Apps That Improve the iPad Typing Experience

A number of comments on my recent blog post indicated that many teachers and students find the experience of text entry on the iPad to be one of it’s biggest drawbacks. I read those comments and found myself nodding.

iPad Typing Woes

As a touch-typist, I am more productive on a physical keyboard when writing more than a few sentences. It isn’t just the speed of typing. There are some things that you simply can’t type! For example, chemical formulae generally contain subscript numbers to indicate the number of atoms of each element in a molecule (eg H₂O). There is no way to type a subscript number using the Apple onscreen keyboard. The same goes for typing many mathematical symbols. Screen Shot 2013-01-07 at 3.18.42 PM

Many teachers don’t realise that pressing and holding certain keys on the iPad keyboard will bring up alternate characters (often the ones you would get by pressing the Option key on a Mac keyboard). For example pressing and holding on the 0 will pop up the option for a degree symbol. These are useful but there are many characters that you can’t access this way. There is no way to type the Greek symbol for Pi π, nor is there a way to type the copyright symbol ©.

Solutions

There are three apps that I’ve found though, which make the process of text creation much more efficient. The purpose of this post is simply to share those. No doubt there are other options which some of you have found. If so, I would love you to please share them in the comments.

I’d be lying if I said that these apps make typing on an iPad as efficient as typing on a computer. But they do make it much more efficient than without them. Whereas before I would rarely type much on my iPad at all (unless I had no choice), I’ve found since using these apps, if I’m comfortably seated on the couch, the bother of typing on my iPad is less than the bother of walking all the way into the other room where my computer is.

Textexpander

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Textexpander ($5.49) is an iOS version of an old, incredibly useful Mac program which runs system-wide to enable one to create snippets of text that will expand when a predefined shortcut is typed. This neat little application on my Mac has saved me 17 hours of typing in the past 6 months (according to the built-in statistics it keeps). There is also a Textexpander app for the iPad. Unfortunately because of Apple’s sandboxing policies, Textexpander can’t run system-wide, although it can operate in other apps, if they have taken advantage of the Textexpander SDK but only a minority of apps have this (Byword is one example, see below). Despite the sandboxing limitation, you can open the Textexpander app, expand the shortcut you want, and then copy and paste the result it into another application. If you are a science teacher, for example, you can save a shortcut such as “ggglucose” which will expand to C₆H₁₂O₆ complete with the subscripted numbers. This solution does require you to have already created snippets and shortcuts for all the things you might need, ahead of time. You can do that on a Mac though, as your Textexpander database can be synced through Dropbox.

Byword

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Byword ($2.99) is an iPad app for writers. It uses markdown syntax for headings, italics, bolding, lists and for inserting links. For me, it took half an hour of learning the markdown syntax, but then, it’s like a breath of fresh air to type on the iPad. Markdown syntax was new to me, but not at all difficult. For example, to *italicise* text you enclose it in a pair of asterisks. To make a first level heading you preface the text with a #.

The text in Byword is large, clear and full-screen (apart from the on-screen keyboard). Compared to typing in most apps it just feels really ‘open’ and clean. When typing on the iPad, half the screen is taken up by the keyboard, so the last thing you want is a row of formatting buttons across the top like you have in Pages, or for the app to only use 2/3 of the screen’s width (which is the case in most apps!). The image below compares Byword to three other commonly used text apps, in each case the text entry area is indicated by a dotted red line. A little bit of extra screen real estate makes a big difference.

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It is also worth mentioning that Byword has built-in Textexpander support. So if I type one of my snippet shortcuts in Byword, it will expand to the full snippet. What a great time-saver if you have a large database of snippets saved in Textexpander!

The screenshots below show how the text I enter looks as it is being typed in markdown (and with Textexpander shortcuts), and how the text will look when exported to another app.

Screen Shot 2013-01-07 at 2.40.32 PMScreen Shot 2013-01-07 at 2.41.37 PM Screen Shot 2013-01-07 at 2.42.41 PM

Cymbol

Screen Shot 2013-01-07 at 12.09.27 PMAnother app that I think is very helpful if you ever find yourself needing to type characters that aren’t available on the standard iPad keyboard, is Cymbol ($1.99). This one is really simple. It’s really just an extra keyboard of characters that you can type. See screenshot below. There is nothing much to learn in this app. What you see is more or less what you get. There are many more symbols that could be included in Cymbol but aren’t. Nevertheless, it’s a great start.

Once you have typed the text you want, you can select parts of it, or simply hit the button that says “Copy All”. Then you can open any other app, such as Pages, Byword or WordPress and paste the text in. The superscript, subscript and other formatting is maintained when pasted.

There are a few “features” of Cymbol that I don’t like. But considering I haven’t found any other apps that do what Cymbol does – I have it on my highly recommended list.

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Better Together

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Each of these apps is useful in itself, and each worth the asking price. But when you combine all three, they together become very useful. For example, just this afternoon, I found myself wanting to write the chemical formula for Hydrogen peroxide. So I went to Cymbol, and used the features there to create the formula with subscripts. Then I copied that and pasted it into Textexpander (screenshot right) to create a new snippet for which i created the shortcut pperoxide. Then over to Byword, I can simply type and each time I type pperoxide, it expands to H₂O₂. Pretty neat.

How an iPad is a More Powerful Content-Creation Device Than a Laptop.

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That the iPad is a great content-consumption device has never been disputed. But just 30 months after its launch the iPad is now in some ways a more powerful content-creation device than a laptop in the hands of students in the classroom.

When the iPad was introduced in 2010, my school (Wanganui Park Secondary College) was one of a handful in Victoria that included them on the booklist for the following year, a move that raised eyebrows! Critics decried the iPad as “a content-consumption but not a content-creation device”. Admittedly, at first there was limited content creation software available – there was no way to make or edit a movie, take or edit a photo, record or edit a podcast or screencast, or even to annotate a PDF!

Now 2.5 years down the track, the iPad is a swiss army knife of content-creation tools. It can be used to make movies, music, podcasts and screencasts. You can write blogs, and eBooks, publish websites, and make cartoons. You can use it for time-lapse photography, claymation, freehand drawing and painting and to edit PDFs.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m arguing that it’s more pedagogically productive, NOT that it is more technologically capable than a laptop. If professional production quality is your imperative, then the iPad is not your best tool. I doubt Peter Jackson produced any part of The Hobbit on an iPad! Likewise, any serious photographer is bound to be shooting with a DSLR and editing in Adobe Photoshop on a 27” iMac. There is no way the iPad camera and iPhoto can compete. Even as a prosumer podcaster myself, I don’t use my iPad for podcasting. I use a Blue Yeti Microphone connected to a MacBook Pro running Übercaster, Audacity or GarageBand, any one of which is far more feature-rich than GarageBand on the iPad.

But comparing podcasting on an iPad with podcasting in Übercaster on a MacBook Pro with a studio-quality external microphone is making the wrong comparison. A more valid comparison (for students in many teachers’ classes) is made beween podcasting on an iPad vs not podcasting at all. The same applies to movie-making, website building, eBook creation, etc.

We’ve had computers in schools for years, but in reality many (most?) classroom teachers don’t and never did have their students making podcasts, movies, eBooks and websites. Doing so seems too time consuming and for many non-technical teachers the learning curve appears disproportionate to the benefits realised.

But producing comparable creative content on an iPad is relatively quick, simple, yields impressive results with minimal fuss, and the learning curve is … well, there almost isn’t one! There is no need to connect an external microphone (the built-in one is better than that in any laptop), no need to adjust recording levels, no need to use a pop-filter. No need to import media from a recording device to the editing device (becasue they are one and the same), and it’s unnecessary to allow 10 minutes at the end of a class, to save, unplug devices, shut down and stow the laptops. Instead, when the bell sounds, students simply flip their iPad cases closed and walk to the next class!

It is getting easier all the time to create content on laptops, too. But the iPad’s seemless integration of technologies and relative simplicity of use further lowers the entry barrier for many teachers – and that has the potential to encourage significant pedagogical change in a school.

This is New! ‘Swivl’ for iPhone – Your ‘Personal Cameraman’

A breath of fresh air for vodcasting

If you’ve ever made a video-podcast, you know how restricted you feel. You have to set your camera on a tripod, take careful note of the field of view, and make sure that while you’re recording, you stay within that area. That’s not difficult if you are just sitting in front of a webcam. It’s much more of an issue, however, if you are demonstrating a practical skill that requires you to move around, or if you like to pace back and forth while talking.

Swivl solves that issue.

I bought one of these cool gadgets a few weeks ago and have been delighted with it’s performance and ease of use.

Swivl is an iPhone mount, with a built-in IR receiver, that tracks and follows a remote transmitter, which you carry in your hand, or clip onto your lapel. This gives you the freedom to move around, without leaving the camera’s field of view, because the camera follows your movement. The Swivl will rotate horizontally through 360°, and also tilts up and down through a small range.

The hand-held transmitter, also contains a quality microphone, which transmits your voice to the iPhone. That means that the audio doesn’t suffer if you walk away from the camera. (I have embedded an example video below which demonstrates this).

Note: The remote microphone function, the remote record/stop function and vertical tracking are managed via the iPhone app. These features are therefore not available if using anything but an iPhone. There is no Swivl app available for Android. That said, basic horizontal tracking can be used with any camera-phone or pocket camera.

The Good

  • Horizontal tracking is silky-smooth.
  • Swivl can be mounted on a standard camera tripod or simply placed on a flat surface.
  • Videos can be saved to the camera roll, or uploaded to YouTube from the Swivl app.
  • Horizontal tracking works with any camera phone (not just iPhone), or even with a pocket video camera such as the flip. The Swivl comes with an adaptor that can be fitted to the screw mount on any video camera.
  • The microphone quality is very good but as expected has a fairly high gain. I wouldn’t use it for making an audio podcast, but for a vodcast, it’s awesome!
  • The build quality of the unit is quite good (except for the battery compartments – see below).

The Bad

  • The automatic vertical tracking works well, but is a little bit jerky sometimes. I have found that unless I really need vertical tracking, it is better to turn this feature off, which can be done in the Swivl.app settings on the iPhone. You can still force the unit to track vertically by pressing a button on the remote (it’s still jerky).
  • The battery drawer on the main unit opens too easily. I found that if I transport the device anywhere, it will pop open. I now have it stuck closed with duct tape.
  • The battery compartment in the remote transmitter/microphone is even worse! In fact to start with, I couldn’t even turn the remote on. I had to open it up and bend the terminals to make proper contact with the AAA batteries, and then duct-tape that closed as well.

Features I’d like to see

  • You can buy an AC adaptor for the base unit, rather than using AA Batteries. But it’s disappointing that even with the AC adaptor, the unit won’t charge the iPhone.
  • It would be awesome to have the option of video zooming as you walk away from the camera.

Availability

At the time of writing, I don’t believe there is an Australian distributor for Swivl. I had to order it from the USA, at www.swivl.com. The price was US$170 plus postage and handling.

This is new! Record a video of iPad’s screen in any app

DEAR READER, PLEASE NOTE: The App Disp Recorder no longer works – BUT Great news! those of you looking for a way to simply record your iPad screen, iPad audio and your voice narration – rejoice! As of yesterday (10th July 2014) there’s a new simple way to do it – and it’s really fantastic.  I’ve written a follow-up post about it HERE – and here’s a short little video I made demonstrating it:


 

And here is the original post that you searched for (which is now obsolete but I have left here for posterity):

There are numerous options for recording a video of one’s computer screen, from the free and simple, but limited Jing to more powerful, and correspondingly expensive offerings like Camtasia or Adobe Captivate.  There are also a number of free Web 2.0 options such as Screenr.  On a Mac you can even use the built-in QuickTime player that ships free on every machine!  But until recently recording the screen of my iPad was limited to within an individual app.  Apps like ShowMe and LivePaper have been around for a while and the excellent ExplainEverything is far and away my favourite for recording a screencast from my iPad.  But even using these tools, one is restricted to recording the screen within that one app itself.   Sure you can import images or screenshots and doodle on them, and the app will record the screen and the self-talk you are providing to narrate. What they do not enable you to do, though, is record video of your home screen, or a tutorial on how to use another app like (say) a graphing calculator.

Enter* Disp Recorder.

The Good:

Disp Recorder lets you easily record anything that happens on the screen of your iPad: navigating through the Home screens, changing options in the Settings app or working in another app such as GarageBand or Google Earth.  It will even record a Keynote presentation complete with the virtual laser-pointer etc – an option for having students record a presentation of their work to share with their peers.

While recording, you can leave the Disp Recorder app and open another app.  When you do this, the menu bar pulses red.  Tapping that red menu bar at any time takes you back to the Disp Recorder app, where you can pause or stop recording. It’s very similar to what happens when you are are on a phone call, and navigate to another app.

The recorded video can be saved to the iPad’s Camera Roll, or uploaded directly to YouTube.

It’s a universal app – it works on the iPhone, too.

The Not-Quite-So-Good:

For CPU intensive GUI-goodness like turning a page in iBooks, I have found that the video can appear a little jerky – even on the new iPad, but for most operations, it works remarkably well.

In applications where the menu bar is visible at the top of the screen (Eg. the Home screen, iBooks) the menu bar pulses red while recording, and this pulsing is recorded too.  I think this is a bit distracting when watching the video.  This is not an issue in apps where the menu bar is hidden (Eg. GarageBand).  It would be nice if there were an option to turn that red pulsing menu bar off.

I also think the $10 price tag is a little high – but on the other hand it’s the first app to offer what it does, so it really has no competition, and I don’t mind paying $10 to support an innovative developer who is extending the functionality of the iPad.

*Thanks to Shane Williams at Hunter TAFE for showing me this app.

[  September 11, 2012  10:19 AM:   Since writing this post, there have been a number of people who have said that they don’t think it would work – that the app is a scam and doesn’t do anything, etc.  (see one such comment below).  All I can say is that on my iPad 3, which has never been jailbroken, and is in Australia with the region code set to Australia, it works as advertised for me.  Here’s a video I recorded with it this morning. https://dl.dropbox.com/u/4495191/11.09.2012%208-04-14%20AM-521.mp4  It seems that most of the people who are saying it won’t work, have not actually tried it.

It is worth mentioning that there was apparently another similar app called DisplayRec produced a few months ago (no longer available) that did not work outside the USA (or at least the iPad’s region code had to be set to USA for it to work).  I am not sure if this app is made by the same developer as that one.  But this one does work.  Some people have suggested that it is likely to stop working after the iOS 6 launch.  That remains to be seen.  I’ll add a note here at that time to let you know. 🙂  ]

Update

Having now installed iOS 6,  I can confirm that Disp Recorder is still working.

Update

As of the 8th December 2012 this app is no longer available at the App Store.  If you already downloaded it though, it continues to work on your iPad.