iCloud is generally working very well for me. I sync everything that iCloud offers through that service except email. It's become my default location for all new iWork documents and I'm leaning on it pretty heavily. All my presentations live in Keynote on iCloud - including some rather fat presentations containing large videos - and it's been dependable. Interestingly, with my adoption of the iPad mini alongside my regular iPad, I noticed one big hole in the syncing landscape: iPad-only apps that don't sync. Until now, it wasn't really a requirement that an app that isn't on iPad and iPhone - or iPad and Mac - should sync. After all, who has two iPads? Well, now I do and it's pretty annoying. I'm not suggesting that this will be a common use case but it might crop up more often than before. Basically, I don't want to use an app that doesn't sync any more.

I've been on Dropbox for several years and have a large amount of data in there but it's increasingly feeling like a legacy service. I tend not to put new documents in Dropbox when I have the option of using iCloud - except when I expect to have to collaborate on them. The fundamental problem is that the Dropbox model - a folder that syncs - is perfectly happy on desktop operating systems but hopelessly hobbled on iOS. On iOS you either use their app or depend on all the apps you use supporting the Dropbox API. Many apps do, but I'm not totally happy restricting myself to only use apps that talk Dropbox.

Finally, Evernote. Evernote is for everything that's not a document and quite a few things that are. I tend to put reference PDFs into Evernote. The killer feature for Evernote on iOS is the ability to email things to your Evernote account. I do this all the time.

Work Apps

I use Evernote a lot for work. All kinds of reference material and records of work go into my Evernote account and I'll frequently use the camera on my phone or iPad to capture something and stash it in Evernote.

The second app that I critically depend on is PDF Expert by Readdle. I'm not exaggerating when I say that PDF Expert is the best PDF app I have used on any platform at any price. The only thing it can't do is create a PDF form (feature request!). I use it for presenting PDF documents to classes and I'm increasingly using it as the cornerstone of an all-digital marking workflow that goes like this: student emails me a PDF assignment; I open it in PDF Expert and mark it using the pen and text tools; I then email back a copy of the document and CC it to my Evernote account as a record. PDF Expert can also talk to numerous other cloud services including Dropbox, Google Drive and Skydrive.

I use the iWork apps at school but not in the way you think. I hardly use Pages at all, but I use Numbers to record class data and maintain certain registers. I use Keynote when I'm presenting about our iPad work but I typically don't teach in a Keynote-heavy way. I think I probably have about two actual Keynotes that I do in class. I much prefer a whiteboard and pen, with a device camera for capturing that.

We also make extensive use of iTunes U at school so I have that app as part of my toolkit. For the most part, though, I write into iTunes U and the students use the app. A weird anomaly with iTunes U is that you can't use the Course Manager component from an iOS device - despite Course Manager being web based.

Explain Everything always comes up in education circles and rightly so. It's a great whiteboard-recording app for iOS. When I was recently laid up after a knee operation, I used it extensively in conjunction with iTunes U to create short videos that my classes could watch along with the lessons.

Two other apps I use for teaching are Prompt and Textastic. These two tools are the iOS end of our programming classes, which is all done on iOS. I've written about this before.

Communications

I've recently been interested in the idea of using my iPad mini as a 'replacement phone'. This idea isn't unique to me - Stephen Hackett is going iPhoneless with an LTE iPad mini, and Greg Kroah-Hartman is curious about doing the same with a Nexus 7 (but can't because the N7 has no cellular networking option; something I complained about in my review) - but I certainly saw the possibility almost straight away.

To this end, prominent on my home screen are: Messages, FaceTime and Skype. I counted it up yesterday and, on my iPhone, I had eight separate ways to send a message to my phone that didn't involve making a carrier-based phone call or sending an SMS. Those options were: iMessage, Skype, FaceTime, Twitter, Netbot, Google+, Facebook and Mail. You could also count - at a push - Instagram and Photos via a shared photostream.

It is increasingly unclear to me that a £40/month contract is good value just to receive legacy SMS messages. Certainly, there's a portability question. However, from a technical point of view, I think I'm adequately contactable without a carrier contract. Unfortunately, I just signed a 2-year contract for an iPhone 5 so this experiment will have to live alongside my phone for now.

Reading

I enjoy reading on my iPad and I'm even grudgingly getting used to it on my iPad mini - making the fonts a size bigger than you would on a retina iPad definitely helped me. I buy all my eBooks on Kindle and use the Kindle app. This decision isn't software-driven - I vastly prefer everything about iBooks - but the range of books available in the UK iBookstore is far inferior to Amazon's selection and the price disparity between iBooks and Kindle is often shocking and bizarre. I recently bought a book for £2.99 on Kindle that was £8.99 on iBooks. That's fairly typical; books are either priced identically on both or Amazon is far cheaper.

I also use and love Flipboard. Flipboard has been my RSS reader for a couple of years now. Initially Flipboard didn't click with me but, when they announced their iPhone version, I suddenly saw how it could be a real part of my reading 'workflow' if you will. I have connected my Flipboard to Google Reader as a way to follow certain blogs but I have dramatically cut down on RSS over recent years and only subscribe to the few writers from whom I don't want to miss a single post. I read most of the big tech sites through their own Flipboard channels.

I also connect Flipboard to Twitter. I use Twitter lists as a way to gather like-minded people and read the links they post. You know how sometimes a person is a great curator of links but their actual tweets might not be all that? This is how I deal with it: put them on a list and read their links through Flipboard. This has become such an essential part of my knowledge-gathering that I'm genuinely worried about how this will work if Twitter cuts off Flipboard.

For my "read later" service, I now use Pocket over Instapaper. The main reason for this is that Pocket handles video much more elegantly and it's as broadly-supported as Instapaper in the apps through which I may find links.

It feels weird to actually bother mentioning Newsstand but, like many people, I've started to find it useful since Marco Arment's wonderful "The Magazine" shipped. I subscribed on day one and can't imagine unsubscribing any time soon. I also quite enjoy Distro from Engadget from time to time.

Media

I'm not a huge music guy and I've found iTunes Match meets my needs very well. I've never subscribed to any music services like Pandora or Rdio - it's just not worth the money. I can buy all the music I'm ever interested in for less than the cost of subscribing to any of these services. I don't subscribe to Netflix either but I do use the BBC iPlayer app.

For podcasts, I recently switched from Instacast to Downcast. This was a new change prompted by the switch to the iPad mini. The mini was so portable (and the audio so good) that I found myself wanting to listen to podcasts on the device. Up to this point, I had always used Instacast on my phone only. I owned Instacast HD but the syncing between the two has never, ever worked for me. Downcast syncs between the devices perfectly but there is literally nothing else I like better in Downcast than Instacast. With the upcoming release of Instacast 3.0, I hope I can go back.

Social Networking

Tweetbot, of course.

…but I'm also getting interested in Google+. I think there are some really great tools there and the iOS app experience is probably the best one that Google has yet shipped.

I also really enjoy Instagram and you're welcome to follow me there. With the advent of the iPad mini, I wonder if Instagram will feel some pressure to produce an iPad version? For now, I've hooked Instagram up to Flipboard and browse my friends' photos that way.

Games

I don't really play games on my iPad but the iPad mini is much more pleasant for doing so. I only have Need For Speed - Most Wanted installed, which is a simply wonderful game, and Deep Green Chess. I keep the Toca Boca apps installed for my youngest daughter, although I'm never all that happy about letting children put their filthy hands on my devices. We have a sacrificial iPad 1 in the house for that.

Miscellaneous

I have a few other utilities that I keep around:

  • iTeleport for VNC sessions onto various Macs
  • PCalc for hard sums
  • The official Gmail app, in case I need to search my email (why is this operation still so awful on mobile?)
  • Keynote Remote
  • Flight+ for tracking my flights (syncs with iPhone; yay!)
  • Delivery Status Touch for tracking packages
  • WeatherPro HD - the design is nothing much to write home about but the data is deadly accurate for the UK and it syncs favourite locations through iCloud.

So that's how I'm using my iPad these days. I think it's an interesting look at the evolution of the iOS software landscape. Compared to 2010, I'm definitely using fewer apps but those apps have grown far more powerful, capable and - crucially - dependable than they once were.

It's also instructive to note that the home screen on my iPhone increasingly looks like a quick-access version of my iPad: Phone, Photos, Camera, Messages, Flipboard, Pocket, Kindle, Downcast, WeatherPro, Maps, Mail, Newsstand, Instagram, Skype, Netbot, Google+, Safari, Evernote, Calendar, Tweetbot. The only home-screen phone app I don't have on my iPad being Instagram.

I'm continually impressed by the range, depth and quality of top-tier iOS software. Sure, there's a bunch of dreck in the store - 90% of everything is crud - but that top 10% on iOS is some of the best, most innovative and creative software being built today. It's why I choose to use iOS. It was never about the hardware alone.