iPad for (cheap) Authors

How to use the iPad to actually write something on a struggling author’s budget.

I recently received an iPad from someone who upgraded to the next version. iPads cost about $500, more or less depending on the version and features. They also cost some more if you go with connecting them to the internet with a wireless plan. They are also designed to nickel and dime you with apps from the app store that go from 99¢ and up.

If you manage to pick up an iPad cheap, or inherit one, or get one as a present, they are, in spite of their gadgety image, real computers, and they are a useful tool for an author.

It may be my Scotsman’s DNA, but I refuse to send Apple any money. I will not buy music, books or apps from them. I am a technical boy (re: Johnny Mnemonic – the story by Gibson, not the movie). I can bypass the corporations. I rip my own music to MP3s, scan books and download everything else for free.

I have setup my iPad to be a useful tool, and I have been working on stories while sitting on the bus. It is easy to do and not all that technical.

1) Signup for DropBox and install the free iPad DropBox app. All writers should already have DropBox. It is free and is a good way to keep a backup copy of your work-in-progress. You install DropBox on your Mac or PC and it creates a folder on your local hard disk. If you copy a file to this folder, or edit a document in the folder, it is automatically copied to the DropBox cloud.

I use DropBox on my computer at work, my computer at home, my laptop, and now my iPad. If I start writing a story at home, I can continue working on the same story at work during my lunch break. I can then go home and work on the same story on my laptop while watching the evening news.

Using DropBox with the iPad is simple because many good apps allow you to work on files in your DropBox folder. There is, of course, the problem that when I am on the bus I am not connected to the internet (remember, I am too cheap). I fix that by pulling up the document before I go to work and saving it to DropBox when I get to work. I have WiFi access at home and work, so there is no problem. DropBox figures it out and saves my work to the cloud.

2) Install the free Plain Text app. This is a very nice notepad type editor. It does very very little except edit text. What it does allow you to do is edit text in your DropBox folders. It is free, easy to use, very easy on the eyes, and will let you write – simply write.

If you are addicted to formatting and real time spell checking, for $7.99 you can buy Office² HD. The Office² HD app is more like Word and does things like spell check, format, create tables, etc. This is stuff you can do without while you are being purely creative, though. I don’t worry about formatting much. I don’t use bold and hardly ever use italics. I use the _underscore_ notation to indicate italics while I am text editing mode. I’ll fix it up when I bring the text into Word or Open Office. One important thing that that the Office² HD app does that Plain Text doesn’t, is let you read and write Microsoft Word Files. I will download the app – someday.

I am waiting for the free Open Office port to iPad which will be coming sooner or later, despite the official stand at oo.org that they have no plans for the iPad.

3) Buy a very cheap little device called a ipad USB camera adapter. This will let you add a standard Keyboard to your iPad. These devices can be ordered from China for about $3.00. I got mine for $1.99, from Australia. It takes about two weeks to get them. You get them in eBay so it is safe.

The USB camera adapter is designed to hook cameras up to the iPad, but it will take a keyboard instead and most of the time it works fine. Standard PC keyboards will generally work. Complicated ones, especially with built in hubs for a mouse will not work.  When you plug it into the iPad you get a message that the iPad has detected an unsupported device. Just clear the warning and you have a working keyboard. Apps that use a keyboard will not show the keyboard on the bottom of your iPad screen so you have much more real estate when typing.

4) Dig up an old keyboard. Everybody has old keyboards around. I use a very old compact PC keyboard with the cool IBM clicky-clack keys. It is a pleasure to work with, but it is very heavy and loud. You can buy a light compact keyboard on eBay for about $20. These are small. My fingers are big and I have not had the nerve to buy one of them.

You now have a very serviceable word processing system that you can use anywhere as long as your iPad battery holds out and it costs you next to nothing. Your only problem now is that you must resist downloading “Angry Birds” at all costs. Otherwise, you will not get any writing done.