Apple iPad, Day 15: Working With Files on the iPad
By Tony Bradley
30 Days With the iPad: Day 15
In order for the iPad 2 to be functional as a primary computing device, it has to be able to work with files. I need to be able to create files, save files, copy files from other devices, print files, and send files as email attachments. However, the iPad doesn’t have a typical file and folder system for storing data, so for today’s installment of 30 Days With the iPad I am going to try and figure out how to work with files and data on the iPad.
When I worked with Ubuntu Linux on the last 30 Days series, the lack of–or irrelevance of–file extensions took some getting used to, but at least the files and folders were still in their traditional hierarchy.
The iPad treats files more like a necessary evil. The iPad has mechanisms in place to enable apps to work with files, but most feel like workarounds that were added as an afterthought the first time someone fired up an iOS device and said “Cool, but where do I store files and how do I access them?”
iTunes File Syncing
The native method for addressing the file issue in iOS is to handle it on a sort of app-specific basis and sync them from within iTunes. When the iPad is connected to my PC and syncing with iTunes, I can click on the Apps tab, and scroll down to view a list of the apps that are capable of file sharing. Then I can add files to each one.
The problem is that each app is like an island unto itself, so if there is a file that I want to use in DocsToGo, and maybe Pages, or perhaps print using the Epson iPrint app, I may have to add it to each one. It certainly seems like it would be more efficient to have one central file repository on the iPad where I can copy these things and any apps that need the file can access it and share the one copy instead of each app having its own.
Like I said, the native method of dealing with files in iOS is clumsy and unintuitive. It’s like Apple added it under duress, and wasn’t interested in making it an enjoyable experience.
I decided to take a look at using external storage. This is yet another area, though, where the iPad doesn’t really just work with the common tools and storage devices most people own. There are some duct tape and chewing gum methods of using USB drives or SD memory cards, but they have limited application, or require jailbreaking and extensive hacking to accomplish. Besides, being technically able to connect with those devices doesn’t make the iPad any better at navigating them or working with the files they contain.
There is a new breed of external hard drives cropping up, though, that are Wi-Fi hotspots in and of themselves, and can share data wirelessly. Drives like the Kingston Wi-Drive, and the Seagate GoFlex Satellite are designed specifically for storing and streaming content with iOS devices.
I have a 1TB Iomega drive attached to my Linksys wireless router so it can be accessed by all of the PCs in my home. That is the drive we do frequent backups to, and it contains the collective music library of the family.
Unfortunately, I can’t find a way to get the iPad to “see” the drive even though its available on a wireless connection, and even if I did the iPad would probably not know how to access or use the data it contains. So, I picked up a GoFlex Satellite instead.
Frankly, with a 64GB iPad, I don’t really need the additional 500GB of storage for day to day use anyway–I have plenty of music and a handful of HD movies stored internally and shouldn’t need more than that while on the go. But, for an iPad-only post-PC era solution, a drive like the GoFlex Satellite may be necessary as a means of growing beyond the limitations of the iPad itself for long-term file storage.
The GoFlex Satellite is a 500GB drive that acts as its own Wi-Fi hotspot. First you have to connect it via USB to a PC of some sort so you can transfer the content you want onto the device. The “magic” of the drive, though–and why it works while my Iomega probably can’t–is that Seagate has developed an app to act as a front-end for accessing the data in terms that iOS can understand.
The GoFlex Media app is available for free from the Apple App Store. You can’t access the data while the drive is connected to the PC, so you have to disconnect it first. Then, the Seagate drive will show up on your list of possible Wi-Fi connections. You connect to the Seagate Wi-Fi, then access the data through the Seagate app.
The plus side is that the device works on a rechargeable battery and it can stream data to multiple iOS devices simultaneously. It could come in handy for storing a music and video library to be shared among the family on long road trips.
However, I wasn’t completely impressed. I copied my entire music collection to the device–enough music to play roughly 23 days without repeating a song. The GoFlex Media app just lists the thousands of songs alphabetically. It doesn’t sort by album or artist. It doesn’t even list the artist or album name in the details–you just have to guess based on the titles of the songs.
I also did not appreciate listening to the high-pitched whining from the drive as it accessed data. The constant beeping and chirping was subdued, but loud enough for me to hear it, and loud enough to annoy me. A more concerning issue is that there’s no security in place by default. You have to go into the settings on the app to change the name of the Wi-Fi network so it isn’t obvious that it’s a GoFlex Satellite, and assign a password so that every device sitting in range of the drive doesn’t connect to it and access your data.
I assume the Kingston Wi-Drive is similar, but I haven’t used that one. Overall, the GoFlex Satellite is a promising concept, but Seagate has a few issues to refine for the next version.
The iPad seems uniquely suited for online data storage. The tablets have relatively small internal storage capacity, and the lack of USB ports or SD memory card slots (without the aforementioned hackery) leave you with little option other than turning to the Web.
Thankfully, there are a variety of great options available for online storage. Many apps like DocsToGo, are capable of connecting directly with Google Docs, Box.net, Dropbox, iDisk, and SugarSync. The Apple iWorks Pages app can connect with iDisk, and also with other services that offer a WebDAV API of some sort.
I use Box.net already, so this connectivity gives me a variety of options. First, it provides a familiar file and folder sort of structure for my documents. Second, it lets me share one copy of the files among a variety of Web-enabled devices including my iPad, iPhone, and PC (when I was using it as well), so I don’t have to worry about different versions or syncing.
When Apple’s iCloud becomes available this fall, it will provide another online storage option. Like Box.net, Dropbox, and the other services already mentioned, iCloud will sync documents from one device and make sure that other iOS devices or PCs have that same data.
iCloud will have two distinct advantages. First, it will be seamlessly integrated into most of the default apps in iOS 5, and tools that are native and seamlessly integrated almost always work better than third-party add-ons. Second, it doesn’t just store and sync data, it will also automatically and seamlessly back up and sync music, photos, apps, books, email, contacts, and calendar events–making it a much more comprehensive solution than the others.
There is also one significant caveat to iCloud–it is iOS-centric. Apple includes Windows PCs in the mix, but if you have a Linux PC, or if you use Android, or BlackBerry, or WebOS, for your smartphone or tablet, those will not be able to sync with iCloud.
I am looking forward to iCloud for all of the other benefits it brings to the table, but odds are fair that I will continue to rely on Box.net for storing and syncing my documents, spreadsheets, and other data so I still have the flexibility to use non-Apple devices if I choose.