iPad: Traveling Cold Turkey

Andorra[This is a guest post by Louisa A. Burnham, Associate Professor of History at Middlebury College.]

I am an academic medievalist, and I have spent six weeks traveling this summer with no other computer than my iPad. Here are some thoughts about my experience. First off, the technical details: I have the 64g WiFi iPad, and I traveled in Israel, Jordan, Cyprus, Spain and Andorra. I was mostly on the road for two weeks (Israel, Jordan and Cyprus), and mostly in one place (Barcelona) for a month.


I had to rely on WiFi, and mostly did just fine on the road, with the usual “this hotel’s WiFi sucks” kinds of problems.

For Barcelona, however, I brought along a travel router, since I knew that I could get an ethernet connection in my room but not WiFi. This was brilliant. I had my own little WiFi zone just for me! Email, internet, no problem. I didn’t Skype at all, so I can’t tell you about that.


As we all know, the iPad is better for some things than others. I found it to be better for more things than I had thought:

  • Reading and annotating PDF files. I used Dropbox (free) to keep all my files, and then I opened them in iAnnotatePDF ($9.99), which I love. What a great program! My DIY stylus made writing comments on the PDFs even easier (you can easily make an inexpensive high-performing stylus using 0000 steel wool and a metal pen). Since all our readings were in PDF format, this was great. I did have a few problems with files that I needed to download—I had to open those in GoodReader ($0.99), which is indeed a good reader, but doesn’t annotate. Basically, you need to plan ahead. Since it is so easy to write on PDFs with iAnnotate, I am planning on doing all my paper grading next year this way. iAnnotate is also good for knitting patterns, and especially lace graphs!
  • Books and guide books. I set off for both trips with not a single book in paper format, and I was completely happy with that. I found Lonely Planet guidebooks for Israel and Jordan, and the Rough Guide to Barcelona (Kindle app is free; the guidebooks were $9.99 each). I downloaded some other Kindle books for leisure reading… but never had time to read them, except on the plane on the way home! Free Books ($1.99; it’s the books themselves that are free) is also great for leisure reading. It’s wonderful to have Jane Austen on the iPad (or even Le Comte de Monte Christo, en français).
  • Notetaking. I used Apple’s own Pages ($9.99) for notetaking during lectures and seminars, and found it worked quite well. It saves automatically, so you don’t have to worry about losing your text. Pages on the iPad is a little simplistic, so for me, it wasn’t good for much else (for instance, if you input Word documents into Pages, it strips all the diacritics and footnotes. The Horror!). The iPad’s onscreen keyboard takes some getting used to, but as I suspect every iPad user has found, it becomes intuitive very quickly, especially in landscape mode. Yes, you make more mistakes than typing on an ordinary keyboard, but the auto correct function helps with that a great deal. The onscreen keyboard was quite adequate for the purpose of notetaking—and it has the advantage that it is completely silent (provided you turn off the keyboard clicks!).
  • Research in Libraries. When I went to a library or an archive, I took my Bluetooth keyboard with me. That way, I was able to use the French Canadian keyboard that makes it easier for me to use diacritics (it is possible to do them on the onscreen keyboard, but it’s slower). When typing in foreign languages (especially things like Latin or medieval Occitan…), however, it is crucial to turn off the auto-correct function! For my research and writing, I used Documents To Go© ($9.99), an app that allowed me to create and edit Word files (I’ll get to the limitations of this app when I talk about writing). Basically, this worked just fine, so long as I could sneak a large book off the shelf to use as a lapdesk for the keyboard. Library tables are generally too high for me (or library chairs too low), so I can’t use them to type on.
  • Photographing manuscripts. I generally travel with a digital camera and a tripod for photographing manuscripts, but this trip, I didn’t actually need to photograph anything. I don’t believe there is any way at present to download photos from a camera to the iPad, so you need to be sure to have a large enough memory card in your camera (or more than one). You aren’t able to upload your more touristy photographs at the end of the day for instant gratification (or for posting on Facebook). Personally, this didn’t bother me: I took a few pics with my iPhone from time to time for Facebook purposes (you see everybody? I really WAS at Armageddon!). [Note: I have since heard that a camera connector does exist for the iPad, but I haven't yet gotten my hands on one.]
  • Academic Writing. This is still the iPad’s Achilles’ heel. One problem is that you cannot edit or create footnotes. Documents To Go© is presently the only Microsoft Office-wannabe app that doesn’t actually strip the footnotes from your file—but it doesn’t allow you to edit them or create new ones. Big Problem for the academic… I’m hopeful that someone, someday, will fix this, but for now, it meant that I just didn’t do as much real academic writing as I might have. Yes, I could have put footnote material in parentheses or the like, but I tended to find it a hassle and it put me off. Unlike with Pages, you also have to remember to save using DocsToGo—it crashed on me a couple of times, and I annoyingly lost text.

There’s another problem with writing, and that’s multi-tasking. You can’t have several documents open simultaneously. So if you have a PDF edition of a text, and a Word version of another text, and some PDF articles, you constantly have to switch from one app to the next, especially if you want to quote something. This can be very frustrating, most especially if your PDF articles are the kind where you can’t actually excerpt text and have to copy it yourself. This is even more difficult if you are trying to translate things like medieval alchemical texts, to the point where you just give up. Transcribing medieval documents that you have photos of is quite simply impossible.

The Bluetooth keyboard is definitely essential for any extended writing, just as for library/archive research. I did do some academic writing (a presentation I had to give, for instance) and had no real problems with it, and found it perfectly convenient in cafés, for instance.

Theoretically, printing something on the road shouldn’t be too much of a problem, provided you can email it to yourself and print it from another computer. There were problems with that in Barcelona, but that wasn’t actually the iPad’s fault! It is perfectly possible, however, to read a presentation off your iPad screen—much less distracting than a laptop screen since it lies flat like a piece of paper, and scrolls easily, too. I have since heard that there is an app that will allow you to print from any printer on the same WiFi network (PrintMagic; there are a variety of versions at different prices), but I haven’t yet tried it.

Other Advantages

Obviously, the biggest advantage of all is that the iPad is light. I was completely happy having it with me all the time, and never felt like I was lugging too much around with me. I had a tiny backpack in which it fit perfectly, and I could even bring the 8oz Bluetooth keyboard in there. Much better than carrying a briefcase or laptop case!

The reference applications available for the iPad are increasing all the time, and this means that you can have an unbelievable amount of information with you on the road. The following are reference works that will inspire lust only in medievalists, but no doubt you will strike gold for whatever your field may be if you take a look at the App Store. I have one iPhone app (Latin Dictionary, $3.99) that has the entire text of the Lewis and Short lexicon! I’ve been able to download the Niermeyer Medieval Latin Dictionary as a 1253-page PDF file for free (65 mb). iPieta ($2.99) has the full text of the Latin Vulgate Bible AND the Douay-Rheims English translation, not to mention a wide variety of Conciliar documents, including the canons of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. Do you have any idea how geekily fun it can be to read aloud to your friends from the Book of Revelation while actually at Armageddon? I haven’t downloaded the Greek New Testament with Mounce-Koivisto Morphology and UBS Dictionary ($74.99) available for Olive Tree’s Bible Reader (free), but I could if I wanted to. And if you should ever want to find out the constitutional structure of the Principality of Andorra while you just so happen to be visiting there, Earthbook ($0.99) is for you.

Other Disdvantages

Sunlight. It’s not always easy to read the screen sitting at an outdoor café or while trying to navigate your way around Andorra (for instance). I am looking into an anti-glare film for my screen. I found the reading problem annoying periodically—but not, I have to say, enough to stop me doing it again! Of course, WiFi-only means you have to check out your route on the Maps app that comes with the iPad before you get on the road (you can leaf through the the step-by-step directions, however, even if you close the app). Another disadvantage is getting files back to my normal laptop and synchronizing all that. I’m sure I’ll work it out, but I haven’t started doing it yet.

So. Would I do it again? Yes. A month is probably the outer limit, though, given all the writing problems. But since multi-tasking for the iPad is forecast for this fall, if someone can solve the footnote problem, I may never travel with a heavy laptop again.

[Image by Flickr user jqmj; Creative Commons licensed.]

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