Saturday, April 17, 2010

iPad's First Backpacking Trip

One reason I bought the iPad was I hoped to use it when traveling. Not only do I hope to be able to return to longer form writing like I used to do years ago when I routinely travelled with my 2100 and external keyboard but that I might be able to use the iPad to help create more interesting items like longer videos in the same vein as I have done on the iPhone. The jury is out for video and photo creation on the iPad though I think the potential is certainly there, but I think the iPad as writing tool is going to be a hit.Let me go back in time and give you a bit of history about my travel writing.

Fifteen years ago when I was developing software for the Apple Newton I would write journal entries at the end of most every day. Initially I had to do this using the Notes application which really was not the best tool for the job but it was the only option. You were limited to a fairly small note size and editing was really not practical. But it worked well enough. I used the Apple keyboard that connected via a serial cable and did not bother to watch the screen as I typed. I couldn't really do that anyway given my vision. As the Newton operating system matured tools for writing improved. A word processor came out with OS 2.x and that made writing much easier. I was quite happy with this solution. The combined weight of the MessagePad and the keyboard was about 1.75 pounds as I recall. Another big plus the Newton had was very long battery life and field replaceable batteries (it used AA batteries). Data was also quite safe on the Newton. Even if the device suffered a system crash, a rare event, your data was secure. This would prove a telling positive point in time. But in 1997 the Newton was discontinued by Apple and my MessagePads began to age and slowly get beat up and wear out. After all they would be used on numerous backpacking trips as well as more gentle forms of travel. I began looking for a replacement device.

I wanted a device that would work with a portable keyboard so I could type long form journal entries without having to resort to either Graffiti or trying to thumb type on the tiny built-in keyboard. Thumb typing is something I have never gotten good at and don't think I ever will. The Handspring Visor, a Palm OS-based PDA, seemed to work well enough but it had a huge problem that I did not become aware of until I was bit. If the device crashed your data was wiped out. The data was volatile. This was exactly opposite of the Newton. I lost several weeks of journal entries when I got stung by this feature. I purchased a backup device after this that I could use in the field but I never really trusted the device after that. It also felt less solid than the Newton (OK, it really was less solid weighing a lot less). I moved on to the Sharp Zaurus 5600 and later C1000. I was sucked in by the allure of a Linux based device that would, in theory, let me do a lot more. A true little computer in my pocket. But I couldn't find a good portable keyboard and it would turn out that both devices, especially the C1000, had lousy battery life. Truly awful. Had I gotten them to work the way I wanted, had enough meekness in me to get things like decent GPS mapping working, they could have been pretty darn cool. But it was not too be.

The Apple iPhone was next in line. As I have already noted I am a lousy thumb typer so doing long form writing on the iPhone keyboard in either portrait or landscape mode was not really viable. If I had time and was in a position to recharge the phone I could do it (see my journal entries for trips to Portugal and England for example). But I wouldn't want to use the iPhone for long term field writing. However, the iPhone has made it possible to easily record audio, photos, and video in the field and then get that material out to the world quickly. It is remarkable how important that is. If you can get something out quickly and easily you, or at least I, are more likely to actually get that special thing out there. My recent postings about Tucson and Portugal are prime examples of this.

Enter the Apple iPad. Finally I have a device that combines long battery life with the ability to use a real keyboard (even the onscreen one is a good keyboard that I think most normally sighted people could type on quite quickly) with other media creation functions that will make the iPad very capable especially if you elect to buy a cellular enabled device (I have a WIFI only iPad). While I don't expect I will build videos and such in the field while backpacking, I will want to conserve battery life, the addition of the camera dock will let me do just that when I have ready access to both power and an internet connection. I can also see the iPad being used as an aid, and I stress aid, in reading documents like costume maps and the like. Paper version are essential but if I can look at a digital map I can probably find myself much more quickly than I can on the paper which I cannot easily zoom to read.

Last weekend I took my iPad and wireless keyboard (combined weight 1,030 grams for the hardware; I did not bother taking my iPad out of the Apple case so that added an extra 170 grams - for a total of 1,200 grams. On a long trip I'd not bother with the Apple case, or probably any case, I'd slip the iPad into a padded envelop for some extra protection) on their first backpacking trip. After I settled down in camp I took the iPad out, turned on Bluetooth, turned on the wireless keyboard, and entered my first really lengthy journal entry on a backpacking trip in a very long time. It worked wonderfully. I turned the screen brightness all the way down and just typed my way through the journal entry without looking at the screen (which isn't really practical if you have low vision as I do, but when it is dark dimming the screen down still leaves it bright enough that I am sure most anyone could easily read it as they type). The final result: I think I spent about 20-25 minutes writing and the battery indicator only lost a couple percentage points. That bodes well for long term usage. It is important to turn Bluetooth off on your iPad when you are done using the external keyboard. I would also recommend explicitly turn off the keyboard too. If you fail to do this it is more likely than not that a key, like the caps lock key, will get depressed in your backpack as stuff shifts around and if the keyboard and iPad are actively paired your batteries will drain away. This happened to me and over the course of twelve hours my iPad lost 85% of its charge.

-- Post From My iPad

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