9 great ways to make the iPad a useful work tool: structures, setup, apps


When I posted a little while back about using an external keyboard with the iPad, I promised to share how I use the iPad for work.

When I bought the iPad I found it quite frustrating for a while in trying to use the iPad as I wanted, but I managed to work it out, and some of the elements that were missing at launch have been put in place. Here is what I have learned and how I use the iPad for work. I’m keen to hear what others have learned, as I’m sure there are plenty of other great tips.

1. External keyboard.
To my mind an iPad is of very limited use, almost a toy, without an external keyboard. I am sitting in an economy seat on an airplane right now, able to pull out my iPad and immediately write a blog post, respond to email, make notes in my to do list, or work on a client report. It is a fully functional work device. For more on this see my post The REAL transformative package: iPad plus wireless keyboard.

2. Email.
Most people are familiar with the ability to synchronize email with the Mail app on the iPad, which is an essential part of making it a work platform. If you need them, here are instructions on setting up email on your iPad.

3. Office apps.
The best iPad office applications for wordprocessing, spreadsheets, and presentations are the Apple apps Page, Numbers, and Keynote. But they are basically useless because there is no easy way to access and edit documents hosted on cloud servers such as Dropbox, Google Docs, or Box.net. There are three major third-party office suites: Documents To Go, QuickOffice, and Office2 HD. After spending some time with them when I first bought an iPad, I have pretty much settled on Documents To Go, occasionally using the others, for example when I want to open a Google Doc at the same time as a document on Dropbox. That’s not to say the others aren’t good or have improved their game since I looked at them in depth, but I have found Documents To Go a solid office suite.

4. Office doc formatting.
The key constraint on editing office documents on the iPad is that they have very limited formatting capabilities. This means that almost any non-vanilla formatting for colors, tables, paragraphing etc. will not be viewed properly in the iPad office apps, cannot be controlled, or sometimes not be visible. Apple’s Page is probably best in this regard, but still has significant limitations. It also means you have to be careful if you are editing highly formatted documents on the iPad. However as long as you recognize this constraint, it’s not too much of a problem, as you can do the detailed formatting when you are at a desktop.

5. App use of keyboard controls.
If you do use an external keyboard, be it Apple or third-party, you do need to check that the apps you are using recognize keyboard shortcuts. There is limited value to an external keyboard if you can’t use controls such as Command-C to copy. Several months after the launch of the iPad none of the office apps recognized keyboard controls. Fortunately they almost all do now, though it is worth checking any apps that you will be using for significant text input on their keyboard support.

6. Cloud documents.
All of the non-Apple office apps can access both Dropbox and Google Docs, and some can also access Box.net. You can also use apps such as AirSharing to synchronize with your desktop filing system. Our corporate filing system is split between Dropbox, Google Docs, and corporate server, depending on the type of document. You just need to ensure that any document that needs to be accessed remotely is on an appropriate cloud server.

7. Evernote.
Evernote is the home for my to do list and general note taking, such as meeting notes, blog posts, and a few other documents such as ideas for my keynotes. Many others use it in a similar way, though others make it more central to their information storage and access. While Evernote does not support formatting on the iPad, it is ideal for quick notes, and to do lists that you can access from desktop, laptop, iPad, remote browser, or mobile phone. Others prefer apps such as Todo or Things for their to do lists.

8. Presentations.
The iPad is of course a great desktop presentation device for groups up to 10 or so, and using the video output cable can also be use to do presentations through data projectors. Keynote is a solid presentation tool – you can drag Powerpoint presentations into Keynote on iTunes and synchronize your iPad, then convert the files on your iPad. There is limited scope for editing, and I personally wouldn’t choose to create a presentation on Keynote on the iPad, but it is fine for playback. However you do have to carefully check formatting and builds, with problems more common when importing .pptx files.. You can now use the iPhone to remote control the slides on your iPad using an app and WiFi. Prezi has an Viewer app for iPad, however it doesn’t display embedded pdfs, so that doesn’t work for me since I need to use a vector-based format to zoom in and out of the visual frameworks on which I base my Prezi (see for example my recent Prezi for my keynote to AICD in Beijing).

9. Offline reading.
One of the great uses for iPad is for reading documents while on the move. It can help do away with the big briefcase, and indeed many organizations are starting to distribute internal documents such as board briefing papers in iPad-friendly formats. Pdfs can be pulled into apps such as GoodReader. Instapaper provides an easy way to take web pages that you come across while browsing so you can read them at your leisure on your iPad.

There are of course many other work-related uses for the iPad, including reading books, engaging in social media, filtering news, creating mockups and layouts, and of course playing fun games to keep you alert and stimulated.

Some of the most prominent things we’re waiting for that will improve the iPad as a work tool are multi-window app viewing, and the Apple office applications allowing direct access to cloud documents.

However the fact is that the iPad can now be set up as a solid work platform that in most cases can replace a laptop. If you absolutely need to do things like run big spreadsheets, do sophisticated design, and so on, you will need something bigger, or you can simply wait until you’re back at a desktop computer.

Absolutely, do not think that the iPad is just a ‘lean back’ device. Set up properly, it is a great system for creating content and doing work.

Please share in comments anything useful you’ve learned on how to use the iPad as a work platform. 🙂

  • Dominique Turcq

    Great analysis. I have not yet found the usage for my iPad… and think that my MacAir is much better. I actually found that your piece is indeed a credo for the Air rather than the iPad … 

    • Fair enough – MacAir certainly has its merits. iPad is better on bootup time and battery life, and there are real advantages to separating the keyboard and the screen as you can with iPad. Also, there are many awesome low-cost apps on the iPad – that is where developer and designer creativity is being focused today.

  • for me, the best tool for media consumption is ReadItLater.  Phenomenal for time shifting to read stories later and it turns busy web pages into sleek book-like formatting.  Getting the Pro version for $3.00 is worth it. 

  • Great list and iPad approach 🙂

    Having recently started using one, I’m still hunting for a good calendar/todo/planner app, and was surprised not seeing one in your post. I would be curious to know what you’re using on your iPad for these 🙂

    • I use the built-in calendar, and simply have a list in Evernote for my to do list. Some will want a dedicated to do application like Taska but just a text document works well for me.

      • Thanks Ross for the quick answer. Have to admit that your discipline must be impressive to manage everything off simple tools 🙂

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  • Ajr


    Just bought a wireless keyboard for my iPad 2 and am using it with Documents To Go. I use bullets and bold text a lot for notes in class – do you know how i can use these keyboard shortcuts on the wireless keyboard for Documents To Go iPad app?


    • In general the standard shortcuts should work where they exist. Unfortunately it’s not as rich on this front as desktop OS but there are some shortcuts.

      • Ajr

        Do you know which ones I can use for text formatting or bullets?

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  • Yve Clark

    It’s easier on android nu far. I have both bit use android for the sheer convenience.