Academic Daily Workflow (iPad)

November 19, 2018

I bought an iPad mini a few years back as an academic daily driver. I take my notes on it, use my books on it, and generally can get nearly anything I need to do done via it. This post is an overview of how I do that, what apps and features I use, and what those features actually do for me.

(I’m mainly writing it because I would love to swap the device out for a Remarkable tablet, but am concerned about loss of features potentially impeding my productivity more than eink would improve it.)

Hardware

Gen. 4 iPad Mini with generic sceen cover and case, Adonit Jot pen, generic Bluetooth headphones.

Books

3rd party apps are essential for this; iBooks eats files. There appears to be no reasonable export mechanism from it.

Books typically enter my world by incomplete reference. “Look it up in Cox, it’s that one about primes of the form of something.” or “Notes of Milne, it’s on his website.” Or worse, “Wasn’t there something on that? I think the guy’s name started with B.” And the inevitable “No, the other one by Lang.”

I search up [default browser], and after suitable finding or purchase drop the pdf into [ReAddle pdf expert]. This is my main centralizer for pdf content. It used to have a really great feature…

You used to be able to go into the menus and hit something to share via it starting up an http server. Then you’d just connect to the iPad as a website by IP address and be able to shuffle files back and forth from any computer. This was a sufficient backup solution and allowed my to sync my books, assignments and downloaded notes to my laptop.

Unfortunately as of the latest version, that feature has been replaced by one which uses a 3rd party website and requires a full net connection. This not only means I don’t trust it, but also that it doesn’t work on the flaky nodes of the campus network where I may have high speeds on the local segment and nothing reliable to the outside net.

I presently have no good backup solution, and that’s a problem. I work around it by retaining urls and doing a secondary document download when I hit my laptop, but that’s bad flow and doesn’t synchronize annotations.

(Contrast: The main sync solution for my phone is that it can recognize USB sticks and I have one with a micro-USB plug on one end and a standard USB plug on the other; all I really need to improve there is making an automated rsync script on both ends, or one that handles when the phone is plugged directly to the computer, either way.)

ReAddle is tolerable for annotation. You can write on pdfs in an amiable number of ways, although the zoom on inserting handwritten notes is in many cases not sufficient. It has the ability to delete, insert, reorder, or excerpt pages from pdfs, and I use this at length. I’ve had plenty of cases of books missing a page I had to find physically and insert, or wanting to excerpt out chapter from larger volumes for separate annotation. The search capability is sufficient.

Languages

I pair ReAddle for pdfs with [Linguee] for languages. This is my go-to dictionary, far in preference to the iPad available defaults. Because they use such a large corpus, it’s far better at handling domain specific jargon such as mathematical language. Many of the technical books I read are in German at this point, and my German is awful, so this is essential.

Pair is not a flowery statement here. The workflow is that Linguee goes up in a split screen window beside ReAddle, then words to search are pulled up by highlighting them in the pdf and selecting ‘copy.’ This automatically drops them into Linguee without manual pasting.

Despite its small screen, I very often use the iPad Mini in split-screen mode, either 2:1 or 1:1 style. While it can do vertical split-screen, I never use that. What I would like very much would be split screen with the windows atop each other instead of beside, but no combination of rotation lock commands will produce that.

Readdle pdf reader beside Linguee dictionary

Note taking

My primary notes app is [Noteability]. I think I use nearly everything about this app at this point. It’s the first thing I pull up when I sit down to a lecture, and the last I close after revisions for the day.

In lectures where audio is allowed, the audio recording feature can be a wrist and sanity saver. You can on playback watch the pen strokes appear in realtime as the audio proceeds, as well as add new pen strokes which will be marked to the point in the audio stream at which they were produced. This can wipe away the entire stress for me of writing quickly to capture the whole of lectures.

However, this is also a productivity trap since total capture is a false goal. But that’s one for another time. Consider here at least the vital capture of quickly described hints to homework problems, and ability to repeat complicated explanations after going back to do further readings. And also being able to add personal recording of ideas and verbal readings to lecture notes after the fact (great if you think faster out loud). I wish it could export videos; that would make it cool for giving online lectures. But at least the audio is in a standard format.

While note material can be reorganized without breaking the replay timestamps, there are limits. If a document has been reorganized repeatedly, Noteability will often become sluggish on it and may crash, so I don’t tend to use that for more than brief actions. Using digital notes, however, is a great boon when faced with professors who keep revising equations they’ve already written. I would be swearing up and down if I were trying to keep up in pen.

Synchronization is moderately good. There is a WebDAV backup which can connect to NextCloud smoothly, and allows selection of a subset of folders for upload (as pdf or native format). I use that consistently to make pdf formats available and as a personal backup. However, if encountering a network error even once, it not only ceases to attempt uploads but deconfigures which folders are synced. There is a non-persistent notification this has occurred. It’s very easy to not know you stopped syncing, or enable sync too rapidly and accidentally sync folders you didn’t want to publish.

There is an in-app feature for side-by-side view of two documents. Despite the small screen, I find this readable and use it frequently. For dense lectures, I will pull up the notes of the previous session on the left. For dull lectures, I will pull up a personal notebook or a shorthand practice sheet. In this way I have more context for what is happening (and can annotate the left panel as well if some change is made).

Two note pages side by side with writing panel beneath

This has the unexpected advantage that I can see a birds eye view of the page I’m writing in the main note, which allows me to better structure the document as I go. I typically use the zoomed writing window in handwriting mode, which provides an ample viewing panel at the bottom of the screen for current lines of text or equations.

In some instances, the most useful second reference document is a pdf. Then I pull ReAddle up in side-by-side. This is also a good configuration for making more extensive notes based on a pdf than would fit within its margins. While this halves the writing area, it’s still usable.

Book beside notes

Although I don’t use OCR conversion to text in Noteability, it does work well enough to recognize my handwriting, and appears to be integrated with the in-app search. I’ve had search results come up that were apparently from handwriting body text, and quite useful.

I use multiple colors of annotation to distinguish between realtime notes and later revisions. Whether this actually improves comprehension, I don’t know. A prior version of this workflow involved exporting initial notes as pdf to render them immutable, then annotating revisions on top.

Scan and Print

I use [Genius Scan] as my scanner. It can produce large files by default, as can Noteability export, at least compared to the upload limits I’ve seen on sites for (for instance) disability note-taker file sharing. For this reason I pair it with [PDF Compressor] where size matters.

As both of these retain file copies, the workflow with them involves a cleanup phase after the pdf has reached its destinations. Failure to perform that cleanup can clog the device with large redundant files quickly.

Using the automatic mode for detecting pages in batch processing, I can copy a set of notes for an entire semester (~50-70 pages) in a few minutes easily. This makes it very low hassle for someone to provide me notes, compared to students whose workflow involves taking the sheets down to the xerox scanner and manually setting them one side at a time into the tray until complete.

Printing is a campus-specific matter; we have followme printers with a central queue, so I use [default browser] to drop files in the queue. This is a small improvement over my old tactic of emailing them all to myself before hitting a campus computer room.

Forms that can be submitted by email or online-fax get scanned in, sent to ReAddle as pdf, annotated there, exported as flat pdf, then emailed to destination.

Email etc.

I do use apps for gmail and protonmail, but not out of necessity, and would be comfortable ditching them. My campus mail is not configured outside of the web interface (I tried; it didn’t like me). So in effect all important emails go through [default browser]. Likewise all coursework discussions, obtaining homework files, etc.

Downsides

There are unsatisfactory aspects to this workflow, despite all its advantages.

— PDF annotation is still a marginal matter. In theory [Liquid Text] would fix this, but I couldn’t get used to its workflow the last time I tried it.

— Calendaring and time tracking aren’t really well integrated. Then again, do they belong here or just on my phone?

— I often end up keeping screen brightness turned massively down, almost to the point of unreadability, just to save battery. All downsides of lit rather than eink screens apply.

— It’s an iPad; I can’t just plug my USB drive into it to move files, or an SD card to expand storage. And not being able to easily move photos etc. out of the Apple ecosystem means the device is getting really full.

— The small screen does feel cramped when trying to handle complex content or multiple sources at once.

There are also some tasks where I still pull out a full blown computer, which may or may not be useful to integrate.

— LaTeX authorship, both articles and beamer presentations.

— Jupyter notebooks.

— Longform markdown writing. (Would need a keyboard?)

Or perhaps the line should move the other direction, and more of my network based tasks move onto the full computer.

But the largest weaknesses of my iPad workflow appear in those situations where I find myself returning to physical paper. Which happens to me consistently every semester as complexity increases, or battery life becomes a concern, or I just want the feel of pen in hand again. In some cases I simply fall back to my pre-Noteability workflow of writing on paper then scanning and reading on iPad. In others, I end up making fully paper volumes out of my initial digital notes.

I still write my homeworks on paper. I don’t always remember to scan them in… The few times I’ve done them digitally have been a boon, yet I don’t feel like I can think as clearly on the screen, so I still end up working on paper. Plus I need at minimum the assignment, a reference book, a draft page, and the final page; typically all at once.

I still dayplan on paper. That may be changing now that I can side-by-side within Noteability, but I waffle about whether to use calendars or handwritten planners a lot. And I just plain enjoy the feeling of my pen in hand. I was a pen snob before going digital, and still appreciate it a lot.

Should I Switch?

Would any of my remaining paper use transfer onto a Remarkable directly? Maaaaybe. Maybe not. The fact that it has no scanner camera is a big big problem. So is not being able to split the screen into two views.

It’s easy to see from this workflow that I have a complex relationship with the written page. It needs to become even more intense as my scholarship increases in depth. My daily driver isn’t just an ebook reader, or a note taker, it’s also a print queue manager, scanner, emailer, downloader… A creater, modifier and mover of pages in and out of the digital domain, as well as across the network, in both directions. (This is in part driven not just by academic use, but also by fulfilling paperwork on tight deadlines with limited resources.)

The Remarkable tablet wouldn’t do this for me.

That isn’t a condemnation; rather, an acknowledgment that its role would differ. My entire workflow would change. The boundaries between devices and ease or difficulty of various uses would alter entirely. Saying this is a bad thing would be like saying eink isn’t good for video - of course not; that’s not its purpose.

I also need to consider that as my career progresses, my use case alters. I won’t be spending so many hours of my week in lectures anymore after this semester. Rather, thesis work will become the focus, and I have little experience on which to base my expectations of that.

Academic Daily Workflow (iPad) - November 19, 2018 - Kim Reece