8 Useful Apps for Reading and Writing on the iPad

Gaming and video-watching are the sexiest uses of Apple's iPad, but I love it for more a basic reason: It's a great tool for reading and writing. I use the iPad to keep up with the news, read longer articles and e-books, and write in both plain text and Microsoft Word.

After two and a half months of nearly constant iPad use, I've learned a few tricks for making those experiences even better. Here's a roundup of the best tools I've found for reading and writing on the iPad.

Reading on the iPad

With its bright, crisp 1024-by-768-pixel display, the iPad was made for reading. Add the following apps to your iPad arsenal, and you'll never want to read on another device again.

News, blogs and other short articles: Reeder

My main tool for keeping up with news is Reeder ($4.99, from developer Silvio Rizzi). With Reeder, you subscribe to RSS updates -- called "feeds" -- which are available from nearly all blogs, newspapers and online magazines. Then, when you're ready to catch up with news, you open up Reeder and you see all of the new articles in a single place, either sorted by source or in chronological order or in folders that you set up.

Reeder gives you convenient, easy-to-use tools to watch embedded YouTube videos, flag articles with a star for future reference, share them through services such as Twitter or e-mail, or send them to Instapaper or Read It Later, two Web services for storing articles for later reading.

Reeder provides handy tools for saving and sharing articles.
Reeder provides handy tools for saving and sharing articles.

There are at least a half-dozen other feed-reader apps for the iPad, but I like Reeder the best. It's the easiest to use, and the functions I most care about, such as navigating through items, tweeting and sending links to Instapaper for later review, are accessible and attractive. Best of all, Reeder does a great job of formatting articles for easy reading. It makes good use of fonts, margins and line spacing in text.

Reeder syncs with Google Reader, a popular, free Web-based feed reader, and requires that you have a Google Reader account. Google Reader is great on a full-size computer but clumsy on the iPad; Reeder fills the gap delightfully. Reeder also has a version optimized for the iPhone ($2.99).

Bigger articles: Instapaper Pro

Reeder is good for short articles that you can swallow in one gulp, but what about those longer, discursive pieces in periodicals like The Atlantic and The New York Times Magazine ? That's where Instapaper comes in.

I've written about Instapaper a couple of times before, and so has just about every other Apple blogger and journalist. Instapaper is more popular than a Twilight marathon at Girl Scout camp.

But Instapaper deserves the praise -- it's a terrific application.

Instapaper Pro makes long online articles easy to read on the iPad.
Instapaper Pro makes long online articles easy to read on the iPad.

To use the basic (free) Instapaper service, you install a Read Later bookmarklet in your desktop or mobile Web browser. When you're wandering around the Web and you find an article that's worth reading, but you don't have time to read it right then, just click the bookmarklet and the Web service saves the article for you, for later reading.

When you have time to read, go back to the Web site or -- even better -- read it on the iPad, using the Instapaper Pro app ($4.99). The app formats articles for attractive and easy-to-read display, with good use of fonts, margins and spacing.

Instapaper also works with third-party apps like Reeder and several Twitter apps. If someone tweets a link to an interesting article, you can send the article to Instapaper and read it later.

To feed your Instapaper habit, you can grab articles from any Web site. Or go to Web sites that specialize in aggregating long, well-written and interesting articles from all over the Web. The home page of the Instapaper site is one such aggregator; another is Longform.org.

E-books: Stanza

My favorite e-book app is the free Stanza. Text on Stanza just looks nice -- it's well formatted and designed for easy reading, with wide margins and spacing between lines, and a big selection of fonts. You can choose from about a dozen different text styles or customize your own fonts, colors, line spacing and other features.

You can buy e-books from within the application; the app accesses books from the Fictionwise bookstore and other sources of paid and free books. Although Stanza developer Lexcycle is owned by Amazon.com, the app can't read books formatted for Amazon's Kindle e-reader. For those you'll need the Kindle app, discussed below.

Stanza integrates with the iPad Web browser, so if you find an e-book on the Web in any of a variety of supported formats, including ePub and eReader, you can download the book in your iPad browser and the iPad will ask you whether you want to save the file to Stanza.

Alternately, the free Calibre software for the Mac, Windows and Linux lets you convert documents from a range of formats including RTF, PDF, HTML and ODT to e-book formats. Calibre manages your e-book collection and transfers e-books from your desktop to the iPad and a variety of other devices.

Stanza e-reader iPad app
One of Stanza's useful features is a built-in dictionary; you can look up words without leaving the app.

E-books: More good options

The two most popular e-book apps for the iPad are Apple's own iBooks app and bookstore, as well as Amazon's Kindle app and store. Though I prefer Stanza, they're both fine e-book readers, and they're free.

The iBooks app can be a little annoying. When you open a book in iBooks, you see a brown border around the page that's supposed to resemble the cover of an open book. And when you turn a page, you see a page-turning animation. These features make the app a great demo, but they're just distracting when you're trying to sit and read.

Also, the selection of books in the iBooks store is somewhat scant. Often, I don't find what I'm looking for there.

Another issue with the iBooks app: It's available only for the iPad and for iPhones running iOS 4. That means the books you buy from the iBooks store are locked to the iOS platform. Amazon's and Barnes & Noble's apps, discussed below, are available for multiple platforms, and, while Stanza is iOS-only, the stores that sell e-books for Stanza are cross-platform.

Amazon's Kindle app for the iPad offers a far better selection, and a better reading experience too. There's less clutter, and the annoying page-turning animation is optional; you can set it so that pages seem to just slide quickly. (The Barnes & Noble app offers the same sliding action; with Stanza, you get your choice of an iBooks-like page flip, a slide effect or no page-turning effect at all.)

Amazon recently upgraded the Kindle app to include support for embedded video and audio clips, and it released books supporting the technology, including a travel book, Rick Steves' London, and Together We Cannot Fail by Terry Golway, a history book about Franklin D. Roosevelt. Right now, there are only a few titles available with audio or video, but it's a technology to watch; I expect that we'll see embedded audio and video becoming standard soon. Nonfiction books will use audio and video to supplement the text, just as photos are now used, and novels could benefit from interviews with the author or animations depicting key sequences in the story.

The free BN eReader for iPad, from Barnes & Noble, is a promising up-and-comer, offering a good selection of books and a nice user experience, including the usual array of font and color choices.

More about e-reader apps

Tips for reading on the iPad

While I'm talking about reading on the iPad, I don't want to forget the Mobile Safari browser that's built into the device. The plain old browser is a great tool for reading. When you come to a column of text (like an article in Computerworld), tap twice on the text and the browser zooms until the text fills the width of the screen, as shown below.

Safari on iPad: enlarging text
Safari on iPad: enlarging text

And here's a tip for reading e-books in bed: With the screen lock switched on, the text you're reading won't rotate if you read while lying on your side. The screen lock button is located on the right side of the device.

The BN eReader lets you loan books to your friends using BN's LendMe technology. To use it, select the name of a contact in your iPad address book, and the app will mail your friend an invitation to download the book to any BN-supported device. Your friends can borrow your books and read them on Barnes & Noble's own Nook e-reader or via apps for the iPhone, iPod Touch, BlackBerry, Windows or Mac. The loans have limitations: You can loan each book only once, you can't read the book yourself while it's on loan, and the recipient can keep it for only 14 days.

The whole LendMe thing is sad. It's a reminder of how much easier it is to loan out a paper book. With a paper book, you just hand it to your friend. It doesn't matter what software your friend runs, and there's no 14-day limit. Barnes & Noble promoting LendMe as a great feature is like a frankfurter merchant boasting that his hot dogs have fewer insect parts than the competition.

The Kindle, BN and Stanza apps all have built-in dictionaries, so you can highlight a word in an e-book and find out what it means right away. I found that handy while reading Swords and Deviltry, the first book in the fantasy series about Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser by Fritz Leiber; the author likes to use obsolete, obscure words like "skald" and "soubrette."

All of these apps have book-buying capability integrated into the iPad. With iBooks, you browse books inside the app; on the Kindle and Nook apps, you browse from the Web.

If you see a book you like on the iBooks, Kindle or BN eReader stores, you can download the first chapter or two as a free sample, which is a wonderful feature -- you can start reading a book and if you like it, you can buy it by tapping a single button when you come the end of your sample. If you don't like the book, don't buy it, and you haven't spent any money.

Writing on the iPad

When you've been reading for a long time, you have a lot of words in you, and you have to let them out. The iPad makes it easy to write.

Word processing: Documents To Go Premium

The key thing to look for in an iPad writing app is that it should be easy to sync documents between the mobile device and your desktop computer. Sadly, Apple's own iPad word processor, Pages, is incredibly clumsy in syncing. Fortunately, there's an alternative.

DocsToGo iPad app
Documents To Go lets you edit Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents on the iPad.

Documents To Go Premium ($11.99, from DataViz Inc.), lets you compose, read and edit Microsoft Office files on an iPad. Using DocsToGo, you can format text by changing the fonts, margins and colors or choosing boldface, italics, underscoring and more.

DocsToGo works with online storage services including Dropbox and SugarSync. These services are designed for syncing and backing up whole folders of documents among multiple computers and mobile devices.

I have my working folder of current documents -- all my articles and blogs in progress, as well as documents for clients and personal documents like my novels in progress and financial records -- set to sync with Dropbox. If I make a change in DocsToGo on my iPad, Dropbox syncs the changed document back to my desktop.

Everything just works (to borrow an old Apple marketing slogan); the latest versions of my documents in progress are where I need them, when I need them.

In addition to Word, DocsToGo supports Excel and PowerPoint documents.

Plain text writing: Simplenote

I do most of my writing in plain, unformatted text, and for that sort of writing, I prefer a free application called Simplenote. Simplenote organizes plain-text notes and documents in an easy-to-browse list, or it lets you pinpoint the document you want using fast and thorough search.

With Simplenote, you can sync documents from an iPad or an iPhone to Simplenote's own Web service.

Simplenote's best trick is available only for Mac users: Using the free Notational Velocity Mac software, you can sync Simplenote documents on the Web to any folder on a Mac desktop. I have Simplenote set to sync to the same folder of current documents that Dropbox syncs to; I use Simplenote to edit text files on the Mac, and DocsToGo to edit Microsoft Word and other Office documents.

I wrote the first draft of this article in Simplenote on my iPad. The draft automatically synced to my Mac, where I revised it.

Note that you can edit text files as well as Word documents in DocsToGo, and you can sync the files to your desktop using Dropbox or some other supported online storage service. I prefer Simplenote for editing plain text files because I find that I can locate and access files faster in Simplenote. However, DocsToGo is new; it just became available for the iPad in June. Over time, I might decide to consolidate all my writing in DocsTo Go.

Writing tip: A keyboard makes a world of difference

The iPad's built-in on-screen keyboard is adequate but slow. You'll probably be able to write only a paragraph or so before it drives you crazy. For writing longer pieces, you'll want a keyboard.

Most Bluetooth keyboards should work with the iPad; I use the $69 Apple Wireless Keyboard. It's a full-size keyboard that's extremely easy and comfortable to use; it weighs almost nothing and is roughly the size and thickness of the iPad. You can drop it in your gear bag with your iPad and take it with you.

Apple also offers a keyboard dock ($69). While Apple's wireless keyboard uses a Bluetooth connection between iPad and keyboard and requires AA batteries, the dock uses a hardware connection, requires no batteries and holds your iPad upright in front of you.

I prefer the wireless keyboard; it's lighter, less bulky and more flexible -- better for travel all around. On the other hand, novelist Charles Stross likes Apple's keyboard dock, because it holds the iPad in portrait position. If I switch to the keyboard dock, will I become as talented a writer as he is?

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Mitch Wagner is a freelance technology journalist and social media strategist.

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