Many people purchase iPads with the grand ambition of increasing productivity tenfold. But let’s be honest; most of us end up using it to binge-watch Netflix. What went wrong? How did this productivity tool become such a massive time-suck? Perhaps it stems from the phenomenon known as “overchoice,” in which you are presented with so many options that you simply choose nothing. Idle aimlessly through the glut of options at your iPad’s App Store, and you’ll see exactly what I mean.
We don’t risk overchoice with Netflix. We can always change our mind at a moment’s notice and watch something else. But choosing a productivity app, that requires…*gulp*…commitment. Not only do you commit yourself to anywhere from $2.99 to $9.99 for something you may or may not ever use, but you also commit to the format of the app, with all its quirks and limitations. It can also be difficult to transfer information from one app to another. This means you could end up in a long-term dysfunctional relationship with the first app you grab off the market.
How do you choose the best app for the task? Luckily, I’ve done the research for you! Back when Blockbuster Video was still a thing, I was the kid who couldn’t leave the store with a movie until I had reviewed—Every. Single. Option.
I brought this same level of obsessiveness to the task of selecting the perfect apps for my academic workflow. Not only did I have to look at every single productivity option, but I had to read the reviews, compare the good and the bad, and even choose the wrong product a time or two until I was satisfied. These five apps are the fruits of my research.
1. The Must-Have Online Storage App — Dropbox
Inevitably, you will have documents that you’ll want to access from your phone, tablet, and computer. Picking your storage option is an important first step. Your top options include Dropbox, OneDrive, and Google Drive. To see a comprehensive comparison of these apps, check out the handy charts here. When you choose your storage app, there are a few things you’ll want to keep in mind. Yes, you want the best price, but you also want the best compatibility with your other apps as well. When it comes to compatibility, you can pretty much rule out OneDrive, which won’t work with most of your apps. This leaves Dropbox and Google Drive.
When it comes to price, Google has Dropbox beat, with the free version allowing for 15GB to Dropbox’s measly 2GB. However, the 1TB version is slightly cheaper with Dropbox if you buy the yearly subscription ($99 a year, as opposed to $120). A major benefit of Google Drive is that is has an intermediary option, offering a $1.99/100GB plan.
Still, if privacy is a concern for you, Dropbox may be your better option. If, like me, you feel that Google already knows waaaaay too much about you, you may be hesitant to turn over the rest of your life to them in the form of personal photos and academic research. Also, keep in mind that if you plan to store all of your photos on virtual storage, the 1TB version is the best option.
Taking both price and privacy concerns together, Dropbox is the clear winner.
2. Best Note Taker App for Lectures — Notability
Cost: Free version, $9.99 full version
Apple iOS: Notability for iOS
Google Android: N/A
After trying several different note-taking apps, I finally settled on Notability as my go-to, especially when lectures are involved. What sets Notability apart from the pack (specifically, in terms of lectures): not only can you record a lecture in progress, but the recording syncs with your notes as you take them! For example, if you are confused at one spot in a lecture, just write REALLY CONFUSED in your notes. Later, when you play back the lecture, you can tap on your REALLY CONFUSED spot and the app will take the audio to where it was when you typed those words. You won’t need timestamping to return to an area of your lecture where further clarification is needed.
Notability is also great for taking pictures of complicated PowerPoint slides and inserting them into your notes as you’re following. Sometimes, too much information exists on a single slide (or graph) to write everything down. With Notability, you can insert and format an image so quickly, you’ll barely break stride in your note-taking.
- Records sound while taking notes
- Inserts images easily when taking notes
- Switches easily between typing, writing, highlighting, and pictures
- Resizes handwritten notes
- Features an uncomplicated interface
- Formats text around the image automatically, instead of on top of it (you’d be surprised how many apps don’t do this)
- Lacks handwriting recognition and its write-to-text function is incompatible with external keyboards
- Requires manual moving of handwritten notes if you need to add typed text above them (a problem in every app I have ever tried, so if you know of a similar app where this isn’t a problem, let us know)
3. Best App for Tutorials — Khan Academy
No matter what your major is, it’s likely that you’ll have math and science general education requirements. Whether you’re a creative arts major taking math classes against your will or a business major with a challenging physics requirement, Khan Academy is your best friend. Salmon Khan originally started these tutorials to help his nieces and nephews, but his easy-to-understand explanations quickly blew up on the internet, and now he has a veritable tutoring empire. How many people can claim that their tutorial on redox-reactions went viral? Salmon Khan can.
Khan Academy displays an initial page for the major categories (i.e., Math, Science, Economics and Finance, Arts and Humanities, Computing, Test Prep, etc.), and presents an array of subjects within each of these categories. Once you choose a subject, you’ll see a breakdown of topics within that subject, each of which provides links to multiple tutorials, each between around five and twenty minutes. Khan's tutoring style is uniquely accessible. Tutorial videos allow you to watch as Khan writes out problems and explains solutions with clarity and precision. There is a scrolling, time-marked caption underneath each video for the hearing impaired (or in case you need help spelling stuff like methylcyclohexane). You can also download videos in case you want to watch them on-the-go, like on a three-hour flight home for a holiday break. Even if you have no personal interest in organic stereoisomers, just put that video on repeat, and I guarantee the dude next to you on the flight will leave you alone.
- Covers almost anything you can think of in math, from preschool to differential equations, as well as most sciences
- Divides subjects into bite-sized pieces, so even advanced math and science subjects are accessible
- Follows a well-proved and effective method of instruction, “mastery learning”, which involves gamification with rewards and fun little videos, so it feels like a game even when you’re learning
- Lacks any major cons, unless you’re trying to master something better learned in person—acting, phlebotomy techniques, etc.—then, you’re out of luck
4. Best App for Flashcards — gFlash+ & Flashcards Deluxe
Cost for gFlash+: Free
Apple iOS: N/A
Google Android: gFlash+ Flashcards and Tests for Android
I discovered sophomore year that flashcards were my friend. However, writing them and carrying them around was laborious. Once I got to grad school and had an iPad, I discovered a handy-dandy app named gFlash+. Yes, the g stands for Google, so you’ll be baring your soul again to the cyber-god, but I’m sure they don’t care about your thoughts on the origin and insertion physiology for the sternocleidomastoid.
Unfortunately, in the process of writing this article, I discovered that my favorite flashcard app was no longer available for iPad! gFlash+ was bought by Amazon and is now only available for Android users. (Shame on you, Amazon!!) My main requirement for a flashcard app was the ability to create the card in a spreadsheet format with the ability to import it into the app. In gFlash+, you can make a spreadsheet in Google sheets. Everything in the A column is on one side of the card, and everything in the B column is on the other side. Each row is a separate card. (BTW, I highly recommend using spellcheck before importing, because I have not found a way to edit the card once it is in the app.)
Also, gFlash+ syncs with myriad other flashcard networks, including Quizlet. Quizlet is a notecard creation and sharing community. Creating notecards with Quizlet is a bit more laborious than typing into a spreadsheet, but you have access to notecards from users all over the globe. gFlash+ can access all the user-made flashcard sets that have been set to "public." (Be careful though, because the person making the flashcard is also a fallible student like you, and there can occasionally be mistakes.)
Pros for gFlash+
- Frees you from working on your tiny iPad keyboard, because you can use a computer to type up your notecards and then import them
- Integrates easily with Google Sheets
- Navigates easily
- Tracks cards with which you are struggling and adds them to the shuffle more often
- Imports other people’s cards from places such as gWhiz, StudyStack, and Quizlet (but only in the pro version)
Cons for gFlash+
- Can’t be purchased in iOS, only Android now
- Can’t edit cards in the app (that I can tell)
- Can’t include hand-drawn notes (although it does support images now!)
If you are a faithful Apple iOS user, you may be asking, "What flashcard app should I use?" There is another app called Flashcards Deluxe that can import from spreadsheets as well. Whereas gFlash+ used Google sheets, Flashcards Deluxe uses any spreadsheet software and is then accessible from your Dropbox or Google Drive via the Flashcards Deluxe app. However, the pros and cons list is a bit limited, as I have not yet had the chance to fully familiarize myself with the app’s functions. If you have had experience with this app, feel free to leave a comment about what you have found to be awesome and not-so-awesome about it.
Pros for Flashcards Deluxe
- Add sound and drawings, which were unavailable in gFlash+, a huge deal for cards that need to be something other than just text (e.g., chemistry, physics, art history, etc.)
Cons for Flashcards Deluxe
- Does not work with Quizlet, so all flashcard sets must be of your own making
5. Best App for Marking Up PDF’s — GoodReader
Apple iOS: GoodReader for iOS
Google Android: N/A
If I could switch everything from books to PDF format and put them in GoodReader, I would. You can annotate PDFs in every way imaginable. Highlight, underline, type side notes, and keyword-search everything—including your typed annotated notes. However, the best feature is that you can export just the highlighted and noted portions. If you are obsessed with color-coding things like I am, this means you can highlight vocabulary words in one color, things to remember in another color, things you disagree with in a third color, and parts you have a question about in another. When you export the summary, it will give you not only the part that was highlighted, but will include what color it was highlighted in (for easy tracking) and include all your typed notes. Imagine taking all the highlighted portions of your book, including your notes in the margins, and printing them out as notes. Yes, it’s that easy.
- Do just about anything you want to a PDF, in any color
- Export a summary to print or to email
- Doesn’t show the actual colors in the summary printout, rather it lists them (so I usually go through and manually highlight them with corresponding highlighter colors)
- Doesn’t export handwritten notes, which would likely include many JPEGs and make the file huge
When you visit the app store, you have a lot of options. If you’re a student, avoid the dreaded brain-freeze the comes with overchoice by checking these out first. And if you have any favorite apps for studying, let us know in the comments below!