iPad – the reporter’s friend

Everyone and their dog is a reporter these days. The wonderful world of the “blog” seems to have empowered everyone with an opinion, and whoever has the best net connection, the fastest fingers and ultimately the best tech wins. Kinda. At least until you realise that you don’t make any money out of it. Regardless, with print media in my invoice book, I still want the most efficient tools. Apple’s iPad definitely makes a difference to how I can work, and here’s how it can genuinely be the ideal companion for any reporter.

Obviously I’ve previously written about the iPad’s serious applications – such as Omni’s suite of apps, Apple’s iOS versions of iWork and the like. Using the iPad as a stripped down computer is an interesting and not unfulfilling experience. However, on my desk there’s an iMac and I don’t need to use the iPad when there’s a clearly superior option.

On the road, however, there are compromises to be made. Hedging my bets a little, I left the Macbook Pro at home when covering recent events, and took the iPad with me. For Photokina, I also took the Archos 9 – which was useful as it turned out, but not for the reasons you might expect. Initially I had a UK event to cover, so traded my usual heavy kit of D3S/70-200 etc. and MBP for a D5000 in camera armour with the compact 18-105 VR lens and the iPad. This event, being a UK seminar for a print title, didn’t need images processing instantly so I relied almost entirely on an app called “SoundNotes” – formerly known as SoundPaper (a title that I personally preferred!). It’s inevitable that I’d forgotten to charge the iPad that week (week, not day, incidentally) so when I picked it up it had 64% charge; the car’s USB charger lead didn’t work for some reason; it also doesn’t charge the iPhone it was originally bought for – so the day’s work had to be done on what I had available.

Overall, with a 7 hour day and really, about 4 hours of “work”, the iPad used a little over 10% of the battery. Running SoundNotes, sitting at the opposite end of the room to the speaker, the internal microphone picked up sound well enough for clear playback (with a slight background ‘taptaptap’ from me typing on the iPad screen occasionally) and as advertised, when I got home to write the article I simply tapped the text for a salient point and got the speaker’s words verbatim. SoundNote, to me, is utterly indispensable and makes the iPad worth the cost alone (combined with the usable on-screen keyboard in landscape orientation, and the Tuff-Luv case I use which supports it for typing but also allows me to wrap the stand around my left wrist, which makes standing and typing very easy).

If you have the camera connector kit, then USB microphones like Blue’s “Yeti” or “Snowball / Snowflake” models are supported, giving much higher quality and directional recording (and avoiding the little taptap noises from taking notes). These are also good for the many audio applications available, and the interface also supports the Griffin iMic for stereo recording from any line/microphone source.

Photokina was helped by a need to pack as little as possible – the last thing I needed when covering an event in 48 hours with 7 hours sleep was to be faffing about with checked luggage, so everything had to fit in one bag; I also lack an international charger for the iPad but not the Archos, which came bundled with several plugs. The Archos was therefore brought as a backup, should the iPad run out of charge (I relied on my iPhone to just stay charged, frankly, but took a USB sync cable). The trusty D5000 came along too.

With breaking news like Sigma’s SD1, I wanted to get the pictures up as quickly as possible. So, along with trying to get a European plug (none in stock), I got the iPad Camera Connector at the Duty Free. Thanks to the WiFi in the press centre, pictures from Photokina were loaded from D5000 to iPad rapidly, clearing my card for further use – then as I shoot raw+JPEG, the JPEG files were loaded into Photohop Express and cropped, quickly adjusted and straightened. Once completed, the WordPress application for iOS allows crude, but functional upload of images (I would like to see this improved, with a similar dialogue to the “Gallery” menu on WP’s edit page that allows placement, sizing and caption editing).

The Archos was not totally redundant. I’d taken a couple of shots on the Sigma DP2, which the iPad cannot handle (JPEG files are fine but I only shoot raw files with Sigma kit), and it also allowed me to charge the USB-connected iPad and iPhone during the stay. Had anyone pointed me at Flash content, it would also have been able to read USB press packs and similar information, and had I had data enabled on my contract for Germany I could have used it tethered with the iPhone – something Apple has yet to enable with the iPad. Of course, the option of the 3G iPad exists but costs more (and more to the point, when I got my iPad there were no 3G models available in any capacity).

Every task I need to do when reporting on events can be accomplished with an iPad 3G; with apps for managing most CMS solutions, quick and dirty photo editing (plus on-location storage if you’re using smaller cards) and of course entertainment for travel and mail for working out of the office. None of this is new in itself, as many people (including myself) have been using UMPCs, laptops, netbooks or whatever to do the same tasks. The crucial difference is that the iPad is the first small, light solution that genuinely saves space and weight whilst offering a vastly improved battery life – and thanks to the work of developers, efficient, targeted solutions.

Improvements with iOS 4.2 will see the ability to research whilst editing, to change WiFi settings without “leaving” your app and most crucially, wireless printing via AirPlay. Photokina’s press office had a suite of printers for journalist use – realistically those printers could be shared either via desktop Macs or direct (some printers already support AirPlay wireless printing, though the list is short) and allow printing straight from iPhone or iPad. Having used iOS’ wireless printing in a beta, it’s pretty much what you’d expect from the iPad; see a document that is printable (website, PDF, picture – and as third-party apps are updated, one would expect word documents, spreadsheets and forms to follow suit), tap the share icon and select “print”. To use a hackneyed Appleism, “it just works”.

A couple of incompatibilities with how PR firms work could be addressed both by Apple and how PR firms distribute data (on Apple’s part, allowing the Camera Connector to read USB memory devices; even if that support were only in QuickOffice or similar apps; the PR firms could use online storage and give journalists access to it via “cloud” applications like Dropbox/box.net and similar). It’s possible to use software like iFile on a jailbroken iPad to access USB storage devices, but that’s something you may not wish to do; it would be better if Apple offered the connectivity officially.

With those final barriers gone, I can see no benefit at all to having a laptop for this sort of work; and if the new wave of Android tablets get the quality right, the battery life right and most importantly the developers to really take advantage of the form factor, it needn’t be an iPad doing the work at all.

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