Can the iPad2, with its 132ppi 1024 x 768 screen, be used to comfortably read pdfs without the need to zoom and scroll about single pages?

That was a question that troubled me when I was splashing out for one earlier this year. To try to get a better idea of what a pdf viewed on only 800,000 pixels might look like was hard. Neither my attempt to I resize a pdf window to the correct number of pixels (too small) nor my attempt to screengrab  a pdf at a higher resolution and shrink it using GIMP (too fuzzy) were particularly informative. I just had to take plunge and see.

There’s enough wiggle-room (as you can see in the screenshots below) to suggest that there’s no definitive answer, I think the answer is probably yes. But, that’s only if you take advantage of some nifty capabilities of pdf-reading apps, Goodreader being the one I use, mostly thanks to its almost seamless Dropbox syncing capabilities.

Below is a screengrab of a standard, US letter-size, pdf, displayed unmodified on the iPad. The size, when the image is viewed inline with this text (and not in its own separate window), is approximately the same as it appears on the iPad (there is some loss of resolution which can be recovered if you click on the image and open it in its own window).

Click on the image to simulate holding the iPad close to your face whilst squinting.

The screengrab above demonstrates that virgin pdfs aren’t great to read. The main body of the text can be read at a push, but it’s certainly not comfortable.

Thankfully, the bulk of the discomfort can be relieved using Goodreader’s cropping function, which allows whitespace around pdfs to be cropped out (with different settings for odd and even pages, if required).  A cropped version of the above page looks like this:
A marked improvement which could be cropped further if you weren't too worried about losing the header information. Click on the image to see the screengrab with no loss of resolution.

The image above demonstrates that cropping can be used to get most value from the rather miserly screen resolution (the same on both the iPad and iPad2, though almost certainly not on the iPad3, when that’s released).

But, cropping doesn’t solve all tiny text traumas.  There are some circumstances, such as with particularly small text like the figure legend below, that necessitate a bit of zooming.

The figure legend is a little too small to read comfortably, even when the page is cropped.

I don’t mind zooming in to see a figure properly, but that’s probably a matter of personal taste.

If you’re used to using an iPhone4, with its ridiculous 326ppi retina display, then you’ll find reading pdfs on a current model iPad a bit of a step back. But, it’s passable and I certainly don’t mind doing it. It certainly beats printing, carrying and storing reams of paper.

Dropbox is a fantastically versatile piece of software based on seamless integration of user-defined folders with ‘the cloud‘.  Much has been written about how it can be used for general computing, e.g. from Lifehacker:

…Dropbox instantaneously backs up and syncs your files over the internet and to any computer. After you install the application, it will create a Dropbox folder on your hard drive. Any file you put inside that folder will automatically be synced and monitored for changes, and each time a change is saved, it backs up and syncs the file again. Even better, Dropbox does revision history, so if you accidentally saved a file and wanted to revert to an old version or deleted a file, Dropbox can recover any previous version.

It also has some nice collaborative features that allow you to share documents you’re working on, pushing updated versions out to all synchronised dropbox directories as changes are made.  Crucially, whenever dropbox detects a connection to the internet, it synchronises all the files contained within the cloud-synched directories, but it doesn’t require an internet connection to work on those files.  This feature has revolutionised the way I programme, debug and transport participant data from psychological experiments.

Programming Experiments: I, like most psychologists I know, don’t programme my experiments on the machines on which I test participants.  I have a workhorse desktop machine on which I programme, and I use a number of lower-specced machines to gather data.  For instance, I have an fMRI-dedicated laptop which I take to and from the scanner, from which I present stimuli to participants, and on which I store their behavioral data in transit.

I don’t programme on the fMRI laptop because I don’t like spending lots of time working on the cramped keyboard, touchpad and small screen, and because I try and keep the number of applications installed on the machine to a minimum.  A problem arises when I need to test my programming to make sure that: a) it runs on the fMRI laptop; and b) what I have programmed on my 1920×1200 monitor translates well to presentation on 1024×768, the resolution I set the laptop to to be compatible with the scanner projection system.

It’s easy enough to save the experiment and all of its associated files onto a memory stick and transfer them to the laptop whenever I need to test it, but it’s a hassle; one that dropbox eliminates.

I have dropbox installed on both my desktop machine and the fMRI laptop.  When programming, I just set the laptop up next to my desktop keyboard and create an ‘experiment’ directory in my dropbox using my desktop.  I then programme as normal, using my desktop to edit picture stimuli using GIMP and generate instruction slides using Powerpoint, saving everything into the ‘experiment’ directory.  When it comes to testing the experiment, I simply turn to the laptop, where I find all the experiment files have been updated in real-time over wifi.  Perfect! If I run the experiment on the laptop and find that some of the images I’m using are the wrong size I can simply resize them on the desktop and try again, no memory stick required.  I’m able to debug a lot more efficiently like this – it places far less working memory load on me as I can make the required changes as I notice them, rather than once I’ve run through the entire experiment.

Running the Experiment and Transporting Participant Data: I’ve already mentioned that I turn off the laptop’s wifi connection at the scanner.  I also exit the dropbox application (which runs in the background and coordinates the cloud-synching.  The beauty of the system is that all your dropbox files remain available locally when internet connections aren’t available.  I can still run my Matlab scripts and collect data into the dropbox directory.  As soon as I’ve finished testing, I start the dropbox application and enable the wifi connection and the new participant data gets uploaded to the cloud and pushed out to my desktop machine.  Just like that, the data is backed-up and transported to my desktop.  Again, no memory stick required.

This is just one domain of my day-to-day work that dropbox has changed for the better.  I also use the dropbox ‘Public Link’ capability to make my CV available on the web.  Instead of sending my CV to each web-site that wants to host it (e.g. the Dobbins lab website), I now provide a link to the CV in the ‘Public’ folder of my dropbox.  Whilst this difference might seem trivial, it enables me to update my web-based CV in real-time without having to e-mail the administrator of each web-site with an attachment each time I want a change pushed out.

I’m sure there are many other uses I have yet to discover and that’s the beauty of such a straightforward yet polished technology.

WARNING: When you install dropbox, you give it control over everything you put in your dropbox folder – you have to be aware that all changes made to files in your dropbox on one machine will instantaneously get pushed out to all your other machines.
Use antivirus software. If a virus makes its way into any file on your dropbox, it will get pushed out to all the other computers synced to your account.
Be disciplined about backing up your files, even cloud-synced files. Protect youself against the accidental deletion of files in your dropbox.  Once they are deleted on one machine, they will get deleted on all your other dropbox-synced computers.  I have a recurring nightmare where I lose my experiment data because it gets deleted on the fMRI laptop (e.g. it gets stolen and prior to selling it on, the thief deletes everything in the ‘My Dropbox’ folder).  Because I have a nightly backup running, this wouldn’t be terminal, but the prospect of it happening is still scary.

Below is a list of tools I find useful or interesting.

Caveat: I use Windows XP on my current work machine.  Some of the listed tools are available only for Windows, others are geared at bringing some of the functionality of Windows 7 and Mac OS to my XP machine.

Academic Tools

Google Scholar (web)
Google’s academic search engine is a fantastic tool when you know bits and pieces about an article you’d like to get hold of, but don’t have a comprehensive reference.  I use it in combination with Wash U’s excellent library site whenever I’m after a pdf I’ve seen referenced in a talk or at lab meeting.

Publish or Perish (desktop)
A handy application that allows you to quickly explore an academic’s publication metrics.  I use it to keep track of citations, though it’s not the most reliable source of this information as it use Google Scholar’s liberal citation counts.

GPower (desktop)
An application with a number of nifty functions related to power analyses.  I can see this being very useful when it comes to grant application time.

Effect Size Calculator (web)
Online tool for quick and dirty effect size calculation.

Gimp (desktop)
Powerful image editing desktop application.  I use this for everything from fine-tuning figures for manuscripts to adjusting the resolution of instruction slide images for Experiments.  I’m not a image-editing power-user so I tend to create the images with in Powerpoint (or Statistica for graphs) before exporting them as high-resolution tiffs to touch up using Gimp.

General Windows Tools

Dropbox (web & desktop)
Dropbox has changed my whole approach to synching files across multiple computers.  I don’t need to worry about CDRs or memory sticks anymore, I can just drag something into my Explorer-integrated dropbox and see it pop-up on all the other machines on which I have dropbox installed.  I recently designed a new experiment on my desktop machine, and found that I could test each iteration of the development on the laptop machine on which it will be run as soon as I saved the desktop machine version.  Even if your internet connection goes down, you still have access to your files as local copies always available  and only updated from the cloud.  You get 2GB for free with incremental additional space available for certain forms of software evangelism (i.e. converting your friends) and subscription access to more space.  Wonderful!

Logmein (web & desktop)
A great alternative to remote desktop.  I use this to tunnel into my work PC from home if I need to check anything or gain access to resources on the work network.

Chrome (desktop)
Google’s lightning-fast browser.  I made the switch from Firefox when the Mozilla browser started getting very slow.  Although Firefox still wins the addons/extensions war, Chrome is making vast strides here.  Extensions I use include: AdblockGoogle Mail Checker Plus and ForecastFox. (I’ve also tried the even faster Opera, though it’s still a little too prone to crashes for my liking.)

Microsoft Security Essentials (desktop)
Excellent background antivirus software from Microsoft.

Revo Uninstaller (desktop)
A comprehensive uninstaller that searches and removes traces of applications forgotten by built-in application uninstaller.  I use the free version with no complaints at all.

RocketDock (desktop)
A mac-style application launcher.  It’s endlessly customisable and much more useful than the Windows XP taskbar.  I’m not sure I’ll persist with it once I get onto a windows 7 machine though

Stalled Printer Repair (desktop)
Portable tool that allows you to quickly flush a printer queue following a stall.  A vast improvement on the built-in printer queue manager’s efforts.

Novapdf (desktop)
I got this free from Lifehacker a while ago and it’s proved so useful I will be buying it for my next machine. It allows you to create pdfs from anything you can print – pretty useful if you’re putting documents online.

Aquasnap (desktop)
A utility that emulates Windows 7’s Aerosnap functionality.  Great if you have a large monitor and often have applications open side-by-side.

Taskbar Shuffle (desktop)
Drag and drop taskbar applications into new positions.  Not essential, handy if you’re into organising things.

Fences (desktop)
Another organisation utility, this time for the desktop itself.  I tend to use my desktop as a holding pad for anything and everything – Fences allows me to fence sections of it off for certain types of files, e.g. pdfs, portable applications, data I’ve been sent that I need to look at etc.  Also, if you double-click on the desktop, it all disappears, giving you the illusion of being ultra-organised.