Posted by: sommecourt | 03/01/2011

Historians and the iPad

Last year Apple released its new piece of hardware, the iPad. For historians this represents another useful tool to aid in research. I recently purchased an iPad with the principal idea of using it in the archives and using it on battlefields during field trips and TV work. On the latter point it was good to see the iPad being used by historian Amanda Vickery in her recent BBC2 series, At Home With the Georgians. I am sure this won’t be the last time we see it in use on the screen.

But what can it do? And how might it help the working historian? My initial thoughts on the key aspects of the device:

1. Memory: The version I have is a 64GB model. This has the largest memory capacity, which compared to most laptops and desktops – even Netbooks – is pretty minimal but it is surprising what can be stored on there if you don’t overload it with Apps. I already have a couple of hundred images on there, and it has hardly occupied any meaningful space. Obviously the cheapest models have less memory, and it is worth thinking about this carefully before you buy because you cannot upgrade the flash memory.

2. Touch Screen: this, like the iPhone, is the key feature of the iPad. I did wonder what typing would be like on it, but so far the touch screen keypad has proved easy and comfortable to use. The finger gestures to enlarge and shrink images, or switch between programmes, is easy to master but causes frustration when you suddenly go back to a Windows PC!

3. Apps: The Apple AppStore has a whole host of useful Apps, including many with application to the historian. There are some great mapping based apps, and the iPad comes with Google Maps pre-installed. Many Apps are free and others less than a £1 and to be honest you don’t need that many.

4. Mapping/GPS: For work in the field this is one of the most useful facilities. I’ve run mapping programmes on smartphones and PDAs before, but the small screen size makes them of limited use, and it isn’t practical to carry a laptop around. This is where the iPad fills the gap; it’s crystal clear screen and software like Google Maps or Google Earth means you can use it to locate places in the field and make notes on the maps using the drop-pins on Google Maps, for example. I have also installed Memory Map to run the modern maps I have already on that system and eventually link it with the WW1 maps in Linesman. I look forward to testing that on a battlefield in the next few months.

5. Data Services: The iPad model I have has 3G as well as WiFi which means I can access the Net via a 3G signal. This proved very easy to set up with a free microsim from O2 and using their basic subscription. Its not possible to use this outside of the UK but as this is not a contract service, it is possible to purchase microsims in other countries and use it far more cheaply overseas than your mobile. Currently I am told the best deals are in Belgium and Germany, but again I will be exploring this during the year.

6. Internet/Email: Using WiFi or 3G it is easy to access the Net via the Safari browser included, and setting up an email account on it is very easy indeed, even for Hotmail. Apps for services like Twitter can also be downloaded and are easy – and pleasurable – to use on the iPad format.

As the year progresses I will be reporting back on the iPad and how I’ve used it, both in the archives and on the ground across the battlefields of Europe.



  1. Thanks for those review points.

    One other useful iPad feature is the ebook reader via the iBooks app. Free books, mainly out of copyright & available elsewhere, can be downloaded for easy reading and annotation via the app. For example, one of my current research interests is Theodore Roosevelt. Many of his long out of print books are available frescos iBooks.

  2. Since iPad were released to public I was keeping an eye on it, like its features but.. it costs here something around 1000 quid (64Gb + 3G + WiFi version), I can’t make myself to pay this money :))

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