The elephant in the iPad’s room – the lack of file explorer/manager

iTunes is the easiest way to shift files onto and off the iPad?..Apple has to be kidding.

I’m constantly asked by APC readers whether they should buy an iPad instead of a netbook – and the questions are increasing in frequency now that iPads are becoming cheaper. And my answer is that although the iPad can do most things a netbook can (especially if you get a keyboard to go with it) there is one thing it can’t do well.  Simply the elephant in the iPad’s room is the device’s lack of a file explorer/manager and an easy way to transfer files on and off it.

What this means is that to get office documents onto and off the iPad is a pain in the butt. This is not a problem if you want to use the iPad to do a bit of surfing or email but for those thinking of using one as a netbook substitute (in which you want to create many documents on the road that you want to later edit on your main PC)  it’s a showstopper. On a netbook you save a file to a folder then find the folder with the Windows or Linux file managers and copy the file or folder to whatever storage you have handy a USB drive or network drive. Easy Peasy. On an iPad you can do no such thing.

On the iPad there are two things that prevent you from easily transferring files between the device and other computers. The first is that iPad has no file explorer like Windows Explorer to locate and manipulate files generated by iPad apps.  When you create a document with say Apple’s iPad word processor Pages the document can only be accessed from within Pages. And problem number two since there is no conventional USB port or Ethernet port you can’t easily transfer lots of data in bulk between an iPad and other PCs/Macs.  It’s plain that Apple has very deliberately withheld a file explorer from the iPad to ensure the device does not cross over into MacBook Air territory. As a result there isn’t one complete third party solution that lets you copy lots of files to the iPad and vice versa. 

Apple forces iPad users to find piecemeal solutions to the problem.  Below is how you are forced to transfer data onto and off the iPad.

Getting files ONTO your iPad – easy

This is the easy bit. Applications such as GoodReader Dropbox or Apple’s iDisk let you dump lots of documents quickly onto the iPad.  GoodReader provides the closest thing to a file manager for the iPad although it isn’t really a true file manager that finds all files in the unseen file system. It manages only the files you specifically import into it which kind of defeats the purpose of a file explorer/manager. For example if you create a document with the Pages word processor and save it it won’t show up in GoodReaders’ file explorer. Groan.

GoodReader lets you import files onto your iPad from myriad cloud

However GoodReader does let you import files into your iPad from the web FTP and cloud services. It also lets you mount your iPad as a folder on your PC using your Wi-Fi connection and the webdav protocol. Once a file is in GoodReader on iPad you can export it to other iPad apps on the device. Same goes for Dropbox which doesn’t provide
file management facilities but creates a Dropbox folder on your iPad
and lets you export documents from it to apps within the iPad. 

Once the document is Dropbox or GoodReader on your iPad you can then get it to the iPad applications via this pop-up.

Apple of course provides a native way of importing files onto the iPad but it’s slow and clumsy. You fire up iTunes on your computer go to “your iPad” then Apps then scroll down the page to File Sharing. Here you upload your document from your PC or Mac directly to the application that will use it on the iPad. But it only works with individual files and you can’t import folders.

Apple’s native way of getting documents on and off the iPad. Via the File Sharing function in iTunes.

Apple also lets you import files to the iPad and directly into apps by using iDisk which needs a MobileMe subscription of  USD$99 a year and Webdav servers which are not exactly consumer-friendly.

Getting files OFF your iPad – insanely hard

This is where the iPad is a giant fail. While I can use services like GoodReader Dropbox or iDisk to import heaps of files into my iPad and into applications like Pages I can’t do the opposite. If I create a document in one of the iPad apps I have no way of easily saving it to or making it available back to GoodReader or Dropbox for transfer to another PC/Mac.

The only ways to move the file off the iPad is to use the options that Apple provides me. When I quit a document that I have created in one of the iWork apps (Pages Numbers or Keynote)  I am  offered a menu that gives me five transfer options:

The five ways Apple lets me get a document off the iPad

  1. Email the file to myself. This is stone age stuff.
  2. Share it via an Apple web-based file sharing system to which you upload the file and then download it to  an external computer via a browser. Problem is you can’t do the same back. If you download a file from on your desktop computer edit it and upload it to iWork again you can’t download it back to your iPad apps.
  3. Send it to iTunes from where you then save it to your other computer and later import back into the iPad. This is an exercise in clumsiness that needs me to use iTunes as a middleman. It works but primitive.
  4. Copy it to iDisk on Apple’s MobileMe cloud service. This does the job nicely since iDisk can be opened on a Mac or PC directly but you need to pay the USD $99 per year MobileMe yearly subscription.
  5. Save the file to a Webdav server. Like the iDisk solution this lets me save and open an iWork document to and from the same place that I can directly access from my Mac/PC. You either set your Mac or PC up as a Webdav server or you can use a Webdav cloud service.

Option 5 actually provides the only roundabout solution so far to saving files form an iPad app directly to your Dropbox Box.Net Google Docs Skydrive and other cloud providers.  These providers don’t give you a webdav address directly but you can use an intermediary service from SMEStorage called Clouddav which provides you with webdav access to each. You first register with SMEStorage for free then choose Clouddav from the “Purchase Add-ons” link. This comes with a one-off cost of USD $5.

An alternative to all this is to simply stop using Apple’s iWork apps such as Pages Numbers and  Keynote and use QuickOffice Connect Mobile Suite for iPad an Office-compatible USD $23.99 iPad suite. Unlike the iWord apps this lets you save your office documents directly to Dropbox Box.Net Google Docs (as well as iDisk). It means you don’t have to futz around with intermediary steps such as iTunes take out membership of MobileMe or use and third party file management applications and webdav providers to achieve the same result.

So there. On a netbook I can directly save the file to my Dropbox or USB Key or network drive on the iPad I have to go through some pain to carry out a very fundamental computing task. If you need to generate lots of documents and send them back and forth from iPad to other computers the iPad will be a pain. If you want to use the iPad to mostly surf and email while generating some occasional documents that you’re happy to email yourself or shift via iTunes you don’t need a netbook. The iPad will do just fine.