I thought it might be helpful if I shared some of the essential services, tools, and apps to help us all get the most out of our iPads. What follows are my ideas on what every iPad owner should at least consider for maximum productivity on their device. In each category, I offer some alternatives with a slightly deeper dive into my service, tool or app of choice. I hope that you find this post helpful. If you have additional suggestions to share, please post a comment below.
One of the biggest challenges for new iPad owners and those who want to move beyond content consumption on their device is file management. It can be a bit of a mystery as to how to get files on and off the device from your computer. Apple has tried to address this with iCloud integration. If you are an iCloud user on your Mac, you can synchronize files back and forth with your iPad and iPhone fairly easily. For many of us, though, we have an existing file structure, folders, and resources that may not work well with iCloud. In this case, we need a simpler solution to synchronize our existing documents using a cloud storage service. If you’re new to cloud storage, you may want to view this video overview of how Dropbox works before continuing.
I’ve extensively used four of the main cloud storage services – Dropbox, Box, OneDrive, and Google Drive. All four offer free accounts which can be upgraded to include additional storage space or features and all include the ability to synchronize files automatically on your computer and devices. In my opinion, it is essential to subscribe to and use a cloud storage service to get the most out of your device. Choosing one can be a bit of a challenge, but here are some rules of thumb:
- If you work mostly in Microsoft Office, I’d suggest OneDrive.
- If you want integration with the largest numbers of apps in the AppStore, I’d suggest Dropbox.
- If you live in Google, I’d suggest Google Drive.
- If you need enhanced security and a variety of file sharing features, I’d choose Box.
Still confused? Read this great post from Sarah Mitroff at CNET for more guidance. Whichever service you choose, it’s best to go “all in” and move all of the documents you regularly work with into your cloud account. Once there, it is relatively easy to access these files on your iPad and save documents there as well.
One of the things I like the most about an iPad versus a laptop is the size and relative unobtrusiveness of these devices. In contrast to having the laptop screen between you and others during a meeting, referencing materials and taking notes on an iPad puts up much less of a barrier between you and others – particularly when you use a stylus or the onscreen keyboard, rather than using your iPad with a keyboard. For this reason, I see a note-taking app as an essential tool in your toolkit.
If you work primarily in Office, you can use the Word app that works great on the iPad. If you prefer dedicated note-taking apps, I’ve tried a number of the great ones available in the AppStore. For me, I look for three things: a simple interface, notes have to be searchable/”organizable,” and they need to be able to sync to a desktop app or at least to my other devices. The two most widely used note-taking apps are Evernote and OneNote. Both have all the features you'd most likely need and are free. OneNote offers more unintuitive ways to group and organize your notes, but Evernote has connections with more additional plug-ins and services. I think it’s just a question of preference.
If you have an iPad Pro and Apple Pencil (or any iPad with a stylus you can at least tolerate), you may want to explore note-taking apps that enable you to take handwritten notes. This has always been my preference. I’ve enjoyed using Penultimate (which integrates with Evernote) and OneNote. On a recommendation from a friend, I’m eager to try Noteshelf which offers a great set of tools for different kinds of notebooks, paper, etc.
To make your iPad even moderately productive, you need to be able to access, edit, and create documents. You’ll then need to be able to sync these documents with your computer. If you’re a Google Drive user, this is easily accomplished with the Google Drive app. All you need to do is install the app, login, and you’re in.
For many of us, though, we need to be able to work with Microsoft Office files. A few years ago, this was a royal pain. Fortunately, Microsoft has developed a great suite of apps for Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and OneNote that are optimized for the iPad. While you don’t have access to all the features of the desktop app, you can do most everything you’d need to do. While you can save files on the iPad, it’s much better to integrate with a cloud storage service. OneDrive is definitely the easiest and most robust service that works with these apps flawlessly. You can also make other services like Dropbox and Box work – it just requires a little more effort to set up these services and make sure that your files are syncing reliably.
To-Do List Management
One essential for a productive life is to have an app that helps you with organizing and managing your to-do list. While there are a number of great apps and services available (e.g., Omnifocus, Wunderlist, and Remember the Milk), in my opinion, no app offers the simplicity with all the features I need in a rock-solid app that works on the iPad, iPhone, Android, Mac and Windows – Todoist. Honestly, I wouldn’t waste my time exploring the others (trust me, I have) and just sign up for a free Todoist account. I predict that you’ll upgrade to the very affordable Premium service. If you need more convincing, check out my post on Todoist.
iPads are great for reading and annotating PDF documents. I find it much easier and more enjoyable to read a digital document on the iPad flat on the table in front of me compared to a computer screen. I also enjoy the ability to highlight text and make quick notes or annotations on the documents. The experience is exceptionally good on the iPad Pro paired with an Apple Pencil.
I’ve recently written an overview of how to choose the best PDF reading/annotation app for your needs. To boil down the substance of that post, I think either Adobe Acrobat Reader for basic use and iAnnotate PDF for increased features will meet most everyone’s needs. Just make sure that whatever service you choose integrates with your cloud storage service, as this can be a bit hit-and-miss across the apps.
What other essential tools would you add to this list?
Please post your comments below.