I’ve been traveling for the past week, on an “official” writing trip (weird, I know), and it’s made me acutely aware of exactly how much I use my iPad.
This is partially because I have an ENORMOUS laptop, so large that it’s practically a desktop machine. I needed something that could handle multiple PDFs, PowerPoint files, and web browser windows without crashing, and this one had a big screen (great for reviewing graphics) and a great price. So it’s wonderful for working at home, but not so wonderful for toting on an airplane. Or to the local coffee shop, for that matter.
But my iPad…well, that lasts hours on the battery, connects to the Internet wherever I can find WiFi (no, I didn’t pay for the monthly 3G service), and has enough memory to store every book I’m considering reading, plus every PDF and Word document for every project-in-progress, plus every app that I might or might not use.
Yes, perusing the app store is a favorite time-waster for me…which means that the number of apps on my iPad considerably outnumber the apps that I actually use. On the other hand, it means that I’ve sampled lots and lots of different applications, and can weigh in on which are the most beneficial for my fellow writers.* Here’s my list of absolutely must-have apps for writers:
1. Kindle (FREE). This one probably goes without saying, but just in case…if you have some kind of tablet device and you’re a writer, you MUST have an e-Reader. It doesn’t have to be Amazon’s Kindle application; Barnes and Noble has a Nook app, Apple has an iBooks app, and there are probably a hundred other out there as well. An iPad gives you the opportunity to carry hundreds of books with you. This is the perfect solution for those of us whose books take up more room in the suitcase than our clothes. Don’t have the cash for an extensive library of ebooks? Download free classics from the Guttenberg project. Watch Amazon for free book promos–they often give away the first book in a series, in the hope that you will be so hooked that you’ll buy more. (Yes, this has worked on me, but I’m weak. You’ll resist, I’m sure.) Or check out authors like Corey Doctorow, who give away their books in electronic formats as well as selling digital copies.
2. DropBox (FREE, with optional upgrade). There are numerous “cloud drives” out there, and I’m not sure that any one is better than the others—the key is to find someplace online to store your work-in-progress, research materials, or other files you might want to access from multiple locations. DropBox enables me to pull up my manuscript on my phone if I have a few spare minutes to read; or take off to work in a coffee shop without worrying about whether I have the latest draft uploaded to my iPad. Online storage is also a great way to back up your work, and most sites provide a base amount of storage for free. Other options include Microsoft’s SkyDrive and Google Docs.
3. Evernote (FREE with ads, with optional ad-free upgrade) is an online, always-accessible note-taking program, similar to Microsoft’s OneNote, but much easier to use when you’re away from home. This program is powerful way to record information:you can email “to read” items to it, take notes, copy text or graphics, even record photos search, sort by tags, compile notes, and more. It’s one downside—notes aren’t available unless you have an Internet connection.
4. Simplenote (FREE with ads, with optional ad-free upgrade) gives you a stripped-down version of Evernote: it handles text, and has the option for using tags to help manage files, but no pictures, clickable links, or fancy formatting. As a result, it has several advantages over Evernote. It’s faster—since it’s much easier to sync text than the fancy content Evernote can handle. Unlike Evernote, it allows users to access notes while offline. It has an option to sync notes with DropBox, which makes collaboration easier. My favorite aspect of this program, though, might be its look: simple, decluttered, with a full screen option that strips away everything but the words. Sometimes that’s exactly what I need.
5. Outline (FREE). Already a fan of Microsoft’s OneNote program? Outline allows you to download and view copies of your notebooks. I’ve found this incredibly valuable for transporting research materials. Plus, if you set up synchronization between your computer and Microsoft’s SkyDrive, you can access the most recent version of your notebooks any time you have Internet access. With an intuitive interface and full-screen option, I find it easy to view and use my notebooks even when away from my main computer. This is a view-only version of your notebook, though: Outline will not allow you to edit any of the material, and when you make changes on your home machine you’ll need to download an updated version of the notebook.
6. Due (PAID). For fans of the Pomodoro technique, Due is a simple and easy-to-use timer app with a clean interface. When the alarm sounds, it doesn’t go on and on forever like the iPhone’s built-in timer, and it gives you the option of setting up a repeating timer—one that goes off every ten minutes, for instance. It’s a great little app for encouraging short bursts of writing!
7. Knowtilus (PAID). This program is a recent discovery—a web browser with text-to-speech capability. I LOVE it: I can use this app to navigate to the DropBox web interface, open my work-in-progress, and have it read aloud to me as I drive, fold laundry, etc. The computerized voice is surprisingly good. Although not as good as an actual human reading aloud, I find that I get used to the cadence after a few minutes and can focus on the story. My only complaint is that its text-to-speech function is limited to the first 20,000 characters; for longer works, you’ll need to break your file into multiple parts if you want it to read the entire manuscript.
8. Dragon Dictation (FREE). I use the iPhone version of this program more frequently than its iPad cousin, but it’s still worth a mention. Dragon Dictation does a surprisingly good job of translating the spoken word into text, which is helpful for those moments when you can’t write down your killer idea. One caution: because of the way this app works, it’s not able to handle huge blocks of speech in a single chunk. If you try giving it five minutes of words to translate, it’s likely to give you an error message—and no text at all.
9. Docs to Go (PAID).** Of all the word processing programs I’ve tested, Docs to Go remains my favorite. It’s completely compatible with Microsoft Word, which is my primary need; it also allows me to make notes on PowerPoint files. I set it up with direct access to my desktop machine and to my DropBox account, and use it to read, review, and edit. Docs to Go will also let me read PDFs, but doesn’t support annotations. For that I use Good Reader…
10. GoodReader (PAID). If you need to highlight, comment on, or otherwise annotate PDFs, this is hands-down the best app for you. Not only is it more powerful than any other I’ve tried, it’s also intuitively designed and more stable than other PDF-reading applications.
Someday, I hope to add Scrivener to this list. Apparently, an iPad app is in the works. I’ve been very excited to try out the Windows version of Scrivener, since I’ve heard for SO long how wonderful it is for the working writer—but the Windows app, alas, isn’t that useful for someone who makes extensive use of the iPad as a writing tool. Although the Mac version of Scrivener will sync with Simplenote, this option isn’t available in the Windows version. So far, I haven’t found a good way to transfer material between my laptop and my iPad. Even the complicated method doesn’t work well—that is, exporting your Scrivener files to a Word document, opening them in a different program on the iPad, editing, and then copy-and-pasting changes back into Scrivener. Although I’m sure there must be *some* program in which you can easily move files back and forth, the process doesn’t work in Docs to Go, Readdle Docs, or GoodReader, and after trying those three I got tired of trying. Alas, until they come up with a way to move files between Windows and the iPad, I won’t be using Scrivener, even though it seems like a terrific tool.
*Ooh, does that mean I’ve been doing a service for mankind? I sense an excuse to buy more apps!
**I was torn between Docs to Go and Readdle Docs. Docs to Go used to be greatly superior to Readdle Docs, but with recent updates, Readdle Docs now has a cleaner interface and greater functionality. I’ve chosen Docs to Go purely because I’m more familiar with it, but Readdle Docs seems to be a great word processing option as well.