What shiny should I buy?

Apple are geniuses at showing us how technology can be used in novel ways within our everyday lives. The latest and greatest of all these gadgets is, of course, the iPad. I have heard all sorts of uses they have been put to: as an ebook reader, as a toy for the kids, as a way to access online recipes while cooking and so on.

My dear husband calls these little technological gadgets ‘shinies’. Most of us love to buy the shinies – and I am no exception. Lately I have come across a couple of posts from professors singing the iPad’s praises as a research assistant. So – is the shiny new iPad something you should buy to help you with thesis?

My friend @deanp – an enthusiastic early adopter and PhD student – outlined some of the benefits and disadvantages of his new iPad in an email the other day. He likes that he can check email on the run, read news and blogs, as well as access other documents in many formats. In particular he likes to put notes on PDFs and draw diagrams with the simple vector graphics tools.

@deanp claims that the battery life on the iPad is good, which means that it can probably be used to watch videos on the couch for hours … but I shouldn’t promote this feature as it sounds to me like this could make the iPad the enemy of done. Some people have complained that the iPad is too heavy, but @Deanp reckons it is fine for long hours of holding and playing with.

So far it is sounding pretty good, but on the downside @deanp claims that the iPad’s full word processing feature is let down by difficulties in integration with referencing software like endnote. He also acknowledges that it’s not great for taking notes in lectures (but, dare I say it, we still have paper for this). He is a little annoyed by the lack of Flash and found the lack multi-tasking meant he had to make some adjustments to his working style. @Deanp likes using ‘Keynote’ for presentations and has a connector which enables him to plug into monitors and projectors.

I’m not sure that the iPad is a real laptop replacement yet – but this is certainly the direction that Apple and other tablet developers seem to be heading in.

This conversation made me think about the other shinies which make great PhD companions. For instance – I do love my new Android phone for many things, but not the least for the way I can call up book reviews and my research notes at the library shelf. I am interested to hear from others what technology they find indispensable in their research life.

So – what shinies do you have? How do you use them in your research? Which ones would you recommend to other PhD students and why?

13 thoughts on “What shiny should I buy?

  1. The iPhone is my “shiny” of choice for my PhD for several reasons:

    I should start by mentioning that I was always against the mighty Apple and all it’s associated shinies but when I had to upgrade my phone (as the other one had died during an unfortunate snowboarding incident), I found that there are several networks offering the iPhone on contract. This is compared to the US or my home country of the UK, where one network has a monopoly on the iPhone on contract, therefore we are able to shop around and get the best iPhone that suits (I went with 3).

    The iPhone is great for e-mail and web searching on the fly, whether you are logged into a wireless network or connected to a 3g network. Keeping up to date with what’s going on is always good.

    There is a free app called GoodReader, which is a large PDF reader and easily handles large journal articles and is easy to use. Yes the screen on the iPhone is small and can be a bit tricky for reading these files but I have used it on more than one occasion to check methods or results while away from my desk.

    There is also the built-in iPod, which, coupled with the remote and microphone-integrated headphones, means you can listen to music in the lab (if allowed!) and still make/ receive calls and even tell the iPod what tracks to play (via voice recognition) – I’ve just been in the clean room listening to Eddie Izzard’s stand up for the last couple of hours.

    The voice recorder app (installed on the iPhone) is amazingly handy for recording meetings with supervisors (rather than frantically trying to write down notes), taking memos while in the lab for experimental ideas and I have used it several times to record feedback following a presentation to my lab group (it will pick up people’s voices 5 or 6 m away).

    I also have a link to a website which will calculate molar mass – very handy to double check calculations in the lab, as well as a converter app for volumes and mass etc. I also have an app called “iTimeLapse”, which will take a picture at certain intervals (e.g. every 5 sec) and then stitch all the pics together to make a time lapse movie – which I have used to condense some dissections from nearly 2 hours to just over a minute – not really aiding in submitting a thesis but a great tool for demonstrating and capturing certain procedures.

    By way of a conclusion then…get an iPhone. But wait just a little longer to get the latest iteration – iPhone 4.

    • Can GoodReader handle existing bookmarks in PDFs, or create new ones? I rely on my bookmarks for a lot of long PDFs, and have only read them on a laptop so far.

      iTimeLapse sounds great – would have been a great help when I needed to document lab procedures in my old job.

      I’m currently weighing up whether to go for a new iPhone 4, or keep my old mobile (on a cheap plan, for occasional calls) and get an iPad instead…

      • I know what you mean Ben – It’s hard early in the development cycle to know whether to invest. I think tablets are where it’s at – especially for ebook reading. But I am holding back – for now.

      • @ Ben,

        Good Reader will allow you to create bookmarks on large pdfs, although I don’t think it will import them. Regarding getting an iPhone 4, I’d hold off for a little while as I hear that they have issues with reception (check out some of the many reviews online). I’d play it safe and go for the iPhone 3GS.

  2. I’ll be doing a lot of interviewing for my project, so I have a Livscribe pen for recording as I go. I’ve used it for conferences and meetings so far, and have found it very handy.

    It’s basically a pen with a small camera under the tip, to keep track of its position on the page – it uses books and notepads micro-printed with a pattern of dots in the background. The pen has a microphone in it, and records audio alongside what you’re writing. When background noise is a problem I use a pair of earphones to record in stereo: whatever you’re facing towards will be louder in both channels, which helps you to pick out a particular voice.

    Working straight from the memory card, you can replay audio by tapping it next to any of your handwritten notes (and scribbles, and drawings – it’s good for people who don’t always take notes using words…). It lets you write quick margin notes when you recognise an important theme you want to look at later on, and skip directly to the relevant bit of audio. I’ve been putting an asterisk in the margin when something particularly important comes up, and reviewing these parts first when I don’t have much time available.

    You can also archive things on a computer, where they are stored in Flash format. That helps to free up some space on the memory card, gives you a backup copy, and lets you upload the pages to a website if needed. If you feel like making your notes public, you can add your ‘pencasts’ to the Livescribe site: these are some examples of everything from Calculus to comics.

  3. (Sorry if this appears multiple times – when I first tried posting it a few hours ago, and got a “you have already posted this” error message…)

    I’ll be doing a lot of interviewing for my project, so I have a Livscribe pen for recording as I go. I’ve used it for conferences and meetings so far, and have found it very handy.

    It’s basically a pen with a small camera under the tip, to keep track of its position on the page – it uses books and notepads micro-printed with a pattern of dots in the background. The pen has a microphone in it, and records audio alongside what you’re writing. When background noise is a problem I use a pair of earphones to record in stereo: whatever you’re facing towards will be louder in both channels, which helps you to pick out a particular person’s voice.

    Working straight from the memory card, you can replay audio by tapping it next to any of your handwritten notes (and scribbles, and drawings – it’s good for people who don’t always take notes using words…). It lets you write quick margin notes when you recognise an important theme you want to look at later on, and skip directly to the relevant bit of audio. I’ve been putting an asterisk in the margin when something particularly important comes up, and reviewing these parts first when I don’t have much time available.

    You can also archive things on a computer, where they are stored in Flash format. That helps to free up some space on the memory card, gives you a backup copy, and lets you upload the pages to a website if needed. If you feel like making your notes public, you can add your ‘pencasts’ to the Livescribe site: these are some examples of everything from Calculus to comics.

  4. I like my Collins 3880. It’s a red, hardback minute book that I take to all meetings, seminars, etc. and keep meticulous notes in. It’s analogue, lightweight and has excellent battery life.

  5. Collins3880s rock. They are the single best notebook you can get: bound, feint ruled, and numbered pages (essential if you end up having to adduce the notebook for evidence in court). However, at $22 a pop they are not cheap…

    Inger, I disagree that the iPad will become a laptop replacement. I don’t think that is the aim of the product. I’ve been fortunate enough to have had one for a day to play with, and it is a media consumption product, pure and simple. I would hate to use it for content development, beyond typing in a few ad-hoc notes.

    We’ve got a couple of guys in our sales force using them for pre-sales activities: they are lighter than a laptop, can still display a P*werpoint presentation, and have canned movies, etc — most of all they are faster to get up and running than a laptop presso. This is media consumption by potential customers.

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