The tools of the freelance trade

Freelancers can be overwhelmed by all the different tools they can use. Here’s some information to help find a path through the confusion. Here’s a presentation I recently gave on some of my favourite tools.

I had the pleasure and privilege of speaking today with fellow freelancer Leslie Falkiner-Rose at the 2011 Freelance Conference today. Our session was called “The Set Up” and we spoke about the hardware, software and other tools we use in our businesses.

My part of the presentation was facilitated with a short slide deck that you can see below. I hope it’s of value to you.


Is the iPad 2 made for freelancers?

The iPad 2 might be a perfect fit for the busy freelancer.

Perhaps Apple has created a perfect tool for freelance writers and content creators in a hurry.

As a technology writer, I love to get my hands on the latest gadgets. I had an iPad 1 almost as soon as it was released and decided to join a long queue to get my hands on an iPad 2 when it was released in my home town.

On paper, the differences between the iPad 2 and its predecessor look modest. Front and rear facing cameras are the big ticket items and the Smart Cover, which looks great, is really just eye-candy – designed I suspect to extract a few extra dollars from shoppers as they hand over their hard earned as they pay for the latest Cupertino slate.

But is this a tool for freelancers? Is it just for writers or is there something for photographers and video producers?

Firstly, the iPad 2 is a lot thinner and lighter than the original version. 6mm and 60g mightn’t sound like much but it’s very noticeable – particularly as the iPad 2 has tapered edges making the edges seem razor thin. For the traveling professional, those small differences are of great value.

I’ve already discussed the value of Evernote as a note-taking system. It works the same on iPad 2 although the ability to take video notes is a handy supplement to the audio recording facility.

On video, the ability to do video conferencing using Skype, FaceTime or other conferencing facilities is a great advantage while traveling. While email and VoIP calling is great, seeing a face on the line is a great advantage.

There are times when editing and image or video on the road is important. The iPad 2, like the original iPad, supports capturing and editing images using the Camera Accessory Kit and myriad third party applications.

Video editing is new with Apple creating a version of iMovie for the iPad 2. There are some great videos that have been produced using iMovie already, showing that it’s a capable tool. Videos can be shared by email, MobileMe, YouTube, Facebook, Vimeo and other services.

In other words – the ipad 2 can be used for capturing and maipulating lots of differnt content, communication, research and filling in spare time while traveling.

In short, the ipad 2 could be a great accessory for the traveling freelancer.

The iPad as your only computer

Recently, I attended Tech Ed – Microsoft’s major technical education event for IT professionals. I attended as a member of the media at Microsoft’s expense (just laying out the appropriate disclaimers before I start). I was away for four days on the conference, having left home on a Tuesday and returning on Friday afternoon. For the first time, I travelled with the iPad as my only computing device – no notebook, no cheating by using one of the many machines that are around for attendees – just the iPad.

The Kit

In order to use the iPad as a primary computer for the best part of a week, I needed a few accessories. I was going to take a stand but decided to pack light and took a PADACs Executive Leather Case. This offers great protection in my satchel (a Crumpler “The Quarfie”) and doubles up as a stand. That props it up so I can either use the Apple Bluetooth Keyboard I brought or the on-screen keyboard comfortably.

Fortunately, Microsoft provided WiFi access to conference delegates so Internet connectivity was easy – a big consideration as I only have a WiFi iPad and not a 3G model. In the hotel however, it was a little trickier as in-room access is only via an Ethernet cable. For that, I used the Huawei E5830 I picked up on eBay so that I have ready access to Internet.

Obviously, the iPad’s battery was never going to make it through four days so I have the charger with me. I used the same charger for my iPhone so that made my travel load even lighter – one brick to charge them all!

Reality Check

So, can the iPad make it as a primary computing device? In a nutshell – yes but not forever.

Data entry in the conference sessions and during interviews was easy. The iPad’s instant on capability meant that I was up and running way before most of the other folks using netbooks or sub-notebooks.

Plenty of people have already written about the iPad’s hardware so I’m going to mention one app that I’m road testing (there a full review in Australian Macworld) is Office 2 HD. This is yet another productivity suite for the iPad. At this stage it only support word processing and spreadsheets and I’ve only worked with the word processor as that’s a key application for me.

The big attraction of Office2 HD is that it plays nicely with DropBox. That means I can open and save documents to my DropBox account so I don’t have to worry about backing my work up while traveling.

For the writers out there, Office2 HD includes all the usual formatting options like bold, underline, italics, bullets, numbering and text alignment. It also includes a word count – a must for journalists.

The biggest issue with the iPad as a notebook or netbook replacement is the lack of USB connectivity for transferring content to and from a memory stick. For a journalist, this is critical as many press kits are distributed this way.

Camera Shy

I know this has been addressed by just about every iPad critic on the planet – and some of the fans. But the lack of a front-facing camera is a real problem. It’s almost a certainty that iPad 2 will have a camera now that FaceTime is part of the Apple landscape. But for now, not having a camera is a show-stopper for me. Being able to video-conference home and colleagues when traveling is important – particularly on longer trips.

One More Thing

It’s funny how experience is the only way to really find a serious deficiency with a device. I’ve started a contract job as the IT manager of a school. Like most other businesses, my employer uses Microsoft Exchange – a platform I’m warming to after 15 years or so of working with Lotus Notes.

I use GMail as my main email service and I access that via Google’s support for the ActiveSync/Exchange protocols (I know it’s more complex than that but you know what I mean). On my iPad I can access several email accounts so I can keep in touch with all my clients easily.

So, there you have it. One man’s experience of using the iPad as his one and only computer. Lots of wins and some losses but the iPad is good enough – for a limited time.

Do you have an iPad? What apps are essential for you? Let me know through the comments.

Flipboard – best social media and RSS reader

Yesterday, I posted a summary of the ins and outs of RSS and why journalists need to be across this important, time saving technology. I mentioned in that post that one way to access your RSS feeds was to use a special piece of software called an RSS reader or aggregator. If you’re an iPad user, one of the best apps for this task is Flipboard. That’s not a compliment I give cheaply.

Flipboard grabs data from different sources such as RSS, Twitter and Facebook and presents them in a magazine style format. For example, let’s say you’ve created a Twitter list from the TV shows you like to watch. You can create a new section in Flipboard that grabs all tweets and any included links and pictures and presents them in a visually appealing and more engaging format.

Below are images from Feeddler, an RSS reader for the iPad, and Twitter for iPad. Both are well regarded applications that present new information neatly. However, you’ll see that both present data in a linear form.

Flipboard completely discards this paradigm. It takes the same content but presents it in a magazine-style format.

See the difference? There’s nothing wrong with Twitter or Feeddler but in Flipboard, the experience is far more engaging. Also, because Flipboard pre-fetches content from links for me, and not just a link to a page, I don’t have to tap as many links or wait for things to arrive. When I want to move to the next page, I simply swipe a finger across the screen and the page turns, just like a magazine.

It’s only been in the most recent update to Flipboard that RSS integration, for Google Reader accounts has been added. Also, content is now cached so that you can view content when you’re not connected to the Internet.

Flipboard is free from the Apple App Store.

Blogging on the iPad

Many journalists are also bloggers, either running their own corner of cyberspace or blogging for some publication. Most blogs use some sort of Content Management System, or CMS, for getting content live on the web. It turns out that the iPad is a pretty good tool for doing this although you’ll need to invest a few dollars to make it work.

iOS Tips for Capturing Images

The iPad makes it easy to capture images from the web.

To grab an image from a website, just tap-hold on the image. A context menu will appear that allows you to save the image. That will put the image file in the iPad’s Photo app.

If you need a screen capture, which might be the only way to get an image if you need something that the usual image saving process can’t do then simple hold down the iPad’s front button and press the power button. If the sound is on, you’ll hear a shutter sound as the screen flashes. The screen capture will be saved automatically into your Photos.

Image Editing on the iPad

There are literally hundreds of image editing and manipulation apps for the iPad. We’re going to suggest just two.

The first is actually an iPhone app but that’s not a big deal. Crop Suey makes it easy to crop and rotate images – perfect if you need to clean up a screen grab or some other image.

Crop Suey costs $1.99 from the App Store.

The second app is one for when you want to make things look a little special. Color Splash (free from the App Store) lets you apply some special affects to images. It takes an image, converts it to black and white and lets you selectively recolor specific parts of the image. If you need to highlight something in an image, just recolor that specific part.

Blogging Software for posting and editing on the iPad

Of course, the iPad’s version of Safari is big enough to run the WordPress admin tools from then browser. But what if you’re not online?

WordPress for iOS is a good place to start. It lets you create posts and save them locally. You can add images but it doesn’t let you set the alignment easily. Also, if you want to create a link you have to manually create the link – that means you need some basic HTML skills.

The reality is that WordPress for iOS is OK but very basic. In our experience, it also not very stable. We found that it would frequently crash after saving.

Another option is BlogPress. It’s a more polished app that can be used to create content for a whole bunch of different blogging systems including Blogger, Drupal and Joomla among others.

We like that is offers some basic HTML formatting and seems far more stable than WordPress’s app. One thing we did notice with the HTML formatting was that it uses the older B and I tabs for bold and italics respectively whereas “strong” and “em” are more commonly used these days.

We also like that BlogPress will automatically send an update to Twitter and Facebook when we post without the need to load a plug-in to WordPress.

BlogPress costs $2.99 from the App Store. In our view, the cost is worth it for the advantages it boasts over WordPress’ free app.

Keyboard Case – make your iPad a notebook

Typing on the iPad’s soft keyboard isn’t too bad but sometimes it’s nice to use something with actual buttons. We reviewed the PADACS Rubata Keyboard Case a few weeks ago at ITWire.

We’ve been using this case for awhile now and it’s getting used a lot. It does add some bulk to the unit, making the iPad the same size as a netbook. However, being able to pull the iPad out and use it as a regular tablet gives it an edge over many netbooks.

The PADACS Rubata Keyboard Case can be purchased from the PADACS online store for $110AU