August 27, 2010


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I have been trying out a wifi only iPad. My agenda is whether it makes a good tool for a travelling academic. By this I mean it should be easy to connect to wifi networks, be able to check and write (long) emails, take notes, make PDF based presentations (and edit them to correct typos, etc) and, for a mathematician, have some support for LaTeX editing and compiling.

The hardware is good. The screen is excellent for viewing and the touch screen very responsive The on-screen keyboard is fine and the larger screen means you can see more text whilst typing than on an iPod Touch. But it feels heavy. Perhaps not on first picking it up, but if you have to use it standing it quickly gets too heavy to hold conveniently. If you want to be able to put it down you probably want a case which can hold it at a convenient angle for typing and stop it sliding around.

There is a physical Apple keyboard available which connects via the docking port. This means the keyboard can only be used in portrait mode but otherwise works well. However to counterbalance the weight of the iPad the keyboard is heavy and not very compact so maybe not right for travelling.

The software is disappointing. In some cases software which I have liked on the iPod Touch, such as TweetDeck, is a poor relation on the iPad, missing features such as column syncing and Facebook support. At least I could not get them working.

I also hate the implementation of Apple Mail for iPad. Much worse than the iPod Touch, you have little control over what is shown on screen. The current message is always displayed as you navigate the list of messages. This could be embarrassing if someone was looking over your shoulder and saw confidential information. I always set my mail clients to only display subject lines until I double click a message to open it for reading. The iPad does not allow that.

There is a VGA adapter and there are plenty of PDF readers, some of which recognise the VGA port when present and allow PDFs to be displayed via a data projector. I have not tried Apple's Keynote for iPad as I mostly prepare papers for presentations via pdflatex so everything is PDF based.

Can one edit and compile LaTeX files? Well TeX is a programming language and Apple (until now) are blocking all but their own development tools on the iPad so there is no TeX compiler on the iPad. There is a way around this which involves a remote TeX compile system (auto-compiler) and some way to move files to and from the iPad. One such system is TeX Touchwhich is a LaTeX editor for the iPad and which is paired with TeX Timer running on a Mac. Files are moved most simply using DropBox which should be installed on the remote Mac and is supported directly by TeX Touch. TeX Timer watches as specified DropBox folder and whenever a .tex file is added to or changed in this folder then it runs PDFLaTeX on the file to produce a PDF file. It can be set to run in batch-mode and to run twice to resolve .aux files. In my tests it worked well although the editor is still in beta so lacks features such as context colouring.

Much iPod software marked as iPad compatible has not been updated for the larger iPad screen. Where there are separate iPad apps they are generally more expensive than their iPod counterparts and the price structure is such that they often cost several times more, even though the functionality may be less. Good iPad software is appearing only slowly which I find a bit surprising. But I'm in a niche market in looking for academic tools.

At the moment I give my iPad experience 6 out of 10.

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