RSS Apps on iPad

A while ago, when I wrote about organizing your news feeds in Google Reader, I mentioned a couple news reading apps for the iPad.  Finally, I’ve made the time to really compare the apps I’ve been using and explain why I use the ones that I do.  To see a chart of the features I look for, and the apps I considered, see this Google Spreadsheet for RSS Apps.   Please feel free to add your comparisons, too!

Flipboard, Pulse, etc.

In case you’re wondering why the pretty magazine-style apps are not here, let me just say that they simply don’t mesh with my news reading workflow.  I do appreciate Flipboard and have shown it to several other people, but I take a more methodical approach to my news feeds.  I haven’t yet seen a way to incorporate such a workflow into something like Flipboard, though I still try it out once in a while.

First Place: Mr. Reader ($3.99)

I started using Mr. Reader just a couple months ago.  Two big reasons I switched to it:  1) my other favorite RSS app, MobileRSS HD, kept crashing… a LOT.  I was over it.  2) I started using Diigo for all my bookmarking and Mr. Reader lets me send links directly to Diigo with tags and description.  If there was some way to also highlight text in an article, Diigo-style, I would be the happiest camper ever.

Likes:  At first the interface appeared a little cluttered, but once I started using it, I found it helped me go through my news feeds more quickly since I didn’t have to open every article to take action on it. I love the little sound effects that are sprinkled into basic functions of the app, but have no fear – you can turn those off.  I also appreciate having the favicons next to the feed titles and thumbnail images from each post.  A wonderful bonus feature is the ability to add new blog subscriptions within the app. But it would be nice if we could then put the new feed into a folder, as is done in MobileRSS HD.  One of the best features is having 4 different view options for your feeds: RSS (just the blog post), Web (view the original, with comments), Mobilizer (like Web but simplified), and Readability (full post).  The ability to easily and consistently bring in the full post on those super annoying blog feeds that only send out truncated articles is the stuff of rainbows, my friends. And finally, a bonus feature that has become one of my “must have” tools is the ability to open links in non-Safari browsers such as Atomic Web, Mercury, or iCab.  Those three are the only alternative browsers available in the app so far, but it also gives the option of using Send2Mac, which I have not played with yet.

Dislikes: Seriously, how can this be a Google Reader app and NOT have a “Share with Note” option?  I’m hoping this gets added in an update soon. It’s one of the biggest features that keeps Mr. Reader from being my one-and-only RSS app.  It has had 5 updates since it came out in April, so the developer appears to be fixing things on a monthly basis.  I also wish there was a way to get back to the original blog post after following links – as in, a back button?  One little thing that would be nice but isn’t crucial, would be a setting to choose between scrolling a post up to see the next post, or scrolling sideways to see more posts.  I prefer sideways but the default right now is up/down, which causes a problem sometimes when it’s not obvious that I’m at the end of a long post.

Second Place:  MobileRSS HD ($4.99 or free)

I have a love / hate relationship with MobileRSS.  They have some great features and a nice interface, but the app crashes so often I have deleted it off my iPad at least twice.  And yet, it can do a couple things other apps can’t do (like Comment View and adding new feeds), so then I end up putting it back on.  But I can only use those features when it’s not crashing, of course.

Likes:  The interface is similar to Reeder in using swipes between posts, but it doesn’t mess around with the goofy pinching piles of paper metaphor that Reeder uses.  Going through posts in portrait mode is lovely – the text fills the screen but with good margins on the sides, and you can simply swipe to the next post like you’re turning a page.  Using the book metaphor for news reading appeals to me, but for longer text I prefer this style of seeing one post at a time over the Flipboard style of showing several at once. On another note, MobileRSS seems to be one of the few apps that can display a subscription to another Google Reader user’s starred items – not shared items, mind you, but starred items.  A couple people have shared their starred item feeds with me so we can discuss more posts without cluttering up each other’s shared items.  But only MobileRSS and Feeddler will display them.  Argh.

Dislikes:  The crashing.  And have I mentioned the crashing?  If they could fix that problem, and add Diigo integration, MobileRSS HD would win back its crown as “Sara’s only RSS app” away from Mr. Reader.

Honorable Mention: Reeder ($4.99)

If you go back through the reviews in the App Store of MobileRSS HD you will see many disgruntled customers accusing them of stealing their design from Reeder. Reeder and Flipboard set precedents when it came to designing an interface for the iPad, not just for doing computer-like things on an iPad.  I used Reeder for quite a while alongside MobileRSS HD, but as you’ll see from the Google Spreadsheet comparison – there is quite a bit that Reeder can’t do… for my purposes, anyway.

Likes:  Clean interface, swiping between posts, holding on a link brings up the full action menu so you can send it to Instapaper without opening it.

Dislikes: It has no free version to try out and it’s never been cheaper than $4.99.  It has no “Night” theme so if you try to read in a dark room, the screen is blindingly bright, even with the iPad’s brightness turned down all the way.  Many apps are starting to incorporate their own brightness settings now, which can get darker than the iPad’s settings, thus avoiding some strain and headaches for night readers.  But then, Reeder is guilty of one of my all-time greatest pet peeves in iOS apps — putting the settings in the iPad Settings app.  I hate this.  If I want to change something about your app, I’m only going to think of it when I’m using your app.  Why should I have to switch to something else entirely in order to change your app?

The biggest reason I don’t like using Reeder much is the way it displays people I follow in Google Reader.  I prefer to see each person’s shared items separately, but Reeder only shows them in a big muddle and it’s hard to tell who shared what.  Both Mr. Reader and MobileRSS HD separate the shared items by person sharing.  This makes much more sense to me, for whatever reason.

Looking ahead

The beauty of using Google Reader for my news feeds is that I can switch apps on a whim and all my stuff is synced. There is the little set-up time when you have to log into Instapaper, Evernote, and so forth again but that usually doesn’t take long.  Some RSS apps that I’m keeping an eye on, in case they get upgrades and improve are:

Readict ($4.99)  –  This is the app I’m most excited about.  It was made by Diigo for Diigo, but works with Google Reader and Twitter favorites.  However, it has not had many reviews yet in the App Store – only 7.  It came out in early July but has only had one update so far.  I like to see regular update activity on apps, because there is almost always something to fix, and I want to know that the developer is committed to their apps.  I have it on my wishlist at AppShopper in case anything changes.

River of News ($3.99)  –  I picked up this app when it went on sale briefly several months ago.  It has an interface very similar to Reeder and MobileRSS HD, but with a lighter touch and little letterpress-style details in the design.  However, it also has many of the same problems as Reeder.  One interesting addition that keeps River of News in the running is the ability to add customizable gesture commands for shortcut taps.  I’m watching to see where this app goes, but it hasn’t had an update since February.

Perfect RSS Reader ($.99)  –  This has some similarities to River of News, including gesture options, but the interface and design give the app a style of its own with very thin lines and sandstone coloring. It definitely has potential but there are little things that keep me from using it regularly, such as only displaying the feed list in a pop-out window, and not having a night-reading theme.

What’s your favorite way to read news and RSS feeds?  I’d love to get more suggestions!

iPad Pilot Programs

At the end of March, we started an iPad Pilot for faculty at my university.  We had 20 devices to give out, but ended up having 30 people involved because other faculty and staff who had purchased their own iPads wanted to be a part of the group, too.  Our virtual discussions have been documented at the BCU iPad Pilot Blog, but we also met in person once a week to demonstrate and share apps that we discovered.

At the end of this post I included links to other iPad pilots from a variety of universities.  Each one is a little different, from who is included, how much training they received, to how much freedom the participants have with their devices.  In our iPad Pilot, the participants used their own iTunes accounts and synced to their own computers so they could add whatever apps or content they wished.  Pilot members were given a small iTunes gift card to help them get started with apps.

The first three weekly meetings were used as training sessions to get the group acquainted with iTunes, the App Store, the iPad, and set up access to their campus mail and calendars.  You can see very brief summary outlines of these sessions under the Training link on the Pilot Blog.

What would I do differently if I could do it over?  The biggest change I would make is in the assessment department — I wish there had been time to create some sort of “Before and After” survey instrument to give participants before the Pilot started and then again six weeks later when the Pilot ended for the summer.  Without that, the only real assessment tool we have is the blog, which did have contributions from about 60% of the group, but not consistent information.

The nice surprise benefit of the Pilot was the social interaction and networking that came about thanks to the weekly meetings.  These sessions were casual and open to suggestions from the whole group, which resulted in a lot of peer-to-peer teaching and learning.  Several of the participants have asked for such a group to continue in the Fall, even though the Pilot will be over.

Some outcomes of the Pilot:  lots of local media coverage for the university, classroom ideas for the iPads from several faculty members involved, more e-textbooks are being considered for upcoming classes, video interviews with Pilot members were shown to the university’s Board of Trustees, and many of the Pilot members will be involved in leading a professional development workshop for faculty at the end of the summer.  Given the very limited time, planning, and resources we had to put the Pilot together, I consider it a wonderful success.

My only advice for other universities or institutions considering a similar program would be:

1. Don’t underestimate the need for some training.  Basic tips and tricks can go a long way toward alleviating early frustration with this new device, especially for users who have no experience with the iOS interface.

2. Find at least 3 to 4 different ways to evaluate or document the progress and accomplishments of the Pilot participants, using both qualitative and quantitative methods.  Our main goal when we started the Pilot was to give faculty exposure to the iPad in order to start finding ways to implement it in the classroom, but we only have anecdotal information to show how things went.  I would suggest having some more concrete objectives in mind, if you can.

Have you started something similar?  I would love to hear about it in the comments or by email.  Thank you!

Some Helpful Resources: 

Apple AcademiX Webinar:  http://education.apple.com/academix/ 

Lafayette College – http://sites.lafayette.edu/ipad/

I especially like the assignments under “Pilot Tasks”

Reed College – iPad Pilot Overview     http://www.reed.edu/cis/about/ipad_pilot/index.html

Oberlin College iPad Pilot    https://sites.google.com/a/oberlin.edu/ipad-pilot-program/

Oberlin iPad Pilot Blog     http://octet1.csr.oberlin.edu/wp/ipad/

Trinity College     http://ipadpilot.wordpress.com/

Mobile Educause – Seton Hill University     http://www.educause.edu/EDUCAUSE+Review/EDUCAUSEReviewMagazineVolume46/iMobilePerspectivesOniPadsibrW/226163

Faculty iPad Study at North Carolina State University — with individual blog posts from the participants:
http://fit.itecs.ncsu.edu/category/ipad-study/

Laws of Library Science Redux

I’ve been batting about some ideas lately in the cat-swatting-a-toy way, and just to get some of these things off my mind, I’m dumping them here.  These musings are not perfectly articulated, and I realize that…  so I hope you do, too.

For review, Ranganathan’s Five Laws of Library Science (Wikipedia):

  1. Books are for use.
  2. Every reader his [or her] book.
  3. Every book its reader.
  4. Save the time of the reader.
  5. The library is a growing organism.

On the Wikipedia page linked above, you will also see a few of the many variations that have been created over the years. I know we don’t need another goshdarn version of the Five Laws, but some online readings of late had me turning these over in my mind.  It started with the if:book post about the future of the app, which reminded me of a couple posts from earlier this year — one arguing for books to become apps, and one about Elements, a website that became a book and then an app.  I personally don’t want my books mixed in with my apps just yet, but at the same time I can see how the interface potential of apps can offer a whole new twist on our relationship with text.  In the Elements article, author Theodore Gray was asked about the blurring between the book and the app version, to which he replied:

I think it’s confusing … for there to be both a bookstore and a books category in the App Store. These two places exist for purely technical reasons, and not very good ones at that. Hopefully at some point Apple will fix this. In the mean time, all the interesting ebooks will need to go in the App Store, because the iBookstore is not able to handle them.

When talking about the Future of the App, Bob Stein wrote:

In the past we had books, movies and songs. Now they’re all being bundled into one category — apps — to be further delineated by a descriptive prefix. It’s easy to imagine today that movies will have back stories and fan elaborations available on the web and new fiction forms will explore and make use of a complex amalgam of media types. The categories — books, songs, movies — meant something in the past that loses specific meaning in this fluid digital domain where each can incorporate aspects of the other.

So whether I like the idea or not, I do agree that the nature of our media is changing and morphing into something we can’t necessarily describe right now.  The potential of coming-soon apps like Rethink’s Social Books has me excited to see what kind of community experiences we can have with our rediscovered love of reading.

This leads me to thinking about the Five Laws of Library Science because somewhere deep down I have long been annoyed that these famous library principles restrict us (perhaps not literally, but by connotation) to books.  Rather than restrict us to any format at all, I came up with a revision like this:

  1. Information is for use.
  2. For every question, an answer.
  3. For every answer, a question.
  4. Save the time of the information seeker.
  5. Knowledge is a growing organism.

For my purposes, I am defining information very simply as “the answer to a question” and information seekers as “people with questions”.  These questions might be anything from “What is the sun made of?” to “Who else is on Facebook chat right now?”  A book might answer the first question but cannot possibly answer the second.

Yes, I know “information” is a loaded term with a long history of debated definitions.  Unfortunately, I don’t know of a better term to use.  “Knowledge” is just as fuzzy – in my visual-thinking brain, I imagine Knowledge as the older, more mature sister of giddy, high-strung Information.

What I like about this version is that I can (more easily) apply it to far more scenarios in the library because the medium carrying the information is altogether removed.  This also serves as a reminder to me (and as a geek, I need it) that it’s not about the gadget, silly.  Books are gadgets, iPads are another gadget.  Jason Griffey has elegantly pointed out that the distinction between content and container is becoming more important, but I disagree with him on one key point.  He says “We already know, more or less, how to deal with content.”  I think it’s the opposite — I think we’ve been so focused for so long on curating the containers that we lost sight of just how significant the content is.  With the Open Access movement, content seems to be slowly getting the proper attention again.  But if we allow ourselves to be distracted by the containers – the books and gadgets – then the star-crossed destinies of questions and answers will be reduced to financial transactions.

 

Is the iPad useful when temporary? A Library Loan Experiment

We’ve started checking out iPads for two days now, and we’ve had volunteers trying them out for over a week.  The question coming to my mind after talking with our tester group and the few people who have already tried the iPads this week is:  what can you do with an iPad when it isn’t yours to personalize?

I’m thinking about the apps that I use a lot, though, and that might be the problem.  I use Evernote, Twitter apps, email, calendar, Todo, Reeder, Read It Later, Pandora, WordPress, the Kindle app, and a whole lot of apps dependent on a Dropbox account, which I use heavily.  All of these apps require a log in – usually a different log in – and a very personal log in.  After each patron returns an iPad, we “Erase All Content and Settings” which completely wipes out the apps, the app history, and any accounts or files that have been added to the iPad.  This, we hope, removes any personal information left behind by the patron.

We also have restrictions turned on (under Settings > General) so that the iTunes Store doesn’t appear as an app.  Yes, it would be wonderful if patrons could add their own apps (and we do hand  them a survey asking for app suggestions) but we don’t want them to log in with their own iTunes account, pay for an app, and then find that it’s not there the next time they check out an iPad.  Also, this prevents the patron’s iTunes account from showing up for the next patron in case we somehow forget or unsuccessfully wipe out the iPad between uses.

That’s the method we’ve come up with, but if anyone can think of a better or easier way, we would LOVE to hear about it.

Back to the whole short-timers problem… these iPads are going out for maybe a day at the longest.  If you had such a device for only a day, would you want to log into all your assorted online presences in order to be productive?  Would it be worth that investment in time for you?  Even if it means doing it all over again the next time you use this same device?

Perhaps I’m projecting too much.  For me personally, I do a lot of tweaking and fixing and logging in when I have to use a new computer – but I do that knowing that I’ll be using the computer for a long while and I want it to feel like “home”.  My work laptop, for example, is all spruced up the way I like it — keyboard shortcuts, clean desktop, a few favorite widgets, and, most importantly, my Dropbox files.  When faculty have purchased their own iPads and come in to the library for help setting them up, one of the first things they want to do is get their campus email and calendar on the device.  The next thing they want to know is how to get to files they need to read and edit.

But other folks might have a workflow that is completely different and does not require having access to so many personal sites or spaces.

But.

Then what are they doing?   That is what I need to know in order to make these iPads useful for the temporary user.

So far, the app suggestions we’ve had include Music Studio – a $15 app that offers 27 different instruments and a multi-track sequencer, a physics app for studying, and a better anatomy app for our nursing students.  Excellent — these are all things that can be used independently, without a personal account.  Another very useful feature for the iPad is all the amazing content available in iTunes U.  We have the iPads loaded with audiobooks, lectures, videos, and demonstrations that were all free out on iTunes U.  Patrons can access all this without logging into anything. Examples like these are helping to convince me that the iPad will be beneficial to students, even with the short time period that they get.

However. … It’s still hard for me to shake this nagging feeling that there could be So Much More.

By the way, as far as ebook readers go:

Apple’s iBooks app uses the iTunes Store account that is used with the iPad overall.  One of the restrictions we set disables in-app purchases, though, so iBooks won’t be all that useful for folks looking to add their own books.  We have included in iBooks a lot of study guides and a few pieces of classic literature as examples.

Amazon’s Kindle app uses an Amazon account and Safari for the purchases, so it doesn’t get blocked by the restriction we set.  This is great!  And yet another reason that we do the complete wipe-out between patrons.

Barnes and Noble’s Nook app functions very similar to the Kindle — users are redirected to Safari in order to make purchases, which requires their B&N account.

Stanza – the original iPhone ebook reader – is still wonderfully easy to use, even without any account at all.  By using the Gutenberg and FeedBooks catalogs, users can download all sorts of free books without logging into a thing.  In my mind, this is the best option for folks who are only using the iPad for a short time.

Libraries Loaning iPads

I’ve been doing some searching to see what other libraries are doing with their loanable iPads.  Here are a few helpful examples:

  • Lewis Library @ MIT
    • This page has 2 useful PDFs on it – an “agreement” users have to sign for check out, and the Policies & Procedures that give library rules AND how student employees handle the iPad check-in process.
    • http://libstaff.mit.edu/lewis/circ.html#iPad
  • Wake Forest University
  • Virginia Tech University

This is me brain-dumping:

Here at BCU, we have a very small but very excited population — about 1,200 students and roughly 60 faculty.   People are ready to check these puppies out *now*.  To my mind, a wait list would be a disaster as would first-come-first-serve.  So I’m thinking we should do this as a reservation system — that way our patrons know when they’ll be able to check out the iPad. We’ll set steep late fines up front and reinforce the whole “someone is waiting on this just like YOU waited on this” concept to discourage late returns.

I would like to also make this an opportunity to get people on the shared calendars bandwagon (we all have Outlook but hardly anyone uses the calendar feature to set appointments – instead, sending out a dozen emails and waiting for a dozen responses, then sending out a dozen more with an alternative time… you know the drill).   There might be a problem with folks setting their own appointments —  that would make it hard for the library to keep a 1-hour window between each reservation so we can wipe out the last person’s personal information.

So I guess they’ll still have to come to the desk to make a reservation?  Maybe we could keep the reservations in some sort of online calendar so that faculty and students alike (students are not on Outlook) can see when the iPads are available.   I’m concerned about both the patron experience and the workflow logistics for our student employees who bravely cover the front lines for us.   What are your thoughts on this whole thing?

Beginning iPad Apps for Higher Ed

The list of apps below are sort of a “basic package” that the library is using to show instructors what the iPad can do for the classroom. To that end, we have several e-book reader apps listed, as well as a work-in-progress textbook app (Inkling … has a long way to go).

To me, the best examples of what the iPad can do for education are demonstrated in 2 apps:  (1) Elements: the visual exploration and (2) Star Walk.  Both apps take advantage of the iPad’s screen and touch controls to showcase their respective content.

What’s still missing — well, the e-book reader apps are great and all, what with annotating and dictionary look-up, but I’d like to see a literature app that takes this idea from the Open University and multiplies it by genre, geography, and time period.

Of the 21 apps mentioned below, only 4 were not free.

Word Processing, Presentations & Spreadsheets:

QuickOffice Connect ($14.99)

Textbooks & Reference:

Inkling (app: $0, content: $varies)

  • download the app for free, then search within the Inkling store for available textbooks
  • textbooks include multimedia, sharing annotations with classmates & instructor
  • limited textbooks available but more being added; purchase by individual chapter or whole book
  • http://www.inkling.com/

Star Walk ($4.99)

  • get detailed information about planets, galaxies, stars
  • navigate through star maps and constellations, zoom in for details
  • see gorgeous full-color telescope and satellite photos
  • http://vitotechnology.com/star-walk.html

The Elements: A Visual Exploration ($13.99)

  • animated and illustrated periodic table of elements with details for each element
  • get close up, 3D views of element examples
  • based on the book by Theodore Gray; produced by top research company Wolfram Alpha
  • http://periodictable.com/ipad/

3D Cell Simulation and Stain Tool ($0)

Mendeley ($0)

Location, Location, Location:

The Weather Channel ($0)

Google Earth ($0)

Fotopedia ($0)

History Maps ($0)

Reading News:

Flipboard ($0)

  • choose from pre-selected news feeds, flip through articles like a beautiful glossy magazine
  • hopefully a coming update will have ability to add custom RSS feeds and mark articles as read; noticeably lacking right now
  • send articles via email
  • http://www.flipboard.com/

NPR for iPad ($0)

Reeder for iPad ($4.99)

  • uses the news feeds (or RSS feeds) that you subscribe to in Google Reader
  • catch up on news stories, journal issues, or blogs from your friends in a clean, organized interface
  • save articles as bookmarks, email, twitter, or “Read It Later” services
  • http://reederapp.com/ipad/

Reading Books:

iBooks (app: $0; content: varies)

  • Apple’s ereader; books will be charged to your iTunes account
  • public domain books (usually classics and self-published works) are sometimes free
  • keep bookmarks, annotations, and highlighting
  • books take up a fraction of iPad’s memory, so you can have hundreds
  • import PDF files such as articles into iBook from your desktop computer
  • http://www.apple.com/ipad/features/ibooks.html

Kindle (app: $0; content: varies)

  • Amazon’s ereader; just like iBooks, the app is free but books might cost
  • syncs your reading progress with Desktop Kindle and Kindle devices on the same account
  • can also include newspapers, magazines
  • http://www.amazon.com/gp/kindle/ipad

Stanza (app: $0; content: varies)

  • the original iPhone ereader app, updated for iPad
  • easier to get free books in Stanza from sources like Project Gutenberg and FeedBooks.com
  • also keeps bookmarks, annotations
  • import PDF files from your desktop computer or a website
  • http://www.lexcycle.com/

Note Taking:

Dragon Dictation ($0)

Evernote ($0)

  • get a free account and keep notes or to do lists on your iPad, computer, and the Evernote website
  • automatically syncs your notes across all your devices whenever you’re online
  • keep separate notebooks and easily search
  • http://www.evernote.com/

iCardSort ($0)

  • create index cards and sort them into groups for visual brainstorming and outlining
  • have 5 different “decks” for different projects
  • email your cards to yourself or other people as a nicely formatted text outline
  • http://www.e-string.com/icardsort

iPad with Hands:

Adobe Ideas ($0)

Use Your Handwriting ($0)

iPad or iPod Touch Training Checklist

We are introducing a lot of people to the iPad at my library and many of these folks — probably most — have no experience with an iOS device.  This part of Iowa has no AT&T 3G reception so most folks are on Verizon or other carriers.  The checklist below gives folks who are old pros at iOS a nice reminder of the features that are not immediately intuitive to newbies.  (Heck, did you know that you can get back to the beginning of a long page just by tapping the time in the status bar at the top?)

I am sure I’ve left out important features so please feel free to leave additions in the comments.  I’ve left the wording very simple to just serve as memory joggers.

Physical

  • outside buttons – volume, rotation lock (iPad), power, home
  • speakers, microphone (iPad), headset jack

Basic Screen

  • top bar: wifi signal, time, battery status
  • dock, swipe screens, dots show screen number
  • hold icon to move apps around, move apps on dock

Settings

  • wifi, brightness (Auto Brightness is better for battery)
  • General — About, Sounds, Passcode

App: Safari

  • tap in address bar, use X to clear the field (type nyt.com to get plenty of text & nice long screen to play with)
  • hover on a link to open in a new tab
  • changing tabs, closing tabs
  • click plus to add a bookmark, email a link
  • hover on a word to select, drag blue dots, copy
  • scroll down, then tap time in top bar to get back to top
  • zoom with fingers, double tap or pinch
  • press at the same time – power button on top and home button – to take a screenshot
  • (screenshots will be saved to “Photos” automatically)

App: Notes

  • tap to get keyboard
  • tap and hold for pop-up menu to paste
  • use magnifying glass to edit, drag to place cursor

Spotlight search

  • always the screen to the left of your 1st home screen
  • searches email, calendar, notes, apps
  • priority can be changed in Settings