8 useful apps for reading and writing on the iPad

With its bright, crisp 1024-by-768-pixel display, the iPad was made for reading

The BN eReader lets you loan books to your friends using BN's LendMe technology. To use it, select the name of a contact in your iPad address book, and the app will mail your friend an invitation to download the book to any BN-supported device. Your friends can borrow your books and read them on Barnes & Noble's own Nook e-reader or via apps for the iPhone, iPod Touch, BlackBerry, Windows or Mac. The loans have limitations: You can loan each book only once, you can't read the book yourself while it's on loan, and the recipient can keep it for only 14 days.

The whole LendMe thing is sad. It's a reminder of how much easier it is to loan out a paper book. With a paper book, you just hand it to your friend. It doesn't matter what software your friend runs, and there's no 14-day limit. Barnes & Noble promoting LendMe as a great feature is like a frankfurter merchant boasting that his hot dogs have fewer insect parts than the competition.

The Kindle, BN and Stanza apps all have built-in dictionaries, so you can highlight a word in an e-book and find out what it means right away. I found that handy while reading Swords and Deviltry, the first book in the fantasy series about Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser by Fritz Leiber; the author likes to use obsolete, obscure words like "skald" and "soubrette."

All of these apps have book-buying capability integrated into the iPad. With iBooks, you browse books inside the app; on the Kindle and Nook apps, you browse from the Web.

If you see a book you like on the iBooks, Kindle or BN eReader stores, you can download the first chapter or two as a free sample, which is a wonderful feature -- you can start reading a book and if you like it, you can buy it by tapping a single button when you come the end of your sample. If you don't like the book, don't buy it, and you haven't spent any money.

Writing on the iPad

When you've been reading for a long time, you have a lot of words in you, and you have to let them out. The iPad makes it easy to write.

Word processing: Documents To Go Premium

The key thing to look for in an iPad writing app is that it should be easy to sync documents between the mobile device and your desktop computer. Sadly, Apple's own iPad word processor, Pages, is incredibly clumsy in syncing. Fortunately, there's an alternative.


Documents To Go lets you edit Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents on the iPad.

Documents To Go Premium (US$11.99, from DataViz Inc.), lets you compose, read and edit Microsoft Office files on an iPad. Using DocsToGo, you can format text by changing the fonts, margins and colors or choosing boldface, italics, underscoring and more.

DocsToGo works with online storage services including Dropbox and SugarSync. These services are designed for syncing and backing up whole folders of documents among multiple computers and mobile devices.

I have my working folder of current documents -- all my articles and blogs in progress, as well as documents for clients and personal documents like my novels in progress and financial records -- set to sync with Dropbox. If I make a change in DocsToGo on my iPad, Dropbox syncs the changed document back to my desktop.

Everything just works (to borrow an old Apple marketing slogan); the latest versions of my documents in progress are where I need them, when I need them.

In addition to Word, DocsToGo supports Excel and PowerPoint documents.

Plain text writing: Simplenote

I do most of my writing in plain, unformatted text, and for that sort of writing, I prefer a free application called Simplenote. Simplenote organizes plain-text notes and documents in an easy-to-browse list, or it lets you pinpoint the document you want using fast and thorough search.

With Simplenote, you can sync documents from an iPad or an iPhone to Simplenote's own Web service.

Simplenote's best trick is available only for Mac users: Using the free Notational Velocity Mac software, you can sync Simplenote documents on the Web to any folder on a Mac desktop. I have Simplenote set to sync to the same folder of current documents that Dropbox syncs to; I use Simplenote to edit text files on the Mac, and DocsToGo to edit Microsoft Word and other Office documents.

I wrote the first draft of this article in Simplenote on my iPad. The draft automatically synced to my Mac, where I revised it.

Note that you can edit text files as well as Word documents in DocsToGo, and you can sync the files to your desktop using Dropbox or some other supported online storage service. I prefer Simplenote for editing plain text files because I find that I can locate and access files faster in Simplenote. However, DocsToGo is new; it just became available for the iPad in June. Over time, I might decide to consolidate all my writing in DocsTo Go.

Writing tip: A keyboard makes a world of difference

The iPad's built-in on-screen keyboard is adequate but slow. You'll probably be able to write only a paragraph or so before it drives you crazy. For writing longer pieces, you'll want a keyboard.

Most Bluetooth keyboards should work with the iPad; I use the Apple Wireless Keyboard. It's a full-size keyboard that's extremely easy and comfortable to use; it weighs almost nothing and is roughly the size and thickness of the iPad. You can drop it in your gear bag with your iPad and take it with you.

Apple also offers a keyboard dock. While Apple's wireless keyboard uses a Bluetooth connection between iPad and keyboard and requires AA batteries, the dock uses a hardware connection, requires no batteries and holds your iPad upright in front of you.

I prefer the wireless keyboard; it's lighter, less bulky and more flexible -- better for travel all around. On the other hand, novelist Charles Stross likes Apple's keyboard dock, because it holds the iPad in portrait position. If I switch to the keyboard dock, will I become as talented a writer as he is?

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Mitch Wagner

Computerworld (US)
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