Ways to use the iPad (Pro) for your productivity
The regular new release of a new iPad has just passed, and people pick up their new gadgets. Or maybe, you are just thinking of picking one up? The iPad is a great tool for entertainment, watching movies, playing games. A leisure device. But can the iPad also excel for productivity purposes?
After the release of iOS 11 and iPad Pros, the introduction of peripherals like the Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard, the market of Apple tablets gets more and more professional. Apple markets the device as a laptop replacement. With it, developers try to fill the gap between 99 cent Candy Crush clones and Professional Grade software.
We take a look at recent advancements in this field, and how the tablet can be a great companion throughout your working day.
File management and multi-tasking
Long time, the operating system of the iPad has been rather limited. As iOS started on the iPhone, initially even called iPhone OS, it is tailored to the needs of a mobile operating system. Apps are sandboxed for enhanced security, a real file-system does not really exist in user space, and there are traditionally few options for cross-application communication and multi-tasking.
Luckily, many of these points are a thing of the past. With recent releases, iOS 9 to iOS 11, the iPad has been in focus of updates more often than not. Now, it actually can feature all these things.
For multi-tasking, the iPad can run up to three applications on screen at once. Two in split-screen and one slid in as an overlay. Other apps continue to run in the background, and can receive push updates and similar.
A filesystem, while still not available, is also not really needed. With iOS 11, the new Files app provides its alternative. It connects many third party applications through developer APIs in a common Finder-like interface. Documents from different apps can be shared, or opened in other applications.
In the past, working on the same document in multiple applications on iPads was often associated with importing/exporting them over and over. Now, documents can usually just be opened in another app, and will automatically convert back on save.
The Files app also comes with integration to cloud services like Dropbox (freemium), OneDrive (freemium) and Google Drive (freemium).
With its heavy sandboxing, communication between applications has always been a larger issue on the iPad. Luckily, also this usually works without too much trouble. There is a hidden feature called Callback URLs. Using these, apps can communicate by sending data to another app through a link. For example, an app could offer an API for adding and modifying data through this.
Then, there are applications like Shortcuts (free), which play the middle-man. It can connect to one or more applications, together with a simple scripting language, to automate things directly on the iPad. Whether it is to create full templates in your task management app, or to batch a large number of files from one app to another, the Workflow app can be used creatively.
Low effort or premium apps?
Another mythos for the iPad is that all applications available are low-effort 99 cent applications, and that no professional grade applications exist.
While this was true for a long time, it gets better and better. For many fields, professional grade apps come to existence. In the following, I will go over a few categories where high quality applications exist in the context of productivity and work utilities.
Task and project management
One of the most important and central applications for many minds’ productivity is the task management. There are many options quality options for task management. Two great contestants, especially for Getting Things Done-related workflows are OmniFocus ($39.99 to $59.99) and Things ($19.99).
OmniFocus is a rather complex application with many advanced features for the structured kind of person. It can be customized to one’s own needs and automated using scripting languages.
In comparison, Things is a little bit simpler and comes with its own methodology. There is less customizability, but that also means less things needed to learn and less things to worry about.
Both links lead to in-depth reviews of either application, as they are too complex to describe in a paragraph. Either app will be a good addition to productive iPad workflows.
Lastly, the application OmniPlan ($74.99 to $149.98) can help with project management. While not targeted at personal productivity or a single entity, this application can be used to managed teams, plan ahead bigger projects and time schedules for these.
Working with documents
The main documents in almost every office in the world are Word, Excel and PowerPoint files. Microsoft has a monopoly in that, and most other Office applications result in misaligned documents or glitches.
Luckily, Microsoft Office is officially available for iOS and thus for the iPad. It is free for the 9.7” iPad, but needs an Office 365 subscription tablets larger than 10”, so the iPad Pro users need to pay.
There are mobile apps for the Office 365 suite, meaning Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and so on. They are as powerful as the bigger brothers on Mac or Windows, in terms of viewing and editing files.
It is possible to make presentations from an iPad using PowerPoint, if buying a lightning to VGA/DVI/HDMI cable to connect the iPad to a beamer or screen.
A good Markdown editor is Ulysses ($5 monthly). While comparatively cheap, it succeeds to have a good balance between simplistic non-distracting UI and a larger customizability and feature set. You can modify color themes, fonts and similar. All articles on this website are written in Ulysses!
The two main approaches for brainstorming are outlining and mind mapping. They are different ways to graphically structure thoughts and ideas.
In the former, an indented list is created to structure ideas as a list of bullet points with sub-lists. A great application for this would be OmniOutliner ($9.99 to $39.99).
In the latter, thoughts are visualized in a 2-dimensional map, connecting bubbles of ideas. A good starting point for mind-maps is MindNode (Subscription-based).
Working in IT
The iPad can connect to other computers via SSH or Mosh using Termius (free) or Blink ($19.99). While the latter seems unreasonably expensive compared to free, in my tests it has been more robust to keep persistent connections with Mosh. For standard SSH use-cases, either is fine.
You might also be surprised to hear, that even Git repositories can be cloned and accessed by any app compatible with the Files API, by connecting it to Working Copy (free / pro for $14.99). One of the Pro features is an SSH Upload function, which can keep a remote folder on an arbitrary SSH server in sync with your iPad.
If your work deals with source code or other programming related things, a good editor with syntax highlighting and similar options might also be helpful. Textastic ($9.99), or Runestone (Standard Free, Premium $9.99) from the screenshot above, provide this on the iPad.
One thing, I can (currently) not recommend is LaTeX on the iPad. There are two or three applications, which promise you either on-device compilation of LaTeX documents, or connection to a cloud provider doing this for you. Unfortunately, all my results so far have been pretty disappointing. Either way is usually pretty slow and more often than not results in mis-generated figures or just cascades of error logs.
For image editing, the popular tool Lightroom also has its mobile companion Lightroom Mobile (included in an Adobe CC subscription), coming with more or less the same feature set as the new Lightroom CC 2017 for Windows and Mac.
As an alternative to something like Photoshop, Affinity Photo ($19.99) also exists for the iPad, with a surprisingly large feature set for a relatively cheap professional grade application.
For other design purposes, the application OmniGraffle ($49.99 to $99.99) can help with diagramming and mockups. I actually created most of my figures in papers and my previous doctoral thesis in this app.
Of course, there are endless fields, and this article can’t cover everything. There are, for example, many of professional grade applications for medical appliances and for aviation, but if you are a pilot, you probably know that much better than me, already.
Interacting with people
Mail is, of course, pre-installed, as with any iOS-based device. There are other options like Microsoft Outlook, which can be in particular interesting for people who need to connect to an Exchange server.
For meetings and such, the pre-installed Calendar app will usually suffice, but many people still prefer some other options with more customizability or an extended feature set. Fantastical is one of the most popular. It comes with a natural language input for new calendar events and reminders, some better widgets for the homescreen, a pleasing dark UI option and easier search through calendar entries.
For chatting, most services have their own apps. Slack, Mattermost, and many more. The Mattermost app seems to be below average and often glitches out, while the Slack app so far worked as intended. There does not seem to be a good option for Jabber/XMPP on the iPad recently, though.
Handwritten notes and paper annotations using the Apple Pencil
One of the sellers of the recent iPads is the Apple Pencil. While usually associated with drawing and art, it can also be a very helpful tool for productivity. The main two use cases are: Handwritten notes, and annotations in documents and papers. Of course, it can be a combination on both, like taking notes on top of lecture slides.
For handwritten notes, two popular contenders are GoodNotes ($7.99) and Notability ($9.99). Either application will allow you to create notebooks, take handwritten notes, graphs, and figures. Handwritten notes can be exported as PDF and printed or sent to colleagues. They can also be uploaded and archived to other applications or cloud services. While both apps are rather similar, the main difference is their feature set:
The core feature set of both is nearly identical, but GoodNotes provides an indexing functionality, making your handwritten notes searchable with a full-text search.
Notability does not have such search features, but in contrast provides an audio recording feature. That one will record meetings and lectures while taking notes. Afterwards, the audio can be played back, while the notes appear as a video, which might help with reviewing study notes.
For annotating PDFs, I usually recommend PDF Expert. It is a power house in terms of PDF editing. It has an advanced file management including two-way sync of folders to cloud storage services. PDF files can be opened in tabs and then annotated as needed. The app also has in-app purchases for extra features like redacting.
Needless to say, all three recommendations work have built-in support for the Apple Pencil.
With having most of your memo in handwritten notes, a large part of your documents will be paperless. How about the rest? Can we archive and manage files on the iPad?
As mentioned before, iOS 11 already comes with a powerful file management application called Files. It can access data on the iPad, including all compatible third party applications. It also accesses cloud storages.
If that is not enough, Documents (free) by Readdle will give some extra tools. It can extract and compress zip files, has some extra tools to move, rename, and handle files and folders more easily. It also integrates into various cloud storages, and WebDAV. It is roughly identical to the built-in file management of PDF Expert - no surprise, as both come from the same developer.
Once again, there are other options for file cabinets. Evernote (freemium) makes a great tool for archiving documents, even though it is traditionally more of a note-taking tool. PDFs and Office documents can be directly attached to notes. Then, the search function of the app will proceed to index these documents (Plus/Pro accounts only) and deliver a full text search of these documents, including OCR - that means, it will try to read text from images and scans.
The application DevonThink To Go ($14.99) is built for similar purposes. Keep in mind that it is more of a companion app to its bigger brother on the Mac. Therefore, it might not be ideal, if you plan to work solely on the iPad. Otherwise, it is a strong competitor, delivering much more options for file management than any other reviewed app.
The last thing not on your iPad are analog documents. Receipts and printouts received by other people, not directly available as PDFs. To handle these on an iPad, it is possible to scan them, directly from the iPad. The scanner will be the rear camera which can make high quality images, more-so than most scanners. The right app will convert such images to realistically looking scans, which can be archived away or sent via email as a PDF.
A personal recommendation for this would be the app Swiftscan. Along with a good scanning engine and filters, which create readable high quality scans from the iPad camera, it can also OCR documents. That means, it will try to read the text and make it indexable by applications like Evernote or DevonThink.
The iPad is a great companion for a productive environment. Recent updates of its operating system did bring it somewhat on par with other computers for file management. The Files application allows an almost stress free access of documents throughout all apps, even attaching to cloud services.
On the app front, there also have been developments. Premium applications like OmniGroup bring quality software on the iPad. Even Microsoft Office is available, which guarantees compatibility to all your standard Office files.
The Apple Pencil brings the convenience of handwritten notes onto the iPad, connecting the analog with the digital. When putting all your technical literature, papers, class notes, slides, and notebooks onto your tablet, you can save a couple of pounds in your bag. It also gives you the security of always having everything at hand.
If you really want to have everything at hand, you can use digital file cabinet and scanning software to start paperless workflows.
On the average day, my iPad is there for my task management, editing documents, annotating papers, and handwritten notes. I carry it around to meetings, brainstorming projects, or when working at my desk for fast access to OmniFocus. I use all applications recommended above regularly during my work as PhD student or when editing this website.
Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links. This means I may make a small commission if you make a purchase.
Dr. Marc A. Kastner
I am an assistant professor working on computer vision and multimodal understanding. I am interested in task- and knowledge management. In my free time, I blog on productivity workflows and apps.
For my professional portfolio, please visit: marc-kastner.com
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