Mobile Tools for College Students

When I was a college student my primary work tool was the venerable Inspiron 4000 running Kubuntu. It was a few generations out of date when I got it, but I didn’t particularly care because it was a laptop I could use to browse the web in class. This was long before smart-phones became a thing mind you.

This is what I used in college

This is what I used in college

Even then I was on the hunt for technologies that would help me to digitize, organize and synchronize my class notes. Or to just be able to take notes in digital format. We were not quite there yet with technology. I kinda wish I was going to school now rather than back then when I think about all the technology that we have available now. My life as a student would have been so much better today as there exist tools now that have been built specifically to solve the exact problems I was constantly running into back then.

That’s what I want to talk about today – the things students have right now, that I didn’t have back then. If I was an undergrad, this would be my kit.


Hold on to your hats because I’m about to say something controversial: you probably don’t need to take a laptop to class. Granted, you should have a full fledged computer somewhere in your dorm for doing heavy duty things that may crop up during the semester. But for your day to day note taking and web browsing here is what you need:

Student Hardware Kit

Student Hardware Kit

Let me do this in list form – here is your hardware base:

  • iPad
  • iPhone
  • iPad compliant Stylus
  • Bluetooth Keyboard

The last two items on the list are optional but recommended. Here is my line of reasoning: you don’t need a device with a hard drive for note taking. Laptops are great but compared to weight and portability and battery efficiency of an iPad they might as well by blocks of wood. A modern dual core laptop will usually give you probably 3-4 hours on a single charge. An iPad will give you more than twelve, and it weighs much less and takes less space in your book-bag than an average 3 ring binder.

Homeworks, Term Papers and Documents

First thing that everyone wants to know when I show them this, is “how do I Microsoft Word on an iPad”. You don’t because Microsoft Word is so 90’s it is not even funny anymore. Word is a relic of a bygone past and if you are telling students they need to use you are actually hurting them. You are inflicting psychological trauma on their innocent minds. So please, spare me.

But the root of the question is valid – how do you type papers on a ultra-thin mobile setup like this. The answer is Google Drive. Here is the beauty of this solution: it offers you the basic office suite functionality (word processing, spreadsheets, presentations), it hosts your documents in the clouds and it will sync them with any computer you register with the service. Not only that, but Google keeps revision history of all your documents so you can revert your changes at any time.

Here is a use case: you are sitting in cafeteria and you remember you have a paper due tomorrow. Whip out iPad and stand it up on the table using your smart-cover or whatever you use. Whip out your bluetooth keyboard and start writing. Need a break? Save, exit, throw gear in bag. When you get back to your dorm you can jump on your computer and just pick up where you left off. Need to print the paper? Well, chances are you might not have a printer in your room here is what you do: head to any computer lab on campus, log into Google, print.

Note how this setup removes the necessity to transfer and manage files across multiple computers. Everything is just there. All the other files – handouts, supplementary documents, etc can be dumped into Google Drive too. Added bonus is that any Document from Google Drive can be exported into Microsoft Word format if your professor decides to be annoying and insist you submit a .doc file.

The second cloud service I will recommend that you sign up for is Dropbox. It was actually the original, and so far the best cloud sync solution out there. I mentioned Google Drive first because it has the built in authoring tools. Dropbox is just for syncing files between computers and applications and it does that very well. Why can’t you just stick with Google Drive? Well, for the time being Dropbox and not Google is the defacto standard in cloud syncing. So all the software tools I mention below will let you save your crap to Dropbox, but not Google drive. That’s why you need both.

Note Taking

Note taking on a tablet is a little tricky. As far as I can tell, there is nothing out there that will beet pen and paper on speed and comfort. You will always be faster and more efficient scribbling on dead-tree pages than on your screen. That said, it does not mean your notes can’t be digitized. Enter the brilliant JotNot Pro which lets you scan and pre-process your hand written notes and save them as PDF documents directly to your Dropbox account.

This is where the iPhone comes in – because you won’t be taking pictures with your iPad. Why not? Because it makes you look like an absolute tool. Don’t do it – especially not where there are people to see it. Plus it is just easier to control a small phone and snap a dozen of quick pictures with this app than it is trying to maneuver an iPad over the notebook without it casting a star-destroyer sized shadow over the page.

Here is a snapshot of my JotNot Pro app. Not very organized.

Here is a snapshot of my JotNot Pro app. Not very organized.

Here is a protip: every evening JotNot all your notes from the day and Dropbox it. Give the files descriptive names that relate to their content and organize them in folders by course. Over time you will build up a digital library of notes that can be searched by date or by keywords contained in the file names. These notes can be easily shared with your classmates if for example they missed a class, or just never bothered to take their own notes.

Also, have you ever had that one jerk professor who keeps putting supplemental materials on library reserve instead of putting them online, forcing all the students in class to pay like $1 per page in quarters on the dilapidated xerox library machine? Well, you can just JotNot those things too, add them to your digital library and print from anywhere at your leisure.

If you do want to try the digital note taking route, the best app I have found is Penultimate. It is a very well designed app, and similarly to JotNot it lets you export your notes to Dropbox as PDF files.

Penultimate in Action

Penultimate in Action

Obviously you will need a stylus for this – they are cheep though. You can buy them for like $6 from Amazon. That’s not why this is less than optimal though. Here is the problem with digital note taking on multi-touch devices such as iPad: it’s not great. Note taking was actually better on the old-fashioned devices that required a special stylus to work. On the iPad, no matter what you do, your palm will interact with the app. Writing long-hand notes while holding your palm in the air is incredibly inconvenient and the designers of Penultimate know this and they even devised some sort of customizable “palm block” feature. You can pick whether you are left or right handed, and how you usually hold your pen and it works… About half the time.

So if you are serious about this, you will need to learn a nifty trick I picked up when I was leveling up my pencil and charcoal drawing skills: you use a barrier. To prevent smearing (or in your case unwanted input) you just place something under your palm. A piece of paper or a folded napkin is enough to block the skin galvanic response the touch-screens pick up on and eliminate interference letting you concentrate on working your stylus. It will take some practice to get up to speed writing like this.

Why not just type your notes? Well, if you are fast enough typist and your notes are going to be 90% words then yeah – that’s probably the ideal solution. It builds up searchable document base that is way better than document scans or vector graphics PDF dumps you get from the above. I was just going from my own experience – my course load was science heavy, and most of my notes required me to draw stuff. Diagrams, float charts, graphs, tables, etc.. But if your courses don’t do that then you can easily use Google Drive, or something like Plain Text app which atuo-saves your notes to DropBox.

What is your Student Toolkit? What apps and services you would recommend to a modern day college undergrad?

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12 Responses to Mobile Tools for College Students

  1. FX FRANCE Google Chrome Mac OS says:

    Interesting setup! I know a few people who use iPads/tablets to take notes, but I’ve always use my MacBook Air (weight and battery have never been an issue with it) with the awesome TeXmacs app. Most people following math-heavy courses like myself never use iPads, and a lot prefer taking notes on paper…

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  2. Jason *StDoodle* Wood UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows says:

    I know you’re super-pro-Apple and all, but I’m fairly sure most of this would work with any decent, modern tablet & phone. ;)

    Also; napkins are scratchy, and probably not the best long-term solution to your barrier needs. I would recommend a glasses or lcd screen cleaning cloth. (You can probably go into any optical place and ask for one of the former; if they charge, it won’t be much.) You might need to double them over though; they can be quite thin.

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  3. Mart SINGAPORE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    We live in a world with ubiquitous internet access and powerful mobile devices whose computing power is better with laptops 7 years ago, so sometimes we forget that connectivity can fail. And fail fast. Once it does, that polished essay you just saved on a cloud-based service, isn’t worth anything if you are not able to access it.

    While we bask in the awesomeness, we must also be aware of the shortcomings. We should always be mindful of the need to find balance when using the Force.

    And what’s with all the Apple love lately? :D

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  4. Jereme Kramer UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux says:

    I feel like the necessity of these items changes based on campus. For instance, all of my professors are deeply offended if anyone takes out any kind of electronic device. They recognize that they can be good note taking tools, but also know that students are more than likely going to be browsing Facebook most of the time.

    Professors, especially after the implementation of BlackBoard at our school (an online course management system that allows electronic assignment submission), require files to be submitted as Word docs. Although Google will allow you to export files as word documents, a well formatted lab report will never look quite right once it has been converted. The end result is that it is much simpler to use Dropbox and MS Word rather than Google Drive — even if you have to first download the file to any lab machines you use before you can edit it.

    The technologies that I use the most are remote sessions. Instead of using an iPad, I carry around my CR-48 (with a minimal Linux desktop replacing Chrome OS). It gets just about the same battery life as a tablet and is only marginally heavier while allowing me the comfort of a larger screen and real keyboard. However, the computer lacks the power for me to ever consider using it to run Octave. In this case, I ssh to my Macbook Pro and run my scripts that way. With Dropbox I don’t even have to figure out how to transfer my locally created .m files to the MBP. Likewise, for the instances where I know LibreOffice will make files that look different in MS Office, our school has several VNC servers where I can then write in Word.

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  5. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ FX:

    Yeah, paper is the most convenient for a lot of math and science courses. Hence my recommendation of JotNot. :)

    @ Jason *StDoodle* Wood:

    Yes, it would. I just happen to own an iPhone and an iPad and no Android devices so I’m writing about what I know. Unfortunately the software ecosystems for Apple and Android are a bit disjoint and there isn’t much overlap between them.

    I don’t know if I’m super pro-Apple though. A lot of their policies annoy me, their Maps app sucks (breaking up with Google was the worst thing they could have ever done) and I’m getting tired of some of the the excessive sekumorphism (that leather stitching thing is kinda ugly). But yeah, I’m sure there are equivalent apps on the droid platform – I just haven’t used them so I can’t comment on their quality.

    @ Mart:

    Yes, it can fail but when when it does, it is usually a local failure. For example, if you lose internet connection in your dorm, you pick up your crap and leg it to the next building over. If it fails at your entire university, you get in the car and drive to the nearest Starbucks. If there is no connectivity in a convenient driving distance, whip out the phone and create hotspot over 3G or LTE. If the cellular network is down in addition to internet connectivity in the area… Well, that probably means some serious shit is going down over there and the classes will probably be cancelled anyway. :P

    Oh, and Apple love is here because in the last few years acquired some Apple products. Might as well write about them. :)

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  6. ST/op DENMARK Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    Great post, and yes, you can do everything on Droid too :)

    A few comments:
    Although I’m a heavy Dropbox user, most of the online storage can also be achieved on Google Drive in this case. You even have the choice of storing files as-is or convert them to Google documents when applicable. Furthermore, you can edit or annotate your stuff directly once stored in Drive. The build-in Drive-widget (on the Galaxy at least) lets you upload pictures (“scans”) of your notes directly.

    For plain text, the official Dropbox app for Android has a build-in text editor which makes yet another app redundant.

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  7. Ethan UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I would disagree with some of what you said. Dropbox is great. However, I don’t take notes in a WYSIWYG environment. I always use LaTeX. Granted, I am in high school, so it might be different in college. I have always had troubles with diagrams, and flowcharts. I use a rather large laptop that gets about 9 hours of battery life. For my uses, it is enough, so an iPad isn’t necessary. Also, I feel like I would be less productive with an iPad because it is smaller, and doesn’t have a proper keyboard. I don’t have one, so I don’t know, but I think that alt+tab doesn’t work. In addition, I don’t think that you can have to apps open side by side. Thus, I am sticking with my laptop, and think that that is the best choice for me at the moment (though I do want to switch to linux). Also, in regards to the iPhone, I type all of my notes, so I don’t find it necessary to have a camera.

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  8. Morghan Google Chrome Linux says:

    Samsung has done a much better job with taking written notes. From the crappy little S-Notes app to some really nice ones on Play, their interaction between pen and tablet are much smoother on the Note than any Apple, Android, or even other Samsung devices.

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  9. Ron Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    I still use a real laptop myself (T61), I dont find the weight to be an issue and I can use my normal dev tools when I want, could I go the route of sshing to a remote VPS and doing the dev work there, most of the time, but a decent enough chunk of the time I have no net access. I also dont like being dependent on some company who’c commercial interests may (or probably) run contary to mine, especially for data, regardless of what it actually is.

    I also take notes on paper, then at the end of the week type em up, doesnt take long, and it helps it sink in

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  10. Douglas AUSTRALIA Google Chrome Windows says:

    Call me old fashioned, but I totally disagree using a tablet for class.

    I take my laptop (Thinkpad T530) to my lectures and take notes on that. Considering its size and power, it’s surprisingly light – I can carry it comfortably in a backpack to and from uni, and apart from one lecture theatre where everyone has troubles with laptops, it sits comfortably on almost anything. It can also last through my longest day (about four-five hours) on a single charge.

    I type notes in OneNote, as that way there’s a chance that a) I won’t lose them and b) I will be able to read them as my handwriting is horrible, which are synced to Skydrive (and thus my phone and my tablet) as I go along.

    As for assignment work, I do that in Word on the laptop, save it to Skydrive and it’s there and available on the phone and tablet for viewing and editing. Skydrive also has the added benefit of not totally mangling a Word document so that it only vaguely resembles what you fed to it and offers more storage (25GB in my case because I have an old account).

    As for my tablet and phone, I tend to use the former when I’m wasting time between classes and just want to muck about on the internet and the latter for phone-y things like messaging and things between classes – I rarely actually use either for educational purposes at uni.

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  11. wittaker25 UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows says:

    I’m finishing up my BS in MechE this semseter, so I’ve struggled with this topic a lot. Mechanical engineering isn’t as well documented online as other fields, so it makes collecting and organizing notes more difficult (additionally, a large number of the proprietary tools we use also only run on windows which keeps me tied to that platform to some extent).

    My dream setup would be a flexible display tablet that you could fold to make larger or smaller. Say as small as a nexus 7 and as large as an open textbook (17″x11″). You can important lecture notes, digital textbooks, audio recordings, videos, pictures/scans into a single application. Web pages could be quickly clipped and imported. All audio samples would have speech-to-text analysis performed on them and all text notes could be written on. This entire database would sync to the cloud quickly and in the background. I’d prefer if items could be labeled using a tagging scheme rather than a folder/notebook structure for easier sorting. The tablet could be paired with external displays wirelessly whenever you needed some extra screen real-estate. A small camera/microphone unit could be detached from the tablet and placed in a more useful location for capturing (alternatively, a smartphone could also take this roll).

    I know you can get part of the way to this setup with applications like OneNote and Evernote, but they aren’t nearly as fast, flexible, and feature-rich enough in their current states. I also have a difficult time deciding what media I need to keep locally, and what media i can have living in the cloud.

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  12. Arthur Schneider CANADA Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    Call me old-fashioned, but I use pen and paper in class. I’m an East Asian Studies major.

    When I get home, I type my notes in Markdown format, usually the same day. I touch-type, so this doesn’t take much time. (Say, 30-45 minutes for a 3-hour class). It gives me a chance to review and structure the material better, and this transcribing step helps me remember stuff and identify things I don’t understand. I’m sure it ends up saving me hours of studying.

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