iPad for Academics: setup, workflow, and accessories

With the rise of iPads in education continuing at a steady pace, it only seems natural to find ways to replace PC-dependent methods of academic work. Over the past year, I have tasked myself with replacing traditional education methods with the functionality of my iPad, from reading textbooks to taking lecture notes. Only recently have I taken the ultimate challenge: completing an entire research paper using only Apple’s groundbreaking tablet, from conception to submission.

In trying to find solutions to the glaring obstacles in my path, I devised a workflow to make this task feasible. I compiled a list of strategies, study habits, iOS apps, accessories, and web apps that made me more efficient in everything from research to writing…

Due to the complex steps of writing a research paper, I found it best to divide my findings into this seven part series. Keep an eye on this site for the continuing segments.

Part 1: Setting it All Up

Bluetooth Keyboards

To actually write a full paper on the iPad, an external keyboard is a necessity. There are ways to learn to type quickly with the on-screen virtual keyboard, yet you would sacrifice valuable screen space. Efficient writing requires a clear view of multiple paragraphs. Using the arrow keys allow easier navigation of text and cursor placement. Additionally, you will be able type more comfortably and noticeably quicker. With a few jailbreak tweaks, you can even achieve desktop-like keyboard hotkeys and shortcuts.

When choosing the right keyboard, you must decide how you work best. I like to sit at a desk or table, so the Apple Wireless Keyboard suits my needs well. Many writers rave about the ZAGG Keys SOLO or the Logitech Keyboard Case. If you prefer to sit on a bench or couch while you type on your lap, you should opt for a laptop-style clamshell keyboard case combo. The ClamCase and the Brydge are good choices.

If you already have an Apple Wireless Keyboard, then you should buy a sturdy stand that holds up well against finger taps and screen gestures. I use the WingStand because it’s lightweight, affordable, takes up minimal backpack space and attaches my iPad directly to the Apple Wireless Keyboard. There are plenty of other great stands, but none as weightless and sturdy as the WingStand. I don’t recommend the Apple Smart Cover or original iPad case, simply because they both tip over from accidentally strong finger taps.


Handwriting is an essential part of any research project. Writing is usually faster than typing when jotting down notes from print material. If you are highlighting PDF files or annotating digital documents, your finger isn’t always the best input tool. You should find a stylus you like and use it. I have tried many styluses, both cheap and expensive, and found that the Wacom Bamboo Stylus is my favorite. Students will appreciate its pen-like craftsmanship, and you will discover that writing with it is a familiar experience. It’s $29.99, and if that seems too expensive, I invite you to try the lesser priced styluses. Be sure to save your receipt.


The iPad boasts a true ten-hour battery life for continuous use. Still, always remember to pack a USB sync cable and an AC adapter for extra juice. I use the iTurbo from New Trent as a reliable dual-USB external backup battery, so that my iPad can charge in my backpack on my way to the library. Just in case I forget my cable, I keep the Scosche clipSYNC on my keychain at all times.

Useful Jailbreak Tweaks

For students, a jailbroken iPad is potentially more useful than one with stock firmware. Simply put, to replace a computer, you will need to add a great deal of functionality not officially supported by Apple. There are also tweaks to avoid. Let’s examine your options.

Activator is an absolute must. Once you expand this indispensable tweak with third party action add-ons, you can replicate many computer functions.

Next, WeeSearch Pro belongs on every student’s iPad. Sometimes you just need to quickly Google something. By the time a browser opens, I often forget what I wanted to look up. Searching from notification center solves this problem. Furthermore, you can add other search engine options to the search box, such as Wikipedia, your university’s library catalog, or even apps that support URL schemes.

If you dislike Mobile Safari, get Browser Changer as well. We will look at alternative browsers later on.

SpinTab is a new addition to my list. It is by far the fastest way to switch between two or more recent apps. If you don’t use the custom apps option and disable Tap to Launch, the previous app you used will launch after a short delay. This is a powerful equivalent to CMD-Tab on the desktop.

If you are planning on using a Bluetooth keyboard, you should install BTStack Keyboard. With it comes the ability to map Activator actions to function keys and CMD key combinations. Tap the Mission Control key to launch CardSwitcher or the native switcher bar. Tap the Dashboard key to open Notification Center.

Here is my list of recommended BTStack shortcuts that should make any PC-dependent writer feel right at home.

Shortcut Activator Action
CMD-T SpinTab
CMD-M Show Spotlight
CMD-Q Close App
CMD-F3 Activate Switcher
CMD-F4 Show Notification Center

The rest you can figure out to best suit your preferences.

Other tweaks to consider are AnyAttach, for emailing multiple documents from any app, and f.lux, to prevent eye strain from prolonged screen use after sundown.

Tweaks to avoid

The commonly assumed notion that having too many tweaks or customization hacks on your iOS device has been mostly debunked. What I advise instead is only install stable tweaks that are past the version 1.0 milestone. Beta releases are known to be buggy, and alpha releases even more so. Whether a jailbreak package slows down your device depends mostly on how well the tweak was programmed. Opt for regularly updated packages, make sure your device meets the minimum requirements, and if the tweak is new or something like version 0.1, either stay away or expect unwanted bugs.

While typing a paper, I highly recommend that you disable the basic Action Menu options. Bluetooth keyboards support the Copy, Paste, and Select All keyboard shortcuts, and all of these are much easier to use than Action Menu’s interface. Pasteboard History and Favorites are still very useful to writers, so decide if those would be helpful to you. Do note that Action Menu interferes with some apps’ selection menus, or at least makes swiping to find the right option a hassle.

Still not interested in using a Bluetooth keyboard? You should install KBShortcuts to compensate for the absent arrow keys as well as iKeyWi for iPad to add another row of functionality to the virtual keyboard.

Wrap up

In conclusion, the workflow and setup is an important part of using the iPad for academic work. The goal is to use the right accessories that take up the least amount of backpack space and to install just enough jailbreak tweaks to increase functionality without affecting performance. Coming up next: research and note-taking.

On a side note, many of you are probably wondering why I don’t just do this on a MacBook Air or a laptop. The sad truth is that I traded my aging 2008 black MacBook for 2010 Mac Mini. The transition that followed has turned my iPad into my dedicated device for school work, writing, and typing on-the-go.

Do you prefer a different set of accessories or tweaks? Tell us your workflow tips in the comments.