Matt Gemmell

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iPad productivity apps

6 min read

I’m very invested in the iPad as a laptop replacement, and I endeavour to make it my main machine when I’m away from my desk (at which I currently use an iMac). I travel regularly, often to speak at events, and I try to embrace simplicity and to work away from my office as much as I can.

To that end, I’ve compiled a list of my essential iPad applications for productivity, that I use regularly when:

Since I have my iPhone with me at all times, I try to keep only essential “big screen” apps on my iPad. For example, I keep my various apps for package-tracking, flight information, reminders etc strictly on the phone.

Home screen

Home screen

I have, naturally, allowed a few extras and alternates to creep onto my iPad, but I at least don’t allow myself to exceed one screenful (including folders) of apps on the larger device.

(Incidentally, I’ve been asked a few times where I got my wallpaper: it’s one of the default ones included with iOS 5.)

Essentials

There are some apps that no device is complete without. These are my choices, though I’m always ready to jump ship to newer, better ones.

Browsing

I use Safari. I’ve not had cause to look elsewhere.

Email

For email, I use the built-in Mail app, set up to use my Gmail account and to receive email via push (if you set up the Gmail account as an Exchange account, it’ll work). I find Mail to do just enough to meet my needs, and to have a very low-friction workflow for powering through bulging inboxes.

Twitter

For Twitter, there’s only one choice: Tweetbot. It’s clean and elegant, has an iPhone counterpart, and natively syncs which tweets you’ve already read.

Tweetbot

Tweetbot

Tapbots have put so much work into the interaction design that I’ve come to associate the service with the app. Judging from the characteristic notification sounds coming from the audience at recent speaking events, this is a deservedly widespread phenomenon.

Feeds

For the feed-reading experience, I prefer Reeder, though some of the interaction design is questionable, and it doesn’t allow you to add feeds. For that, I use Mr. Reader instead.

Reeder

Reeder

I should probably simplify here, and just go with Mr. Reader full-time.

Calendars

I find the built-in Calendar app very unpleasant to look at, and I much prefer Calvetica.

Calvetica

Calvetica

It’s clean, no-nonsense and high-contrast, and it even compliments you.

Geeky things

Sometimes, I need to get into my web server remotely, or to edit some code with syntax highlighting (often to prepare a slide or example, but sometimes for an actual dev project). I keep a few dev/geek apps around for that purpose.

SSH

My SSH client of choice is Prompt, by Panic.

Prompt (SSH)

Prompt (SSH)

It’s stripped-down yet capable, and has a good typing experience and support for favourite servers.

Code editing

I use Textastic as a code editor, because it’s full-featured without being too busy, and has excellent syntax highlighting.

Textastic

Textastic

I’m sure I don’t use even 10% of Textastic’s features, but it’s reassuring to have a capable code-focused editor on board.

Presenting and report-writing

I have the luxury of not needing to exist in a Microsoft ecosystem, so I gratefully stick with Apple’s iWork applications for Office-like purposes, with a few third-party extras to help out.

Presentations

It’s Keynote all the way. With its support for presenter notes, remote control from the iPhone, and video-out to actually run the presentation too (complete with virtual laser pointer), this really is my ideal speaker’s workhorse.

Keynote

Keynote

You may need to prep your custom theme in a document on Keynote for Mac first, but once you’ve synced it to your iPad it’s relatively plain sailing. I’ve spent a lot of hours on planes gleefully playing with it.

Reading, reference and file transfer

I use ReaddleDocs for everything from shifting files between servers and services, downloading and unpacking archived files, and reading weighty textbooks and reference materials. It’s an incredibly versatile app to have in your mobile toolkit.

ReaddleDocs

ReaddleDocs

I’m constantly discovering new things it can do, and the user interface is pleasant and usable.

Document creation

For page-layout or word-processor type work, including the creation of complex and attractive reports, I don’t think there’s a better iOS app than Pages.

Pages

Pages

It’s a well-deserving poster-child for the iPad as a serious work tool, and it has some clever adaptions for text-navigation that I wish were system-wide. It can also capably export to the formats you’ll want to send to clients.

Diagramming, charting and data

If I want to work with data, and derive charts therefrom, I naturally use Numbers, but sometimes you need to do more free-form diagramming.

For that purpose, there’s only one sensible option: OmniGraffle.

OmniGraffle

OmniGraffle

It’s a pro-level app with a price tag to match, and it’s invaluable.

Graphs (without data)

Sometimes you just need a rough graph to illustrate a point, without necessarily wanting to mess around with underlying data to generate it. Similarly, sometimes your spreadsheet doesn’t provide sufficient tools to suitable annotate a given graph, and it would be too cumbersome to take the graph into a general-purpose drawing tool to enhance it.

Thankfully, there’s an app for that very purpose: OmniGraphSketcher.

OmniGraphSketcher

OmniGraphSketcher

OGS lets you mark-up and annotate graphs (and create them) as you’d like, without worrying about data or spreadsheets. It’s a wonderful tool for quick-and-dirty illustrative graphs for documents and presentations.

Photo cropping and basic editing

I use iPhoto for this, though I do so under some protest since the user experience is terrible.

iPhoto

iPhoto

Nonetheless, its feature-set is a decent balance of image-editing and photo-beautification, so it’ll do for now.

Creativity

I love the way that the iPad adds breathing space to my thinking, and lets me take my work into unusual environments. I do two main things in these situations: write, and sketch, and I have excellent apps for each.

Writing

I always write using the Markdown format, because it’s compact, readable, understandable and portable (since it’s just plain text). I’m constantly on the lookout for the perfect Markdown-savvy iPad text editor, and whilst none are a perfect match for me, one comes very close: Elements.

Elements

Elements

The typography and feature-set are great, and I find it relaxing to work in. I’d like it if a word-count (and/or character-count) was visible at all times, and it would be nice if there was some subdued Markdown syntax highlighting, but I can live without those.

Sketching

I like to sketch down not only UX ideas and concepts, but also illustrations for my reports and presentations. I have no drawing ability to speak of, but somehow Paper still makes my crude scribblings strangely beautiful.

Paper

Paper

The UX needs some work (the undo feature is particularly vexing), but for getting gorgeous, elemental output with minimal effort, I’ve yet to find better. I usually use an Adonit Jot stylus with Paper.

Final thoughts

The oft-repeated fallacy that the iPad isn’t a tool for productivity and creation has no credibility whatsoever. Anyone trotting out that old chestnut is either labouring under some astonishingly wrong-headed preconceptions, or is making excuses for their own failings.

I manage to be very productive indeed with the iPad, and I don’t have to jump through many hoops to do so. With the right set of applications (and more are becoming available on iOS every day), you can get real work done - effectively, pleasantly, and regardless of where you happen to be.

I’m @mattgemmell on Twitter.

Footnote: If you’re going to be travelling with your iPad too, make sure you keep it passcode-locked, and with your contact info on the lock screen. Here’s my template image for Retina Display iPads.