If you're one of those people who uses loads of Apple products, and is thinking of proposing Steve Jobs for canonisation, read no further. This article is dedicated to those, like myself, who happily use Windows on other platforms but who have added an iPad into the mix. While I suspect this is a much larger group than Apple would like to admit, there's very little support for us, and I've certainly found numerous shortcomings with the "out of the box" solutions. Here, therefore, are some of my hard-won tips and recommendations. You are all very welcome to suggest others.
The iPad's lack of a visible file system, and the clumsiness of the iTunes data exchange processes, are a real barrier to managing content effectively between a Windows and the iPad, or indeed on the iPad itself. DiskAid (www.digidna.net/products/diskaid) does a very effective job of bridging that gap. Plug the iPad in via USB, and the filing structure is fully visible - you can upload and download documents, drag and drop them around the iPad, even drag them to and from the PC. You don't need to jailbreak the iPad or install any software, although DiskAid has a very good partner app FileApp Pro which is a useful tool to manage your documents in a hierarchical filing structure and act as a front-end to other editors.
The latest version of DiskAid adds direct access to the iPad's various data stores, so you can now copy text from notes, and manage your multimedia content directly as well.
In a ideal world Apple would have grasped the concept that the PC and iPad should be able to route any communications over any available physical layer, including USB, BlueTooth and WiFi. Sadly they haven't. Apps which are limited to WiFi may work brilliantly in the customer demo suite at Cupertino, but in the real world of per device charges, networks which don't route device-device, or when there's just no service things are a lot more difficult. The answer is to set up a WiFi hotspot your laptop, and teather the iPad to it. These can be tricky to set up, but under Windows 7 things are much easier if you use one of the freeware utilities like MHotSpot (www.mhotspot.com). It's still harder than just using a USB cable, but dramatically better than the alternatives.
Working with MS Office documents on the iPad is problematical to say the least. I wish I could just say "use zzzOffice and it's just like working with the real thing", but I can't. Quite frankly, all the offerings in this space are complete rubbish. This appears to be a market where developers are proud of the fact that they've worked out how to format text in bold! (I wish I was making this up, but I'm not :() The criticisms apply equally to both third party Apps and Apple's own offerings, which just proves that they don't really understand software.
I don't know whether this is down to some fundamental limitations of the iOS platform, or just a very immature market. A better job can certainly can be done on other platforms: SoftMaker Office (www.softmaker.com/english) has been around for years and fully supports every meaningful feature of MS Office, including the well-known menu structures, change tracking, styles and templates, advanced autofill in spreadsheets and so on, and does so across Windows, Windows CE/Mobile, Linux and Android. Look in vain for any of these on the iPad.
The least bad of the available suites seems to be DocsToGo.
It's flaky, with frequent odd error messages, and doesn't render Word
formatting very well, but it will at least show existing markup and if
you add your own comments in line and return the document to your PC you
can use "compare versions" to identify what you've done.
Each suite has different strengths and weaknesses, and if you can afford more than one app you may want to licence several and use each for its best bits. However, I have a better scheme...
Office format documents don't work well on the iPad, but PDFs are
fine. If you just want to read them, the free iBooks is adequate, but
iAnnotate PDF allows you to use them as fully-fledged vehicles
for reviewing and commenting, by allowing you to add markup which will
be visible to any decent PDF viewer on any platform. You can download
the marked-up version, or simply email it back to yourself (or others).
The app also has powerful navigation features, and shares with iBooks a sensible "click to advance a page" approach, rather than the clumsy "free scroll" model of inferior applications. Offset against this is the fact that the file management dialogs are a bit arcane, following neither iOS nor Mac/Windows standards, but you get used to that...
To make best use of this you need a PDF printer on your PC - the iPad apps which claim to convert files on the iPad are all pretty useless because they depend on the faulty document viewers for their source data. I have Adobe Acrobat Standard Edition, but any cheap/free PC-based PDF converter should do. Simply print to an "iPad Reading" directory and use that as the default upload location for DiskAid, and the process becomes quite slick.
Using DocsToGo and "compare versions" back on the PC works well for relatively simple documents. The PDF approach works very well for more complex Word documents, including those with complex graphics, tables or mark-up (complete with balloons and multi-author tracking if you want). Once converted to PDF the iPad is a brilliant platform on which they can be viewed in full fidelity, and marked up if you're using iAnnotate PDF.
Most of the applications which can supposedly view PowerPoint slides do a surprisingly poor job. As well as rendering layout and fonts very inaccurately, none of them offers the obvious navigational model of showing one slide at a time full screen, with a simple tap or swipe to advance. They either have a clumsy "free scrolling" model, or a stupid notes-view layout where the slide itself is compressed into a corner.
Printing the slide deck to PDF on the PC gets rid of all this. Rendering is usually 100%, and iBooks or iAnnotate will display full screen with tap to advance. If using iAnnotate, you can scribble or type any markup, and then save or email the amended version. It's not quite as slick as having a proper PowerPoint editor on the iPad, but workable.
One of the iPad's great strengths is the high clarity, colour fidelity and viewing angle tolerance of its screen. This is in sharp contrast to the poor provision of even quite expensive laptops. If you're doing photo processing or other graphical work on the go the iPad provides a great way to check your output.
While you can just upload the finished result for viewing (see below), it's even more effective to set the iPad up as a secondary display for your laptop, and preview your work as you go. There are a couple of programs which do this, but some of them are unreliable or known to trash a PC's graphics drivers, especially Aero ones. The exception seems to be DisplayLink, which appears to "just work", certainly on Windows 7. Coupled with MHotSpot to simplify connectivity, and a graphics program set up to send a full-screen preview to a second screen if connected (I use the wonderful, and cheap, XnView), this becomes a very slick solution.
In what is hopefully the first of several Office apps for the iPad, Microsoft have delivered a very usable application which offers full synchronisation with the notes on your PC.
You do have to have a Windows Live account for this to work, but that's no hardship. Synchronisation is seamless and continuous (if you want) if your PC is on an open network, but can get confused by corporate proxy servers. I now leave OneNote on the PC set to "sync manually" which is simpler for the way I work.
The free version of the app is fully functional for up to 500 notes, beyond that you have to invest about £10, but at least it's a one-off rather than periodic cost.
The app is great for viewing existing notes and creating new ones, but since it doesn't support the full range of text formatting options it can cause problems if you edit existing notes with fancy formatting or numbered lists. However, Microsoft have promised that they are working to reduce these limitations in future versions.
I used to recommend MobileNoter in this space. It's still a viable solution if you want a cheaper or non-Microsoft solution, but the quality and reliability of the app were getting increasingly frustrating for me, and so far the Microsoft solution looks good.
When I got my iPad in late 2010 it only supported Apple formats for music and video, and others had to be converted. The conversions were at best slow, at worst very poor, especially for low bitrate off-air TV. The best converter was AirVideo - results were good but the process and file management were frightful. The clumsy standard video player application didn't help.
However, in about August 2011 matters improved, with a batch of new players which can handle videos in their native "open" or Microsoft formats. My favourite is AVplayerHD, which happily plays MPEG and MWV, and their variants, at various sizes and frame rates, and has dramatically better navigation features than the standard app. In addition content is easily and straightforwardly managed using DiskAid. Now I can just record TV using Media Center and copy the files direct to the iPad. Much better.
If the built in video player is clumsy, the standard Photos app is simply appalling. Not only is it very complex and painstaking to upload pictures with any sort of structure, but in doing so the iPad strips them of their filenames and all other EXIF data, and provides effectively zero ability to do anything beyond swiping through in a sequence it determines. If you do want to note something about a picture while you're doing so, you're out of luck.
Photo Manager Pro addresses all these shortcomings, providing a much more flexible and professional photo album tool. Files are held at their full resolution, and with naming and other data intact and accessible, and you have full control over structure and sequencing. You can upload and download files by a variety of means - I just use DiskAid and the "import from iTunes" feature.
There is scope for further improvement: it would be great if you could make and export notes on images, and the handling of duplicate imports leaves a bit to be desired, but generally this is an excellent tool which meets the requirements for a "professional" photo well.
It is perfectly possible to make the iPad play nicely as part of a professional Windows-based environment, but you do have to be prepared to grab the bull by the horns, dump most of the built-in apps (which are almost all pretty useless), and take control of both file management and communications via partner applications on the PC.
Microsoft Office documents are still a challenge, and we continue to live in hope that some developers will create a proper Office clone as has been done on other platforms. In the meantime hopefully this article will provide some tips to help get productive work out of the iPad's great hardware.
Updated 14/1/12. This is a fast-moving environment and it’s already time to update my advice. With the release of an optimised version of OneNote for the iPad, this displaces MobileNoter. I’m also hopeful that I can soon confirm removal of some of the problems in other apps. Watch this space.
Hi Andrew, Thanks for the tips. I’m not a great fan of the ipad due to most of the limitations you have mentioned. Once you get passed the wow factor, I think its a pretty limited device. However, my wife has one and I’m getting the never ending ‘how do I …’ Your suggestions will make my life a lot easier!
You are my answer to the ease of my iPad and the work horse of Microsoft. Thank you.
If you'd like to comment on this article, with ideas, examples, or just to praise it to the skies then I'd love to hear from you.