Saturday, December 25, 2010

The iPad for a Professor- Why I Love It

It's been interesting to watch FaceBook today- MANY of my FaceBook friends got iPads for Christmas, and a decent number got somewhat similar items (e.g., Kindles, Nooks). Not too surprising given the iPad was originally released in April of this year. I got my iPad in early October. Even though I don't use a Mac, I love it- not just as the "new techy trendy toy" (which I fully acknowledge it is that too!) but as a functional part of my work and play. Let me say upfront- I don't think iPads are for everyone. It's neither a laptop replacement nor a smartphone replacement, and yes, no one "needs" to have one- we all got by last year without them. But here's how I use mine and why I like it, primarily in the context of my job.


I use my iPad for many kinds of presentations, ranging from classes to invited talks, and it works fine (just need that ~$30 VGA adapter). If you want full animations like from a laptop's PowerPoint, the "Keynote" app works pretty well and can import PowerPoint files created on your computer. A few graphics or word sizes may need minor tweaks after importing, but the tweaks are fast, and the iPad is far lighter and subtler (literally looks like a leather-covered notebook in the folder I use) to carry to your talk than a laptop.

Personally, I favor the "2Screens" app over Keynote. This app leverages something that's harder to do on a laptop: you can actually use the tablet nature of your iPad. It will present PowerPoint, Keynote, or pdf files as well (albeit without animation), but you can also "draw" directly on your presentation (using finger or stylus). So, when presenting a Punnett's square, your original file can be just the blank square, and you can manually draw in various combinations during the talk, like from an overhead projector. Or you can temporarily make a blank screen for drawing and come back to where you left off in your PowerPoint. Plus, you can save right then and there what you drew. These are features I intend to use a lot when teaching genetics next year. Further, if you want to show something off a webpage, the "Expedition VGA browser" app works great, and you can switch between it and 2Screens in under a second.


I take my iPad to seminars I attend to take notes, just like a lot of people do with paper pads/ notebooks. One advantage I have is that I can insert things into my notes wherever I want- something that wasn't clear may become clear later in the talk, and I can edit what I wrote earlier on the spot (rather than scribbling in tiny writing in the margins). Here's the bigger advantage for me- if I have a question, I sometimes Google it right there in the seminar and find the answer (or find why the question isn't even appropriate, saving myself from looking dumb). Sure, you could do all that with a laptop, but few people take laptops to seminars since they're clunky and the typing is noisier.

If using the "Notes" app, you can have it sync with your GMail, and it automatically saves everything in a GMail folder called "Notes." Months or years later, you can search your account to find which seminar talked about X topic that you vaguely remember- something not possible with a paper pad.


I take my iPad to all sorts of committee meetings- student committees, university committees, etc. For student meetings, I save the student's progress report in the "GoodReader" app right when they e-mail it to me. The night before the meeting, sometimes while reclining in bed, I'll read the committee report, make notes (you can add notes, highlight, whatever, and if you want, export the pdf), etc. Then, at the meeting, I have the document sitting there with my comments in the iPad. If a question comes up at the meeting, or someone vaguely remembers a relevant figure from a publication, we can pull the publication up right then and there in the meeting using "Safari" (the default web browser).

For university committees, documents tend to be saved in Blackboard, and the "Blackboard" app (finally upgraded this month to be allowed to run in the background) is very fast and efficient. Again, I tend to take notes in the "Notes" app.

Somedays, I find that the only time I have to deal with some urgent work-related e-mails is while walking between meetings (or in the 2 minute break between consecutive meetings), and the iPad gives me a reasonable platform with which to do this using "Mail" or the "GMail" apps.


I have learned to read pdfs of publications now using "GoodReader", as mentioned before for committee reports. I don't tend to keep these files permanently (since I can always download them again), but I like going through them on GoodReader, annotating them, and keeping them on the iPad through the "journal club" or whatever other discussion. If I did want to keep the files longer-term, it'd be trivial to e-mail or download them (yes, with annotations) to save on my actual computer.

But life isn't all work. Often, in the evenings, my wife and I will watch a TV episode on the "ABC Player" app, or stream something from "Netflix." Yes, we could do this on a laptop, but laptops are hot and bulky to keep with us while reclining in bed. At mealtimes, I've looked up recipes on "AllRecipes"- even some slightly more obscure things (tonight I looked up "eggplant with garlic sauce") are in there. If I'm bored, I'll read the news on the "CNN", "BBC News", or "NPR" apps, or weather on the "The Weather Channel MAX" app, all of which are really slick on the iPad.


Keep in mind that the iPad will run all the iPhone apps, too, including thousands of games and utilities. Personally, I use "Alarm Clock", "Skype", "WorldMate", etc. when traveling, and I occasionally pull up "DukeMobile" here in Durham to check bus routes, balance on my DukeCard, or whatnot. I meet with people in my research team every week, and our meeting agendas are in Google Docs, which is super-easy to pull up, view, and edit on an iPad (either from Safari or directly from the "Google Mobile" app). If you're helping someone remotely (like a parent) troubleshoot problems on their computer, "TeamViewer" will allow you to see what's on their screen and help them fix it (though they have to install it, too, but it's free for you and for them).

And, of course, it's also a giant iPod, so save your music, movies, podcasts, etc., to watch/ listen.


The iPad is not a laptop or desktop computer replacement. You can buy the "Pages" word processor and edit Word-style documents, but it'll not be as quick/ comfortable as doing so on your computer. You won't want to do any significant table editing or statistics on your iPad either.

Nor is the iPad a smartphone replacement. I can't imagine carrying that big thing while walking around a town and trying to use the "Map" app to find where to go. I wouldn't want to use the many coupon apps on it, since again, it's big and bulky, whereas my iPhone fits in my pocket or holster really nicely. And I definitely wouldn't want to pay a data plan for it.

It doesn't have flash. Yes, I wish it did. But it's no tragedy that it doesn't for my uses. It just slightly limits the videos I can watch from the web on it, all of which I can see on my desktop or laptop anyway. Nor does it have a camera, but again, my smartphone does. The iPad doesn't do "everything".

And there are "competitor" products. Personally, I think none of the ones out right now are serious competition given the number and quality of apps available for the iPad. That may change in 1-2 years, but this was not meant to be a purchase to last forever. Computers are often nearly obsolete in under 4 years, and I expect similar for devices like the iPad.


Still, the iPad is lighter than most laptops but with a bigger screen/ keypad than a smartphone, and does a lot of the functions of both along with a few of its own. It's extraordinarily simple to use. The battery is great- lasts far, far longer than my laptop battery. It boots up from off in under 30 seconds or from standby in 2 seconds. It switches very quickly and easily from "portrait" to "landscape" view. It doesn't get very hot when running even for a very long time (though that may be the leather case insulating it).

Although people made fun of the name a lot when it first came out, for me, the only thing it totally replaced is a "pad" of paper that I would carry around (though I do now use my laptop less, too).

Do I "need" an iPad? No. I got by fine before I had one. However, does it enhance my ability to work and play more efficiently (or with greater enjoyment)? Weigh that question against the cost, and you can decide for yourself. For me, the answer was, and still is, yes.

PS- And no, I didn't write this blog entry on my iPad. :-)


  1. I really think it just depends on what you use it for. You're absolutely right, Mohamed; having the iPad obviously has helped make your life more efficient, and that's great. I posted that article (Why I don't want an iPad for Christmas) because I felt like a lot of people DO just want it for the techy trendy toy that it can be, and not for the functional, make-work-and-play-more-efficient gadget that it is. Since my work and play would not really be that much more efficient with an iPad (the life of a grad student who has no kids and spends a large chunk of her work time doing relatively mindless fly tending isn't nearly the life a professor leads), it's hard for me to justify the cost. However, if there's an app that will feed my cats and flip my flies I might consider buying an iPad. :)

    Actually, I've often thought how cool it would be if you could type in what stuff you have in the fridge, and then recipes that call for those ingredients would come up. THAT would save me time trying to think of something, and save me money because we wouldn't give up on cooking and instead go out to eat :D (There probably is an app for this, since there's an app for everything!)

  2. Hey, Shannon, Agreed 100% on all counts. For what you're doing right now, the iPad doesn't make sense, and by the time it may be useful for you, the "alternatives" may make more sense (or the iPad itself will be better/ cheaper). By the way, this entry wasn't a cross-post to your post, but instead to tell people who've just gotten one (or are considering one) how I use mine...

  3. This post stimulated lots of discussion on the topic (including input from lots of people who disagree/ dislike iPads) in Jerry's blog:

    Also, here's the article that Shannon mentioned in her comment above:

  4. I am excited about my iPad for those very reasons you listed. I admit, when I first heard about iPads I thought they were silly, but as I watched you use yours over the semester, it began to grow on me. My verdict is out on how useful it will be for me, but I do have to say that it's pretty fun so far. Last night I pulled up the allrecipes app and impressed my family with grapefruit recipes, today I watched Netflix on the couch and showed my sister a slideshow of some pictures. I can't wait to come back and learn from the iPad master! P.S. This post was written with my iPad ;)

  5. What I've found the ipod touch really shines for is having all of my papers with me at conferences and the like. Maybe the ipad is a bit big for it, but I've lost count of the number of times I'll be discussing something over a beer, or at a poster session, and we'll be talking about a paper they hadn't seen. I can instantly pull up figures, and email reprints, which is far more effective than trying to describe it verbally. Saying "I'd seen a paper that argued x" is far less persuasive than pulling that paper up and showing that lo', the figure supports X.

  6. Thank you very much for the useful description of ways to use the iPad, and what works for you. I've linked to your post from our blog, as we try to help people figure out how to make technology, including the iPad, work for them. Thank you for making our job easier! Here's the link to our post: