The Back to School Dilemma

This past week was my first week of real college.  I dual enrolled last year, meaning I had a few college classes and a few high school classes, but this year I’m an honest-to-goodness full-time freshman.  I’m excited.  Having dual enrolled, I already know what to expect, where everything is on campus, and all that stuff that makes freshmen nervous.  This semester’s going great so far.

Last spring, I wrote several different pieces on using my iPad instead of my laptop at school.  Last fall semester, we did lots of in-class writing in English, so I always brought my laptop.  But spring semester wasn’t like that, and so I opted for an iPad and a bluetooth keyboard instead of my heavier, less convenient laptop.  I really liked this setup last year; it worked well for me.  This semester is different, however, and I’m faced with a bit of a dilemma: do I bring my laptop every day, or my iPad?

I had originally planned for sure to bring the iPad.  I don’t have an English class at all this semester, so the only writing I’d be doing is this blog, which I did on the iPad no problem before.  However, the first day of class made it apparent there’d have to be exceptions to this rule.  My communications class tests will take place online, but will be proctored in person.  This means I have to bring my computer and take the test on it in class.  The teacher said you could bring a computer or a tablet, but I’m definitely opting for the computer.  Using the web on a tablet is great, but sometimes it gets a little wonky, and that’s not what I want during a test.

So no big deal, just bring the laptop on the days that I have communications tests.  It seemed like the rest of the semester I could just use the iPad.  Then I got to my Intro to Electrical Engineering class.  This class was going to have pop quizzes.  I don’t know whether they’ll be online, but if they are, I’ll have to bring the laptop to that class for sure.  Also, looking at the syllabus, it looks like we’ll be doing quite a bit of computer aided design and other stuff like that, so I’ll have to have the laptop there too.  (At first I was worried that whatever software we need wouldn’t work on my Mac.  Fortunately, it turns out that the professor used to work at Apple and is an even bigger Machead than I am, so I’m sure we can work something out.)

So it looks like I’ll have to bring my laptop on Mondays and Wednesdays, if only for the EE class and the occasional communications test.  Tuesdays and Thursdays I only have history class, and Friday I only have calculus class, so I can definitely get away with the iPad those days.  In fact, I may not need to bring anything at all.  I probably will, though, just in case.  I’d hate to be stuck at school and need to do something that really needs a computer, but all I have is my iPhone.  I’ve had to do that before; it’s not a pretty sight.  ••

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The iPad as a Productivity Device

Last week I wrote about how I’ve switched from a laptop to an iPad with a Bluetooth keyboard while I’m at school.  This got me thinking about the iPad as a productivity device.  When the iPad came out, it seemed like a lot of people thought that this device was going to forever change the way we do work.  However, five years down the line, this doesn’t seem to have quite materialized.  Sure, we’ve got every bit as much potential as we started with, but for some reason it hasn’t come to fruition.  Why?

For starters, let’s start with what the iPad is: a consumption device.  This is one of the biggest criticisms I hear about the iPad.  People say, “Oh, sure, it’s a great consumption device, but if you want to create content or get work done, you’ve got nothing.”  Let’s just examine the first part of that statement for a second.  The iPad is a great consumption device; what’s wrong with that?  If all you want to do is sit on the couch, surf the web, and watch YouTube, the iPad is a great device.  I’d argue that it’s the greatest media consumption device ever made.  Is that a failure?  What’s wrong with creating a device that does one thing really well?

But I think there is a point to be made about the iPad as a work device.  What’s really interesting is why people condemn the iPad in this way.  The only reason people say the iPad isn’t a good productivity device is because it has so much potential to be one.  Nobody has ever looked at a TV and said, “Man, this TV is great for watching shows, but you can’t use it to create your own TV shows, so it’s a failure!”  The TV never had any potential to be a content creation device, so no one held it to that standard.  However, when one sees an iPad, it’s almost natural to say, “Wow, could I replace my laptop with that?”  The iPad has such huge potential to be a real productivity device, but we’re just not there yet.

So why aren’t we?  Frankly, I don’t know for sure.  I’ve got a few thoughts, though.  First, the iPad isn’t as good for productivity as a computer because it doesn’t have a mouse.  Don’t get me wrong, the iPad is better for lots of other things because it doesn’t have a mouse.  But when you’re using a word processor (or any number of pro apps), there are simply too many functions and buttons to make a touch interface that works well.  A mouse allows you to have more, smaller buttons.  If Apple releases an iPad Pro, with a larger screen and a stylus, this could change dramatically.  For now, though, the mouse remains a problem.  The second issue with using the iPad for productivity is the fact that every app runs full screen, and you can only run one at a time.  Sure, extensibility helps this problem some, but I think that, in order for the iPad to truly mature, it will have to run two apps side by side.  Thing is, this raises all sorts of other problems.  Will developers have to add more screen sizes for their apps to work with (Yes)?  Will the apps be too small?  Can you drag and drop between apps?  There’s a lot of hard questions to answer.  Like the mouse, this is more an inherent problem with the device, rather than simply a missing feature.

So will Apple solve these hurdles?  Will the rumored iPad Pro be a competitor to the Surface Pro 3?  I don’t know.  It seems like there’s two paths here: either the iPad evolves towards the desktop, or desktop software evolves towards the iPad.  The first option sounds like a step back, but the second option seems like the way forward.  It’ll be interesting to see how this all plays out.  ••

On iPads and Bluetooth Keyboards

Last fall, I wrote about the technology I use on campus at SPSU.  At the time, it included my iPod Touch (now replaced with an iPhone) and my MacBook Pro.  Last semester, I did a ton of in-class writing for English.  The class did take place in a computer lab, but I preferred to bring my own laptop so I didn’t have to fiddle with saving my work to a thumb drive.  This semester, I just assumed that my class would work the same way.  Well, it doesn’t.  The professor is running it as a mostly online course, and we barely meet in class at all.  This means that I do all my writing at home, not at school.  For some reason, though, I kept bringing my laptop anyway.  I realized over spring break that about the only thing I use the laptop for at school is writing this little blog I do called Staring at Phones.  Then it hit me: what if I could do that on my iPad Mini, using a Bluetooth keyboard?

First, I knew I’d have to make some sacrifices.  Microsoft Word for iPad is pretty good, but not quite as good as Word for Mac.  If I ever needed to do any writing, it would be a little bit of a pain.  Also, I can’t upload documents to my online assignment submission from the iPad.  However, I figured that I could always submit when I got home, or if I absolutely had to submit right then I could go to the library and use a computer there.  So I decided that the hurdles wouldn’t be too big of a deal.

Then I needed a keyboard.  I wasn’t yet sure if this would really work out, so before buying a keyboard, I borrowed one that my dad had but didn’t really use.  I used this on campus for about two weeks (in fact, last week’s post was written on it), and decided…

…that I was still a little unsure.  However, I was intrigued enough to go ahead and buy a keyboard, since my dad’s is a little cramped.  It’s meant to be a cover for an iPad, so it’s narrower than a laptop keyboard.  Since I have an iPad Mini, a keyboard cover is completely impractical anyway, so I wanted a full-sized keyboard.  I found what looked to be a good one on Amazon* for only $11 (with Prime shipping).  It had good reviews, and I thought that for $11, it was worth the risk.

I’ve had the keyboard for about a week now, and so far it’s working well (I’m using it to write these very words).  I definitely like leaving my laptop at home; it’s much easier to just grab my iPad as I go and let the keyboard live in my backpack.  The keyboard is the exact same size as my laptop keyboard, and the layout is a total ripoff of an Apple keyboard.  This all means I get the same typing experience that I do on my laptop, which is really nice.  I’m using the WordPress mobile app to write posts, and so far it’s working pretty well.  It’s surprisingly robust.  It doesn’t quite have all the features that WordPress.com has, but I’ve found I can write a post on the iPad and then tidy up the little details the next day when I’m on the computer.  So it’s been working out OK.

The one thing I don’t like about the keyboard is that it’s really loud.  That’s not that big of a deal, but it is a little annoying.  Also, the Bluetooth connection sometimes drops out; I’m still unsure whether this is going to be a real problem or just a minor annoyance.*

In conclusion, I really like using an iPad as my school “computer.”  It’s so much lighter than my laptop, and the tools for content creation are getting better all the time.  (To be fair, though, the whole reason I’m using the iPad is because I’m not creating as much content.)  The iPad is a fascinating device, and it will be interesting to see where it goes as a productivity machine in the next few years.  I’ve got high hopes for it.  ••

*Update 4/9/15: The keyboard I bought is a little finicky.  The connection drops out from time to time, sometimes constantly so it’s impossible to use.  I’ve removed the link above, and I don’t recommend that you buy it (the link is here in case you still want to look at it).