The best productivity apps for the iPad

Apple claims the iPad can replace a laptop and these apps help their case

Apple’s latest iPad promises to be capable enough to replace the laptop. Whether that’s true or not depends on the user but it’s undeniable that the iPad is a lot more than a content consumption device these days. The new iPad Pro models are very powerful and compatible with great accessories that make it easier to get work done on the go. We’ve tested a lot of productivity apps to find the best of the best and now it’s time to share.

There are some great iOS apps for being creative including music creation and other artistic outputs. This is a list of apps for productivity rather than creativity but there’s a little overlap because productivity means content creation to a lot of people. Read on for our favourite productivity apps for the iPad.

Email – Airmail

Image: Airmail

The App Store is full of email clients but most of them have disadvantages in some way or other. Some seem a bit sluggish, or they don’t work with your favourite email service, or they’re just plain ugly. It often feels like finding the best compromise. The Gmail app that’s usually so good on Android isn’t quite as good on iOS. Apple and Microsoft’s attempts are definitely good enough to recommend but we’ve used one that we feel is better: Airmail.

Sometimes you have to choose between an app that’s super powerful but clunky, or a beautiful and elegant experience that isn’t quite as capable. Why not have both? Airmail feels very light and pleasant to use but behind the scenes there’s a lot of scope for customisation and tinkering. You can connect to all the usual services like Gmail and Hotmail and see all of it in a unified inbox if you like. The developers regularly update the app and make the most out of the hardware. Multitasking is great on the iPad and the 3D Touch options are very useful on the iPhone version.

If you just want a quick experience and to see emails in one place then it does the job. If you want to integrate your mail with calendars and reminders apps, set alarms, or set send times for outgoing emails, then it still does the job. If you do run into any problems using the app, you can even chat to the support team live from within the app itself.

Airmail is £3.99 on the App Store.

Document management – Documents 5

Image: Readdle

There are a lot of genuinely great document managers on the iPad these days so it was very difficult to settle on just one. There are several new apps that work well but some of the best are the classics that have been around since the very first iPad, especially GoodReader. But the best of the bunch today is Documents 5 by Readdle. It does everything it needs to do, it’s very easy to use, and has genuinely useful extra features to make you even more productive.

A document manager for iOS is an app that gives you a traditional file system to work with your files. Documents 5 lets you navigate files that are local, stored in iCloud, or other services like Dropbox and Google Drive all in the same app. If you have PDFs you can read and annotate them. You can view images, play videos, and listen to music all from within the app. Perhaps most importantly, Documents 5 lets you download any filetype from the internet.

It has all the features it needs, it’s lightning fast, and it’s free. There are great alternatives but Documents 5 is pretty much perfect.

Writing – Byword 2

Image: Byword

It’s difficult to settle on one writing app because we all write for different reasons. Microsoft Word on iOS is very capable and familiar if you’re used to the Office suite on other computers. Apple’s own Pages is perfectly fine for writing but really excels when you want to quickly make something attractive with little effort. For serious writing there are apps for people writing books, writing academic articles and all sorts. To settle on one app it will have to be powerful but simple, and good enough for simple notes or complex documents. If we have to pick just one then it’s Byword 2.

Byword 2 is an app we left out of our favourite distraction-free writing apps just because it’s more focused on providing great features than being distraction-free. However, we did consider it at the time because it’s lightweight and elegant and doesn’t get in the way of your writing. The interface looks very simple but this is no basic notes app. In the background there are keyboard shortcuts, word counts, and syncing to your favourite cloud services.

Byword 2 uses Markdown so you can format as you type. You can preview the document at any time to see it fully-formatted and export to HTML, PDF, rich text, or even publish to online services including WordPress, Medium, and Tumblr blogs among others. It’s a great blogging tool.

Byword 2 is £4.49 on the App Store.

Note-taking – Notability

Image: Notability

iPad users have had plenty of note-taking options since day 1. iOS comes with it’s own Notes app and there have always been good apps from notes giants like Evernote. If you just want to occasionally type something and have it saved, they’ll all do the job. But if you want something more comprehensive, like a paperless office of sorts, then there are a handful fighting for the top spot. Notability is the app that clinches it because it’s easy to use, really smart, and genuinely improves workflow.

Apple has stated that their employees use Notability for taking notes, making sketches, and recording lectures. Your notes can include typed text, handwritten notes, sketches, photos, and even audio. The app has amazing support for Apple’s Pencil and it works absolutely perfectly. It’s like writing on paper. To give you an idea of how smart the app is, imagine taking notes while recording an interview or lecture. Later when listening to the interview, you can touch a written or typed part of the notes and it will skip to the part of the audio that was being recorded when that note was made. Most importantly, it does all this quickly and with an uncluttered presentation that lets you just get on with the notes rather than worrying about menus.

Notability is £4.49 on the App Store.

Image manipulation – Enlight

Many iPad users go looking for Adobe as soon as they hit the App Store. The good news? They’ll find iOS versions of Photoshop. The bad news? It’s broken down into lots of different official apps, some with overlapping functionality. Some users just need to add a filter now and then so will be happy with Instagram on their phone but people interested in productivity need something more powerful. The thing is, the photographers need great tools for editing photos while others might just need to do the usual cropping and adding text captions. To get an app that does absolutely everything usually means making some kind of compromise.

Fear not, there is an app that blows Adobe’s iOS apps out of the water and does literally everything most people would ever need it to. Enlight is easily, hands-down the best photo editing software for the iPad. It’s stunning, it’s intuitive, and it’s very powerful. If you’re creative you can make some absolutely incredible images using the photo-editing software but it’s also a perfect go-to app for adding to text to images or just tidying them up for whatever it is you’re writing. Yeah you can get all of these things done with a combination of other apps but Enlight is the best single solution for your image needs on the iPad. We can’t go into its feature list otherwise we would be here all day.

Enlight is £2.99 on the App Store.

Programming – Pythonista

If you found the right apps and accessories it was always possible to get some serious work done on the iPad. A decent Bluetooth keyboard and Microsoft Word will keep most writers happy if they can’t get to their laptop. Apple’s apps for making music and editing photos are brilliant on iOS. But programming? That wasn’t something you could really do on Apple’s tablet. You could always write code in a text app but that’s not the same. Some apps like Coda claim to programming apps but they’re just advanced text editors made with programmers in mind. But finally there are some real options out there to get some programming done on the go.

The best app we’ve used by far is Pythonista. Sure, this one only works with Python so you’re limited to that language but if that’s what you want to work with then you’ll be very happy. Pythonista isn’t just a text editor that understands your code; it’s a genuine development environment. You can write the code, run the scripts, and there are loads of brilliant example scripts provides including games and user interfaces. Perhaps the coolest feature? Python’s standard library is available but scripts in Pythonista can also access iOS features like location data, photos, and contacts etc.

The app includes a file management system for your scripts and associated files, an editor, and a console that allows interactive prompts immediately. Everything about using Pythonista feels like it took careful consideration and experimentation. The keyboard has a row of common characters used in Python that makes typing code much quicker. The coolest feature? Writing scripts as extensions that can run in other iOS apps. For example, you could write a Python script that takes a URL and generates a QR code for it. By making it an extension, you can use the share sheet in any other iOS app to share a URL and then select your script to generate a QR code. This means you can get some amazing automation done and really improve your iOS workflow, which is obviously great for productivity.

Pythonista is £7.99 on the App Store.

Bonus – Duet Display

Everyone can be more productive with a bit more screen real estate and Duet Display is a phenomenal app for doing just that. Technically this isn’t an app that will make you more productive while out and about with just your iPad. Instead we include it as a bonus because it uses your iPad to be more productive when you’re at your computer. In short, it turns your iPad into a 2nd screen for your computer. Other apps can do this but none with the grace and reliability of Duet Display. It was made by former Apple engineers, which might explain why it “just works”.

The app uses the ordinary Lightning or 30-pin cable to connect the iPad to a Mac or Windows PC. Lag? None at all. You get a retina display at 60 frames per second. The app turns the iPad into another Windows or OSX display but with the added benefits of being on an iPad. For example, you can use touch gestures in OSX and that’s something you don’t see every day. It’s more expensive than some alternatives but the others are often laggy, unintuitive, and fiddly to set up. That’s Duet Display’s killer feature: it just works. You connect them and there you have it, a 2nd screen. It’s easy and it works perfectly. An extra screen can really boost productivity so your iPad can help you be more productive even when you’re sat at your computer.

Duet Display is £11.99 on the App Store.

Should everyone ditch their laptops and buy an iPad Pro instead? Probably not. But if you’re travelling with just an iPad, you don’t need to wait until you’re home to get some serious work done now. From programming and photo editing, to managing documents and full-featured offline blogging, the iPad can pull its weight now. The new Pencil and Smart Keyboard just make it even more capable. With great apps comes great productivity.


Main image © Apple

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