Making the iPad Useful

It’s Not the Perfect Computer, but it Might Be the Best Way to Access One…

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Ever since first iPad came out in 2003, I have been on a mission to replace my laptop (I was motivated by Tim Cook’s assertion that he can do 80% of his work on an iPad.). Given how far iPads and other tablets have come, both spec-wise and software-wise, it just seems like something one should be able to do. But the devil is in the details and a number of very specific problems made going all-in impossible. Even to this day, printing from an iPad is unreliable and slow. There also is the browser problem, where many websites still do not quite function properly, especially if plug-ins are required. With updates to iOS 9, external keyboards have become more useful (they now work with AutoCorrect and support a number of common shortcuts, for example), but using a keyboard with an iPad only begs the question, “why am I not using my laptop?” As for other means of inputting text, the dictation feature continues to improve, but it is still too inconsistent for my purposes. Last, many of the apps I use on a daily basis do not have fully comparable iOS equivalents (Microsoft Office has improved greatly, but it is still clunky compared to a computer-based experience, especially with regard to accessing files.).

Basically, I want to keep all the cool things about my iPad (great video and music playback, easy ways to procure content, extreme portability, long battery life, etc.) without giving up my computer’s desktop. It is a difficult proposition—Microsoft has tried to accomplish this with the Surface, but to me, that device feels just like a very portable laptop and not much like a tablet (in large part due to the lack of quality apps compared to the iOS and Android offerings). At the end of the day, the lesson is probably that tablets and PCs are just different animals, products built up from the manner by which users interface with them (touch versus keyboards and mice). But don’t give up hope just yet!

Enter remote computing. Generally speaking, accessing a computer over the Internet can be a great experience when properly configured. Microsoft has offered a sophisticated remote desktop  application for over a decade, providing nearly seamless interaction with a remote computer. In fact, iOS and Android have a number of remote desktop clients that work exceptionally well (my favorites include Jump and Remotix. From Windows 8 on, Windows is designed to work with a touch-based interface, so on a tablet, Windows via Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) works almost like it was designed to be touched. Mac OS has employed a different protocol called VNC—it is nowhere near as seamless (the screen will not automatically resize to the tablet, nor is the interface touch-friendly), but it definitely works. A better way to access a Mac might be Parallels Access, which requires a $20 annual subscription for up to five computers.

Of course, nothing is that simple. Configuring remote access to a computer can require a bit of networking proficiency, necessitating a public IP address (or forwarding address) and port forwarding on your local router. Additionally, you need a reliable internet connection both at the remote site and from wherever you will be accessing the remote computer. Jump, Remotix, and Parallels offer applications that will take care of the networking, but even their solutions are not foolproof.

However, once you have everything up and running, remote computing has a number of benefits beyond enhancing the utility of an iPad. One of the most important advantages for me is reliability. Whereas my computer at home is rock solid, my laptop is constantly being put in situations where my work can be compromised. I’m always shutting the case in the middle of work, causing it to go to sleep. Every once in a while, I won’t be able to wake the computer and work will be lost. I’ve also dropped and spilled on my computer to similar effect. Had I been remote computing during these catastrophes, my work would not have been lost. Worst case, I would have lost my connection to the remote computer, but when I returned to the office, the work would be there where I left it. Additionally, the work on my remote computer is constantly being backed up; my laptop is only backing up when I’m at home.

There are also security benefits. Should I end up losing my iPad, very little sensitive information is stored there; it is all safely away on the remote computer at home. There are also cost benefits. As a Chicago commuter, I’m much happier to lose an iPad over my suped-up MacBook Air (I’ve already been forcibly relieved of one iPad while waiting for a bus at Midway airport). While the initial software investment can be steep, at least those purchases will transfer to a new iPad at no additional cost.

Naysayers will point out that a remote computing setup is dangerously dependent on strong, reliable broadband connections. This of course, is true. For example, I have yet to have an airplane flight with WiFi sufficient to handle a Remote Desktop session. However, I don’t buy this argument because I am generally dependent on a good network regardless, even if I am not connecting to my desktop remotely. When the network is bad, I have a number of go-to applications to pick up the slack. The Microsoft and Apple office suites are usually sufficient to keep on working or start new projects. I do my writing in iA Writer, which has a tremendous iOS app. Otherwise, I make sure that I use services that are cross-platform between my Mac, my Windows computer, and my iPad (Todoist for my to-do lists, Evernote for notes, and Chrome for browsing the web).

As an aside, speaking of planes, the iPad, with a proper keyboard like the Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover, is so much easier to use on a cramped flight than even a MacBook because the keyboard places the monitor much closer to the keys, thereby saving precious inches.

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Now, like Tim Cook, I am able to use an iPad (with the help of computer) for about 80% of my work. Web design and graphic editing (really anything that requires a larger screen) is still pretty hard, but otherwise my system works well.

iOS and Mac Synergy Makes all the Difference

A Story of Two Apps

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In the past, I have written about my attempts to throw away my laptop for an iPad. In my case, it never works because I’m simply too dependent on a keyboard and multitasking. However, this is not to say that the iPad or iPhone cannot have a valuable place in my workflow. Indeed, the beauty of well-designed iOS apps is that they overcome the problems I have described, creatively functioning without the need for keyboard or other applications to be simultaneously accessed. Panic’s Prompt app for iOS makes this point perfectly, offering a traditional SSH/Telnet shell client with support for code snippets and bookmarks. But this is just the start of a good iOS app. In the end, I still need deep integration (dare I say, synergy?) with my computers upon which I depend daily.

So, after using Prompt on my iPad, I was somewhat devastated to learn there was no companion application for my Mac. On the Mac side of things, I have long used the Terminal and SnippetsLab to do remotely maintain servers. Terminal provided access to the remote command line interfaces and SnippetsLab stored and organized all of my frequently-used code. Using Prompt made me realize that I should be using an application that marries the functions of Terminal and SnippetsLab. If I could do it on my iPad, certainly I could do it on my Mac.

Unfortunately, Panic does not make a Mac companion application for Prompt. I was hoping the Mac version could sync all of my credentials, snippets, and hosts to its iOS buddies, but alas. This then led me down the path to find an app that might live up to my hopes. I ultimately found vSSH - a multi-platform application that does it all on all of the devices I use.

vSSH is not as pretty as Prompt, but it’s ability to cross platforms makes it (and my iPad) truly useful to me. The lesson is that for consumers like me (Mac-loving geeks, nerds, and dorks working in IT), an iPad is only truly useful if it leverages the power of a full fledged computer. Again, it would take me a long time to manually type in all of the code and credentials into Prompt. It is much easier to get this info in vSSH via my MacBook and then sync with my iPad. In this way, the iPad is an extension of my computer.

When I think about it, all of the apps I use on my iPad really are extensions of my other computers. Apps like Dropbox, Evernote, Gmail, iA Writer, and CloudMagic all have companion apps on the Mac. The iPad’s portability is truly useful, especially if I need to review something I have already prepared on my computer. When used in this fashion, the iPad really becomes a luxury item because it does not really do anything I cannot do using a laptop. However, good iPad applications add something to the mix that cannot be done in the Mac counterpart. For example, I can swipe through emails much quicker on the iPad than I can with a keyboard on the Mac.

So, take from this what you will, but for the iPad, or any tablet, to make it in my workflow, I need synergy between the tablet and my computers. That last sentence makes me want to throw up, but I spew the truth.

Why I Like my Android Tablet

Amongst my friends and clients, I am a notorious Apple fiend. However, enough of my clients use Android devices that I thought I should become more familiar with the OS. Since I already use the larger iPad, I thought that I might try the 7” Samsung Galaxy, which happened to be on sale at my local Costco for $169.00.

I must say that for the most part, I have been pleasantly surprised with how well the device holds up next to an iPad. All of my Exchange accounts synced flawlessly, which is perhaps the most important function of a tablet for me. I also like being able to customize the launcher with greater ease than the iPad, I’m using the Nova launcher right now and I really like it. On the other hand, I find the browsing so be a few steps behind. Zooming is imprecise and scrolling is not as smooth as with an iPad.

At the end of the day, however, the best thing about the Android OS is the ability to load up Nuance’s FlexT9 keyboard, which has voice dictation and Swype-type functionality built-in. As an arthritis sufferer, these alternative methods of typing are far superior to the iPad’s standard keyboard. In fact, I’m swyping this blog entry fairly quickly.

Now, I use my iPad for many other activities, including remote computer management, and so far it performs much better than the Android device. But every device has its place, and if I need to type something of any length, I’ll be picking up my Android tablet.

Use HTML signatures with Mail on iOS 6

NewsRack Fights Back to the Top

I am a news junkie and as such, I am attached to my Google Reader feeds. Since Apple allowed third party applications on iOS devices, there has been a high demand for RSS readers that leverage Google Reader and I am pretty sure that I have purchased just about every contender. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, I am a big fan of tweeting particularly interesting RSS posts. My problem has long been that most RSS readers tie users down to one specific Twitter account. Such a limitation has become particularly perplexing given iOS 5 and its native support for multiple Twitter accounts. Reeder was one of the first iPhone RSS apps to allow users to post to multiple Twitter accounts, but their iPad app still lacks this functionality.

Luckily, as I was browsing for a Reeder replacement on the App Store, I am across an old friend, NewsRack ($4.99). NewsRack was my reader of choice for most of my iOS life, and it now supports multiple Twitter accounts on the iPad. As far as I know, it is the only iOS RSS reader to offer this feature for the iPad. Good news for those of us managing multiple social media campaigns from our iPads!

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