So What Do You Think of that iPad?

“So what do you think of that iPad?”

I have heard this question so many times over the last four months.  I don’t mean to complain.  On the contrary, it’s nice to have something to talk about with people and to be able to satisfy their curiosity.  So what do I think about that iPad?

The short story is this: I like it for what I use it for.  However, if I had to use my own money to pay for it, there’s not a chance I would have bought it.

In way of explanation, here’s how I use the thing.  I teach at Michigan Tech University and have been using it to drive my presentation slides.  I had been using the iPad Keynote application, even though I was relatively disappointed with it.  I also used the Numbers application for some of my grading, since I keep all of my grades as spreadsheets.  Obviously I did a ton of web surfing, Twitterererering and emailing on it.  For pleasure, I read a few books on the Kindle app and iBooks.

Keynote is generally disappointing.  In the first version I bought, you could not see the current slide if you were exporting the display to a projector.  The most recent version fixed that, but the performance is terrible.  It doesn’t respond to user input very well — you tap and it does nothing for several seconds, so you tap again.  Then the application catches up and jumps two slides ahead.  There are a ton of fonts that are not available, even Apple’s own fonts, like Menlo.  This is pretty irritating when you use a lot of fixed-width fonts in your slides.  The main problem is that Keynote doesn’t do a very good job guessing what font to use as a replacement.  Instead of saying, “Hey, that’s a fixed-width font, so I’ll replace it with Courier,” it just uses Arial.  I have not used the editing facilities except to occasionally fix a typo on a slide, so I won’t comment on that.

Numbers is slightly better.  I don’t ask a lot of it.  All I want to do is use it as a list manager, essentially.  As students perform work, I want to be able to enter grades.  I’ve found that it occasionally will not let me add new columns to my spreadsheet, but that’s not the most irritating thing.  The gradebook I have has 40-some students in it and a handful of columns.  The app thinks it’s being helpful as it re-centers the view around the cell I just edited, but when it does that, I can’t see the student names or the column headers.  So I scroll back to where I can see it, edit a cell, curse when it re-centers the spreadsheet, lather, rinse and repeat.  I haven’t tried equations or functions or anything else fancy.

Perhaps the most troubling thing about both of these apps is how tremendously tedious it is to transfer documents back and forth.  I don’t mind setting up the connection through iTunes, but I hate that editing a file on the Mac doesn’t automatically propagate changes to the iPad.  It doesn’t do it without deleting the “local” copy on the iPad, syncing and then re-importing it into the app on the iPad.  Navigating the documents that are local to the iPad app is also fairly tedious.  Apple also arbitrarily decided that the importing process needed to change dramatically between the two different versions of the apps that I’ve used, which screwed me up for a little while.

People frequently ask if the lack of Flash is a problem while surfing and it is generally not.  It’s other shortcomings of the browser that are limiting.  One of these renders our university’s main administrative tool functionally useless for me.  Email was irritating until the iOS 4.2 update with the unified Inbox, but has been lovely ever since.  It’s taken a while for Twitter to get a good app together, but they finally did it.

What has been unabashedly positive is reading eBooks, at least in the Kindle app.  The iPad seems to have a beautifully clear display and is just about the right size for reading.  My main beef with iBooks is the battery usage.  I can read for hours with the Kindle app and barely affect the battery, but iBooks drains a lot faster.  It seems stupid that a eBook Reader should drain the battery more than surfing the web, but here we are.

I have found a new tool that might dramatically change my opinion of the iPad though.  AirSketch lets me display slides, untether the iPad from the podium and projector connections and mark up the slides.  I’ve used it a couple of times now during the first week of class and I’ve been happy so far.  Up until today, I was missing having a blank screen to scribble on, but stumbled across that feature while poking around.  Combine AirSketch with the BoxWave stylus and the iPad turns into an incredibly powerful educational tool.

I bought my iPad with university money; money that was at my sole discretion to spend.  With the point of view that I effectively got the iPad for free, I can’t complain about having it as an addition to my toolbox.  However, if I consider how I would feel if I had dropped $700 of my own money, I would not call it money well-spent.

So there you go.  That’s what I think of my iPad.

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