Relative Sanity

a journal

My conference toolkit

In the past week I’ve spent four days at conferences, which was quite a marathon. Despite taking my MacBook Air with me to both Scotland JS and the Scottish Ruby Conference, it spent the vast majority of its time in my bag or hotel room.

My weapon of choice for conferences these days? My iPad mini.


I tried to use my original iPad as a note-taking tool for nearly three years. I acquired it literally days before the first DIBI conference in 2010, fresh off the boat from the US. So fresh, in fact, that the UK app store was yet to be opened. I had a stock iPad, and that meant Notes. Awwww, yeah!

I managed, and it worked, but it felt very much like I was trying to prove something to myself. Typing wasn’t great, and balancing it on my lap in a steep theatre proved more of a distraction than a joy.

My attempts at dconstruct later that year were similar. I had better note taking software that time around (Simplenote), but still: the iPad took up a hand when I was walking around, perching it on my lap still stressed my legs out as I had to keep my knees just so to prevent the thing falling off, and it just felt like I was missing something.

Next conference I attended, the MacBook was back out.

What’s to like?

An iPad has always had two key advantages over a MacBook:

  1. The battery just won’t die; and
  2. I don’t feel like I’m on my MacBook.

Point 1 is something everyone just takes for granted these days. It’s really hard to kill an iPad (even a first gen one) with a day’s conference-going. You can even stream movies into a projector and likely not kill it before you’re back at the hotel. Or in the pub.

Point 2 is more subtle, but actually more transformative. If I’m on my MacBook, I’m going to start to tinker with things. Ah, there’s a framework mentioned in the talk. Let’s start playing with it. Or let’s start checking twitter, or let’s just nail this support request.

Before you know it, the small, symbolic barrier produced by the screen’s harsh right angle to the line of sight between you and the speaker has turned into an actual wall between you both. You’re shut off and not paying attention.

The iPad cuts that wall down. Now there’s a notepad in my lap, and I certainly find this much more conducive to listening. With the original iPad, though, it was too conducive to not-bothering-to-balance-it-in-my-lap-in-the-first-place after a while.

Yes, I was listening more intently, but that was often because I’d just stopped taking notes.

Like a ninja

The iPad mini solves all of this. The battery life and not-my-MacBook-ness remain, but they are joined by:

  1. It fits in my back pocket; and
  2. I can hold it in one hand while typing with the other.

Suddenly, the awkward still-carrying-something-around and gah-it-fell-off-my-lap moments are gone. iOS’s autocorrect is good enough that I can bash out notes pretty fast one-handed on the iPad mini, and it’s light enough to hold for a full talk without needing to find a surface to perch it on. I can even happily take notes standing up, which is handy for those occassions when all the attendees have taken the outer row seats, and getting to the spares in the middle of the rows will require stepping over everyone’s bags.

(Seriously, people: stop doing that)

Tooling up

So what’s on my iPad mini? This last week, I deployed three key weapons:

Evernote was my general workhorse. Typing and syncing my notes there was a no-brainer. If I’d been smart enough to put the conference timetables in my calendar ahead of time, it would even have titled my notes for me.

I adopted a bullet-y format for my notes, which let me break out of bullets for headlines and back into bullets for salient points. I don’t transcribe talks, but scribble down key things I think I’ll need to remember later. My goal is that, when I search Evernote later on, this talk will show up for the kinds of things I’m likely to search for.

PDFpen is a new addition to the armoury. It gives me a really simple way to take a snapshot of conference timetables, wifi passwords etc and draw directly on them with useful notes. Yes, there are other tools that can do this, but I like PDFpen, and I like the fact that it keeps highlights, notes, scribbles etc on different layers by default. I found it great for keeping track of what I’d been to (and highlighting what I wanted to go to next) in a very visual way.

And then, there’s OmniGraphSketcher. For the longest time, OmniGraphSketcher was the one Omni Group app I didn’t have a use for. I just couldn’t see how it would fit into my routine.

Visualising what people are saying at conferences, it turns out, is prime graphing material. Yes, I could have cracked open Penultimate and drawn a chart, but you just don’t get the same quick-fire axis moving, area filling, clear labelling awesomeness of OmniGraphSketcher. The simplicity of this app was such that I found myself regularly flipping to it simply to illustrate an idea, not just when the speaker had thrown a graph on the wall themselves.

The workflow of flipping to the app, sketching, throwing the graph into the photo-roll, then pulling that back inline into the Evernote note I was taking for the talk worked, but the Send to Evernote option stymied me a couple of times: This creates a new note, which makes it a pain to pull it back into an exisitng note.

Better mousetrap

The above tools were great, but all highlighted the same issues that most people using iPads for things other than just watching movies are starting to come across. Fraser Spiers outlined his power-user wishlist for iOS 7, and I was bumping into a couple of those here.

The keyboard on the iPad mini is a great size for my hands, and between splitting it or rotating the iPad, I reckon there’s a keyboard arrangement that will let just about everyone type one-handed as I was doing. I can’t emphasise how big a deal this is, and how much it puts note-taking on the iPad mini on a par with note-taking in an actual notepad. The device simply isn’t there till you want to note something down.

That said, the keyboard is annoyingly inconsistent in some ways, and you really start to notice this when you have to type a lot of things quickly. The key irritation for me was having to flip between keyboards to find quotes, angle brackets and so on. Custom keyboards rock, but what I was aching for was a way to build my own custom keyboard, somehow. As Steve Jobs pointed out, iOS keyboards aren’t “fixed in plastic”. I’d love to be able to construct my own “favourites” keyboard, using a similar system of drag and drop that Springboard uses to arrange apps. I’m not holding my breath, but hey, I can dream.

The biggest pain point, unsurprisingly, was moving documents around. I would far prefer being able to roundtrip everything through Evernote, be it PDF documents or sketches (or photos, or audio), and right now, the duplication annoys me.

All that said, I’m finally at the stage where the MacBook stays firmly out of sight during the conference, and given how much more that simple change helps me engage with the speakers, I can’t see that as anything other than a major win.

The rest would just be icing on an already dangerously tasty cake.