Sharon Machlis

Must-have iPad apps: Calendar, to-do, file transfer, alarms

June 10, 2011 4:00 PM EDT

I'm not wondering "What am I going to do with this?" about my iPad 2 anymore.

I've spent a ton of time on my new tablet surfing the Web, setting up my calendar and playing with apps.

Especially playing with apps.

After being in the webOS app desert for more than a year, one reason I bought an iPad 2 was to have access to the enormous ecosystem of iOS apps. For the most part, I've been impressed with how many useful, well-designed and relatively low-cost apps I've been able to find.

Here are the must-download calendar and utilities apps I've uncovered so far for iPad newbies -- especially those of us who don't inhabit an all-Apple computing universe.

Calendar

The built-in iPad calendar app may work great if you keep all your info in Apple's iCal, but I don't. I need to share info with a webOS smartphone, Windows 7 desktop and Win7 laptop as well as a Mac at work. Since webOS pairs closely with Google Calendar, I narrowed my calendar app search to one that plays well with Google. I finally settled on Readdle Calendars (price: $6.95).

So far my appointments are syncing flawlessly across all devices. An event entered on the Google calendar shows up in Readdle's Calendars on the iPad; if I add an event on the iPad, it syncs back to the Web and then onto my Pre.

Alas, tasks are trickier. The disappointingly basic Google Tasks list will show on both Google calendar and Readdle calendar. However, on the iPad app they are only editable in one view (list). Google Tasks aren't really much better than a text list, though; besides allowing a due date and multiple lists, they don't offer options such as prioritization or reminders.

The built-in iPad calendar app will also sync with Google, but I like the Readdle interface better, since you can swipe to move between days. Surprisingly, swipe gestures don't work to change dates for the built-in calendar.

Alternate: Calengoo (same price: $6.95) looks like another attractive option for syncing between Google and iPad. From what I've read it's got more features and substantially more customization, but a less elegant UI than Readdle. And right now I'm trying to enjoy as much of the beauty of the iPad 2 display as possible.

Tasks/to-do

For simple tasks like "pick up dry cleaning," for now I'm living with the somewhat feature-free Google Tasks. When I've got a more elaborate list for a bigger project, I'm planning to use Remember the Milk (RTM). (Price: Basic accounts are free; pro accounts cost $25/year.)

The free version of RTM has its drawbacks, primarily a limit to how often (not very) it will sync between devices and the Web version. You can have your RMT tasks display as a side widget on Google Calendar or clickable dropdown within the Web calendar itself, but Readdle's Calendars won't support it. With some tweaking I did get the RTM tasks to display in the iPad's built-in calendar as read-only; but with no way to mark off completed tasks, that was of limited use.

I really do like the RTM interface, though -- attractive, clean and well thought out. I'm not too happy at having a second app to check for tasks; I'd much prefer an integrated calendar and robust task list. That's why I plan to use RTM more as a mini project management app and less for simple daily to-dos.

Alternative: If you want a to-do list and app with substantial power and functionality, but also a significantly more cluttered Web interface, Toodledo may be worth a look (price: $2.99).

Notifications/alarms

There may be a fine line between task reminders and notifications, but sometimes all I'm looking for is a simple alert service that will, for example, pop up every other Tuesday and say "take out the recycling." For now I've settled on Alarmed for local notifications. This app offers a simple, well-designed interface for setting up reminders, timers and alarms, as well as sleep settings that will play your music for various amounts of time while you drift off.

Price: Free. There's a 99-cent extras package with features such as repeating reminders throughout the day, which I didn't really feel that I needed, but I bought it anyway to thank the developer for this app.

Alternative: Nightstand came highly recommended by an IT pro friend as an inexpensive app for multiple alarms, a full-featured music sleep settings plus a weather display. There's a free version and Pro at $2.99.

Moving files to & from iPad

If you don't want to bother with cords and iTunes syncs, Dropbox may be for you. It is for me: I've been using Dropbox even before I bought the iPad, finding it handy to move files between desktop and laptop. Dropbox apps bring access to those files to iPad, iPhone, Android and BlackBerry.

Many services offer cloud storage these days, but Dropbox is a particularly elegant solution. On a desktop or laptop, it creates a folder where you can move any files. You can then use those files as usual -- edit a Word doc, update a spreadsheet, crop a photo -- as the folder looks like any other on your hard drive. The difference? Local versions of files in that folder sync up across your Dropbox folders on desktops, laptops and Web-based cloud. On the iPad, you have online access to all those Dropbox files and can choose which ones to download for offline viewing by marking them as favorites.

There are always security questions when you're sending data into the cloud -- or onto a mobile device, for that matter. Even though Dropbox encrypts stored data, I don't plan on sending anything truly sensitive there. I'm paranoid that way; I won't even store my financial passwords anywhere but locally, nor will I put a banking app on a mobile device. That said, though, I'm still finding plenty of use for my Dropbox account, such as storing device manuals and photography tip sheets.

Price: App is free, service is free for up to 2G of storage.

Moving photos to & from iPad

Speaking of photography, I've found a couple of intriguing apps for transferring photo and video files specifically. Eye-fi, maker of SD cards that transmit files by Wi-Fi from camera to both a computer and (supported) online service of your choice, recently introduced apps for iOS and Android. (Price: App is free; cards start at $49.99.)

One main attraction of the apps is that they'll use your mobile device's connectivity to transfer files -- no Wi-Fi needed. I won't be using that since my iPad connects Wi-Fi only, not 3G. Still, my new Eye-Fi Pro X2 SD card can use a wireless network to transmit files from my camera automatically to iPad, desktop and Facebook or SmugMug -- all without me having to do a thing after initial setup of the card and then adding the appropriate Wi-Fi network.

I've only played with this in a couple of tests but am looking forward to trying it out in earnest over the summer.

For image transfer between iPad and desktop or laptop computer, I came across an intriguing little app called Photo Transfer (price: $2.99). It will move pics and video between iOS devices or between iPad and computer -- and the computer can be either Windows or Mac. The computer and iPad need to be on the same wireless network (unlike with Eye-Fi) and you need to take a few manual steps, such as typing a local URL into a browser window on your computer and then clicking on a link to download a zipped file. Bluetooth transfer is also possible.

While Eye-Fi is simpler once set up -- basically, everything happens automatically behind the scenes -- I expect Photo Transfer will come in handy if, say, I'm at someone else's house and want to share pictures.

Offline reading

I've loaded the free Kindle app onto the iPad and also downloaded free iBooks. But what about all the interesting things I can find on the Web but can't read until later? Instapaper (price: $4.99) lets you save Web pages for reading later, offline -- of particular interest to those of us with non-3G iPads, but also useful to travelers who might not have connectivity while on a flight or abroad. And actually, it's also useful to mark things for reading later even if you are connected.

I plan on loading up some long Web articles before a trip this summer.

Social media

This has been my sole area of app disappointment so far, as I've yet to find one I truly like for either Twitter or Facebook. I'll keep looking (suggestions welcome!). Also still to come: finding my favorite news, sports, travel, multimedia and entertainment apps. After all, it's only been a week!

See the first iPad Chronicles installment or bookmark the series page. You can also subscribe by RSS.

Sharon Machlis is online managing editor at Computerworld. Her e-mail address is smachlis@computerworld.com. You can follow her on Twitter Twitter @sharon000, on Facebook or by subscribing to her RSS feeds:
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