Engineer's Guide to the iPad

Even though tablets have been around for over ten years, I have never had an interest in using a device that brought "touch" (which I use here lightly) to a desktop operating system, that came at an additional cost.   The devices were under powered since the target market was note-takers and the whole stylus concept was slow. So Apple steps into the game a decade later and introduces their idea of what a tablet should be. If you have paid any attention to the reviews, the field is split and it seems that reviewers either love it or hate it.  Regardless of your stance on it, one thing is pretty clear, the device is fast, has great battery life, and has a HUGE library of applications to fill in some of the device's shortcomings. 

As an engineer and a power user of technology, I was skeptical if a device like the iPad would work for me. Having had smart phones for almost 10 years, connectivity has become a part of my daily life but there is only so much one can do on a 3" screen!  With most smart phones, the library of applications is extensive enough to bring functionality to the device but some features like remote desktop, could help in a pinch but extensive use is really not productive.

Here are some reasons the iPad can be the device to have for engineers and technical professionals alike:

The Device:

As are most Apple products, the device is well made.  It is, in a sense, a big iPod Touch, which is really not a bad thing when you see what developers are doing with their applications to utilize the real estate.  The device is wicked fast and despite the fact it doesn't support "multi-tasking" yet (coming in fall 2010) it can open and close apps extremely fast, resuming the last closed state. It also supports A2DP Bluetooth connectivity with works for audio out and can be used to pair a bluetooth keyboard for any major data entry.

The battery life is just astounding.  10 hours of battery life when the device is being used but when you put the device in standby, it will last up to a month!  I have charged it to 100%, unplugged it and put it in my bag, pulling it out a noon and finding it still reading 100%. 

One aspect that I don't hear people talk about is the instant on.  This device goes from a basic "off" mode to working in a second.  Even Chrome OS doesn't do that and this even faster than any standby or sleep mode wake time on a netbook. 

So what is missing? Well, it could use an SD slot and maybe the ability to access an external storage device via a USB port.  Apple does sell a Camera Connection Kit, which has been determined to be able to connect some USB devices like keyboards and microphone headsets, among other things.  For mass storage, the Camera Connection Kit allows the iPad to pull data off of it but not write to it.

The Browser:

Because the iPad comes with mobile Safari, the ability to use cloud applications and web-based services is very accessible.  Most, not all, sites work pretty well to get to the content you need.  Remember the device doesn't support flash so check with the sites you visit the most and see if that would be an issue. I can get into the SolidWorks Customer Portal & Knowledge Base, and the almost every engineering forum I use.

I am a Google Apps user so nearly everything I do can be accessed and used within the Googlesphere.  Gmail has a specific build for the iPad and everything else (Calendar, Talk, Buzz, Reader, etc) runs as it does with the iPhone and iPod Touch.

The device also supports VPN so if you have internal intranet sites at work or other corporate hosted sites, bearing they do not require Internet Explorer and ActiveX, you can get as well.  If they do require IE, I will talk about how to combat that as well below. 

It is also worth mentioning that natively the device has a great Mail app and can be configured to use Microsoft's own ActiveSync, supporting PUSH Mail, Calendar and Contacts as well.

The Apps:

The rest was left to the applications to bridge the gap.  Let's face it, it is not about operating systems, it has always been about applicaitons and the iPad is no different.  Once I found a few key apps, my decision to buy was solidified.  Below are 6 applications that were key to my decision to get the iPad and the solutions they deliver for me and my workflow:

Dropbox - (free) This data sync service brings file sharing and transfer to every computer you use in your eco system.  Locally installed clients sync selected files/folders to all systems connected, giving access from your desktop, laptop, phone and iPad. I have found that this replaces the need for the USB storage since any file can be synced or a link can be sent from any device to share. (2GB Free)

Evernote - (free) This note and data sync service is where I live.  Everything I do; research, writing code/scripts, storing PDF files and other documents, all get put into Evernote.  I can take notes on the website, on the desktop app, phone or iPad and all of it syncs. There is a free 40MB/month service and the Premium is about $45/year.  I have the Premium account for the full search and expanded space to 500MB/month.

GoodReader - ($0.99) This documents reader connects to many online services like Dropbox, Google Docs,, FTP and more to download and upload files from across the iPad. Attachments from Mail can be opened and managed from within this application.  GoodReader essentially acts as a device wide file manager and viewing solution for the iPad.

Office2HD - ($7.99) For those of you who use Google Docs, there are many solutions to download and access your documents offline on the iPad.  However, creating new or editing Google Docs online is not possible...yet via the web.  This application brings a word processor and spreadsheet creation capability (cheaper than Apple's own Pages & Numbers) and has the ability to edit existing Google Docs directly.  **It currently does not work with documents created with the newly announced document editor yet**

IM+ - ($9.99) Many companies are using instant messaging to keep communication up among employees and this app has it all!  It supports SKYPE, AOL, MSN, Twitter, Facebook, Yahoo!, Google Talk, Jabber, ICQ and MySpace.  You can have multiple accounts on each type and it supports PUSH so messages can pop up as you are working without the application running.

WinAdmin - ($8.99) This is a great remote desktop client and the last piece of the puzzle for me.  Coupled with a VPN connection, access to any remote desktop enabled system can be used.  It supports legacy systems and the most current Windows 7 and Server 2008 systems as well.  This gives a very usable remote touch access to run any application, like CAD, for those times when you need to make an edit or access those corporate PLM/ERP/MRP systems internally.


Having a snappy, instant on, application rich, big touch device is becoming something I am preferring to use for a majority of my day to day work.  I have not yet traveled with it but for those that do, the TSA has determined that the device does NOT have to be removed for security. For me, not having to worry about the person in front on me moving their seat and breaking off my 17" notebook screen is appealing!

I purchased the 16GB WiFi version since I already own a Verizon MiFi, which gives me connectivity anywhere but if you don't, it might be worth the extra $130 to get the WiFi + 3G version.  The access via the 3G is provided by AT&T (I know, I know) but it is contract free so you can pay $15/mo (250MB) or $30/mo (unlimited, no really unlimited not the 5GB hidden ceiling) and pay as you go.

As I said in my last post about touch, I believe that 2010 is going to be the year of the tablet and engineering software companies should start developing supplementary design tools for these devices.  Portals to PLM/PDM, CAD viewers and markup tools, design planning like SolidWorks LABS Treehouse, and even web-based tools optimized for touch. Mobile is booming and is the single largest hardware and software market so why not give engineers ways to get things done no matter where they are! ~Lou