Global Constant
Steve Nay's ramblings

Why the iPad doesn't (quite) work for students

See my October 2011 post about my more recent opinion of the iPad as a student device.

Two weeks ago, I bought an iPad. Just the normal WiFi version, nothing fancy. My original premise for buying it was that it might make a great device for school. I could buy ebooks for some of my textbooks. I could use it for taking notes in class, rather than carrying around my heavy HP Pavilion laptop. The battery life is much better than my laptop, and I’d have an always-on device ready for whenever I need it during the day. And between the ubiquitous WiFi at BYU and my Palm Pre as a mobile hotspot, it will always have connectivity.

The iPad really is a magical device. But for my needs as a student, it doesn’t measure up to my expectations. Here’s why:

E-book readers Being one of the two primary reasons I bought the iPad, the e-book readers needed to be amazing to satisfy me. In short: I was disappointed.

iBooks is a fantastic app. It looks great and works well. All the expected functions are easily available (changing font size, screen brightness, bookmarking, annotations, highlighting, and searching). Beautiful app. The drawbacks are the lack of copy/paste functionality for the text and the immaturity of the ecosystem. By the latter I mean to say that the iBooks store is still quite small (especially compared to Amazon), and I can only read iBooks on my iPad or my iPod Touch. Not on my computer (even my Mac). If I’m going to buy e-books, I’m going to buy them from a good ecosystem.

The Kindle app is also good. It has the usual features with one notable (and fatal) exception: search. There is no way to do a keyword search on any Kindle product besides the Kindle itself (which has a physical keyboard). This is a deal-breaker for me, especially since most of the textbooks I would consider buying are available only through Amazon. The Kindle is a bit on the opposite end of the spectrum from iBooks: the ecosystem is excellent, but the app is only decent.

The Barnes & Noble app is pretty good. It has search, font controls, brightness, etc. Still no copy/paste. While the ecosystem is good (I can read my books on multiple devices–the Nook, all my Apple devices, and my PC), the book selection is not so great.

There are other e-readers I use, such as Stanza and Borders, but I won’t discuss them here. iBooks, the Kindle, and Barnes & Noble are the only ones that can really compete for my attention as far as reading textbooks goes.

My conclusion: Even among all the available e-readers for the iPad, I wasn’t able to find the ecosystem and functionality that I need. Kindle has the books I want, but doesn’t allow me to search them. None of the e-readers will let me export my annotations so I can use them elsewhere.

And there’s always the simple difference between reading a book on a screen and studying a physical book. It is now (and perhaps always will be) easier to flip through a physical book, to jump to the index while holding my place, or to open to a page where I left a sticky note for quick reference. E-readers have a long way to come before they’ll be considered a suitable replacement for textbooks.

Note taking This is the second reason I bought the iPad, and it’s actually one in which the pros and cons are equally balanced.

There are several note taking apps I’ve tried out (including Mental Note, Idea Sketch, iDraft, Adobe Ideas, and Evernote). Mental Note, probably the best of the five for note taking, allows you to type as well as draw with your finger. It also allows you to embed sound clips (e.g., recording part of a lecture) and images (too bad the iPad doesn’t have a camera…). This is something that you can’t do very easily with a laptop (hard to draw diagrams) or plain old paper (hard to get down text quickly or use multimedia). The iPad wins on those fronts.

However, one of my prime criteria is that all the work I do on the iPad must be accessible and usable on all my other devices (phone, computer, even iPod). Evernote does a fantastic job of letting me compose content offline and then sync it in a sensible fashion if and when I come back online. I tried a word-processing app called Office² HD that lets me tie in to Dropbox and Google Docs. However, it requires that I be online to create or edit documents in those repositories, something I can never guarantee in a classroom. Thus, even though the iPad is a fantastic web device, it still falls short of my needs.

One other thing that’s the real killer: The iPad has a great on-screen keyboard; the very best I’ve ever used. But it’s still an on-screen keyboard. You get no tactile feedback and it’s really easy to hit keys you didn’t mean to hit. I can type about 80-90 WPM on a physical keyboard, but only 40-50 WPM on the iPad soft keyboard. And having to go back and correct my typos gets maddening even while writing a short email. If I were to use the iPad for serious word processing (including taking notes in class), I’d have to purchase the Bluetooth keyboard as well. And then I may as well be using a netbook.

Web browsing Except for the absence of Flash (which I honestly only ever noticed once or twice), web browsing is great. Being able to pinch and zoom on any part of a page only makes it that much more enjoyable and interesting. And have I mentioned that the iPad is incredibly fast and very responsive? Web browsing is a pleasure.

Productivity The calendar app is great–it’s what I was hoping to get from the iPod Touch when I bought it last year. It gives you an almost Google Calendar-esque experience, which is great. The Mail app also really benefits from the extra screen real estate. Other than that, the iPad versions of the standard Apple productivity apps are as good as or better than their iPhone counterparts. No complaints there.

Multimedia The iPad wins on the multimedia front. Even though the screen isn’t as large as my 15" laptop’s, viewing multimedia on the iPad is a pleasure. It’s very easy and well-integrated. The iPod app is great; it gives you a much better experience than you can get on the iPod Touch.

Showing photos to friends and family while sitting together on the couch give you the impression that the device was designed specifically for that. Very immersive experience.

And Google Earth is fantastic. No more need be said.

However, the iPad screams desperately to have multitasking. If I want to listen to Pandora rather than my own music collection, I’ve essentially incapacitated my iPad–it can’t do anything else until I’m done with Pandora. Word has it that iOS 4 will come to the iPad in November, but that’s still a long while to wait.

Gaming I never bought the device to do gaming, but it wins on this front. Since several of my friends have iPod Touches, I bought the Scrabble app that lets us play together, using the iPad as the board and the iPods as tile racks for each person. Gaming on the iPad is awesome, even though I rarely have time for it.

Conclusion The iPad is a great device. It has the potential to be revolutionary (whether it actually is now, as Apple claims, is debatable). It’s a joy to use, and the weight and battery life are great. It’s perfect for situations (such as at home) when you want to share multimedia with others. It all feels very natural. And I’m sure it’s great for business people.

But as a computer pseudo-replacement for a student, the iPad doesn’t fit the bill. E-book readers simply aren’t powerful enough yet to make studying with them productive and efficient. Typing for a long time is a pain without an external keyboard. And the benefits you get from having a touch interface don’t outweigh the drawbacks from not having a full-featured computer (including multitasking).

In short, it’s not worth the $500 I spent on it right now. Once the platform matures and the software gets better, I’ll reconsider buying an iPad again.