Saturday, May 28, 2011

Magic gadget: a review of the iPad 2 after one week of using it.

As soon as rumors started buzzing about the iPad, before it even had a name, I started thinking about how well it would work for me to be able to type on a tablet. The iPhone wasn't awful for typing, but it wasn't great, and I was sure that years of playing piano would make it easy for me to adapt to the shape of the onscreen keyboard of a tablet, if only the whole thing were larger than 3x5.

But I didn't buy one when they first came out, because my iPhone was still under contract, and what I really wanted was a device that would allow me to videochat with people. When the iPhone 4 came out, I was excited, but only in the hope that it meant that future iPads would have videochat capability.

I wanted three things:
1) the ability to be online without being dependent on wifi
2) videochat
3) a device that would allow me to do this without a contract, and without having to pay a monthly cellular minutes plan.

Even when the iPad 2 was announced, and it sounded perfect, I didn't line up the first day to get one (though I wish now that I had). I did line up at my local Apple Store a couple of times, always thwarted; and almost ordered from the website, despite having heard stories of horrendous wait times. In the end, my university bookstore, which had my name on a waitlist, called me to say that they finally had received a few internationally-compatible 3G models, and did I still want one? I did indeed.

I wavered between choosing capacity, ending up with a 32gig model. I might have gone for a 64, but it turned out that none of those had come in. I could have kept waiting -- but my 3.5 year old iPhone has been more and more glitchy; and since I use my connection both for facilitating transportation, and for checking food ingredients to deal with celiac disease, I didn't want to wait any longer.

As of this morning, I've had the iPad for exactly one week. Here's what I love, so far:

Working with PDFs: Since I'm an 18th/19th century lit/history scholar, I spend a great deal of time in Gale's Eighteenth Century Collections Online. While ECCO makes accessibility so much easier than, well, having to travel to libraries and archives, its interface is a little cumbersome: you have to click one place to turn the page, click in a separate table to scroll through the page, click another button to turn the page again...and you can't actually mark up the document. If you download it (if your school has a license for such things, as mine does), then if you have Acrobat Reader Professional, then life gets easier -- you can OCR the book, and highlight, and annotate to your heart's content -- except that Acrobat isn't really made for the landscape screen, and if you get near the bottom of one page, and click in the wrong place, then suddenly you've switched to the next page without knowing it, and .... well, it's frustrating.

Enter iAnnotate for the iPad, which automatically OCRs documents, and has a better, less buggy and more intuitive set of controls for marking them up. The pages glide by easily and smoothly, no jumping around. Working with an ECCO document on the iPad is the closest that I've come to reproducing the experience of looking at it in the BL without actually being there. NB: of course, the iPad can't replace that, nor should it -- there's a wealth of data that's only possible to access via the actual, physical copy. But it feels amazing to me that I can enhance the online experience of working with a document by viewing it in a way that feels closer to turning pages, and even reproducing the posture and angles of reading a physical book. I'm a great fan of muscle memory as a significant part of the reading experience.

ETA: Actually, iAnnotate can only enable underlining/highlighting/search functions if you've already OCR'd an ECCO document previously -- so you still need Acrobat Pro. For me, this is a tiny extra step that doesn't bother me in the least; not when I can have all six volumes of Dodsley's Poems By Several Hands in a format that permits markup.

I also have been using iAnnotate to comment on student papers; highlighting, underlining, commenting, and occasionally marking up sentences (rarely a priority for me). I can save a document, and send it back to the student -- in fact, iAnnotate and the iPad streamline this for me, because there's a button in the app that I can use to pull up an email, that has the document already attached. I'm using Dropbox, which I haven't used before, and it's made it easy for me to access essays that I commented on using my laptop, too. This last week, both my classes had student conferences. On the first day of those conferences, I brought my laptop, not having been entirely confident that I had access to everything I needed and that I'd configured everything properly. I didn't need it. And the rest of the week, I didn't bring it.*

Typing: I thought I might need to buy one of the separate keyboards and docking systems. I don't. In landscape orientation, there's not that much difference between typing on a full-sized keyboard -- or at least, I don't feel that much difference. Adapting was easy, and by my second day of working with the iPad, I wrote several students responding to paper proposals using it, without a noticeable delay in work speed. It's wonderful how much easier it is for me to type on an iPad than on a netbook like the Acer Eee PC. And of course, I'm not having to deal with the buggy mouse controls, either.

This is enough to say for now, though I'll post more as I use the iPad more. My only other significant first impression is that because the iPad has better functionality for me in terms of typing and annotating PDFs, I'm far more likely to use it for those things when I'm in transit, whereas with the iPhone, I was more likely to surf the web out of boredom or habit. I actually marked up two papers yesterday on my busride downtown! It was great!

*: The inCase backpack I've had for the last 4 or 5 years has been excellent: it's protected my laptop, and has lots of room for carrying other stuff. The problem is that I tend to fill it up; and my laptop already ways about 6.5 pounds. Last summer, the S.E.L. couldn't believe how much I hauled around with me on a daily basis. He tried to talk me into a wheelie-bag, but I didn't ever find one that met my requirements. And if I carry my laptop, I inevitably find that I fill up the rest of the backpack, too. One of the wonderful things about having the iPad is that because it's smaller, I don't bring the backpack -- and I don't fill it up. And it's wonderful being less tired from hauling it around. Strictly speaking, this is a behavior issue as much as it is a hardware issue: I *could* just decide not to carry around so many books. But it's an advantage, all the same.


  1. I really want one, and it's the keyboard thing that holds me back. Thanks for sharing your experience. (Now I want one more.)

  2. Thanks for this review. It's hard for me to imagine typing on a screen. That really works??

  3. I think it depends on your hands, Els, but yeah. And I was all ready to buy one of the associated keyboards for $60 until the bookstore salesperson actually talked me into trying to adapt first. I couldn't believe it.