Filling up iPad Storage

Biscuit gave me a 64G iPad for Christmas – that was three months ago. Since then I’ve been on a mission to use up at least HALF of the iPad’s storage space. There’s no obvious way to fill the iPad up using Apple software: iTunes assumes that people select files and dump them into a tablet one at a time. If your average file is 1/4 MB long, you’ll have to drag and drop over 250,000 files onto iTunes to use up 32GB.

I poked around on the Internet for ideas, and came up empty. Then I contacted the folks at Tekzilla, a web video magazine on tech that streams onto our Tivo. They made some suggestions that helped a little – but not enough – and asked listeners for other ideas.

Last week, the listeners came through. The winning suggestion was to use the incredible capabilities of GoodReader to upload hierarchies of files. I’ve been using GoodReader for several weeks, but hadn’t dug deeply enough into it to appreciate these features. Thanks to GoodReader, I’ve finally filled up at least half of my iPad!

My problem arose because I’d developed a personal library of ebooks and reference materials. To keep things tidy, I sorted everything into an alphabetical hierarchy of folders. At the top level I had 26 folders, one per letter. At the next level I generally had one folder per author’s last name.

My first strategy was to find a way to simply move the entire hierarchy onto the iPad. Then I’d direct the appropriate files to the appropriate apps. This would obviously work when moving the files to any traditional operating system or desktop. It failed miserably with the iPad.

Here’s the problem: the IOS interface doesn’t let end users grope around the actual file system. Each application gets its own chunk of hierarchical file storage. The only way to share a file between applications is to physically copy it to the other application’s file tree. The end user sees this as an “Open in iBooks” operation, or something like that.

iBooks Trouble

When I started with the iPad, I copied sets of individual files to specific apps using the iTunes sync interface. Once I had about a hundred books and articles in iBooks, I found the interface impossible to handle. iBooks would use “Title” and “Author” metadata, if available. If no metadata was available, iBooks leaves the author blank and names the book/article with the file name. This really stinks when you’re uploading a subscription PDF from “qmags” (IEEE uses them for distributing its Spectrum trade mag electronically). Annoyingly, qmags provides no metadata and gives every file an inscrutable, seemingly-random name that bears no relation to the magazine title or date. Once iBook grabs hold of that name it won’t let you use a different one.

My basic reaction has been to try to organize everything into “collections” inside iBooks. A collection is a poor-man’s subdirectory or folder, implemented directly by the application. You can’t (to my knowledge) import a folder structure into iBooks – you can only impose the structure book-by-book after the books are imported into iBooks. This is annoying when you have a thousand items in your electronic reading library.

The iAnnotate Dead End

My first big mistake with respect to iPad apps was my failure to figure out the “notes” function in iBook. Since it wasn’t obvious how to annotate a book or PDF from iBooks, I went looking for an app that would do it. I downloaded (and often paid for) several that looked promising. The best bet seemed to be iAnnotate, and I successfully used it to review a technical article for a journal.

After poking at iAnnotate for a while, I came across its Wi Fi sync function, also called “Aji PDF Service.” This replicates a hierarchy of PDF files from your desktop within the iAnnotate app on the iPad. It requires special software on your desktop to serve the files to the iPad.

I tried it. The process took a couple of hours to replicate several hundred PDFs from my desktop.

DropBox Good and Bad

DropBox is a web service that provides file synchronization between desktops. I used to do the same thing using sync software on various desktops in conjunction with a USB drive. DropBox performs the sync automatically as long as the desktop is active. The service provides file storage on the web site. The site’s files replicate the hierarchical structure of the “Dropbox” folder established on the user’s desktop.

For example, if I add a folder with some files to the Dropbox folder on my Mac, the desktop agent will scurry around copying those new files onto the Dropbox site. This all happens in the background automatically. When I start up my PC, the Dropbox agent on the PC desktop checks its Dropbox folder against the web site. Since I added a folder with some new files, the PC desktop agent creates a corresponding folder in the PC Dropbox folder, and copies the new files into it.

Dropbox also has an iPad app that will download files from the file hierarchy and make them available on the iPad. Unlike the desktop agents, the iPad app doesn’t try to replicate the entire Dropbox folder hierarchy. You can navigate the hierarchy, but you can’t replicate it directly. At least, you can’t do it with the Dropbox app.

Fortunately, the DropBox protocol is sufficiently well-known and usable that several iPad apps have also implemented it. For example, I’ve been able to upload files to QuickDocs, a program designed to work with Microsoft Office files. Unfortunately, though, QuickDocs doesn’t make it easy to keep the files in place. I’d often lose a document if I lost network connectivity.

GoodReader to the Rescue

GoodReader has two features that make it perfect for my needs:

  1. You can mount the iPad on your desktop through a Wi-Fi based local file server mechanism. Once it’s mounted, you can drag and drop a whole file hierarchy into GoodReader. I recommend using 802.11 N, if only because it’s faster. Even using my N channel, it took a couple hours to transfer 8 GB of files.
  2. You can actually sync your Dropbox hierarchy with a copy stored in GoodReader. The service reps at Dropbox claim that their software won’t sync iPad files because of limitations in IOS, the iPhone/iPad/iPod operating system. GoodReader’s valuable feature suggests that the Dropbox folks just didn’t try hard enough.

In addition, GoodReader uses the built-in IOS support for many standard document, image, and video files to let users actually look at files within GoodReader. The program implements its very own PDF processing, partly to allow for making notes and partly to ensure proper handling of incredibly huge PDFs.

My main justification for the iPad is that it lets me handle PDF files for my upcoming textbook. Those files are typically 10-20MB in size.

So I’m really happy with GoodReader.

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