iPad app update

ThinkBook for the iPad with the Slider activated.

ThinkBook for the iPad with the Slider activated.

I’ve had my iPad Mini now for about five months. It’s a terrific device and I’m glad I bought it. That doesn’t mean, however, that I haven’t had my frustrations with it. More specifically, my frustrations revolve around the apps I’ve been experimenting with trying to find just the right combination to make the Mini a useful device for actually doing things that matter to me.

Part of the learning curve for me has been figuring out just what it is I do WANT to do with the Mini. I think I originally had an inflated idea of what could be done EFFICIENTLY with the unit. The key word (as I not so subtly hinted at) is efficiently. There are so many apps that do so many things that it seems that almost anything you can think of, you can do with the iPad. It’s just the question of asking oneself, “Do I want to do that?” For me, the answer has as often as not been no. And that has been due to three reasons:

The form factor of the iPad Mini just isn’t conducive to the doing, primarily for two reasons: A.) the screen is too small, or B.) the on-screen keyboard just isn’t the best way to add a lot of text. This could very well be a generational thing, as I’ve spent the past forty years writing words using a full-sized keyboard of some kind or another. Not to mention my eyes aren’t as good as they used to be.

Reason two is the apps themselves are wanting. This, in truth, is more often the reason. There are a lot of crappy, useless apps out there and I think I’ve tried all the ones related to information management. Even the ones that are relatively ingenious in one way, often have a glaring failing that just makes me not want to use it. Often this has to do with the failure of the developer to extend the keyboard with useful keys. It has almost become a litmus test for me: if the developer can’t be bothered to extend the keyboard, then the app is no good. Another significant cause of failure is a lack of useful export options for sharing with other apps. Sometimes it’s that the app is too simple and other times it’s that the app is too complicated. Regardless, this has narrowed down the field of possible solutions by 90% or more.

The final reason is simply, “Why do on the iPad Mini what is so much easier and efficient to do on my grown-up MacBook or office Windows PC?” This is possibly related to or redundant with reason number 1, but I feel like it needs to be said. Full-sized laptops or desktop computers with roomy keyboards, big screens and lots of processing power are just better at most computing jobs than the Mini. The software is more mature and more powerful in many cases. So why force the issue? Two out of three times I can wait until I get to my “real” computer to do the job, so why have a less than pleasant and effective computing experience when I don’t have to? Obviously there are times when I can’t or don’t want to wait to do something. Or when I have empty time on my hands, but do not have access to my MacBook or am not at the office. Otherwise the Mini would have been a waste of money. But that doesn’t mean I need to do everything on it just to make myself feel it was a good investment.

So back to what it is I want t use the Mini for (relating to information management, not the myriad other things to do with it). I’ve narrowed this down to these tasks:

  • Calendar/date book
  • Tasks check lists
  • Quick journal
  • Quick note taking
  • Brainstorming when I need it and can’t get to a computer
  • Mobile access to useful information

Essentially, then, the Mini is an electronic notebook/datebook and portable database. And I’m glad to report that I think I’ve distilled my essential apps for these tasks down to the following:

Awesome Calendar. This is a nice application that combines a day planner with simple task management. You create three types of items: events, todos and notes. Tasks and events can have dates assigned so they show up in the calendar. You can also view each type in a filtered lis. Simple and easy.  I was using PocketInformant Pro, which I like overall, but which is really way more than I need, and its many parts overwhelm the small iPad Mini screen.

Day One. This is my journal application. I’ve written about it before, so no need to go into detail. Works great.

ThinkBook. I lik this notebook application very much. It just seems to make it easier to enter information than other apps. One way is with the ingenious gizmo they call the Slider. You create notebooks and pages much as you would in OneNote for Windows. Each page can contain various types of data: notes, todos, pictures, questions, links to other pages and more. Creating outlines is a snap with ThinkBook, and the Slider allows you to easier navigate to the section of the page you want to add to and select the type of information you want to enter. ThinkBook still needs some work on sharing content created within itself with other apps, but the export text to Dropbox function works well. (My only other complaint is that its icon looks to me like a skull an crossbones!) I think I’ll write a longer post about ThinkBook in the near future.

Evernote. This is my freeform database and my notetaker when I want to be able to share the notes across devices. I’m not a big fan of Evernote, but it works. Enough said.

Bento. This is a great little database app I use for structured data, like my reading list. It syncs through wifi with the OS version on my MacBook.

Of course, I also use many other apps on the Mini. This is a post about information management, in case that wasn’t clear at the top. And even for info management, I use other apps, like the terrific iThoughts for diagramming. In fact, I love iThoughts, but I don’t use it as much as I would like, mainly due, I think, to the Mini’s small screen. If I had the regular sized iPad, I suspect iThoughts would get a lot more use.

If you read my earlier posting about the apps I was considering, you’ll find this new list very different. But these are the apps that have bubbled to the top of my iPad workflow. I hope to write more about some of them, especially ThinkBook. Stay tuned.



  1. Hm. I strongly feel you need to invest in a Bluetooth keyboard, ideally optimised for the Mini. ‘Why should I?’ you will ask. ‘I can use my laptop instead!’ You’re right – and you’re wrong. The thing about tablets (iPad, Nexus, Galaxy, whatever) is they’re ‘instant-on’ devices. They are also ‘focus on one thing’ devices (regardless of silly hype about multitasking). Which makes them ideal for certain writing-intensive tasks. My iPad is the first thing I reach for when I’m travelling and want to do some intensive work (which for me, always means writing or translating something). That’s because it’s immediately available, is light and handy, has endless battery life – and fits nicely into an ultrathin keyboard case 😉

    But when you’re writing, you’re often consulting information, too, which means you need reliable information repositories that synchronise across platforms. My own preferred apps for this kind of thing are:

    (a) Notebooks by Alfons Schmid, which also comes with Mac and Windows desktop apps. Notebooks is very good at holding very large amounts of data, including pasted or even imported web pages (with an impressive level of fidelity), and by default it uses Dropbox as its synchronisation system. You can also write in Notebooks, but like yourself I tend to write using something simple (WriteUp or Rich Notes, or sometimes an outliner like Cotton Notes, Workflowy or Carbonfin Outliner; also your current favourite ThinkBook).

    (b) Outline+, a very nice iOS client for OneNote (much better than Microsoft’s own). Fast, friendly and capable of replicating complex OneNote pages – if you have large amounts of data/info stored in OneNote, Outline+ is the perfect companion.

    (c) I am looking forward to the ultimate all-singing, all-dancing info management app, ProjectBook, which is due to hit European stores in the next couple of months. The dynamic information management capabilities of this app really intrigue me (autotagging, autoreferencing etc.), and it allows you to create tasks on any page as well (which are then collated on dedicated to-do pages). As a Mac user, you will be able to take advantage of the Mac desktop client – I, alas, must rely on Windows. The app is currently US-only.

    For task management, I have – like you – played with lots of complex systems, but have finally realised that – for me – the best system is based on the outliner model. There are several cross-platform options here. Some people swear by Workflowy and Carbonfin Outliner, which are very good general-purpose outliners, but my preferred solution is SlickTasks (available as an app that syncs with an online version), closely followed by Todoist. Both of these solutions are dedicated task management apps that can be optimised for your preferred way of working (GTD, category, tag, date, priority, whatever), while retaining the extreme flexibility of outlining.

    More generally: in the constrained space available on an iOS device, outlining (specifically: hoisting, folding) makes a lot of sense! I entirely agree with you that most ‘intensive’ work initiated on an iPad will end up being refined and finalised on a desktop machine. Which is why cross-platform support is so important, but also why export options should be a high priority (text, OPML, rich text, etc.).

    1. I love getting such a long and detailed reply to my post. Thanks!

      The funny thing is that I actually have a blue tooth keyboard for my Mini, but I forgot all about it because I don’t use it. I bought the wrong thing… its keys are also very cramped (better than the on-screen keyboard). I can sort of get on a roll with it once I get used to it, but it is no day in the park. A slightly bigger model would probably be better, but then I begin to lose the portability advantage.

      I have Notebooks and admire it. I just find that it is too much app for me at this time. Again, I suspect on the full-sized iPad the story might be different. Ditto for ProjectBook, which I actually like even better than Notebooks for the reasons you mention.

      Thanks, again for the thoughtful response!

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