iOS On The Road: iPad Production Part 1- Taking Note

For installment number two in my iOS On The Road Series, I want to take a broad look at the iPad as a tool for the mobile professional. The root of this this topic goes all the way back to the original announcement of the iPad, and the ongoing discussion of what exactly it is and what it does that has gone on ever since. If you were paying attention back then, I’m sure you heard the tech media mantra “It’s just a big iPod Touch.” Fast-forwarding to today, we don’t really hear that one too much anymore. I think even the biggest detractor of Apple’s signature iOS device has realized that the iPad goes well beyond those boundaries.

So, if the iPad isn’t just a larger screen iPod Touch, then what is it? What sets it apart? Considering that, other than a few tablet-oriented extensions, it runs the exact same OS, it’s hard to say. Well, until you get one in your hands, that is. It is the screen size that truly defines this device, but in a way that transforms it into something quite different from Apple smaller handheld devices, and the OS along with it.

While the bigger screen certainly helps you to enjoy watching movies and reading books more easily, you could argue that the experience isn’t much different beyond the larger screen size. However, with most of the other stock iOS apps, the experience is far different than on the iPad’s smaller screen siblings. The increased screen real estate necessitated redesigned versions of Calendar, Contacts, Mail, Safari and Photos that took advantage of all that extra space, making them far easier and more enjoyable to use.

Now with iOS 5, we even have gesture control for faster switching between apps, which adds a real element of polish to the stock experience. Where the comparison of the iPad to other iOS devices really breaks down, however, is when you enter the App Store. I don’t know if Apple made the pixel doubling full screen mode for existing iPhone and iPod Touch apps available because they knew it would look hideous and drive devs to make iPad-specific apps, but that seems to have been the end result. All I can say is and emphatic, Thank You Apple!

Whether it was on purpose or not, iOS users have benefited from an ever growing catalog of apps that have pushed what the iPad can do, and stretched our definitions of what it is. Of course, third-party developers got a pretty good taste of what was possible from Apple’s own retail apps. As good as the initial stock iOS apps were, it was the mobile versions of Pages, Numbers, and Keynote that really set the tone at the launch of the original iPad.

Apple then threw down the gauntlet in a big way this past year at the unveiling of the iPad 2, with the release of tablet versions of iMovie and GarageBand.

While the iWork apps were certainly very capable and polished, productivity apps rarely capture the imaginations of consumers. Fun and creative apps such as iMovie and GarageBand, however, are a different ballgame entirely. These apps are fun and functional. They are powerful, but still retain a simplicity and elegance that keeps them approachable in the eyes of novice users that the iPad is so squarely aimed at. All this for $4.99 each? Are you kidding me? Like Mario and Zelda have sold Nintendo consoles and handhelds for years, iMovie and GarageBand were classic system sellers. At both of the iPad launches Apple provided the initial sizzle to help sell the hardware.

While Apple has set the tone, what keeps the iPad avalanche rolling ever faster downhill is the wares of third-party developers and the inexpensive excellence that can be had with a simple click of the App Store icon. Any time users get a little bored with their iPad, they can easily find a cheap fix to breath some new life into it with any number of very creative, useful, and most of all, fun apps. There are so many out there, with so many more being added every day, that there are several web sites and apps whose sole purpose is just to sift through the chaff to find the best of the bunch. Now that’s a perpetual motion ecosystem that is currently leaving the competition in the dust. In fact, according to a recent report from Businessweek, despite the rapid proliferation of Android smartphones, there are three iOS apps released for every one for Android.

So, Apple created the first truly compelling and easy to use tablet, and leveraged their App Store advantage to give it an instant ecosystem. Awesome. Now what do you do with it besides surf the web, check email, read books, or watch movies? As it turns out, there’s quite a bit with the right apps and accessories. So much so, in fact, that what I originally intended to be a single article on useful tools that have helped me be more productive with my iPad will have to be stretched over three or four. There is just too much out there that I use, often on a daily basis, to cover in one sitting.

Let’s start by taking a look at easily one of the most popular and most crowded areas of the App Store- notetaking apps. The iPad’s form factor and instant on capability make it ideal as a notetaking device in the boardroom or the classroom. Unfortunately, while the built-in Notes app leaves a lot to be desired in terms of features, third party developers have given us a plethora of useful apps to choose from. Some are for general-purpose use and are very broad in their focus, while others cover very specific applications. Here are some of both types of notetaking apps that have made it into my regular rotation.

Swiss Army Evernote

Evernote may not be my favorite app for the iPad (it’s close, but not quite number 1), but I probably use it as much or more than any other. The iPad has an absolute embarrassment of riches in the category of notetaking apps, and I have tried several of Evernote’s main competitors. I have even like a few of them well enough to keep them on my iPad long-term for one reason or another. However, I have never found one that is as powerful and versatile as Evernote, while managing to remain easy to use.

If you aren’t familiar with Evernote, it is sort of the Swiss Army Knife of notetakers. Like Dropbox, it syncs with a free (or more feature packed premium) cloud-based account, making your information available everywhere. You can get to your notes from the web, from dedicated desktop apps for Windows and Mac, and also from mobile apps available for all of the major tablet and smartphone OSs. They aren’t the only service provider to offer this type of service, but in my humble opinion, they do the best job of pulling it all together into a seamless whole.

Because of this versatility and the ease of access to my information, I find myself using it all the time, for all kinds of different tasks.

First of all, because I have my information everywhere, I take all of my notes for different work projects that I work on in Evernote. I am often bouncing between 4 or 5 at any given time, so it is really easy for all those little details to run together after a while. Because of this, I have found that having a single running note for each customer is a great way to keep all of those loose thoughts and ideas in one place. Inevitably, I am going to have to go back to a job site and answer questions, make warranty and service calls, and hopefully do even more work in the future, so having a searchable document that keeps their information accessible is invaluable. The fact that I use a bluetooth keyboard (several actually) with my iPad makes the process of taking notes a breeze, and it turns the pairing of it and Evernote into a perfect notetaking workhorse.

This search capability is another one of Evernote’s killer features. In fact, it is a big reason that I came back to the app after trying it briefly when I first got my iPhone 3G. Not only can Evernote search the text of your notes, but it can also search the text of scanned and photographed documents.

This is another one of the features that I use extensively. Evernote allows you to organize your notes into categories and apply tags to aid in searching, but the ability to type in “Exxon” and pull up copies of all of my scanned gas receipts without any extra effort is a killer feature.

This feature makes Evernote the perfect home for handwritten documents and notes from other iPad apps, or anywhere else for that matter. Then their text will be fully searchable from any device, anywhere. If my memory serves, this feature was originally only available from the web or the desktops apps, but now it works directly in the iOS versions, as well, making Evernote a great way to store important documents without having to have tons of tags and detailed titles to remember why you put them there.

Thanks to this feature, I keep receipts and lots of document scans and photographs in Evernote. I wouldn’t feel comfortable taking full advantage of their storage and search capabilities if it weren’t for the fact that Evernote is proactive about security and privacy. They are very up front about the fact that, even with their free service, they don’t use or sell your personal information. Also, while encryption and enhanced security features used to be one of the selling points for a premium account, this is now a standard feature that everyone gets access to automatically. You still have to make sure you are using a password that is secure and difficult to crack and that you are encrypting notes and text that you want protected, but as long as you do, you can trust that your data is safe from prying eyes. Many fremium service providers (Google, cough, cough) could take a lesson here. Just sayin.

The other big feature that sets Evernote apart, and makes it so useful, is their open API approach. Again, like Dropbox, Evernote has become ubiquitous in the iOS world by allowing developers to tie apps directly into their service. For example, one of my high traffic iPhone apps is JotNot, which is one of several designed to photograph and enhance documents and receipts for storage on a number of cloud services.

Evernote is just one of the many services JotNot integrates with. This app is so very helpful, because it allows me to record important information that I need while on the go, without having to carry a portable scanner, or worse yet, wait until I am at home or the office to record them. I am on the road so much that neither is very practical. Now, I could just take the same picture of a document in Evernote itself, or upload one from my Camera Roll. However, JotNot has several image editing and enhancement features that make it easier for Evernote to scan and search the text of the end result.

Apps like JotNot aren’t just for receipts, either. For example, I work with blueprints all the time in the course of my daily activities. While getting a clean copy of an electrical, mechanical, or control print onto my iPad or laptop isn’t an problem, one of the issues I come across quite often is getting all of the notes, highlights, and markings that men in the field make on job site copies. Often times, these notes will reflect important information that I will need to do my programming or interface work, or that I will need to add to the As-Built prints at the end of the job.

The combination of the high quality cameras in both the iPhone 4 and 4S, JotNot and Evernote has made my life so much easier in this regard. Now, I don’t need to hand copy the notes, take the prints somewhere to be scanned, or bring my digital camera to the job. I just use my iPhone, and in minutes, I have clear and legible copies of what I need uploaded to Evernote that can then be searched as needed later on.

So, Evernote does all of this for me, and I use it multiple times a day on both my iPad and iPhone. It actually does a lot more than what I have described, as I do most of my article drafts for this site in Evernote on my iPad, and also keep several personal odds and ends in there, such as my genealogy research notes. Evernote’s staff touts it as a digital memory assistant, and I would have to say that is very accurate. It can hold so many different kinds of information, while still keeping it all organized and easy to search.

You may have noticed my mention of Evernote having free and premium levels. This is certainly nothing new, as most all cloud services have some kind of fremium aproach with a premium service fee structure. What is unique about Evernote is how little they charge for their premium services and how much they give you for free. First off, where most cloud storage services will start you off with somewhere between 1 and 2 GB of free space, Evernote never puts any limits on the size of your total storage. Instead, they cap the amount that you can upload in a given month at 60 MB, and your maximum number of notes at 100,000.

Now, that isn’t a huge amount of data in today’s terms, but it is perfectly adequate if you are just taking text notes and uploading a few document scans and photos. However, if you start clipping web sites, taking pictures, or uploading full documents and go over your monthly allotment, you can pay their low $5 fee to upgrade to premium for a month. This gives you 1 GB of uploads, and increases the maximum size of a single note to 50 MB. It is a recurring payment, so you will have to remember to cancel to keep from being charged again.

As I already mentioned, Evernote only charges $5 per month for their premium level of service, or an even cheaper $45 if you want to pay for a year in advance. This is FAR below what most other cloud services charge. Sure, Evernote is different, as it isn’t just a web drive that you can create a folder structure in and do massive backups to. However, with their premium level, you can upload documents other than just text files and photos. Premium members can upload pretty much anything, including Office documents and PDFs, and then have the ability to open those documents from anywhere, and on pretty much any device. Not too shabby for $45 per year.

However, the coolest thing to me is that Evernote approaches premium services the RIGHT WAY. The free account isn’t just a taste to get you hooked. It is fully functional, and will be perfectly adequate for most people that use it. They don’t ever penalize you for not going premium, which is evidenced by the fact that you can easily upgrade for a month, and then drop right back down to free again without worrying about being locked out of notes or functionality. THAT is the way to do business and keep your customers happy. It makes me WANT to be a premium member, rather than feeling like I need to be to get anything out of the service.

Sometimes simple is better- Simplenote and iA Writer

For those who want the text and nothing but the text, I would have to say that both Simplenote (pictured above) and iA Writer have a lot of appeal. While I don’t tend to use these two fine apps nearly as much, they are definitely worth a mentions, as they cover a couple of bases that Evernote does not. First of all, nothing is more portable than a basic txt file, and that is what both of these apps save your writing in, making your files useable by any OS, and pretty much anywhere you need them. While I have copied my note text in and out of Evernote on plenty of occasions, the notes themselves are not in txt format, and can’t be natively opened with anything else.

Another big advantage for many users is that both of these apps allow you to sync your files to Dropbox for storage and use on other platforms. Evernote is very effective at being its own, self-contained little ecosystem, but for those users who are already invested in using Dropbox for cloud file storage, these apps make a lot of sense as primary writing tools. One caveat to note is that Simplenote does require a premium subscription for Dropbox sync, but it is available for a very reasonable $19.99 per year. Their free level does offer sync, but it is with Simplenote’s own servers. However, your files are made available on their website, simplenoteapp.com.

As simple and elegant as Simplenote is, iA Writer actually manages to do it one better. It is an exercise in absolute simplicity. and in this case, that is a good thing.

As with some other notable iPad apps like Instapaper and Reeder, iA Writer includes all the critical features that you need, without cluttering the interface with things that you don’t. Couple this elegant interface with a custom keyboard designed specifically for the needs of a writer, and you have a powerful combination.

This isn’t the only trick under IA Writer’s sleeve, either. Not only does it include Dropbox support with the ability to use nested folders, it also has iCloud sync support thanks to a recent update. And if you prefer more simple methods, you can also e-mail your plain text documents to yourself or others. So, no matter how you prefer to sync and store your documents, iA Writer has you covered.

Ink In Sync- Noteshelf and Notes Plus

I can remember listening to Evernote’s CEO and head technical guy talking about how much sense it made to include ink support in their new iPad version during one of their podcasts, and how that feature would be coming soon. Fast forward almost two years, and unfortunately “soon” still hasn’t arrived. Thankfully, however, in such a rich and competitive ecosystem, developers don’t let niches sit unfilled for long. Such is the case with using ink for notetaking on the iPad, as several worthy competitors have emerged that allow you to create, share, and store notes that make use of digital ink and drawing, as well allowing you to use text, photos, and in some cases, recorded voice entry.

I reviewed Noteshelf several months ago, just after it was released. Even with its more limited initial feature set, I came away very impressed. The developers have been quite busy since then, filling out that feature set with great additions such as a zoom box for more natural handwriting in ink mode, and automatic font sizing to help in lining up typed text. Noteshelf doesn’t include voice recording capability, but does allow ink, text, and photo entry, and integrates them together very nicely.

The feature that really sets Noteshelf apart, however, is the inclusion of so many different kinds of papers to write your notes on. From business oriented task lists, to student oriented assignment and class note pages, to music staff and guitar tab, this app gives you a wide variety of backdrops on which to take your notes. For iPad users who come from a paper organizer background, this is the perfect “gateway drug” app for you. As a former private music teacher myself, the ability to crank out quick lesson handouts without either having to hand write them on staff paper and keep up with them like I used to, or invest in a very expensive piece of notation software really got my attention. I’m not teaching presently, but if still I was, I would use this feature a LOT.

For those looking for something a little more focused on taking class or meeting notes, Notes Plus is another app that is definitely worth a look. This has been my go to tool in situations where I needed to take ink notes or drawings in a formal situation, and I have found it to be quite powerful. Where Noteshelf gives you more variety in terms of backdrop and style, Notes Plus has a more straight-laced ruled notebook paper look and feel, but adds some power features that can take your ink notes to the next level.

First, it is possible to draw a circle to select and move sections of either ink notes or sketches, which gives you the freedom to change things up while you work.

Notes Plus can also recognize shapes that you draw, and convert them into a single image that can be moved, manipulated, or resized.

And if you don’t feel like drawing your own, Notes Plus also has a selection of six shapes that can be added to your drawings.

While for some it may seem like a step back to the late nineties, for those who prefer to kick it old school, Notes Plus offers the ability to perform handwriting recognition on any ink notes that you choose. Retro chic does come at a price, however, as it will take a $1.99 in-app purchase to unlock this feature. It works reasonably well, but I personally haven’t had any use for this feature since I left Windows Mobile behind long ago. I prefer to just stick with Evernote’s search capabilities at this point, but this is a nice inclusion for those that do prefer to covert their ink to text.

Last, but certainly not least, Notes Plus offers you the opportunity to record sound during your note taking, which is perfect for preserving all or part of a meeting, presentation, or class that you need to keep track of.

You can record multiple files under one note, and you even have the option to name the separate tracks individually to help keep track of what each one covers. You could certainly do your voice recording separately with a stand-alone recorder, or with an iPhone or other smartphone, but using Notes Plus to do your voice recording inside of your note keeps everything organized and accessible in one place.

Both Noteshelf and Notes Plus offer multiple ways to export your notes for backup and use on other platforms. Notes Plus offers manual export to Google Docs, as well as the ability to email your notes as either image files or PDFs. Even better, once you link your Dropbox account, Notes Plus offers background sync of all your notes and voice recordings. As good as Notes Plus’ sync options are, Noteshelf does it one better with integrated Evernote export.

Evernote’s advanced search capabilities make this an absolute no-brainer for ink-based documents, which makes its absence from Notes Plus’ options conspicuous. You can always email your notes to your Evernote account, but Noteshelf’s built-in export allows you to designate a notebook for your notes, and also transfer any tags that you have already designated in Noteshelf directly to Evernote. In either case, you have plenty of options for exporting and syncing your notes to use them however and wherever you need.

So there is a not so quick look at a few of the iPad apps I use for my notetaking needs while on the road. This list isn’t meant to be any kind of “be all, end all,” by any stretch, as there are plenty of very worthy cloud syncing, plain text, and ink note apps available in the App Store. These are just the ones that I have found the most helpful in my daily work and personal life. If you agree, disagree, or have other apps that you would like to recommend, I would love to hear from you about it.

If you still doubt that the iPad can be a production device, and downright serious work tool, stay tuned. In the next few iOS On The Road installments, I will go through some of the full document production and design tools that I use, as well as some remote access, desktop extension utilities, and hardware accessories that make my work a little easier while I’m away from home.

Do any of you out there use Evernote, Simplenote, iA Writer, Noteshelf, or Notes Plus? If so, what do you think of them? Do you have another iPad note taking app that you swear by? Feel free to tell us about it in the comments. And, as always, if there is anything else you would be interested in me covering in future installments, I would love to hear from you. Now, if you will excuse me, the road quite literally beckons again.