Product Review: Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Folio for iPad Air

When I was looking for a new case for the iPad Air, I decided that I wanted a keyboard. While I do use the Apple Wireless keyboard with my iPad, it is more often connected to my Macbook, along with my wireless mouse. Also, Apple’s wireless keyboard isn’t as convenient to use when traveling, or when you’re not sitting at a desk.

There were a number of different options when I was looking, and all were in the same general price range. Some, like the ZAGG keyboards, provide extra features like keyboard illumination. This seems a little frivolous, as in most cases, the keyboard is going to be at least partially illuminated by the screen itself. Secondly, I’m a touch typist, so actually being able to see the keyboard isn’t really all that high on my list of priorities. There does have to be some raised bumps so that I can distinguish between keys to find my place of the home row.

Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Folio for iPad Air
The Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Folio for iPad Air

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NaNoWriMo To Go

NaNoWriMo Day 3I’m taking a stab at NaNoWriMo this year. Writing a novel in a month certainly sounds like a challenging task, especially as I’m perpetually busy.

One of the most common pieces of advice I’ve read is to take every possible moment to write. The whole point of NaNoWriMo is not just to drive aspiring authors insane, but to foster the habits of daily writing.

What tools can help an author on the go? Software like Scrivener is great if you’re sitting down at a desk, but it’s not as helpful when you’re on the go.

My challenges in time management mean that I need to be able to write anywhere, at a moments notice. Lugging around a laptop just isn’t going to cut it. Even carting around an iPad isn’t going to give me the flexibility I need.

I’ve already started writing my novel on the iPhone. It’s a compact device I always have with me, and it’s possible to type one-handed. I’m impressed with the autocorrect behavior, even when typing one-handed.

While typing speed may not be as fast as with a full-sized keyboard, the main point is that you can write when you otherwise wouldn’t be able to. You can fill in those otherwise dead spaces, and actually write.

The recent advances in cloud computing allow the work to be saved online, which both provides backups as well as the ability to resume writing on a different device when the opportunity arises. For example, this post was composed on the iPhone to this point, where I switched to writing it on the iPad with an attached bluetooth keyboard. Before published my post, I did a final edit on the desktop in a browser.

If the primary block to writing is finding the time, consider using a mobile platform. A common saying in writing is “butt in chair, hands on keyboard”, but that doesn’t really serve the mobile writer very well. To fill in those smaller blocks of time throughout the day, I’ve found that I need a solution that doesn’t involve sitting in a particular spot.

As a tool, I’m using the Elements text editor on iOS, by Second Gear software, which has Dropbox support. It has a folder structure, which allows me to group files together, and separate the work by chapter, or as supplemental notes. Also important is the easy info button which provides the important word counts. Because it’s plain text being stored in Dropbox, it’s easy to do any later edits on the desktop.

Blogging from the iPad

Steve Jobs while introducing the iPad in San F...
Image via Wikipedia

A few things have changed since I last covered blogging from the iPad. Both the BlogPress and WordPress apps have received multiple updates. There is also a new app called Blogsy, which has some interesting media integrations.

The three apps share some common features:

Here are some additional features of the tools:

Blogsy

Blogsy has support for posting to WordPress, Blogger, and Posterous. While Blogsy may not support as many networks as BlogPress, they do have support for the big ones.

Blogsy has some interesting gesture support. Horizontal swipes will switch between editing and preview modes, which makes the lack of live editing slightly less annoying.

Blogsy departs from the more traditional UI shared between WordPress and BlogPress in that it does not show all the previous posts on the main screen. In order to view and edit earlier posts or drafts, you select the gear icon next to the current post, which brings up a selection dialog. This has the advantage of giving more space for the editor, as you likely don’t need to switch between posts frequently.

Blogsy does offer some of the same HTML and formatting options as WordPress and BlogPress, but these are presented as a toolbar on the screen, and not on the keyboard or in a menu. While text cannot be entered while in preview mode, these styles can be applied in preview mode, which is actually quite helpful.

When connected to the network, Blogsy also has rich media integration. Blogsy can use Flickr, Picasa, YouTube, Google Image Search, or the iPad photos app to insert media into your posts. Blogsy also has a built in web browser from which you can drag links into your post.

Key summary:

  • Modern UI
  • Rich media support
  • Easy link dragging
  • WordPress support
  • Blogger support
  • Posterous support

BlogPress

Unlike Blogsy and WordPress, I can’t seem to find any preview functionality in BlogPress. When I initially reviewed some of the blog apps for iOS, BlogPress seemed more stable than WordPress. There does not seem to be many additional features added to BlogPress, and the functionality is relatively basic.

Where BlogPress excels is in support for a variety of blog platforms. BlogPress can post to WordPress, Blogger, MSN Live Spaces, MovableType, TypePad, LiveJournal, Drupal, Joomla, Tumblr, SquareSpace, and My Opera.

Support for HTML tags are accessible through a drop down menu, which while accessible when using a Bluetooth keyboard, remains awkward.

Media support is limited to images or video from your device.

  • Basic UI
  • Limited media support (upload from device)
  • Extensive platform support
  • WordPress
  • Blogger
  • MSN Live Spaces (which shut down in 2011)
  • MovableType
  • TypePad
  • LiveJournal
  • Drupal
  • Joomla
  • Tumblr
  • SquareSpace
  • My Opera

WordPress

If you’re using WordPress, there are several compelling reasons to use this app. As the name indicates, this app focuses exclusively on WordPress features. In addition to blog entries, this app also provides comment management and static page support. While there is also a stats page, which presumably mirrors the functionality of the stats page in the WordPress dashboard, I have been unable to get it working.

One of the things that the WordPress app does well is the post preview. If your iPad has an active data connection, it renders your post using the theme from your blog. If you are out of data coverage, it renders in a much more limited preview.

The WordPress app also provides an extra row of keys to the keyboard, which has several common HTML elements, such as list tags. This is a useful addition, but is inaccessible if you are using a Bluetooth keyboard.

Like BlogPress, media support is limited to photos and video uploaded from your device.

Key features

  • Only supports WordPress.com and self-hosted WordPress blogs
  • Limited UI
  • Limited media support (upload from device)
  • Comment moderation
  • WordPress stats view

Summary

Each of these apps have particular strengths. For those who wish to manage their comments on a WordPress blog, the WordPress app has some useful features. However, if you use a more niche blog platform, you may have to settle for BlogPress. Overall, I like the new challenger, Blogsy. It has a cleaner, modern interface. The Blogsy developers seem to have considered the application’s usability, focusing on the best way to make an ideal workflow, and not pushing for a more basic level of functionality.

Kindle Fire: What Amazon Got Right

Kindle Fire
Image by Dekuwa via Flickr

Amazon’s recent launch of the Kindle Fire, priced at $199, and the entry of the low-end Kindle at $79 is a very interesting strategy.

When Apple launched the iPad in 2010, it built upon the architecture and infrastructure of the iPhone, which launched in 2007. Even the iPhone built upon the success of the iTunes infrastructure which supported earlier iPod models. Amazon is likewise dealing from a position of strength, building upon the technology of the Kindle ereaders, and Amazon’s existing delivery and hosting infrastructure.

Amazon ships much more than just Kindle books. The Amazon MP3 store has been an iTunes competitor for several years now, and was the first to offer music without Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology. Amazon now also offers instant movie downloads as rentals or purchases, as well as Android application sales. Amazon offers a comprehensive alternative to the Apple iTunes infrastructure, and the Kindle Fire is another key part of this strategy.

The next key step of the Kindle Fire’s introduction is how Amazon differentiates this new tablet from the iPad. Like several other tablet manufacturers, Amazon is launching a smaller 7 inch tablet. While this form factor is not unique (the BlackBerry PlayBook, the Samsung Galaxy Tab, and the HTC Flyer all fit this size), Amazon has also cut the price point for the Kindle Fire. At $200, it is clear that Amazon is entering the low-end of the space, not directly competing against Apple at the moment.

When you consider the HP Touchpad fire sale in August, where a drastic price cut finally saw another tablet outselling the iPad, there is clearly a market for a lower-end tablet. One where Apple isn’t actively targeting.

If Amazon can successfully lay claim to this part of the market, you can expect to see future attempts at Amazon launching into the higher upscale market that the iPad now claims. One thing is for certain, Apple is watching Amazon very closely.

Amazon may have a razor-thin margin on the Kindle Fire, but the important thing to note is that it will drive sales to the Amazon store, where the real money is made. Just as Apple takes a 30% cut on sales on the Apple App Store, I expect Amazon will take a healthy cut off anything sold through their online store, while at the same time depriving the Apple economy of sales.

Amazon sent a clear message to other tablet manufacturers: This time, amateur hour really is over.

Thirty Percent

As Apple has recently started selling subscription services to applications on their iOS App Store recently, renewed discussion of their business practices has hit the internet. With the rejection of Sony’s bookstore application, word is that Apple is demanding that all applications which sell content available on the iPad or iPhone must

  • Allow the sale of the content through in-app processes, using Apple’s payment framework.
  • Allow Apple 30% of the sale from in-app purchases
  • The price of the content from in-app purchases must be less than or equal to any sale price outside of the app, such as through websites

Now, I haven’t seen any documentation from Apple talking about this, I’m mainly repeating what I’ve read on other blogs.Now, I’m not entirely sure. Maybe there is content available for sale for which a 30% margin hit is actually possible. This is not always going to be the case.

Book publishers, especially those in niche markets, may be represented in the App store by a common provider. For academic books of a specialized nature, large reference tomes can easily reach into the hundreds of dollars. I don’t have any evidence of this, but I rather doubt that there is a 30% cut available to these applications in the first place, let alone that much available for Apple. While sales activity of a $500 electronic copy of a 32 volume print set may not be high, I highly doubt that the application provider is getting a $150 cut. I also really don’t see how Apple can justify this much of a cut.

What’s the answer? Apple has made their right to control which applications are allowed on their devices quite clear. While my examples are niche sales from a niche market, and certainly isn’t representative of the market, I believe that it does show how their policy, if applied blindly, fails to work in all circumstances, and likely hurts consumers, as these application developers will either need to remove their application from the store, or else increase the prices for all.

What service is Apple even providing for these applications? They’re not hosting the saleable content. They’re basically just processing the charges, duplicating an infrastructure that preexisting software companies already possess.

Does Apple deserve 30% of these sales? I really doubt it. Do they deserve something? I can’t really argue against something, but I think it needs to be fairly minimal, and should likely cap at a determined price point. A $500 resource sale likely shouldn’t result in much more than $15 to Apple (3%) rather than $150 (30%).

Canadian Newspapers on the iPad

With the media writing course I’m taking this semester, I’ve been reading more newspapers, instead of just relying on Google News to present me with stories of interest. When I realized that a number of newspapers have iPad apps, I thought I would see how they compare. In this review, I will be primarily covering the aesthetics, ease of use, and availability of the online content when compared to the print content. I will not be evaluating the content of the newspaper itself.

The national papers for Canada are the National Post, The Globe and Mail, and The Star. Of these three, the National Post is perhaps the cleanest in terms of style and ease of use. The available articles are presented in a vertical list, with headings for the different sections. To see all of the articles, you just scroll downwards. Selecting an article will switch screens to a full screen view of the article, as expected. The amount of content available is severely limited. I assume the National Post likes to direct readers to their full website. This is somewhat disappointing, as there is more content available on the website that isn’t hidden behind a paywall.

The Globe and Mail is close behind the National Post in terms of use. While the sections are listed vertically, the Globe made the bizarre decision to require you to scroll the sections horizontally to list the articles. I’ve seen some other apps that do this as well, and it doesn’t really seem to work very well. You have to think about the app in two dimensions, and it just seems bizarre.

What is even more strange is the app for The Star. I can only conclude that it was submitted to the App Store without anyone actually testing it. The application layout appears incomplete, with a sizeable gap at the bottom which is not used for displaying content. While there are toolbars above and below the app, they don’t appear to accept input. I can sometimes click on one of the articles headlines to view the article, but the transition is awkward. Essentially, The Star is completely unusable, from my perspective.

The true gems of the Canadian newspapers are the regional papers. The Montreal Gazette, Ottawa Citizen, Windsor Star, Regina Leader-Post, Saskatoon StarPhoenix, Edmonton Journal, Calgary Herald, Victoria Times Colonist, Vancouver Sun, and the Vancouver Province are all owned by Postmedia Network, the parent company of the National Post. They are in all cases, the same application, with only the actual content changing to reflect that of each individual paper. I’m really impressed by these apps. They are presented in a format which actually resembles a traditional newspaper, with large images, headlines and lead paragraphs from the different stories in each section. Selecting any story will bring you to the full article. Horizontal swipes will go to the next page of an article, or to the next page of the section view. When swiping to the end of a section, a full screen advertisement is displayed. This isn’t really that much of an inconvenience, as the applications appear to be providing most – if not all – of the newspaper content. Postmedia Network has done a fantastic job in building these apps, and it really makes their National Post app look useless for its general lack of content.

According to an article in the National Post, Postmedia Networks took control of these papers in July 2010, with a plan to “transform a collection of newspaper and online assets” by engaging in a “digital first” business model. From the look at these applications, they are succeeding.

The main disadvantage these regional papers have is just that: they’re regional papers. They do not attempt to provide the national perspective, or as much international news as the three national papers do.

 

Writing with the iPad

The iPad can be one of the most frustrating devices to write with. It also has the potential to be one of the best, under certain circumstances. I’ve had the device for a few months, and in this time, it has been used primarily to consume media. It’s quite easy to load TV and movies from my MacBook, and there are a number of addictive games, such as Plants vs. Zombies, and Angry Birds available.

The web browsing experience is a little lacking. Pages take longer to load than expected, and the cache is small. Switching tabs in the mobile browser often results in a fresh request to the server, adding extra delays. I’ve found that on some websites, scrolling just doesn’t work.

As the iPad doesn’t support flash, many of the richer web experiences, as well as numerous flash games, don’t work. While I can certainly appreciate the processing requirements of flash — I often disable flash on the desktop — the fact remains that there is a great deal of content, including puzzle games, only available in flash.

The on-screen virtual keyboard is functional, though awkward to use. I believe that there is a special place in hell reserved for those brilliant engineers who inflicted the iPad with the horrendous auto-replace functionality. Without tactile feedback, one is forced to watch where your fingers are typing. Because I’m watching my fingers, I’m often not watching the little popup dialog elsewhere on the screen, warning me that the system is going to replace the awesome word I just typed with nonsense. Maybe it actually corrects far more than it wrecks, but the experience can be frustrating.

Still, the keyboard is functional, especially for short notes and emails. Where it is entirely unsuitable is for longer writing sessions, or for speed. Forget about using the virtual keyboard for in depth course notes. Try and type as little as possible in these situations. You’re lucky if you can get down meaningful point form notes.

Until the iOS 4.2 update, I had been able to connect a USB keyboard to the iPad using the camera connection kit. While the system claimed that the device was unsupported, it still performed admirably. With iOS 4.2 however, the hardware handling has changed, and the iPad no longer recognizes USB keyboards. I suspect Apple has adjusted the USB voltage, or something else of that sort.

As such, I purchased an Apple Wireless Keyboard, which uses bluetooth. Thankfully, this keyboard is much smaller than the older USB keyboard I had been using, and better still, the bluetooth functionality allows me to charge the iPad while typing. Pairing the keyboard with the iPad is simple, and the keyboard is only slightly wider than the iPad itself. With the keyboard, my typing speed should be about the same speed as on a desktop system. Also with the keyboard is the quick ability to cancel an autocorrect suggestion by using the escape key. As such, it becomes much easier to allow the autocorrect to fix words you misspell, while avoiding any undesired changes.

One clear advantage the iPad provides when writing, is the single-task nature of the iPad. As the iPad only presents a single window, it enforces a single-track mentality. There are no bouncing dock icons, no web browser or twitter to distract you. Just you and your text editor, unfiltered. Much better for concentrating on writing.