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Back to School: Getting Productive with Your iPad

by on August 31st, 2010

As with every year, Labour Day marks the unofficial end of the summer holidays, and the beginning of the school year. Unlike previous school years, this will be the first one when some lucky students will be in the classroom with iPads in hand. This quick guide will be for both parents and students alike to prep them for the months ahead. Instead of providing specific app and accessory recommendations, I’ll provide some general categories and options to choose from, and like any classroom, I’ll leave the rest as “an exercise to the student”.

The Original iPad Concept

Early Prototype of the iPad


No iPad app essentials section is complete without some mention of office productivity apps. It’s the cornerstone of note taking and essay writing, as well as crunching numbers in spreadsheets and putting together presentations. Fortunately, there are plenty of options to choose from. There’s Apple’s own Pages, Numbers and Keynote, as well as Google Docs, QuickOffice and many others.

Getting iPad equivalent versions of desktop productivity software may sound like a good idea, but potential buyers need to remember that they’re getting what they paid for. Typical iPad apps are significantly scaled down versions of their desktop cousins. Furthermore you’ll need to watch out for compatibility with your [and your team members] existing setup. For example, Keynote has issues opening up some Microsoft PowerPoint presentations because of formatting or fonts. A word to the wise: make sure to use a cloud based service to back up your files in case the iPad dies mid-way through a document.

Opening PDFs and other documents will also be important for the average student, and being able to transfer them from the iPad to the desktop and back will become routine. Fortunately, there are some good solutions here too. Some of the more popular ones out there are GoodReader, Memeo Connect Reader, and ReaddleDocs. Some of these are paid apps, but they are well worth the money.

eBook readers can also help students offset high textbook costs, as they are generally much cheaper. The Kobo e-reader, and Amazon’s Kindle app can go a long way to help drive down costs, and save on space and weight in the backpack. If you’re concerned about being locked into one specific platform over another, there’s also the Stanza app too.

As the number of group projects increase in the school curriculum, the need for collaborative and file sharing apps will increase as well. Having a DropBox or similar account will be useful. If you’re worried about storing your files in the cloud, there are applications like Air Share that will do the trick as well. If none of these options sit right with you, there’s always the native Email app for old school file sharing.


If you’re going to be taking notes or writing on your iPad all day, then a keyboard will be a necessity. Ergonomically, typing on an external physical keyboard is more comfortable and familiar. Also, you would also be less prone to making typos and other mistakes while typing, which will help with proofreading later. There are a number of options available, but they are all a bit pricey. There are Apple’s keyboard dock and wireless Bluetooth keyboard, but I’m sure you can find similar keyboards on eBay too. For the budget-conscious student, there is USB keyboard + Camera Connector Kit combo. While the costs may be a bit steep, having a real keyboard to type on will make a huge difference in your life.

Let’s be honest, students aren’t always the best at keeping things neat and tidy. A protective case for your iPad is a wise investment. From the ZAGG invisibleShield [see below for link] reviewed a few weeks back to a simple sleeve, a case will go a long way to ensuring your iPad lasts [until the next version comes out.]

If you plan on making a lot of presentations, or doing demos on a big screen, it would not be a bad idea to grab a VGA connector, or an AV kit. They’re only available through Apple at the moment, but I’m sure there are third party versions available on eBay shortly.

While I’m sure there are plenty of other essentials I’ve neglected to mention [like iTunes U], but I hope this is a good place to start. One thing to keep in mind though, the iPad is no replacement for a desktop or a laptop. There are plenty of things that the iPad isn’t very good at such as having multiple documents open for quick and easy reference, or entering complex equations [for our engineers, mathematicians and scientists in the making]. Of course, the iPad simply isn’t powerful enough to play Starcraft 2 on the dorm floor LAN parties [do they still happen?] This still shouldn’t detract you from making the most out of this new tool to make your life a little easier rushing from one class to another.

How will you [or your child] make use of the iPad when school starts up again? Will it replace the laptop as your new portable computer?

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Posted under: Accessories, App Store, Reviews

  • Noob

    I’m heading back to university in a couple weeks, and planning on only toting around my iPad (ie no laptop). I will be getting a bluetooth keyboard and have already played with a plethora of note-taking apps in anticipation. I decided on Sundry Notes as it allows me to do everything I want (keyboard/text input, finger drawing, audio recording, photos, calculations, and more. Also it’s free (has a pro version, which I will probably end up getting). Not sure how it will work out but it’s looking to be great.

  • Mikevans75

    I’m surprised that note takers weren’t included in this article. I can’t image students wouldn’t find Evernote indispensable, for example.

  • Andy

    I agree with Mike Evans, note taking is the most important aspect (at least to me) of using the iPad for school/college, university. However, “Noob”mentioned Sundry Notes which I use (Sundry Notes Pro) and it really is the best compared to other note taking apps.
    I found some great info on Sundry Notes here: http://www.squidoo.com/iPad-Canada

  • My first laptop I used to lug around university with accessories and bag weighed around 15 lbs. To imagine how lucky people are now to just roll with an iPad+keyboard is pretty amazing.

  • Good point. I usually used Word or other word processes for note taking, and never really used specialized note taking apps. Good call though.

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