I agonized over the decision for weeks.
Could I really justify buying a new iPad for a trip to Germany and the Czech Republic that would require me to pack light? Could it replace my trusty laptop for necessary note-taking and other writing? And could it distinguish itself from my iPhone in its functionality?
Yes, yes, and yes. With very few exceptions, temporarily ditching my laptop for the far-easier-to-pack iPad proved to be the right choice, and I’m now an official convert to the joys of traveling with a tablet.
In a previous post, I discussed a few smart phone features that can make a science writer’s life easier at conferences. Sarah Webb (bio) has rhapsodized about the Evernote app. And Michelle Nijhuis (bio) spent an entire virtual mentoring session talking about how to prepare for a reporting trip abroad. Completely giving up your laptop for a reporting trip, however, can require a leap of faith – and plenty of advance planning.
One key is to think about how you’ll communicate and back up essential photos and documents before you go. Also, there are some necessary caveats. The iPhone 5s, for example, takes much better pictures and videos than an iPad, while the iPad (with Retina display) excels at presenting them in high-resolution. Some apps seem to work far better on iPhones, so try them out ahead of time to make sure they’ll work right when you’re counting on them. And some iPhone apps aren’t available on the iPad at all, including the enormously useful and free WhatsApp Messenger.
The iPad, however, is light-years better for texting, tweeting and Facebook posts, and its virtual keyboard worked much better than I thought it would, given its constrained size. (By opting for an iPad that was Wi-Fi enabled only, I didn’t have to worry about inadvertently racking up fees for sending text messages through another country’s mobile network – though this only works for sending texts to others on Apple devices).
Making a tablet work for you, of course, largely depends on what you decide to put on it. For this post, I received advice from Michelle and Emily Gertz (bio), another fellow SciLancer. Combined, we’ve listed more than 20 of our favorite iPad travel apps.
For orienting myself in a new city, I’m a big fan of CityMaps2Go. I was able to pre-load five destinations into the app, and mark the location of my hotel on each city guide. I like Google Maps too, but the CityMaps2Go app doesn’t require a Wi-Fi signal to give you a finely detailed map of where you are and where you need to go.
With the rise of Airbnb as a popular option for finding overseas accommodations, Michelle says the Airbnb may be worth a look, and she likes Urbanspoon for finding decent restaurants almost anywhere in the United States, United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia, and XE Currency for up-to-date currency conversions.
All three of us use Dropbox for carrying and storing research materials; the app could be a lifesaver for backing up interview files and photos. Michelle also uses the mobile version of DevonThink, called DEVONThink To Go, for the same purpose, while Instapaper, she says, “is good for offline access to essential references.”
Interviewing and Taking Notes
After declining to spend $69.99 for an annual Office 365 Personal subscription to make Microsoft’s Office suite for iPad useful, I decided to try Apple’s free Pages word processing app. For the writing I did – two blog posts, an essay and a write-up of interview notes – it was perfect. It lacked the unnecessary bells and whistles that could be confusing on an iPad, yet allowed me to save documents in the doc format so that I could later export them into my laptop’s Word program.
For writing on the iPad during a conference, Emily prefers Plain Text. “It’s a very clean and basic text editing app, and syncs well with Dropbox,” she says. She also uses Notability when she wants to handwrite notes instead of typing them. “This can be nice when you’re sitting at a table talking with someone, say, as opposed to listening to a presentation, because it removes that computer-as-barrier problem,” Emily says. She’s not ready to give up her notebook and pen just yet – “tablets being useless in bright sun and damaged easily by falling water and all that” – but says that writing into a tablet is a nice option to have.
Michelle also likes SoundNote, which she describes as a “great interview-recording program that syncs recording with notes” and allows you to save your recordings to DropBox “so that they’re safe in the cloud while you’re on the road.” (note that it’s not available on iPhone).
One past headache that I was determined to avoid this trip was the quagmire that has become my proliferating list of online passwords. Every week seems to bring news of a new security breach, and I’ve been increasingly concerned about how to keep my passwords safe while also remembering them when on the road.
After conducting some research online, I decided to go with 1Password, which uses one strong password to store many others. The app can either store existing passwords or help you create stronger ones for sensitive sites. Another advantage is that you can securely store online profile information. One small bug: the app sometimes asks to store passwords that it already has. Also note that there’s one version for your laptop, while you need to buy a separate version for your iPhone and iPad.
Emily prefers Dashlane for almost problem-free syncing between her iPad, iPhone and Mac running the slightly older OSX 10.7.5 operating system. Finding a secure password-keeper that you like also can help de-clutter your iPad by allowing you to remove all financial institution-specific apps, as Emily has done.
You can’t work all the time. For in-flight entertainment, Michelle likes Kindle, iBooks and the Free Books app, which includes thousands of public-domain books. The virtual drumming game osu!, introduced to her by a photography friend, “is also good for a brief escape.”
One less-than-ideal feature on the iPad: the built-in Game Center annoyingly requires an Internet connection to access any games stored there, meaning that you’re out of luck if you lack Wi-Fi access. After watching movies on an iPhone during past flights, however, doing so on an iPad this time around was a revelation. I’ll never go back. (Beyond Apple’s built-in Videos app, Video Downloader can be useful for storing and viewing online videos).
When I really need to unwind, I’ve started experimenting with Sleep Pillow, while Michelle uses White Noise Pro for getting some shut-eye in noisy hotels. So what’s your favorite, indispensable, can’t-live-without-it travel app? Let us know in the comments.