Archive for November 18th, 2014

It is hard to believe that it has been nearly five years since the original iPad was announced. Despite the promise I saw for students, I’ve also been fairly cynical over the years about the viability of tablets and e-readers for the work I do every day. On the day that the iPad was revealed (so long ago that I was still using two spaces after periods), I wrote:

Today, Apple unveiled what they surely hope will carry students further down that road, the iPad …  It seems somewhat pointless to criticize an Apple product (after all, the reveal was preceded by more hype than money can buy and Apple paid no money at all for it) but the hype may have worked against the iPad, resulting in a collective “a big iPod Touch?  That’s it?”  In 2015 I’ll probably look back at this post from my own iPad while my students complete the course readings and take class notes on their own iPads and laugh at how foolish I was.  For now, though, the future doesn’t seem quite as cool as I had hoped.

In addition to digital textbooks, another one of the things I had hoped that the future would bring was mentioned in a post about the Kindle 2, I said, “I’ll really get excited when e-books are a viable option for students looking to save on the cost of textbooks and grad students looking to avoid printing thousands of pages of PDF journal articles.”

It isn’t quite 2015 yet, and the electronic versions of textbooks are barely cheaper than traditional formats, but I’ve seen increasing evidence that people can use tablets to do the things that I use a lot of paper for: grading assignments, reading journal articles, and taking (and, more importantly, storing) notes on meetings and presentations. Combined with a fresh opportunity for start-up funds, I decided it was time to try to digitize my workload but waited until the iPad Air 2 was released in order to make sure that I was starting with the newest model since I plan to be using it for several years – unfortunately, there is no money in my start-up funds for a replacement. What follows are some thoughts on my experience so far. (At no point did I consider an Android tablet, although I’m sure that there are plenty of good ones. Due to my current phone and computer I am tied pretty strongly to Apple’s ecosystem, which makes it easy to share files – and apps, in the case of my phone – between them.)


While I wanted a tablet that would allow me to do my work, I also wanted it to be easily portable. Not having any personal experience using an iPad, and thinking that the original iPad looked huge, I negotiated my start-up funds based on the cost of an iPad Mini but I still wasn’t sure which was the best size so I stopped by an Apple store. In person, I quickly discovered that the iPad was a lot smaller than I thought and the iPad mini seemed like it wouldn’t provide much space for annotating PDF files and commenting on student papers. Several times, I saw an iPad that I thought must have been a Mini but that turned out not to be. The best size comparison for academics may be one of those “Composition” notebooks with the black covers. The iPad Air 2 is a little narrower, a tiny bit shorter, and about half the thickness of one of those. The screen size is 9.7 inches, measured diagonally, and has a 4:3 ratio like pre-HD TVs, which may not be best for watching widescreen movies but provides extra width when reading student papers and journal articles in portrait (tall, rather than wide) orientation. In the image below, you can see the size in relation to an 8.5 x 11 inch piece of paper and a piece of paper I cut to the size of an iPad Mini:

Size ComparisonI suppose that it is technologically impressive that the newest iPad is less than half the thickness of the original and is even thinner than the already-thin iPhone 6 (6.1 mm vs. 6.9 mm), but I think we have reached the point of diminishing returns for thinness in electronics. Like the iPhone, even though your first impression might be “wow, this is thin!” after a few uses it becomes normal. (Due to the glass front and aluminum back, it feels a bit like holding a pane of glass if you have any experience with that.) Similarly, the weight is less than 1 pound, which I’ve found no more difficult to hold than a hardcover book. Like a hardcover book, I’ve found that I typically rest the iPad on a desk or my legs when using it, which mitigates the impact of the weight. Most importantly, neither the thickness nor the weight get in the way of everyday usage, though it can get a bit slippery if you tend to have sweaty hands.


So far, I’ve found the iPad to be better for some of my intended tasks (reading and annotating journal articles) than others (note taking and writing legibly enough for students to read), although practice might improve my results. I’ve used it primarily with an app called “GoodNotes” that I will talk more about on another day. Like many others, I have found that it is difficult to type quickly and accurately on a piece of glass. An online typing speed test showed that I type 98 words per minute on my usual keyboard but only 42 words per minute on the iPad, with lots of mistakes. This is surely better than my pathetic phone-typing speed, and is vastly preferable to a phone for sending an e-mail, but I wouldn’t try typing anything longer than a few sentences without a bluetooth keyboard, which I don’t have.

Typing difficulty was expected, but I did not expect to be frustrated by the placement of the volume and power buttons. As you can see in the image below, the side of the iPhone 6 (on top) is curved from front to back, with the buttons placed at the apex of the curve. The apex of an iPad’s edge, however, is very close to the front, curving toward the back, with the buttons perpendicular to the curve near the back.

Edge ComparisonThese buttons are especially hard to press when using an open Smart Cover wrapped around the back (think about the way you might fold the cover of a spiral-bound notebook behind the notebook itself) because the cover sticks out a tiny bit next to the buttons. In the Smart Cover’s defense, it eliminates the need to press the similarly difficult power/sleep/wake button in most circumstances. I’ve found that it is easier to adjust the volume through the control center that appears when swiping up from the bottom of the screen, as shown in the image below.

Volume ControlUnfortunately for academics, Apple eliminated the mute switch that was near the volume controls on previous models. Before classes, meetings, etc., then, you will need to remember to silence the iPad’s speakers either through the control center or by holding the “down” volume button, both of which require the iPad to be awake and unlocked and neither of which allows a quick glance like an external mute switch.

Things aren’t all bad, however, as the addition of Touch ID makes it easy to use a fingerprint to unlock the iPad when waking it up rather than typing in a passcode. This protection is particularly important for academics who need to protect data, student grades, and access to their e-mail and Facebook accounts in case of theft. Battery life is also good. This afternoon I spent an hour and 25 minutes reading for class and used 14% of the battery, suggesting that I could do this for roughly 10 hours on a full charge. Standby time is also good, meaning that if you don’t use your iPad for a few days, it is likely to still have battery life when you need it. New iPads run iOS 8, which will be familiar if you have an iPhone but may take some adjustment if you’re used to Android or, worse, still use a “dumb” phone (or what are sometimes kindly referred to as “feature” phones).


Although I didn’t pay anything for my iPad, most people don’t have start-up funds to draw from, so the cost might be the biggest factor in whether or not you think it is time to digitize your own workload. The base iPad Air 2 costs $479 for educators and the smart cover costs $39. I’ve never used a cover or case on my phone, and the iPad’s glass screen would probably be fine in a bag with some books, but it seems like an expensive gamble so some might see it as a requirement. Even with only 16 GB of storage space and no cellular connectivity, the iPad cost more than the laptop that I bought with my start-up funds at my first job. Luckily, cloud storage like DropBox and Google Drive can help alleviate the storage crunch while providing access to your files (but, of course, depending on your needs that can add an additional cost). Because you’re probably not going to use your finger to comment on student assignments and annotate journal articles, there’s also the cost of a stylus, which can range from a few dollars to over $100. My own search for the right stylus, which I’ll discuss on another day, is still in progress.


Apparently, I like to wait about five years before purchasing a new technology (see also: my first smartphone). So far, my time with the iPad hasn’t provided the same level of amazement as my first smartphone, but that may be due to the difference between gaining the ability to do things that I had never done before (like checking my e-mail wherever I was) and gaining the ability to do things that I have been doing for years in a different way. It has been nice, however, to take notes on class readings electronically and take the iPad to class instead of a pile of papers. I’m also looking forward to having these notes in a single location for future reference rather than printing an article for the seventh time because I can’t find a previous copy with my notes.

I’ll keep you posted.

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