How to get files onto the iPad

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The lack of a user accessible file system on the iPad and iPhone/iTouch is one of many complaints about the iPad, as well as the related problem of getting files of various formats onto the device. While there are some truths to these complaints, it’s also a perfect example of people who know enough to see a problem, but not enough to solve it. As long as you know how, you won’t have any trouble transferring files to the iPad- read on to learn more!

First off, let’s get the whole file system thing out of the way. It’s an undeniable truth that the lack of access to a system wide folder based file system can create some annoying circumstances where you’re trying to use a file with different applications, and it even causes you to use more space because you need to have files in several locations. However, file systems are also extremely difficult to grasp for people with limited or no computer experience, both old people who lived most of their life before computers were in every home and people who simply don’t care much for technology. I help a lot of people with computer issues and I can’t even count how many times I’ve been shocked by how people get confused by file systems. iOS doesn’t have any of this, and that makes it so much easier to use for those people. If you want to save a document, it’s saved in that app, so when you go to open it again it simply lists the available documents rather than the full content of the computer. The same goes for apps, you click to install and click to delete. No wizard that drowns you in information, no need to worry about dependencies or anything else. Of course this would serve as an argument that iOS is better off as a mainstream OS and Android is better suited for the tech savvy crowd, but personally I prefer the limited yet easy to use iOS system to anything that uses a file system. Personal preference as much as technical skill, in other words.

Using iOS and its method of storing files can however be quite a headache when you need to deal with the outside world. Even when you get a file onto the device, you still need to get it into the right program. Thankfully the latter has become a lot easier since Apple introduced the “open in…” feature, so that leaves us with getting files onto the device in the first place. I think most people would be surprised at how many ways there are to do this.

iTunes file transfer

Apple are aware of the inherent difficulties with transferring files onto an iOS device, so while it took them a while they finally did something about it and it’s now possible to transfer any type of file to an app that has this feature enabled. You plug in your device, open iTunes, select your deivice, go to applications and then at the bottom you can browse through all the apps that support this feature that you currently have installed. You then highlight one and drag and drop files onto the field next to it to transfer them. This is separate from the sync process so you don’t have to go through the normal sync process to do this. Since this uses the USB cable to transfer, it’s the fastest method you can get for transferring files, but it does require you to have access to iTunes. Some apps also use this feature to unload files you have saved, e.g if you save a file on the device you can “pick it up” in iTunes.

Dropbox

Dropbox is such an incredibly useful service that it’s difficult to imagine the world without it. Dropbox is a service that lets you sync a folder and all its subfolders and files between devices. If you install it on a computer you get a normal folder where you want to have it, and anything you put in that folder will be mirrored to other computers where your Dropbox account is set up or other devices such as cell phones and tablets- and also online. This means that you can work on a text document in Microsoft Word, save it to a folder in your Dropbox folder and you can almost instantly retrieve it from other devices with Dropbox. I say “almost” because this uses the Internet to transfer files and so it’s limit by your upload and download speed. Still, for small files like documents and pictures the effect is normally instant regardless. On mobile devices the files aren’t automatically downloaded on the other side (that would eat up internal space quickly among with other issues) but instead you see a list of all files and can then download the one you need- and also cache files for offline use. What truly makes Dropbox usefull is that more and more developers integrate it into their apps directly, so you don’t even have to go through the official Dropbox app to get files onto or out from Dropbox. With more and more apps using Dropbox this way, it is starting to work as a file system that not only works between apps but also between devices, and it doesn’t even use up space on your device. Won’t work offline, though, so 3G iPad users will have an edge. The app is free from the app store and the service itself is free up to 2GB use, then you can pay $10 or $20 per month for 50GB or 100GB respectively. I have lots of files on Dropbox and still never come close to the 2GB limit.

File downloads

Dropbox might be the most popular service for storing files online right now, but it’s not the only one. Even Apple has their own service included in Mobile Me. You don’t really need a specialized service for this task either, all you need is to store the file somewhere online where you can access it on your device. Your own FTP server, file sharing sites like box.net etc. iOS has built in support for a whole range of file types, so if you try to open a supported file it should work just fine and sometimes also prompt you to open it in other apps (such as saving PDF files to iBooks). If you need to save it and it doesn’t ask you to open in other apps, there are heaps of downloader apps available- often this feature is also built into file manager apps (see below).

Wifi file managers

There are a lot of file managers in the app store and as far as I can tell they all work more or less the same way. Besides allowing you to transfer files to them using the iTunes file transfer option, you can also transfer files via WiFi. The app basically turns the device into a network hard drive which you can then access using a browser or add as a network drive, as long as you’re on the same network as the device. This method doesn’t require any specific software installed on the other PC so it’s very universal and works as long as you can connect to the same network as the other device. This can also be used to transfer files from one iOS device to the other by running the app on the device that has the file and accessing it using the browser on the other. Just do a search for something like “files” in the app store and you’ll be presented with a whole bunch of options.

Bluetooth

Apple likes putting restrictions on everything and Bluetooth is no different. The result is that you can get apps that transmits photos this way, but nothing else. Bluetooth would have been a very useful method to use for transferring documents and such if only Apple allowed it, but I guess they have their reasons…just don’t ask me what those are.

Email

Emailing files to yourself has become such a normal thing to do not only with iOS devices but also with other devices including computers. It’s actually weird that Gmail hasn’t added a file storage feature to the default Gmail view already, that would have been quite useful. Either way, emailing files to yourself works well, it’s univerasl across devices and platforms and using the “open in…” feature you can get the files into wherever you need them. The downside is file size limitations and a few extra steps compared to just saving something in a Dropbox folder, but if it works, don’t break it.

Apple Camera Connection Kit

This accessory which I recently reviewed only works with photos, but it does work well. If you pair this accessory with a point and shoot camera you even have a portable text scanner that would work great with apps like smartNote, so it can be a productivity accessory as well as a photography accessory.

ZoomIt

ZoomIt is an accessory that has been out for a year, has great functionality and a reasonable price, yet close to no media coverage whatsoever and so people don’t know that it exists. It looks a lot like the Apple SD card reader, but by using an app designed for it on the device it is able to circumvent the normal limitations of the camera connection kit and transfer all sorts of files from an SDHC card, including documents and media files. I wish this accessory was made bya  larger company that had the resources to market it properly as that would also result in better support for the dongle int he future. Still, it’s a pretty neat solution as it is, and if you pair it with an SD card solution that can connect to USB you can even use it as a flash drive for other devices including computers. Examples of such “SD solutions” include the (now discontinued but still available) SanDisk SD Plus cards, a microSDHC card with SD adapter and a small microSD reader or simply an SD card reader (which would be a lot larger than the other two options). Even though a $40 dongle is on the expensive side at least it gives you functionality on the iPad that many people (iPad owners too) claim is impossible.

Airstash

The Airstash shares a lot of functionality with the ZoomIt, but achieves it differently. Rather than using a device side app and a docking port adapter it has a built in WiFi hotspot and works more or less the same way that WiFi file manager apps work, just in a separate device that reads SDHC cards. You turn on the Airstash, connect to its WiFi network and visit a URL with the browser. This solution is more expensive at $100, but also more universal as it works with any WiFi enabled device with a browser, including the myriad of Android phones and tablets that might very well have real file systems but still lack a full sized USB port. The Airstash also has a built in USB port so it can work as a normal SDHC reader as well, meaning you don’t have to use any of my creative SD/USB solutions from the ZoomIt to connect it directly to a USB port.

Which is best?

Which of these methods is the best depends fully on what you actually need done. I prefer Dropbox since I always transfer files to and from Internet enabled devices and so I find it to be the best solution. If you need to be able to transfer files from comptuers that don’t have Internet access, Airstash and ZoomIt will do the job. WiFi file managers and iTunes file transfers are superior when it comes to transferring large files, and email is probably the easiest if this is not something you do very often. The camera connection kit is naturally best if you want to transfer photos from a camera, or use a camera as a document scanner. As I said, it all depends on what you need to do. While some of these methods are more complicated and more expensive than just having a USB port and a normal file system, some are superior either way. I would still be using Dropbox even if it did have those features, so it all depends on the user.

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Andreas Ødegård

Andreas Ødegård is more interested in aftermarket (and user created) software and hardware than chasing the latest gadgets. His day job as a teacher keeps him interested in education tech and takes up most of his time.

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