The Savvy Student's Guide to iPad & Tablet Apps

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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

Cost: Free, and up to $199/yr
Apple iOS: Dropbox for iOS
Google Android: Dropbox for Android
Dropbox app image

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
Notability app image

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.

Pros

Cons

3. Best App for Tutorials — Khan Academy

Cost: Free
Apple iOS: Khan Academy for iOS
Google Android: Khan Academy for Android
Khan Academy app image

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.

Pros

Cons

4. Best App for Flashcards — gFlash+ & Flashcards Deluxe

Cost for gFlash+: Free
Apple iOS: N/A
Google Android: gFlash+ Flashcards and Tests for Android

Cost for Flashcard Deluxe: $3.99
Apple iOS: Flashcards Deluxe for iOS
Google Android: Flashcards Deluxe for Android
gFlash+ app image

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+

Cons for gFlash+

Flashcards Deluxe app image

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

Cons for Flashcards Deluxe

5. Best App for Marking Up PDF’s — GoodReader

Cost: $4.99
Apple iOS: GoodReader for iOS
Google Android: N/A
Goodreader app image

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.

Pros

Cons

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!

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