Ask LH: What iPad Apps Does A Student Need?

Ask LH: What iPad Apps Does A Student Need?

Dear Lifehacker, With the university semester fast approaching, I’d like to invest in some iPad apps. In particular, I need a good word processor and an app to annotate and edit PDFs. The selection on the app store is pretty overwhelming, and I don’t exactly have the cash or time to try them all. So what can LH recommend, and what other apps could help me out? Thanks, Tablets & Tutes

Picture by Michael Coghlan

Dear T&T,

Before we hit the apps, one obvious recommendation: make sure you’ve acquired a Bluetooth keyboard for your iPad. If you’re going to be using it for serious annotation and writing tasks, a separate keyboard is much more ergonomic and efficient, no matter what app you’re using.

As part of our App Directory series, we’ve already highlighted PDF apps and office suites for use on the iPad (and other iOS devices). So rather than repeating oursevles, we’ll point to those listings. For general note taking, OneNote is a popular choice for many students, and there’s a specific version of that for the iPad.

If your university has good Wi-Fi coverage, you might also consider largely using cloud-based apps (such as Google Apps) within the iPad browser. With that said, we’d love to hear recommendations from other iPad-toting students in the comments.


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  • Gotta say I find it funny that essentially the first recommendation for someone who bought a tablet for uni is essentially that they probably should have brought something with a keyboard instead (i.e a laptop).

    I honestly can’t see who someone would choose to use a tablet to create reasonably long documents (i.e assignments). A bluetooth keyboard will make the task easier, but compared to using a full size keyboard on a proper computer with a fully featured word processing app it’s still going to be an exercise in frustration.

    • Tablets are the most ridiculous product I’ve ever seen. They are too big to be considered legitimately portable and too small and slow to be useful for word processing or anything of the sort. If you ask me they’re awkwardly in between a mobile phone and a notebook.

      Only uses I can see are watching movies on, playing games and browsing the internet. Though all of those things are done better with a computer / television.

    • iPads are great for consumption (playing games, watching movies, reading books etc.) But they are a PAIN to do long word processing tasks on. Personally, I’ve managed to write a 1200 word essay on one, but thats a one off thing that I’ll probably not do again.

      Use an iPad to look at textbooks – not write ’em

      • I LOVE my iPad with logitech folding keyboard for uni. The boot time alone trumps any laptop or netbook, and its perfect to to take to lectures. I wouldn’t write essays on it, but for notes it’s great.

    • FrogPad has a free one handed Notetaker iPad App which would be great for students. I agree with you about the keyboard, although when FrogPad has its Bluetooth keyboard in May, it will integrate to any HID Bluetooth mobile, tablet, computer!

  • About the only apps they would use are facebook and twitter.

    Realistically a tablet or a labtop only serves one purpose at university – to procrastinate.

    Brian has it right in that at least a laptop would be a better choice for those who wanted to use their device for more than procrastination.

    • I beg to differ, I wouldn’t be able to complete my degree (Computer Science) without a computer, and having a laptop makes it a lot easier to get things done as I can have everything set up nicely. Even a non-technical degree is more or less impossible without a computer considering the amount classes these days seem to rely on e-learning to distribute notes and assignments, and having a laptop to access those and write long essays is a lot nicer. I’m not saying they’re not used to procrastinate, but they have a very legitimate purpose, and those that procrastinate with them would find a way to procrastinate without them.

    • Thanks Andrew. Goes to show that the device doesn’t determine the procrastinator.

      To all the naysayers I’d be dubious about myself effectively getting work done on an ipad — though I try on my iphone — but just because you can’t see how someone sufficiently motivated could use an ipad to do work effectively doesn’t preclude the ability. Don’t be so quick to blame the device.

      Sure for individual tasks there may be a much better device. Sometimes though worse is better, and a device which is passable at task x, y & z is better than a device that is great at x, a device that is good at y and a device that is passable at z.

      • Personally I think the iPad is a much better thing to use than an iPhone. And, if you have a subject that expects you to print off notes beforehand and bring them in to the lecture, the printing can become really expensive. The iPads are very popular at my uni for annotating the lecture slides.

  • I Think Brian is right. an iPad is a winderful thing to review lessons and all, but really useful to create content. It’s not impossible, but not so practical. If you have enough money, a laptop and an ipad is perfect, otherwise, a laptop (windows.linux,mac, whatever suits you) is the way to go.

    • A laptop? Or a netbook? Being a previous student I’d say NetBook with a full sized keyboard. Perfect for a uni student because of the long battery life and portability.

  • Dropbox, Evernote and/ or OneNote – depending on how you like to work.

    Something like GoTasks or Wunderlist/ Wunderkit could be useful too.

    You can also use iBooks to get your PDF’s on the go if you like – It is my preferred PDF viewer, but I wouldn’t rely on iTunes sync.

    GoodReader is pretty good for annotations.

    JotNot is good if you still need to take some pen/paper notes and want them accessible on your iPad later. (You’d be crazy trying to do anything but basic sketches and calculations on an iPad i think; but if you insist, you can try Sketchy for drawings).

    iTunes U and Blackboard apps are good if your university uses them.

    With a selection of these (most are free), you should be able to get everything you need done.

    However ultimately, in my experience, whenever a phone/ tablet/ computer comes out in a class, even the most studious people end up playing games or on facebook.

    My preferred system is to just take notes with pencil/ paper, then scan with JotNot and import into Evernote, tagged with the subject. If you are a neat enough writer, your notes become searchable.

    Plus I find forcing yourself to do this scanning once a day increases the likelihood of actual revision before end of semester.

  • Spend the money instead on an ultrabook (Macbook Air or other).
    A keyboard, a full OS for things like running documents side by side, full fledged Word processing/Excel if needed and so much more. Tablets aren’t there yet and as a specific purchase for uni is more a luxury on top of a laptop/dekstop.

  • All year 11 and 12 students were given iPad’s at my school last year, and after a year of use these are my top apps I would recommend:

    iStudiez Pro

    That covers pretty much everything for me.

  • Bit sick of people knocking tablets when they;
    A) Have probably never tried to use a tablet for any thing OTHER than Facebook and…
    B) Clearly aren’t open minded to new forms of technology ways of working / studying.

    Now, what i use / recommend

    iAnnotate – great if your course content is delivered in PDF as mine is. Allows you to highlight sections which you can then email to yourself as summary notes / revision papers

    One Note – fantastic for making general notes – web sync with Windows Live and online note editing.

    Evernote – great for quickly capturing information (websites, notes, paper, audio recording, video recordings) Sync’s across just about everything with a processor in it and free!

    iBooks / iTunes U – Great if you can find your text books in ePub format – even better annotating abilities than iAnnotate. Just doesn’t annotate with PDFs

    DropBox – great for storing and syncing all your Uni subject notes and materials across all you devices.

    Pages – Fantastic word processor – maybe not quite capable of doing a full assignment on, more than perfect to add the finishing touches or final proof read prior to submitting

    I’ve also found mind mapping App to be handy to depending on the subject

    Have seen iStudiez – looked pretty nice but not sure you’d use it going forward.

    Finally, I use my iPad daily and I’ve never wanted to use a bluetooth keyboard with it. While you do need to get used to the onscreen keyboard, once used to it, its perfectly functional and easy to use.

  • I have used my iPad to do assignements and take notes in class and it rocks.
    I used to drag my 15″ Macbook Pro class all the time and now I just use my iPad.
    Coupled with the Apple Wireless keyboard, sure I have to carry it around, but I find it more usefull than say a 11″ Macbook Air because when i just want to read I can find a nice chair in the library and get comfortable and just read, and if you are typing up say a short reading response the on screen keyboard is great, but I find for taking notes or doing a long assignment the keyboard is must to be kind to ones fingers.

    I agree with most of Nottle’s recommendations for apps, Pages just plan rocks for word processing on the go, sure its not all there but do all that is required for basic assignment and then do the rest on my Mac.
    Also I use Keynote for any in class presentations I use the VGA output to the projector, and use my iPhone as the remote with the Keynote remote.

    If you need a spreadsheet for anything, Numbers works just great, I’ve used it for a few projects (work stuff not uni)

    With iCloud doc support, Pages, Numbers and Keynote automatically back up so no loosing stuff if something unthinkable happens to your ipad or if you forget it you can quickly get the data from your iPhone instead.

    iBooks is just great for books, I’m actually assisting one of my lecturers in adapating his books to iBooks now.

  • Forget the ipad. Get a macbook air or one of those new super sleek laptops.
    The MBA isn’t much heavier than the ipad AND it can actually do work! Surprise!

    The ipad is a great toy, awesome for reading ebooks and games BUT NOT FOR SERIOUS WORK. do yourself a favor. Don’t get an ipad in the name of study.

  • I have my iPad to work in conjunction with my MacBook. The MacBook is 3 years old now, and I didn’t want to have to fork out $2500 for a new one with the Same specs so the iPad was the best solution for me. It allows me to access all my reference resources online when on clinical and doing grand rounds at the hospital, while also being very handy when in lectures. I use all the same apps that hAve been mentioned in previous comments. You wouldn’t write a thesis on the iPad, but as far as having to lug stuff around everywhere, the iPad is far more handy with all my textbooks in iBooks, all my subject notes in Evernote and Dropbox. I don’t use it as a substitute to my MacBook, but rather a very handy compliment. And if I lose it, it’s a third of the price to replace, and the majority of my stuff will be recoverable with iCloud backup. Does the job for me.

  • I couldn’t live without my iPad at uni now.

    It’s true, you wouldn’t do a huge assignment on it, but I’ve managed to knock up a few 1000 worders on it and it seems fine.

    I just use a smart cover and type with the key board.

    For notes in lectures and tutes I love notability so much that if it were a person I would marry it… Well, that’s a bit much, but it is good.

    You can type notes and draw things when needed. I did just drop $30 on a stylus, which I was apprehensive about but again, I love it.

    On the negative side, there is no way you can use it to ale notes solely by hand. It’s not even one of those fun “I’m experimenting with technology” things where the pain is worth the convenience. It’s just painful.

    Also, it too me about a full semester to get used to it, but now that I have the hang of it, it’s amazing.

    As I said, I use notability for all notes. I’ve created folders and I import everything to that to work on in class.

    I also paid the $5 or so for a PDF converter. It allows me to download ppt and doc files as well as webpages

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