The iPad as a research tool

This is a reworked version (April 2011) of an earlier post, which benefits from further dedicated time of trying hard to justify the iPad as a serious work tool for the jobbing academic.

So, you’re a research student or academic who has just laid their hands on a new iPad. How useful is it as a research tool? What advantages does it have over a laptop? Is it just a clever shiny gadget for watching movies on long train rides? Having been given one ten months ago, my initial impression was that it would prove more useful as a leisure device than as an essential work tool, but now it has found a unique and valuable role in my work flow as a jobbing academic researcher. This post sets out my observations in the hope that they will prove useful to others. I have downloaded all kinds of research and writing related apps, and tried them out. What this focuses on are either the ones that work for me – or which I know work for others, but for whatever reason do not quite fit my own way of working. My reflections are, of course, based on the original iPad, rather than the iPad 2. But if anyone would like to give me one of those, then I’d be more than happy to evaluate it.

Let us start with its key advantages over the laptop. Clearly, it’s smaller, lighter and with a longer battery life. For researchers these are important assets, particularly in research gathering settings where you want to be less obtrusive. Taking notes behind the dramatic sweep of a MacBook Pro’s 17″ lid does tend to draw attention to one’s self. So whether doing research in the field, or simply writing stuff up on the train, the iPad has certain physical advantages. The keypad takes some getting used to, but as a note taking tool it is very useful. However, the optional Apple iPad keyboard transforms the device into a serious writing machine for which there are some very good apps. A recent research trip to Africa made heavy use of the iPad and convinced me of its value.

Below I focus on four research uses for an iPad – as a research gathering tool, an idea development tool, a reading and browsing tool and as a research dissemination tool.

The iPad as a research gathering tool

Let us say that you’re doing research in the field. No, more specific: you’re doing research in a field. Unlikely, I know, but if you’re doing an ethnographic study of farm workers, or a survey of urban gardening, or surveying your locality for a Green Map, then this is possible. A laptop would work, although a bit clunky. Now let’s introduce an extra dimension: rain. At this point the laptop becomes a potentially disastrous liability – but not your iPad in a waterproof bag. A number of companies provide waterproof covers that enable the iPad to continue being operated. TrendyDigital is one such supplier, and there are others. So, we can safely gather data in all weather conditions, or just have the option of operating the iPad with our tongue.

I have used the iPad for note taking in meetings (inside, rather than in rain drenched fields), and have found the main key advantage is that the iPad is relatively unobtrusive. Well, that’s not strictly true. For the first ten minutes everyone gathers around and demands turns playing with it, but that’s just new gadgets for you. Eventually the novelty wears off and people forget that it’s an iPad. For note taking you have a considerable number of apps available, and I’ve tried many of them. Two, however, stand out.

SoundPaper gives you the option of taking a sound recording as you type your notes. Afterwards, when you click at a particular point in your notes, so it will play back from that same point in the recording. As the developers claim: “SoundPaper is perfect for students. If you ever fall asleep in class, don’t worry — SoundPaper’s got your back. Just tap what you wrote while you were awake, and SoundPaper will play the audio to help you fill in the blanks.” This does not apply to students here at Duncan of Jordanstone College, given the highly engaging quality of our lecturing staff, and on the odd occasion that students do nod off, we throw hard objects at them. As my colleague Catriona Macaulay, who runs our MSc Design Ethnography programme suggests, SoundPaper has great potential in design ethnography research. Having used it in several different settings, I find it one of the most useful and distinctive apps for the iPad. The only downside is its reliance on email as the sole method of transferring your notes to your Mac.

Notebooks is much more a research and writing tool than merely a note taking tool, and is an essential app if you are going to do any serious work. There is a detailed review here, but I will add a few observations of my own. You can integrate it with Safari, organise your notes in various ways, import and export in a range of formats, and do this wirelessly if you wish. You can use it to set up to-do lists, which can also be integrated with OmniFocus and other applications. Hugely well featured and very well designed. In short, an essential app for research and writing. I have found it much more useful than Apple’s own Pages for iPad, which I cannot really see the point of. A good iPad app should work to the distinctiveness of the iPad, and overcome some of its inherent shortcomings. Pages, which you have to sync via iTunes, just makes the whole process clunky.

Evernote is another research tool for the iPad. To be honest, I never really took to Evernote on the Mac, so I have not used it on the iPad. Hoever, some people I know have done, and swear by it. So, in the interests of balance, here is a review that sets out many of Evernote’s positive qualities.

Note Taker HD lets you take handwritten notes and sketch. It is a well designed app, and could work for people who prefer writing to typing. I’m not one of them. The interesting thing about it is that it is developed by Dan Bricklin, who 30 years ago designed VisiCalc, the ground-breaking spreadsheet programme. The thing that really really didn’t work for me was writing with my finger. It just feels wrong. So, I made my own stylus for the iPad based on this DIY design. Instead of adapting a biro, I found that a paintbrush that has a metal casing for the bristles works better for holding the conductive foam. If all this means nothing to you, then watching the video in the last link will make all things crystal like. The interface is cumbersome and complicated, as the screengrab below demonstrates.

MUJI Notebook is a very recently launched app that, like Note Taker HD, allows you to write on screen. However it also incorporates handwriting recognition – although to be honest either the software is a little wanting, or my handwriting is somewhat illegible: I’ve yet to get it to work well. It has some advantages over Note Taker in that you can import PDFs and photos and annotate them, and the interface is very intuitive.

The iPad as an idea development tool

The iPad has great potential as a tool to capture visual thinking – ie: the visualisation of complex ideas, and the relationship between them. But I have yet to find an app that really hits this potential. Notebooks is great for playing with ideas as text, but there is no visual dimension. On the Mac I use Mind Node alongside the brilliant Scrivener, which has a corkboard for restructuring the main elements of a writing project.

It was my desire to find some Scrivener-like thinking environment on the iPad that drew me to Corkulous.

As the image above shows, Corkulous provides a corkboard for tasks, notes and images, and the flexibility to move them around freely and have boards nested within other boards. As a basic idea it holds promise, but is not yet fully featured sufficiently to do much more than plan a shopping trip. But what the app does suggest is the potential for visual thinking on the iPad.

Popplet builds on this in a more visually useful way, incorporating aspects of mindmapping. Like Corkulous, it is a promising app, but it falls down in terms of export options – which are limited – and not fully using the distinctive interface of the iPad. It is also overpriced.

iThoughtsHD is by far the best visual thinking tool for the iPad. Unlike Corkulous and Popplet, it recognises that the user will, at some point, want to transfer the ideas developed into another application and work on them further. The export options are comprehensive, and overall the app has a real sense of quality to it.

I use writing as a way of developing ideas, so a good writing app is essential. Right now there is only one serious contender – Writer. Steven Fry loves it, which may or may not persuade you, but as a former Rector of the University of Dundee it should! A beautiful writing environment, uncluttered, simple, focussed.

The iPad for reading and browsing

This is where the iPad excels, and proves itself as far more usable than a laptop. It is, simply, a brilliant device for reading and navigating. So, I’m off to a conference in London. All the files I need – PDFs, DOCs, Pages and image files, etc. – I transfer onto the iPad with GoodReader. It’s a very simple but effective document reader, keeping everything accessible in one place, such as conference agenda, maps, hotel bookings, etc. Any file I think I’ll need to edit, such as speaking notes, I transfer into Notebooks. On the way down on the train, I use the time to read some articles and academic papers.

Papers is an application for the Mac, iPad and iPhone by Mekentosj that describes itself as “your personal library of research”. As I written elsewhere, it is an outstanding application that lets you find, download, file and tag research papers. The parts of your library you want to transfer to the iPad are then accessible for reading. You can also search online and download them from the iPad version of Papers, although – to be honest – it’s easier to do this from the Mac version. And the iPad is just great for reading. Other tools I use on on the Mac, such as Instapaper, are also available as iPad apps.

As for an RSS feed reader, Pulse is easily the best. It was designed in five weeks by two graduate students and has a beautiful mosaic type interface to browse items in your feeds. It has such a well considered design which many other apps could usefully learn from. It costs around two pounds, and is worth every penny.

Flipboard – like Pulse – is one of the few apps so far that really ‘gets’ the iPad. It’s a twitter and facebook reader that turns the content into a magazine style output that totally enhances readability. Just use it – you’ll see how it makes a difference to your use of twitter.

The iPad as a research dissemination tool

Let’s begin with micro-dissemination via twitter. On the Mac I use TweetDeck, and had tried with the iPad version, but it kept crashing and appears fairly buggy. I’ll try it again if another version is released, but in the meantime I’ve become a fan of Osfoora HD. Like Pulse, it has a beautiful, elegant design with great usability and all the functionality that you need. Next, blogging – and given the location of my blog – WordPress for iPad – is a useful app that works well.

Overall the iPad is good for informal presentations of work. All singing and dancing Keynote presentations do not work – so little of the Mac’s Keynote functionality transfers over to the iPad – but I have found that slideshows of images, or playing videos works very well, with people gathered around to see. It provides more informality to ‘presenting your work’.

In summary….

The great thing about the iPad is getting away from bloated, over specified software that simply gets in the way of doing things. The apps above, especially the outstanding ones, do only one thing, but do it spectacularly well, making full use of the iPad’s interface.

And who am I to write all this? Well, I do research and writing for a living, so I’ve some justification for sharing my views. Also, I have a bit of experience using such devices. Back in 1985, when computers were small on memory and functionality, and their users were big on hair and shoulder pads, I bought a Tandy TRS-80 – a little laptop with 32K memory and a tiny text only screen. But it was mobile and had a built in modem, and I thought it was magic. It synced with my Amstrad PCW. Well, I say “sync”. Back then “sync” was just a fancy way of describing an avocado coloured washbasin. I actually wrote part of a book chapter on it, and remember sitting in Hyde Park on a sunny day with the Tandy on my lap thinking that this was the way to go. Of course, the 32K of memory filled pretty quickly so after an hour’s work in the park, all I could do was feed the ducks. It’s taken 25 years, but now it really is the way to go. Does anyone know of a virtual duck feeding app?

30 thoughts on “The iPad as a research tool

  1. well, just laid my hands on JB’s new iPad, taking it with my on travelling for a week so let’s see how it can persuade me.

    The soundpaper one looks impressive, wish I had it when I did my interviews – could have saved so much time in transcribing…


  2. Hey i’m a grad student in Toronto, was reading your articles and I’ll definitely check out soundpaper. Thanks. I also thought you might like Mendely. I just found it last year and gave up papers. It is free and you can sync articles across commuters, as well as some other great features!

    Just a thought,

    – From my iPad

  3. Just a note in comparing Evernote with Notebooks. Evernote has an application that runs on Macs and PCs that makes the notes interface identical. If I’m not mistaken, notes synced via Dropbox are in html and I haven’t seen any application that provides an interface similar to iPad app’s interface. Will keep looking…

  4. Thanks for the fantastic review of ethnographic research apps for the iPad. I can also recommend EthnoCorder ( which takes full advantage of the iPad2’s visual capabilities and beautifully exploits the device’s potential as a research tool.

  5. The best app ever to add: “Upad” is my go-to PDF reader–for my uses it is better than iAnnotate, iBooks, or really anything else I’ve found because it lets you categorize your articles, highlight easily, type if you add text boxes, and is the best for writing in the margins. For handwriting in the margins/on pdfs it lets you put up a barrier of sorts so you can place your hand on the ipad without messing up the writing, and there’s a box you can write “big” in and it will make the writing smaller where you specify. The one drawback is that while you can open files from dropbox in upad, they do not automatically sync back up to dropbox, you have to export them. But, it’s only $5–and well worth every penny. I think the ipad is worth the price for this app alone (though I also swear by omnifocus).

    Couple of questions:

    As far as Papers goes, I like it (and also have it on my mac which is convenient), but does anyone know if there’s a way to have the same file in both Papers and something else (upad, or iAnnotate if you prefer) and not have the file in there twice? I’d like to both save space on my ipad, and be able to mark up/annotate the same file using different apps.

    Finally, are there any good writing apps besides pages and iA writer? I have iA writer but I don’t like it precisely because of one of it’s supposedly best features: “When writing with computers, we too easily get into a chaotic loop of crisscross editing, destroying the voice and the organic structure of our original thought.” I WANT a “chaotic loop of crisscross editing”! Am I alone in being an academic who’s “original thought” demands constant restructuring? (I refuse to buy Pages because I purchased Keynote and was incredibly annoyed that it changed my presentation, which I originally spent hours creating in keynote on my mac, because I used non-compatable fonts and colors. I took a course in design and was very intentional about font, color, size, etc, as well as clever use of a few transitions/builds and I think it’s bullshit that Keynote for iPad changes presentations built in Keynote for Mac. But anyway.) Writing app suggestions would be appreciated!!

  6. Thank you for this well written and thoughtful article. As I sit here writing this comment on my iPad classic, contemplating whether I need to purchase a new laptop for my postgraduate studies, your article has certainly convinced me of the iPad’s potential as a research tool.

  7. This is exactly the 3rd blog, of your blog I really read through.
    And yet I personally enjoy this specific one, “The iPad as a
    research tool | Mike Press” the very best. Regards ,Ricky

  8. Hi, I just shared your noble article onto my facebook. Like you, at the beginning of your article, I have an iPad but am more inclined to laptop. I did not know about all those apps you mentioned. Thanks for sharing your knowledge

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