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Testing the iPad as a conference tool

Ever since we got the iPad for our office, I've been wondering what the ideal usage scenario would be for this device. Using it for taking notes at a conference was one of the things I imagined. So when preparing for this year's EuroIA in Paris, I decided to put the iPad to the test. Would it be the ideal conference companion?

My expectations

I have to say that I was quite unsure how things would work out between the iPad and myself. I'm not a big Apple fan, but I do have an iPod. I like taking notes on paper during conferences because of the freedom it provides (drawing/doodling!), but I always bring my laptop too because of email, twitter, emergency work-related stuff et cetera. I know you could use your phone for some of these, but when writing emails, a keyboard still beats phone input (even though I love swype!).

The setting

To understand my usage of the iPad, it is important to understand the setting in which I used it. Our hotel was about 100 meters from the conference venue. Very close by, but not in the same building, which means you're always bringing all your gear. The conference rooms were set up with chairs and tables. This means that there is enough space to place the iPad on the table and type on it that way.

Findings

  • Typing is not ideal on the on-screen keyboard, but you get used to it.
  • Notes is not a nice application. It uses a funky comic sans-like font. Notes (and the iPad keyboard in general) lacks cursor control, which makes it really hard to correct typos. There is no style control (bulleting, headings, bold, etc.) which makes it hard to put emphasis on things.
  • I miss drawing with a pen in the same sheet as taking notes - a major plus for the paper notebook.
  • No multitasking means you have to switch between note-taking, twitter, mail, and drawing in a disruptive way.
  • I downloaded Writer (as Oliver Reichenstein mentioned it in his keynote) and it is a lot better. Cursor control (character & word nav) and easy access to regularly used punctuation makes for a much better typing experience. (check it out!)
  • The iPad is nice and light, and runs easily for a whole day without power. I have thought of the iPad as quite heavy before, but compared to my normal laptop, it's so much better!
  • It still attracts a lot of attention, people want to know whether it is worth spending their money on it. This may be disruptive to your note-taking, but should subside over time :-)
  • It helps finding local restaurants.

Outcome

So, what do I think of the iPad as a conference companion? In short, it beats all other electronic devices I have used (smartphone and laptop), but it did not completely replace my paper notebook.

In general, I was happy that I did NOT bring my laptop. It's too heavy, requires power and just isn't cool. The iPad is better than my phone (Android phone with Swype). I love my phone, but when typing longer mails/notes, using multiple fingers really makes things easier.

It's good that the Writer app allows you to sync your notes through Dropbox, providing easy access to your notes for later use. But I did miss my paper notebook. I like to draw pictures while taking notes. I like to quickly add a little diagram to my notes. Things that are not possible in the apps I tried. So, the iPad was a good companion, but is by no means my ideal conference tool yet.

Since coming back, I have heard about SketchNotes for iPad, which may come a little closer to my ideal conference app. I will try it out soon. But until something comes along that fits all my conference needs, I think I'll need to start prototyping my own...