The iPad Experiment

Long story short, I’ve been promoted in my day job. With it comes a new problem; my desk will will contain a Mac Pro workstation for editing. However, as my role as a Supervisor I’ll also have to do admin type things, something that would take up resources and time from the edit machine. It’s also a relatively open access machine, meaning I wouldn’t want Mail running with all my email accounts accessible whilst someone else is using the computer.

The problem is this: with a dual-monitor edit station there will be no room on my desk for another computer for admin. I could, I suppose, set up my existing admin computer – a Mac mini – somewhere else and use Back to my Mac to connect to that, but that itself has its own issues; firstly, I’ve found BtmM to be at times unreliable, secondly the lack of audio in Back to my Mac means I wouldn’t get audible alerts for emails etc, and finally it would still require running something on the edit Mac, only this time something that will pinch valuable network bandwidth.

The solution I have come up with is a good one, and to my knowledge it has not been publicly tried before. This solution is somewhat theoretical, but I’ve decided to throw myself into it headfirst.

The solution is The iPad Experiment.

The Theory

So, I thought to myself, what exactly do I need from an admin computer? I managed to sum up the key requirements in two words: Exchange, and iWork. Exchange for access to Mail and Calendars, and iWork for the inevitable word processing, Keynote presentations and spreadsheets I’ll have to deal with (I should note that I’m saying iWork, as opposed to Office, simply because that’s what I currently use on my admin computer).

What else do I need from an admin computer? In my current situation, it needs to be compact and take up as little space as possible, in all possible dimensions (small footprint, not too tall, not too wide… basically, not an iMac which, although it has a small footprint, takes up quite a bit of space). The Mac mini is obviously a diminutive computer, but still needs a monitor which will likely take up as much space as an iMac.

It should also be portable. It needs to be portable because it will be sharing a relatively small desk with a Mac Pro which I, and my colleagues, need to be able to get unfettered access to when necessary.

When it comes down to it, the best device that ticks all of these boxes is the iPad.

In Practice

So how, exactly, am I going to be able to use an iPad of all things as a replacement for an office desktop? As far as I’m concerned, it’s relatively simple. The iPad provides email, internet, calendars, word processing, slide presentation and spreadsheets, as well as being able to preview a number of files formats either directly or through third party applications. This is pretty much all I need.

I’ve loaded up my new iPad with various software, from the iWork collection to AutoCAD to note taking and doodling apps.

As for getting files onto the iPad, I will primarily use my iDisk. I will be looking into Dropbox as well. Certain larger files, such as videos for previewing to clients, I will sync via iTunes at home to avoid relying on a network connection for such a large data file.

For typing, I’ve bought an Apple Bluetooth Keyboard which will allow me to type at speed or in bulk. To be honest the on-screen keyboard, especially in landscape mode, is pretty much as good as a physical keyboard for most small typing tasks.

Known Issues

There are some problems I know I will encounter in trying to use solely an iPad as an office/admin computer. Firstly, printing. In initial testing I’ve not been able to get AirPrint working over our network with our networked printer – I’m guessing it’s because the printer is not connected directly to the Mac. I will be looking more into this in the coming weeks.

Secondly, our fault management system’s thin client is not compatible with Safari or Mobile Safari. The creators of the system have made a simple iOS app for it but this does not appear to be compatible with our installation at this time. This is something I am simply going to have to fall back to Firefox on OS X for.

We also have a shared network drive which we use to move and share large files. Unfortunately the iPad cannot connect to this, unless I can find a way of it presenting itself as a WebDAV drive (a cursory Google search showed a glimmer of hope on this front).

Benefits

There are some other significant benefits to using the iPad over, say, a laptop or desktop machine.

I can easily grab my iPad to take to a meeting, or stroll around rooms. My office becomes truly mobile as I can set up on any desk instantly without having to lug too much weight around.

Since it has handwriting recognition apps (third party) I can scribble notes without using paper that I’d inevitably lose (or have to file somewhere, or type up); the video playback means I can take sample or rough cut videos to client meetings (and if I make them in the right format, actually edit them on the fly during the meeting with iMovie) and since it is my primary machine, if I’m in a meeting I’ll more than likely have the file being discussed to hand, even if I’d forgotten about it.

I can also easily pick up my work on the train, since i have a 3G iPad I can send and receive emails as if I was in the office without one of those silly 3G dongles hanging out of the side of a laptop, threatening to damage a USB port if someone bumps it.

The Start

Moving up into my new role has proven a bit of a distraction from writing my blogs as I settle in, so whereas this post was originally meant to be posted whilst I waited for the iPad 2 to be delivered, I must say that the iPad Experiment is already in full swing. The results of those weeks will be covered in a forthcoming post, The iPad Experiment: The First Two Weeks.

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