Top iPad apps for Windows users: Part I

Woody leonhard By Woody Leonhard

Full disclosure: I love my iPad2. Don’t know how I ever lived without it.

On the other hand, I have a complex, love-hate dependency on Windows. Getting the best from both? Not so easy.

A Windows user since it came on a 3.5-inch floppy, my decision to buy an iPad was something of a lark. I had no compelling need for it. But my wife wanted a little Web browser for the kitchen, and a neighbor had rave reviews about the iPad’s ability to keep his toddler occupied for hours. So I took the plunge, and I’m glad I did!

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From a PC user’s perspective, its limitations can make it seem like a bad investment — at least initially. After all, its screen-based keyboard is hell for a touch-typist, it’s incompatible with many standard Windows apps such as Office and Flash, and it’s too expensive to just leave sitting on the table most of the time. The typical smartphone has more tricks than the iPad, and you can carry the phone in your pocket.

No, the typical PC user’s first impression of the iPad is that it’s cute, it does a few things well, and it’s fun for kids and the not-so-computer-savvy members of the family. However, the PC still runs rings around the iPad in a dozen different ways.

But now that you’ve got one, what do you do with it? Can you make your iPad work in your Windows-centric life? It turns out you can. I’ve found a handful of apps and a couple of tricks that might give Windows users a good return on their iPad investment.

This week I’m going to look at two key apps — one that lets you control an iPad with your PC and another that lets you control your PC with the iPad. More apps and tips to follow in coming weeks.

Controlling your iPad with PC-based iTunes

Yes, you have my permission to groan. I hate iTunes just as much as you might. Maybe more, because I’ve been struggling with iTunes — and writing about my struggles — for a decade. It still doesn’t look or act like a Windows app, and it has a nasty habit of freezing at all sorts of awkward times: in the middle of dragging a file into one of the folders, when it decides to go look on the Web for something, or when you have the temerity to use it to access the iTunes store. iTunes goes out to lunch and comes back only when it feels good and ready. In fact, in the course of writing this article, I twice had to kill instances of hung iTunes using Windows 7’s Task Manager.

Fortunately, I’ve found a couple of iTunes tricks that, when used in conjunction with an iPad, make the travails a little less infuriating.

In my July 21 Top Story, “How to download and save streaming videos,” I talk about scraping and converting online videos — located on, say, YouTube — then storing them as MP4 files, which can be played on an iPad. If you follow the instructions in that story and create MP4 files on your PC, they can easily be sent to your iPad using iTunes. Just start the iTunes app on your Windows machine, plug in the iPad, and then click Movies on the left (see Figure 1). Drag the MP4 files into the Movies folder, and they appear in your iPad — where you can play them, one by one, in the iPad Videos app. Easy.

Drag mp4 files here
Figure 1. Drag MP4 files into the iTunes Movies folder, and they appear in the iPad’s Videos app.

That sets things up for my top iTunes trick. For reasons known only to The Most Valuable Company on Earth, it’s impossible to string iPad Movies together in a playlist — you’re forced to play them one at a time. (Playlists don’t exist in the Videos app.) To play a series of movies the way you do music tracks, you have to get tricky.

It’s trivial to put music in an iPad playlist. Go into the iPod app. Click the plus (+) icon at the bottom left, type in a playlist name, and tap the blue + icon to the left of any songs you want to add to the list. Tap the blue Done button and you’re, uh, done.

The iPod app has all sorts of tools to help you build playlists. You can, for example, sort songs by genre, bring up album covers, and add podcasts and audio books. You can even make new playlists by stringing together old playlists. But again, you can’t make a playlist in the Video app or make a video playlist in iTunes that works on the iPad.

So here’s the trick: Using iTunes on your PC, you can trick your iPad into thinking that it has a Movie playlist (and play all the movies you want with just one click). How? You make the iPad think that your video playlists are TV Shows. I know it doesn’t make any sense. But it works. Here’s how, step by step:
  • Step 1. Plug the iPad into your PC and fire up iTunes. Inside the iTunes Movies list, select the videos that you want to put in your Playlist. Right-click and choose Get Info. The Multiple Item Information dialog box appears.

  • Step 2. Click the Options tab. In the Media Kind drop-down box, choose TV Show.

  • Step 3. Click the Video tab. Type a name for your new video Playlist in the box marked Show. Click OK.

iTunes takes over your iPad for a bit and syncs. When it’s finished synching, go into the Videos app and click the (tiny, grayed-out) text at the top that says TV Shows. Sure enough, there’s your Playlist, cleverly disguised as a TV Show, as shown in Figure 2.

Movies converted to tv shows
Figure 2. Once converted, movies show up in the TV Shows folder.

There are limitations. TV Shows are hard to organize in any meaningful way, other than by Show/Episode — which doesn’t make sense for a video playlist. After you’ve put a video into a TV Show playlist, it disappears from the iTunes Movie folder, and it won’t appear inside the Movies part of the iPad Videos app. So if you put The Muppets Bohemian Rhapsody in a TV Show Playlist, The Muppets Bohemian Rhapsody won’t appear with the other videos. You can get around that shortcoming by sticking another copy of The Muppets Bohemian Rhapsody, if you have one, in the Movie folder.

You can remove a video from a TV Show playlist and return it to the Movie folder. Go to the TV Shows list, right-click on the video, choose Get Info, click Options, and change the Media Kind back to Movie.

By default, your iPad plays the videos in a TV Show playlist in alphabetical order. If you want to choose the sequence in which videos appear on the playlist, the easiest approach I’ve found is to modify the Sort Name function. In the TV Shows section, right-click on a video and choose Get Info. Click the Sorting tab and type a sequence number as part of the video name in the Sort Name box (see Figure 3).

Use the sort name to organize a playlist
Figure 3. To get your TV Show Playlist videos to play in the sequence you like, use the Sort Name field (circled in yellow) and enter a name and sequential number.

That’s my top iTunes/iPad trick. If you have others, join in the discussion on the Lounge and tell me all about them!

Take control of Windows from your iPad

In his July 15, 2010, Top Story, Michael Lasky took a look at three iPad apps — LogMeIn, PocketCloud, and iTeleport — that let you control your PC from afar. A little over a year later, the field has mushroomed: I found more than a dozen PC remote-control apps in the App Store.

LogMeIn Ignition (info page) remains a favorite among reviewers, although at U.S. $29.95 for an iPad app, it’s pricey. You have to run LogMeIn on both the iPad and the Windows machine, and if you go with the free version of LogMeIn on the Windows PC, you won’t be able to transfer files, print remotely, hear sounds from the PC, or share desktops. To do any of that, you have to spend an additional $69.95 per year for the Windows version of LogMeIn Pro.

GoToMyPC, another name that should sound familiar to Windows aficionados, also draws good reviews — but it turns even more costly, quickly. Figure on spending $9.99 per month per computer after the initial 30-day free-trial period.

Other, lesser-known products have irksome, if not fatal, flaws. Antecea’s Desktop Connect demands that you run a Virtual Network Computing (VNC) program on your Windows PC. You also have to connect with a static (hard-coded) IP address. Splashtop works well on a Wi-Fi system, connecting to PCs on the same network, but going outside the local network can become difficult.

I finally settled on a free (for noncommercial use) program called TeamViewer. It offers two possibilities: run the program manually, in which case it generates a random user ID and password for the iPad to initiate the session (see Figure 4); or install the TeamViewer program on your Windows PC and leave it running (the Setup unattended access option shown in Figure 4) — it will control the interaction with your iPad any time you need to connect.

TeamViewer lets you control a pc from your ipad
Figure 4. The free-for-personal-use TeamViewer can be run manually on your PC — whenever you need it, no installation required.

Once connected, you can use the iPad keyboard to enter text; pinch to expand or reduce the size of the screen; tap with two fingers to emulate a right-click; use the buttons on the top of the screen for Alt, Ctrl, and Esc; and much more. Even Flash animations come through remarkably quickly.

Those are my top two choices for iPad apps for Windows folks. Stay tuned for more.

Thanks to Jim Domville for his TeamViewer suggestions!

Feedback welcome: Have a question or comment about this story? Post your thoughts, praise, or constructive criticisms in the WS Columns forum.

Woody Leonhard is a Windows Secrets senior editor and a senior contributing editor at InfoWorld. His books on Windows and Office include the award-winning Windows 7 All-In-One For Dummies. His many writings cast a critical eye on the latest industry shenanigans.
Woody Leonhard

About Woody Leonhard

Woody Leonhard is a Windows Secrets senior editor and a senior contributing editor at InfoWorld. His latest book, the comprehensive 1,080-page Windows 8 All-In-One For Dummies, delves into all the Win8 nooks and crannies. His many writings tell it like it is — whether Microsoft likes it or not.