The iPad and reading

The iPad has been, on the whole, an enormous disappointment to me. Those who know me well or follow me on Twitter will be surprised at that statement. Because they know I love my iPad, and Tweet about the things I can do with it quite regularly.

But it has been a disappointment because my ambitions for it have not been realised, and not because of its own shortcomings. Yes, the doubters out there will be expecting me to say that it’s too difficult to type on, or it’s missing a camera, or a proper version of OSX, but actually no, I don’t feel it needs any of those things. I’d cart my laptop around for that. The iPad is for on-bus and in-bed and running-a-rehearsal and news-checking and reading – but more of that in a second. The only feature I feel it’s sorely lacking is a cross-app file management system, but I’m getting used to the workarounds.

So why is it such a disappointment to me? Well, when the first version came out I decided to go the base model because I’d probably also upgrade to the second version a year later, which will no doubt add some of the features other users are clamouring for (even though now I don’t really think I need them). I figured I didn’t need 3G because I move between home where I run separate N and G networks, school, which was a very early adopter of N wireless, and the universities I lecture and study at, which have a range of wireless availability (UNSW amazing, UWS mediocre at best). It would do for a year.

Except it hasn’t. And the main reason is that at the moment iPad apps can’t have their own proxy settings, so they can’t talk to the internet through my school’s proxy server. So if I want to do anything outside Mail and Safari it just won’t go. The iPad iOS4 update will, I’m assured, bring localised proxy settings to each app, which should fix the problem. How much I regret not getting the 3G iPad and being so limited in using it for education as a result.

So my iPad has stayed in my bag at school. In fact, I hardly used it at all until the recent school break, when on holiday in Tasmania I decided I’d try the whole reading a book on it thing. With iBooks limited to the project Guttenberg content (oh yes, and Winnie the Pooh) in Australia so far, I downloaded the Kindle app and bought the trashy novel everyone was talking about, Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

I loved it. My wife was out doing gigs in the evening, so I would put our two babies to bed (tough gig in a hotel room) and then tiptoe to the fridge for a drink, and into bed (yes, at 7:30pm) with the app set to white text on a black background to create as little light as possible while they settled. Soon I forgot I was reading from the iPad at all – the only problem was getting used to holding it so that touching parts of the screen didn’t turn the page accidentally. This still happens a bit, but no more than the problems you have with reading pages and a book in bed. And in its case, the iPad was gentler on the arms and great on the eyes.

The other thing I quickly came to love about the Kindle app specifically, was the ability to look through the Amazon store and download the first section of the book for free to preview it. Since I got back from the break my eldest has been doing a cert 4 in website design (yes, the ages of my children span some 15 years) and so it has been wonderful to actually be able to read the contents and opening chapter(s) of books on HTML, CSS, Java, PHP, SQL and so on from the comfort of our living room to decide which one is pitched right for us. I need to buy him an iPad (he will agree). The other night, we were discussing that after he had completed the course it might be fun to try to learn iOS4 programming, and I downloaded the iPhone Programming for Dummies sample, only to see that the opening tells you there is a presumed knowledge of C++ for you begin the book. Hate to tell you, but that’s not for Dummies, and thanks Amazon and Kindle for saving me $50.

Discovering what could be done with reading enthused me. I got GoodReader and sat at a rehearsal following a score on my iPad. GoodReader is great, and working with PDFs is really fast. The file management is OK, but doesn’t feel completely intuitive (which, of course, is partly because of the lack of a unified file structure in the iPad OS). Its integration with all sorts of services such as Dropbox, iDisk and user configurable servers does definitely make it worth the $1, though: if you don’t need that, the PDF feature support in the free iBooks is more limited but the presentation better.

So this was what my iPad was for. A bit of a shame the proxy setting limitations meant I wasn’t trying to roll out much in the classroom, but it was making sense as a way to carry documents around with me. That would make it very useful for my PhD, which is in its final year to 18 months, depending on how I go with the remaining 30,000 words to write. Reading PDFs on a laptop screen has never felt natural, and so when I downloaded dozens of articles and papers from JSTOR I would either suffer, or print them out. The problem with printing them out is that notes and quotes have to be transferred back into digital format later on for use in my own papers and eventual text. At least in Acrobat you can make notes straight onto the page, and then view them in the Comments window later on, export them to another file, and so on. What I needed was Acrobat for iPad.

And it exists. Plagued by bad reviews, I put off purchasing (at the hefty price of AU$12.99) iAnnotate PDF for weeks, and carried on reading PDFs in GoodReader or iBooks and making notes directly on my laptop (yes, does seem to kind of miss the point, doesn’t it, but I was saving paper!) or by hand (Yes. Analogue notes. With no search function.). Many of the reviews claimed that annotations in iAnnotate did not survive transfer back to Acrobat, and there was no point making annotations in one app if I couldn’t read them, search them and export them back on my laptop when I came to write the final text.

Yesterday I took the plunge. It’s brilliant. Some of the other criticisms, such as strange UI and quirky file management are true, but no worse than apps like GoodReader and again really a result of the file management problems on iPad. But I used the Dropbox integration and it was just flawless. Fast. Perfect. It’s going to save me hours on my PhD, and it’s going to be so useful in other activities like annotating scores in rehearsals or listening lessons, and so on. Here’s the process that is working for me:

iAnnotate in action
iAnnotate in action
  1. If you haven’t already, get Dropbox. Set it up on your desktop or laptop (actually, set it up on every device you have: it’s superb) and it will sync files between them seamlessly. Make sure that you’ve got the PDFs you want to read in logical places. If you’re doing a lot of research online, you could even set up your browser to download each file straight into the right folder in your Dropbox, or you could tell Dropbox to include your download folders.
  2. In iAnnotate PDF, sign into your Dropbox account. One slightly annoying thing at the moment (well, it’s one of this program’s many little quirks) is that you can only download one PDF at a time. Unless you’re doing more than 20, I’d still do it this way, for reasons that will become obvious – but if you’ve got hundreds (for instance, your book or score collection), you can drag them all in at once via iTunes.
  3. Read and Annotate your PDFs. I have found the note and highlight tool to be most useful, because both will show up in Acrobat’s Comments window when you open the PDF later on your laptop or desktop. The highlight tool doesn’t just highlight the text, but also allows you to add a note to the highlight, so you get the best of both worlds. And if you find a bit of text you’d like to quote in your own essay/paper, you can select it and copy and paste it into a note for easily exporting later (even better than just highlighting).
  4. Once you’ve finished working on a PDF, click the upload button. This re-syncs the PDF with the version you’d downloaded from Dropbox. You don’t need to worry about mixing up versions if you’re working on both laptop and iPad because Dropbox keeps previous versions as backups (to a limited extent, anyway).
  5. Finally, when you need your annotations, simply open the PDF in Acrobat on your computer (which thanks to Dropbox will have already synced the changes) and go to View > Navigation Panels > Comments. You’ll see all of your comments and highlights, and if you made many, they can be searched. You can export them out with a simple copy and paste.
Annotations in Acrobat Pro
Annotations made in iAnnotate PDF showing in the comments panel in Acrobat Pro

Of course, I can’t transfer via Dropbox at work, because of the iPad’s proxy limitations, but hey, I now have a workflow which is much faster than anything I had before, convenient, easy to use and even perhaps slightly fun. When the updated iOS comes out for iPad, I’ll be able to report on how useful it is in music education for me, but at least now I can see a really superb use for students and academics alike.

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