Category Archives: iPad Apps

Gathering your Thoughts and Information on the iPad – Best Apps

OK, you’ve brainstormed to get a sense of the possibilities for your project and you’re ready to get going. The next logical step in the process is to gather everything you’ve already done and all the clippings you have saved in anticipation of this day. It would be great if the iPad could help you gather what you need into a single work area so you could then draw upon those materials in your project and add things as you find them as you go along.

The iPad is currently limited in its gathering functionality. I think and hope these limitations are temporary while Apple comes up with their new Finder replacement and iCloud services. Meanwhile, the show must go on. I’ll go through those limitations first and then talk about what I think are the best ways to go about gathering on the iPad, the best apps to use while doing so. The Mac doesn’t share any of the limitations found on the iPad, so unless you have no choice, you’ll want to include it in your gathering work flow. I’ll make some recommendations here as well.

My Mac dictionary has this to say about gathering in general: “bring together and take in from scattered places or sources“.

Gathering: How the iPad Stacks Up

  1. Search – a way to locate relevant items quickly. If a lot of your info items tend to be tagged, you’ll want to take advantage of tag searches. Spotlight search is severely limited on the iPad. There’s no way to search the entire device.
  2. Ability to combine information items, notes, images, media with a variety of different file formats, created in a variety of apps. If you have your Mac handy, you can hook your iPad up, run iTunes, select the Apps tab, scroll down, select the app you want to make a file available to and drag it into the iTunes app window. My favorite app for combining is Circus Ponies Notebook ($30) but you need to use iTunes and a Mac to load the files you want in. This is far from ideal. Even though many of the documents you want may be on dropbox or already on your iPad in other apps, you will be stymied in moving them over to CP Notebook. No dropbox support as yet. No emailing the document from another app to yourself and then using “Open in…” to get it into Notebook. Not yet. Another way to go with Notebook is to start the Notebook on your Mac if you have CP Notebook for Mac ($50), and load it up with goodies from your Mac. Then transfer the file over to your iPad via iTunes. That works. You can insert images directly from your photos on the iPad at least.
  3. Some sort of space on which to position or collect these items. You’ll need a digital location to assemble what you’ve got in one place. In the old days, you might work on the living room floor or on a table, putting everything you need in that place. But most of our assets are digital these days so working analog will slow you down. You could arrange them in the order you find them, but you might be able to group them a bit as you go along even though that grouping is far from final. The ideal space exists in Circus Ponies Notebook except for the need to use a tethered Mac and iTunes to make combining work beyond copy and paste or inserting images from your iPad photo library.
  4. A way to preserve this collection and order over time. Since you don’t have all your stuff spread out on the floor, desk or conference table, you have digital room to keep what you’ve gathered. Circus Ponies Notebook does great on the preservation of order in a notebook with the caveats just mentioned.
  5. A way to organize this collection as we see opportunities to do so or a simple way to export what we’ve got to a second tool that works really well for organizing. Based on an outline at its core, Circus Ponies Notebook wins here. There are other options like Notability, I just prefer the greater robustness of Notebook.
  6. Mobility if we can get it. It would be great to be able to gather while on the road and then take that collection of gathered items along with us when we go out. You can take your Notebook with you on your iPad, if you’ve loaded it up prior. You just can’t gather at full tilt while out. You can manipulate what you’ve got but that’s really organizing now isn’t it? And that’s a separate post.

Other Gathering Gambits

Dropbox. This dire need in the gathering stage has been addressed in a piecemeal way by the dropbox app. Dropbox is a place in the cloud that can sync to your iPad, Mac and iPhone. There’s a free Dropbox app that lets you go in and grab things. Some files like plain text can work well here and some apps are good at accessing and saving to dropbox.

Plain Text. Dropbox has been used best with plain text files. There are scads of plain text notes apps that support dropbox. Some of them give you the ability to access all of dropbox not just a single folder. If you like working in text and only text, you are in business. You can gather your text notes in a big project folder with subfolders perhaps. Simplenote allows tagging but not folders. Nebulous Notes lets you gather your notes together in multiple folders in dropbox. Unless you’ve embraced this plain text for everything method, you’ll be far from happy. If you are a Mac user, you expect more. Much more. However, if your writing projects are destined for the web, plain text rules and you can learn Markdown to make it pretty. Apps like Nebulous Notes (powerful) or Elements (elegant) will preview for you so you can see what you’ll get when web-published. I see Nebulous Notes now has a way to export your text to PDF which may work well sometimes when you want to go through a copy of what you’ve written and annotate it to note where changes should be made.

Evernote. If you keep all your notes and web clips in Evernote and tag religiously, you could create an Evernote notebook for a project. Simply give all relevant notes the same project identifier as a tag. The beauty of Evernote is that you can search all your notes from iPad and iPhone as well as the web or your Mac (or PC). Gathering could be a reasonable option for this. The few drawbacks I see are that (1) Evernote is kind of slow for quick note-taking, (2) is plain text only on iPhone and iPad, (3) there’s no outlining capability and (4) Ordering is pretty rudimentary – limited to putting things in a notebook and tagging. The slowness issue can be addressed with a new third party universal iPad/iPhone app called Quick Ever ($1). Evernote is one of the better options. You will need to be monogamous about putting all your notes, web clips, PDFs etc. into Evernote for this plan to work, though (some like me find that difficult). A Premium Evernote account ($5/mo or $45/yr) will allow you to add more file types to Evernote including office docs.

Outliners. A robust outliner that can hold the digital items you gather would help right now. The reason I like an outliner is that it gets us ready to organize by putting our items into a tool that allows you to drag things up and down, insert and hierarchically order without difficulty and with speed. There’s little to no friction in the process, so why not gather in the tool that will also facilitate organizing when you are done.

We’ve talked about my favorite gathering outliner, Circus Ponies Notebook, above and noted its shortcomings. Rightly, I think, Circus Ponies has focused so far on moving its great functionality over from the Mac and postponed trying to make up for the file management shortcomings that currently exist on the iPad. Surely Apple would deliver the goods and save Circus Ponies the work of doing file management from scratch like Good Reader has done. I think an outliner is a whole lot better place to gather your thoughts and ideas than a set of plain text files is. An outliner lets you move things around. Even if you can’t do much inserting of different document types on the iPad, just being able to re-order things gives you a jumpstart on the next step in the process – the organizing step.

Two More Top Outliner Apps to Look At

The truth is that, the ideal tool is not yet available for the iPad. There are the best in class tools but the real limiting factor for gathering on an iPad is the lack of a file management system. Because each app has its own sandbox and has very limited ways of moving data to and from other apps, you’ll have to compromise and piece together a strategy.

OmniOutliner. OmniOutliner for iPad ($20) rocks if you can limit yourself to styled text. It’s sexy and you can add extra columns to your outlines which is kind of cool. You can add outline items easily and move them around as you please. But try to get information into the outline and you find it very limited. You can paste a graphic file in from the clipboard. But once it is in, you can’t change its size. There is no Insert… command which will let you select an image from your photo library. What would be even better is a way to select from any image on your iPad no matter which app created it. There is no dropbox support so forget about the images that might be there. However, there is an awesome OmniOutliner for Mac ($40-60) that would allow some upfront gathering there and then transfer of the outline to iPad for on-the-go gathering and organizing later on.

Thinkbook. Step down a notch from OmniOutliner and give up styled text. But in its place, get a cooler outliner, to do items (which CP Notebook has), a very slick way to re-order items fast with Bitolithic’s slider. And, keep all your notebooks together and quickly accessible via the home page. Outlining like no other but limited to text for now. Thinkbook is very new. If you can live in text you can get outlining and text together with importing of text and exporting of text with dropbox support. They already have images on their to do list. This is a thinking tool that I like a lot in its early days. Bitolithic makes Comic Zeal, so they know all about images and layout. Keep an eye on this app!

When all Else Fails, Use Scrivener

There’s a Mac in your life somewhere, I’ll bet. If you are writing at any length and aren’t married to Microsoft Word, consider using Scrivener ($45) for the heavy lifting in the Gathering step. The Literature and Latte folks know about gathering – see the banner they use on their site above. Here’s what I’m thinking. Get all those goodies you have on your Mac and from your web surfing and stick them into Scrivener. It has a Research section and a Draft section. Put previous excerpts from writing into the Draft part and your images, URLs and other documents into the Research side.

The cool thing about Scrivener is that it can represent all the little pieces of the puzzle in both the Drafts and Research sides as index cards on cork boards. It can do almost anything. Has tons of keyboard shortcuts. You can print out the index cards and play with them on the floor if you want. It has a really good outliner as part of its fundamental character. It has lots of import and export options. There’s a Windows version in Beta.

You can have Scrivener be home base. Now use the iPad as your home away from home. Print a PDF from your Scrivenings from time to time and annotate that in GoodReader or your favorite PDF annotator. Some like iAnnotate, PDF Expert, Readdle, Noterize or Note-taker HD. PDFs from your Mac can be dropped into Dropbox. Dropbox on iPad can use “Open In…” to route the PDF to your favorite PDF app. You are better off with GoodReader but that debate is for another day. Annotation fits the iPad like a glove right now.

Also, on your iPad, you can sync pieces of your Scrivener that you are working via dropbox to your iPad if you use a number of good apps like Simplenote, Index Card or plain text apps like Nebulous Notes, Elements or Plaintext. There are cool videos on the Literature and Latte site to show you how to sync in both directions to your iPad app and roundtrip back to Scrivener. It can be done!

There are lots of ways to gather your thoughts and other info items on your iPad. Your Mac might be of help for the time-being at least. Have fun. We’ll go into organizing next time out!

Brainstorming on the iPad – Best Apps

This is my second post about iPhone and iPad apps as viewed through the prism of essential knowledge functions. My first post provides some background so if you haven’t read it, you may want to start here: Information Capture on the iPhone – Best Apps. Brainstorming is an essential knowledge function and often the first step when undertaking a knowledge project.

There are many brainstorming techniques. The four that I spend the most time using are all done fast: diagramming, mindmapping, outlining and putting ideas onto index cards and stacking/rearranging them. Plain freewriting is a fifth that is a mainstay but is something that can be done in any writing or notes app. More on that in another post.

Diagramming is often the first thing I try when in the definition phase of a creative project. I want to see the subject so I can figure out how to deal with it. I’ll start trying to diagram it and usually accompany those initial drawings with words that come to mind. Which app helps you do something like this on an iPad? I got started early with Penultimate and have kept coming back to it.  I favor the simplest, quickest app that acts like paper and gets out of my way. Right now Penultimate is the 19th paid app in the app store. That’s saying a lot!

Penultimate is all you need for brainstorming and doesn’t have extras that will lure you down sidetracks to make your brainstorming look prettier. Pretty is almost a drawback in this phase of creativity. We are looking for speed of output to capture things without the critical faculty censoring and limiting your outside-the box-thinking.

Mindmapping is my favorite technique when in the getting started phase of a creative project. I can type fast and get a bunch of nodes branching off of my project name or subject. Right now there is one clear winner in the iPad Mindmapping category: iThoughts HD. This app came out when the iPad was released and has been upgraded extensively.

Why iThoughts HD is at the top mind mapping tool on iPad:

  1. A full range of import and export options that will help tremendously as you move back and forth between knowledge functions and apps.
  2. Great integration with the cloud via Dropbox, MobileMe, WebDav and
  3. A little sister app for the iPhone that will allow you to create new and see your existing mind maps and tweak them when you are without the iPad.
  4. A powerful tool that reminds me of the premium quality swiss army knife of mind mapping tools on my Mac: Mindjet Mindmanager. The extras aren’t really important in brainstorming, but they come in handy for the presentation-quality versions you’ll want when putting the finishing touches on your masterpiece.

Outlining is another key brainstorming tool. Dash off lists of things that come to mind. With the aid of the outliner you can list items under items and group them as you go or later. I’ve been using Carbonfin Outliner for over a year with few complaints. It does the job for $5 and there’s an iPhone version for $5 as well. There’s also web access with additional functionality. Excellent value. But now, there’s a new luxury outliner that cannot be denied.

OmniOutliner. There are many outliners for the Mac, but OmniOutliner 3 has ruled the roost for years. Every upgrade was free – this is years we are talking! Now we’ve got the junior version for iPad which is actually better than the Mac version. Yes, better. Omnigroup spent a long time learning how to take advantage of the iPhone and the iPad and released some other apps: Omnifocus, OmniGraffle, and OmniGraphSketcher. Now they’ve released OmniOutliner and it is splendid. It is like a Rolls Royce compared to a Honda Civic. Both will get you there. You’ll need to pay $20 to get this one. But, then if you are a smart knowledge professional, you’ll want to avoid being pennywise and pound foolish. There’s already a Mac app. There’s sure to be an iPhone app. And we know Omnigroup keeps tweaking their apps.

You need an outliner for not only brainstorming but also for gathering and organizing – two other important knowledge functions. Don’t skimp here unless you have to. For the time being, you won’t get Dropbox support and the file management is pretty basic. Omnigroup has promised file management upgrades and looking at dropbox support. They are loving iCloud and I expect iCloud to soon trump Dropbox for Omnigroup and for the rest of us. iCloud is much more powerful than a simple service like Dropbox. On the plus side, you can import OPML files (like the ones you can export from iThoughts HD), interchange files with OmniOutliner 3 on Mac, export to MobileMe, use rich text styling and add extra columns to your outlines. This is the power outliner of choice. One last thing, you can insert graphics into outlines.

Index Cards. Another way to brainstorm is to write your snippets of ideas onto index cards. Paper index cards are the favorites of researchers and writers and have been for many, many years. They are small. They are interchangeable and stackable.

Index Card. This is my index card app of choice. Its big brother – a full scale writing app – is Scrivener for Mac ($45). Index Card may be the only pure index card app on the iPad. Drag cards around. Color them. Write on the back sides of cards. And, if that isn’t enough, put them into stacks. Stack cards one level deep. This is a lovely app. Also view cards as a list. $5. It’s an inviting way to get a handle on what you need to do or what the main pieces are in a creative project. Stacking and coloring let’s you organize these things as you progress beyond brainstorming. Limited syncing to Scrivener which has unlimited levels and images attached.

Information Capture on the iPhone – Best Apps

Personal technology today offers amazing advantages and unlimited possibilities to the savvy knowledge professional.

I’ve found it useful to look at Apple’s latest offerings and the apps that go with them through the prism of essential knowledge functions.

This week, I’m starting to look at these knowledge functions and the apps and devices that aid us in using them.

Knowledge Functions. I’m still exploring and articulating these functions. My short list includes Reading and Writing. I’ve also got Brainstorming and GatheringCapturing and Annotating. Don’t forget Organizing, Collecting and Staying Current.

I’ll take a first pass at Capturing today and talk about some of best iPhone apps that address this function.

Capture is a term used in productivity circles and is used prominently in the popular book: Getting Things Done by David Allen. I won’t limit myself to his definition, but in GTD, capture is about capturing the thoughts, tasks and information that you encounter or think up so that they can be remembered, retained and used later. The idea in GTD is to capture to a reliable system so you can stop trying to remember whatever it is and have a clear, zen-like state of mind. Capturing is that and more.

The iPhone. The iPhone is the quintessential capture device of our times. Five salient features make it so:

  • small enough to easily fit in a pants pocket so can be with you 24/7.
  • always connected to the internet.
  • a camera and microphone built-in.
  • a good on-screen keyboard and you can draw or handwrite on it too.
  • large storage capacity.

Much or all of these capabilities are available on similar devices but I’ll stick to the device I recommend and know best for now.

The iPad. Before I go into the capturing function more thoroughly, I’ll briefly examine the iPad as a capture device. It has similar capacities to the iPhone although it functions as a big iPod touch if you are using the wi-fi only model. It’s increased screen size – something like 6x larger than the iPhone screen, makes it more comfortable for typing, drawing and handwriting (the larger screen also provides room to expose app functions to the user).

The iPad’s size is also its worst feature, in that it is bulkier and heavier by far than an iPhone. At 1.33 pounds, of course, the iPad can be carried with you most of the time if you so choose. It’s like a day-planner in bulk and weight. But, like a day-planner, it is hard to use one-handed unless you have a special case designed for that purpose and it doesn’t fit in a jeans pocket — that’s for sure! Last, it has poor cameras compared to the iPhone.

The Mac. As a capture device, the Mac (and of course other PCs) has a built-in keyboard, trackpad or mouse and thus is great for text entry when you are sitting and can be where your Mac is located or take it with you if you have a laptop. If your location is proximate and you want to type, you are in luck and can capture your thoughts, copy and paste from large numbers of possible sources and have at it.

The Office. Our traditional way of knowledge-working over the last decades has mostly been sitting at a desk. That’s been changing as the laptop started making it possible to locate yourself – sitting – on the couch, easy chair, kitchen table, deck and airplane seat. I’m sitting in my comfy easy chair right now writing on my 3 lb MacBook Air.

The Apps. We have these amazing devices, but it is the apps that allow us to cash in on their knowledge function possibilities. I’ll go into these just as soon as I finish up on the capturing function.

Capturing. Briefly, you can capture information by photographing or scanning it if it is visible, by recording it in audio or video format, or by some form of writing it down. Capture implies that you now have that thing and can use it later.

As I was mentioning before, the iPhone takes the prize in this regard as the ultimate capture device. And the iPad comes in second (a smaller iPad would have probably beaten out the current 10″ version and perhaps a bit more mature 7″ Android Honeycomb device will eclipse the current iPad 2 in the future).

So let’s first look at iPhone capture apps. My favorites of the moment are: Camera+, Dragon Dictation, Simplenote, Catch, Nebulous Notes and Jotnot Scanner Pro. In brief here’s why:

Camera+ ($2). The built-in camera app may suffice. But, Camera+ is the best camera app available. Clarify is an amazing way to improve your photos. Camera+ can crop, rotate, border and stylize your snaps. Capture is a lot about speed of execution, you’ll frequently need to grab and go. From a knowledge perspective, capturing information may be the text on a sign like hours of operation, descriptions, instructions or directions. This is portable scanning on the fly – more on that with Jotnot in a moment. You can zoom in later if you don’t have the time right now.

Dragon Dictation (free). The best way to capture short bits of speech and have it converted for you to text and send it somewhere. Gotcha – it’s only 60 seconds worth of speech at a time. You’ll need a recording app if you want more. Dictamus may win here for longer recordings meant to eventually be converted to text by Mac apps like Dragon Dictate. The key here is that sometimes it is easier to record audio than write something down. Like when you are driving (road noise can be a problem) or walking. The free Voice Memos app does the job when voice recognition is not needed. One last thing, Dragon Dictate is a universal app and its big sister for the iPad is more powerful.

Simplenote (free – iTunes link not available today due to a technical problem). My go to note capture tool. It is a lightweight app so opens quickly and you can get a short note down by typing on screen in seconds. It supports tags now or later. Text only. Syncs to dropbox. Available via web. This simplicity and speed are what make it the write app for capturing against competitors like Evernote which is a bigger app that supports photos and takes much longer to open on average. A close contender (universal) app in this category is Catch (free) which supports adding a photo to your note. You are slowed down less than with Evernote (free and also universal) and you have the opportunity to combine text with photos – a useful combo when you have the time to do both – time that is often limited when capturing on the go.

The third star in this category is Nebulous Notes ($2) which is great when you have a little more time and all you have is an iPhone to write on (although bluetooth keyboards work well if one is with you). Nebulous Notes beats out all the other text-only writing apps here with its breadth of features, customizable extra keyboard row – and it is a universal app so works on iPad too! Instapaper ($5 universal app) and Evernote should also be in your toolkit for web clipping (another form of capture!) and for Collecting – discussed in a future post.

Jotnot Scanner Pro ($1). This little gem has some great competition on the app store. But has been around longest and is excellent. It works fast, is customizable for different uses like receipts and white boards, smart crops and gives you lots of options for exporting your work to multi-page PDFs, jpeg, PNG.

As we build our list of knowledge functions, we can better gauge whether any particular app should be in your toolkit. Choosing apps wisely is critical to assure that you don’t squander your time learning apps of marginal utility. You want to make your precious learning time as a knowledge professional worth every minute. My goal will be to help you see the possibilities of productivity apps and choose only the best in class. I’ll also be reviewing my favorite apps in depth from time to time – especially those apps that haven’t gotten the recognition they deserve.