Supersize your tablet productivity with apps and accessories

A tablet is no longer a toy. More and more, users are ditching their laptops in favor of carrying nothing more than a tablet–not just for a trip to grandma’s house, but for honest-to-goodness work.

This decision, however, is not one to undertake lightly: Tablets have numerous weaknesses–from the lack of a physical keyboard to muddy file management–that you need to address before you traipse out the door with your iPad or Android slate in hand. Here’s what you need to think about before you make the switch.

Go Big or Stay Home

As every netbook owner has learned, you need a little real estate to get work done. To that end, you’re likely to end up with better results if you plan for productivity from the start (before you ever buy a tablet at all), by considering a unit with a relatively spacious screen. That means the Apple iPad and Motorola Xoom are in, while the almost pocket-size original Samsung Galaxy Tab is out. Remember: Even the largest tablets on the market today are small enough to slip easily into any briefcase (and even most purses), so a big screen doesn’t mean you’ll be weighing yourself down.

Related Story: 8 iPad productivity tools you need to have

Plan for Connectivity

Your tablet can liberate you from the chains of traditional computing, but not if you’re constantly running from one Wi-Fi hotspot to another. All the major tablet makers offer 3G/4G versions of their products that work over cell phone networks; if you’re serious about going all-tablet, you’ll need to bite the bullet and get one with a data plan. For the iPad, this is a $130 upgrade, plus data-plan service fees from your carrier of choice.

Prepare for Attachments
The biggest challenge you’ll face in doing real work with an iPad or some other tablet is file management, specifically when you’re dealing with Microsoft Office files, the de facto standards of the business community. Clients will email spreadsheets that need proofing and Word files that require editing, but you won’t be able to make changes to those files without an application that supports them. Your best bet: Dataviz Documents to Go, a $10 to $17 application that not only lets you edit Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files, but also stores them on the device for you. A sync system lets you keep track of the changes you make on your tablet versus those you make on your PC back home. Versions exist for Android and the BlackBerry PlayBook, too.

Related Content: 28 iPad 2 Tips and Tricks

Keep It in the Cloud

You can’t just load up your tablet with every file you might possibly need–most tablets don’t have the storage capacity for that, for starters–but you can do the next best thing by dropping those files into the cloud, via a service such as Dropbox (free). Dropbox’s Web-storage system works for iPad, Android, and BlackBerry, letting you keep copies of just about anything in the ether, always at the ready for when you need it.

Set Up a Lifeline

Even if you have a Dropbox account, what happens if you need to dredge up a decade-old presentation that you never thought to store in the cloud? Enter remote-control software, your connection back to the home office. LogMeIn Ignition ($30) lets you use the iPad to interact with your PC or Mac just as if you were sitting in front of it, and allows you to transfer files back and forth. If you have a custom app that doesn’t run on a tablet but that you absolutely have to access, this is the way to reach it. Copious alternatives exist for just about every mobile OS, including VNC Viewer for Android and TeamViewer for iPad or Android. (For more recommendations, check out our remote-PC-access app roundups for iOS and Android.)

Upgrade Your Typing Speed

Even the fastest touchscreen typists typically max out at 25 or 30 words per minute. That’s okay, but if you’re typing for long stretches that pace will put a severe cramp in your productivity, and you’re likely to make a lot of errors, too. The easiest way to improve your typing performance on a tablet is to add a physical keyboard to it. Products such as the Kensington KeyFolio Pro Performance Keyboard Case ($100) add a little bulk, but they double as a case and certainly make working on any sort of flat surface much more convenient and speedy. The only problem: You’ll miss having a mouse, and you’ll have to retrain yourself to touch the screen to move the pointer instead of reaching to the right.

Android users can go the physical-keyboard route, but they also have additional options, since Android (unlike iOS) doesn’t lock down the interface, letting you use alternative input methods. First consider the Android Thumb Keyboard app (about $3), which reorients keys to the sides, making it easier for thumb-typers to peck out messages. Another great option is Swype, which lets you type without lifting your finger off the screen, and which many users report as giving outstanding results.

Use Apple’s Own Apps

Apple knew that people would want to use apps for real work, so it created a series of full-featured (yet simplified) tools to make that happen. Pages, Numbers, and Keynote are iPad simulacra of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, respectively. At $10 each, they’re relatively minor investments for a serious businessperson, especially the presentation-centric Keynote, which streamlines the slideshow creation process and turns your iPad into a projectorless projector.

Stay on Task

Busy schedules require a lot of maintenance in the form of calendaring, list making, and other task-management duties, lest you forget exactly what you have to do each day. Universally beloved is Things ($10), a full-on project manager that makes the iOS built-in calendar look like a sticky note. It’s not designed for multiple users or sharing schedules, but for keeping your own business life straight, it’s a good investment. Android users might check out ActionComplete Pro ($5), which is “inspired” by David Allen’s Getting Things Done system.

Try One-Stop Travel Management

One of the big benefits of a tablet is that it can take the backache caused by lugging a bag full of gear out of travel. But it can also eliminate some of the headache, too. Checking in for flights, carrying a ream of paper-based itineraries, and figuring out exactly where you need to be can be an inelegant nightmare. Fortunately, plenty of apps are available to take the hassle out of managing complex travel plans. A good first place to start is TripIt Pro (free app; service is $49 per year), which alerts you when you can check in for flights, lets you know via text and/or email if departures are delayed, and, best of all, gives you one-stop access to all of your travel plans via your tablet. Just forward your itineraries to [email protected], and the app does the rest. It’s available for iPad, Android, and BlackBerry.

Don’t Forget to Lock the Doors

If you’re doing serious work on your tablet, it will probably be chock-full of files whose loss would be devastating were they to fall into the wrong hands. Keeping your tablet secure is of paramount importance, and doing so isn’t all that difficult. On the iPad, that means turning on a password: The “simple” four-digit passcode is a start, but using the standard passcode setting–which lets you use any password you want–is probably better. Also, you can set your iPad to wipe its contents after ten failed passcode attempts, using the ‘Erase Data’ option under Settings, General, Passcode Lock. Android and BlackBerry offer similar options, which you’ll find under the appropriate security settings menus.

Keep On Keepin’ On

One final consideration: Since your tablet will now be your lifeline to, well, everything, you’ll need to make sure that the battery can handle a full day of always-on computing. The good news is that most tablets will give you 7 hours or more of battery life, although not all tablet models are created equal. But if that isn’t good enough, you’d be wise to investigate an external power pack that can plug into your tablet to give you a boost when you’ve otherwise gone dark. Devices such as the Trent iCruiser line connect through USB, making them compatible with dozens of models of tablets and cell phones. You’ll also find tablet sleeves on the market with extra batteries secreted inside, giving you a case and extra power in one.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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