The iPad - Ingenious Novelty or Practical Tool? (Part 3)

November 29, 2010

The iPad doesn't have a file system like your PC or Mac. This is one reason it’s no substitute for a real computer. Each app has its own private storage area, even file-sharing services like Dropbox. I find that I need five e-book readers because their features differ, but I often want to read the same book in each. The result is that I end up with five copies of the book.

Read Part 1 and Part 2.

The iPad doesn't have a file system like your PC or Mac. This is one reason it’s no substitute for a real computer. Each app has its own private storage area, even file-sharing services like Dropbox. I find that I need five e-book readers because their features differ, but I often want to read the same book in each. The result is that I end up with five copies of the book. That's something to think about when choosing an iPad model; the memory is not upgradeable.

Also consider your temperament. If you enjoy solving complex puzzles or practicing legerdemain, you may be stimulated by the mental and procedural gymnastics required to create these copies. I find it annoying.

As an e-book reader, when indoors the iPad a visual experience that is absolutely superb. Outdoors, the Kindle wins and the iPad display is essentially invisible. The question is what kind of e-book you want to read and which reader app to use. I thought this one would be simple but it's not. Even the Apple reader called iBooks is not built in. It's free but you need to download it from the App Store. It will let you buy e-books from Apple and it will read e-books in the EPUB format. Stanza is another free EPUB reader. Amazon and Barnes and Noble books require proprietary apps. PDF files are also extremely common. There are myriad apps capable of displaying a PDF, but again, loading a particular book into a specific reader may be impossible. I find GoodReader to be the easiest to use and quite flexible.

I emphasize the EPUB and PDF formats because many CME programs and most journal articles are distributed in PDF format and EPUB, because it is an open standard. Anyone can create an EPUB (e.g. by using Calibre) and there thousands of public domain and other free titles available. One of the best sites is www.gutenberg.org.

To avoid most of the complexity, limit yourself to buying books from the Apple store. Any other method, even Amazon and Barnes and Noble, is more complicated.

If you've got an iPad and an inclination to gamble, there are lots of apps available. Some may be useful but many won't be. Either way, Apple wins and you're out the money. On the average, it has cost me two useless apps for every one that I use regularly.

My overall assessment is that the iPad is an elegant, often exasperating device. It delivers what Apple intended - a great platform to view Apple sanctioned content. I can easily imagine using one in the office as part of my patient education strategy, for checking drug doses, reading the latest FDA alerts, etc. More direct application to patient care will depend on the availability of well designed apps that integrate with your other office activities and data in ways that prevent duplication of effort. Such apps are scarce at the moment.

Some die-hards claim that the iPad is the only computer they need. A more reasonable expectation is that it's a boutique device that can be an adjunct to your regular computers, but it's no replacement. And did I mention it's a great e-book reader?

Daniel Essin, MA, MD, FAAP, FCCP, is a regular contributor to the Practice Notes Blog. He has been a programmer since 1967 and earned his MD in 1974. He has worked at the Los Angeles County and USC Medical Center where he developed a number of internal systems, chaired the Medical Records Committee, and served as the director of medical informatics. His main research interests are electronic medical records, systems architecture, software engineering, database theory and inferential methods of achieving security and confidentiality in healthcare systems.