Me and My iPad on Vacation

Ken Burns is right. National Parks are America’s best idea. I’ve just returned from a 10 day vacation to Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks. To have these great natural environments preserved for all to enjoy, and to have them overseen by some of the most friendly and helpful people on the planet — what could be better? Zion and Bryce were each spectacular in their own way. Bryce was more of a one-hit wonder — peering into the canyon of hoodoos felt as if I was staring at some alien landscape. As for Zion, I could have stayed there indefinitely. I never tired of staring at the gorgeous canyon views or going on yet another of the wide variety of hikes — from passing through the “slot” of Echo Canyon to my “death-defying” trek up to Angels Landing.

Why I am writing about this for The Mac Observer? Because my ten-day trip was also a personal technological milestone: I brought along my iPhone and iPad, but not my MacBook Pro. This was the first time I have been untethered from a Mac for this long since — well, since I bought my first PowerBook many many years ago.

How did it go? Surprisingly well. So well that, the next time I go on such a trip, I will not hesitate to go sans MacBook. Bear in mind that this was not a “working” vacation. I didn’t have to write or submit any articles, do any background research, or deliver any presentations. If I had needed to get such tasks done, it would likely have been a different story. Even without a need to do work, getting by with just iOS devices revealed some unexpected limitations — as well as a few pleasant surprises.

• 3G? Forget it. Bryce and Zion National Parks are far away from any metropolitan area. They are also apparently out of range of any cell towers, at least the ones used by AT&T. This meant I had almost no 3G access for the entire trip. It may be that AT&T was especially weak here. I did occasionally see people using mobile phones. Invariably, when I asked who their carrier was, it was not AT&T.

At least there was Wi-Fi. At Bryce, there was free Wi-Fi in the main Lodge building, but not in the rooms. This meant I had no Internet access at all (Wi-Fi or 3G) in my room — the prime location for my intended use of the iPad. My room was a fair distance away from the main Lodge; it seemed even longer in the rain (which dogged most of our stay at Bryce) and at night (with almost no lights to guide the way). As a result, my use of the Internet was minimal during our stay. Still, things worked out reasonably well. I could use the iPad in my room for non-Internet tasks, such as working with photos. Some might even argue that we were better off without easy Internet access, better to enjoy our superb natural surroundings (I am not such a person).

At Zion, there was free Wi-Fi in both the lodge and the rooms; this worked out much better.

On several occasions, we wanted to make phone calls to friends back home. With no cell reception, the iPhone’s Phone app was useless. We resorted instead to using Skype over Wi-Fi to call landlines. I had never tried this before from my iPhone. It worked great. We just dialed a number and — bingo! — the call went through. We couldn’t use Skype to receive calls and we couldn’t make calls outside the Wi-Fi zone, but it sufficed for what we needed to do.

While we stayed at Zion Lodge (in the park) for this trip, we had considered staying instead at Flannigan’s Inn, a well-reviewed motel in Springdale (next to the Park’s South entrance). Just to see what we may have missed, we checked it out one evening. When I asked the manager about Wi-Fi access, he replied: “Yes, there’s free access in all the rooms…unless you’re using an iPhone, iPod touch or an iPad.” Huh? It turns out that their login protocol is Flash-based. So “no Wi-Fi for you” if you have an iOS device — as they don’t support Flash. The manager implied that this was becoming an increasingly common source of complaints. I suspect that the login restriction will be changed before too long.

Importing photos.  I took over 1000 photos while on this trip. Really. And my wife took several hundred more. It’s one of the joys and burdens of digital cameras. You can take an almost unlimited number of pictures at no cost. Freed from any constraints, I tended to press the shutter repeatedly — often taking five shots of the same scene, at different exposures, hoping that at least one turned out well.

I especially found myself snapping multiple shots of landscapes at Zion. At most times of day, the dynamic range of the scenes was almost always beyond the capability of my Canon point-and-shoot camera. If exposure was set so the sky was blue, the canyon walls were black. If set so the canyon details were visible, the sky was bleached white. I experimented with the HDR feature on my iPhone 4. Even this option was typically not up to the task. The HDR photos were usually too bright and washed out, with a grainy appearance. On a few occasions, HDR did produce an improved photo; but there seemed no predicting when this would happen.

The good news was that, even with this large number of photos, the iPad had no trouble importing them all. Well, almost no trouble. Occasionally, the Photos app would crash during an import. However, if I simply tried again, the task completed successfully.

Once the photos were on my iPad, I did find one huge annoyance: there was no way to edit the names of each listed event. Each set of photos was named with the date of the first photo in the group. I wanted to be able to change the names to describe the photos in each group (such as “Angels Landing”) as well as indicate who took them (me or my wife). This would have made it much easier to sort through the photos when we returned home. I would have also liked to be able to split and merge events as needed. All of this could have been easily done with iPhoto on a MacBook. But not at all on the iPad. In the end, I resorted to maintaining a text file that tracked the contents of each import. Less than ideal — but better than nothing.

I chose not to delete photos from my SD card after importing them, wanting to preserve them as a backup in case something happened to the iPad before the trip was over. This was easy enough to do. I simply selected “Skip Duplicates” on each successive import. There was one hitch: I made the mistake of deleting some especially poor photos from the iPad. On the next import, these photos were again imported from the SD card (as the iPad no longer considered them duplicates). It all made sense when I thought about it — although it surprised me at first. My solution was to not delete any photos from the iPad for the remainder of the trip.

• Typing text. I didn’t do much typing on the trip. Yes, I typed an occasional tweet and answered a few emails. This was easy to do with either the iPhone or the iPad — no different than doing the same thing at home.

There were two exceptions: my text log of what we did each day and the list of the aforementioned photo events. For these tasks, I used Documents To Go. I also experimented with Office2 HD. I especially like the latter app’s support of Command key shortcuts from the Apple Bluetooth keyboard (Command-A, Command-C, Command-X, and Command-V all worked as expected). Apple’s Pages also supports this — and would be a good choice overall. Even without this support, I found Documents To Go’s interface to be more comfortable for me — plus I liked that I could easily save or transfer documents to and from my Dropbox account.

With any of these apps, numerous minor hassles popped up. For example, transferring a locally-saved file to my Dropbox did not always work. In one case, Documents to Go claimed the file was copied, yet it did not show up in the Dropbox app’s list. I’m still investigating what went wrong here.

Using a Bluetooth keyboard with the iPad definitely made typing go faster and with fewer mistakes. Finding a location to set it up, however, was occasionally an obstacle. At Zion, there was no table in our room. Although there was a small desk, we wound up needing its counter space for other things. This left us with no convenient place to set up the combination of iPad, stand, and keyboard. In the end, I gave up using the Bluetooth keyboard at all. Here again, a MacBook would have been more flexible.

My biggest hassle when working with text, with or without a separate keyboard, was selecting text — such as for copy and paste. Here you have to use the touchscreen — and it’s not the ideal interface for this task. I found that trying to select a specific section of text, such as a sentence within a paragraph, too often lead to frustration. Either I selected to much or too little text — or accidentally selected something else entirely (such as unintentionally clicking a link in Safari). It sometimes took minutes to do what should have taken seconds. Some applications worked better here than others. For example, I had more trouble extending a selection in Documents to Go than I did in Apple’s Pages. Even after correctly selecting the text, the receiving application did not always properly support pasting — with the result that the paste came up empty. Grrr.

More generally, working across apps on the iPad should go more smoothly after multitasking arrives in iOS 4.2 next month.

• Receiving Mail. Overall, the iPad (and iPhone) did a fine job of allowing me to keep up with my email. The iPad’s Mail interface, where you can view the text of a message and the list of messages at the same time, was especially pleasing. My only complaint is that these apps have no junk mail filter. 

• Surfing the Web. Although I was on vacation, I did make a minimal attempt to follow breaking news, both Apple-related and in general. As such, I frequently found myself wanting to save a Web page in Safari for later reading. For this, I used the invaluable Instapaper. Just a tap and the page was saved. On a few occasions, the formatting of the page was lost in the transfer. And Instapaper was not as convenient as being able to save pages to my desktop in a MacBook — where I could organize them however I wished. But it was more than sufficient.

Bottom line. If you are willing to trade in a few advantages of the MacBook for the lesser weight and touchscreen elegance of iOS devices, the iPhone and iPad make superb digital travel companions.