LEGO on the iPad

January 2011


I got an iPad for Christmas. Santa really did read my Christmas letter, and I must have been a very good boy, because he delivered a 16GB 3G iPad all wrapped in its Apple-designed-in-Cupertino yummy box. My primary reason for getting one was to use it as a tool for building LEGO. I do most of my LEGO building at the kitchen table, as I am not lucky enough to have space for a “LEGO Lair” like others I know. Space is a premium, and I found that a laptop took up too much room when all I needed to do is browse some Building Instructions or look up a picture on Brickshelf. Enter the iPad.

I’ve gathered together a few pointers to applications that I find useful for improving my LEGO experience using the iPad. Everyone is different and your taste in apps will differ from mine. Let me know if I should add anything to the list... this is strictly a work-in-progress!

LEGO Building Instructions

My starting point was to gather all of my building instructions to view on the iPad. The iBooks reader on the iPad provides an electronic “bookshelf” that you can store books in. It was designed to read eBooks (few of which are available in Ireland) so I use it to view PDFs. PDF rendering in iBooks is not very fast, and it does not support some of the advanced note-taking and markup features in GoodReader. But for an app that is free with iOS 4.2 it gets the job done.

But how to get your building instructions in PDF format? The easiest way to get the official LEGO building instructions is from the LEGO website. LEGO provide a download service for BIs that provide them in handy PDF format at Download each building instruction in PDF format and then simply open iTunes and drag-n-drop the PDF files onto the iPad.

If you have LDD files I suggest that you print them to PDF format. Choose F7 to select Building Guide mode, and then select Tool Box - Generate HTML Building Guide. Once the HTML guide is completely generated and saved open it in your web browser. If you are on a Mac it is a simple matter of choosing Print - Save to PDF to create a PDF file. On a PC I suggest you install CutePDF writer to create a virtual printer that generates PDF files and saves them to disk.

By default iBooks will display only the eBooks on your iPad. Tap the Collections button at the top left of the screen to choose PDFs and you will see the PDFs displayed on the bookshelf.

Once you have loaded the BIs into iBooks you can drag and drop them to rearrange the order that they appear on the screen.


GoodReader - a faster PDF reader

iBooks will pass as a PDF reader, but it struggles with large PDF files and if you have many building instructions finding the correct one becomes tricky. Enter GoodReader, a super-fast PDF reader and so much more. GoodReader is available on the AppStore, and is not free. But it has become my default tool for organising files, storing PDFs and most importantly, annotating PDFs so I can highlight interesting things to return to later.

Let me explain; say you are browsing the instructions for the bulldozer set, and come across a really nifty technique that you’d like to remember for later. Using GoodReader you can markup the PDF file and save a note to yourself to come back to that page later.

GoodReader does a lot more than simply display PDFs and allow you to annotate them, and one of its biggest strengths is connecting to DropBox...


DropBox - keep your files in the Cloud

DropBox is an online file storage service that gives you a free allocation of 2GB. There are many other services that offer similar free storage such as MobileMe, and However I find that most apps on the iPad support DropBox integration by default. What is the advantage of DropBox?

DropBox creates a local folder on your PC that it keeps in sync with your DropBox account in the Cloud. Any changes made on your DropBox folder locally are reflected back into the Cloud. DropBox keeps a version history of everything you’ve changed, so you can always undelete an important file.

What has this got to do with LEGO? If you place all of your LEGO code, designs, PDFs and pictures into your DropBox account you will have access to them from anywhere in the world, including on your iPad! DropBox will simply keep everything in sync for you. Apps on the iPad that support DropBox will allow you to upload and download content into your DropBox, and next time you return to your PC or Mac the contents you create on your iPad are automatically added to your local DropBox folder.

I use DropBox to store all of my LEGO code, building instructions and sample chapters for the book I’m writing. I can access them from any device (Mac at home, PC in work, laptop, iPad or iPhone).


EverNote - remember all of your LEGO

EverNote is another one of those amazing “how did I ever live without it” apps. EverNote is similar to DropBox in that it stores content for you in the Cloud. While DropBox stores files in a traditional folder structure, EverNote stores notes in a flat structure where you tag notes to allow for easy searching. It’s a different concept and takes some getting used to, but once you master it EverNote is an indispensable tool for research and note taking.

Notes in EverNote can be text, PDFs, pictures or just about anything you can see on your computer. Most importantly EverNote provides a “web-clipper” that installs into your browser; see a web-page that you like? Click the clipper button and it is automatically
added into your notes. EverNote is similar to DropBox in that it provides access to your notes from anywhere - however you have to download and install the EverNote client to access and create notes effectively. Clients are available for Mac, Windows, iPhone, iPad and more at their website.

How do I use EverNote to improve my LEGO building? As I browse cool and interesting designs on BrickShelf or MOCpages I click the web-clipper button to add them into my notes. I then add a “tag” so I can find them again; at a minimum they get a LEGO tag, and usually a BrickShelf tag along with some descriptive text. Say I found a great way to building a steering module for a truck; I would tag it LEGO, BrickShelf, steering, truck. A month from now when I want to find that picture all I have to do is type “steering” into the search bar and up pops my note!

EverNote can store photos you capture on your phone; as I build I might want to capture a work-in-progress photo of a design element of step. I can capture the photo on my iPhone using EverNote and it is automatically uploaded into my notes. Cool!


Nebulous - a simple text editor

Nebulous is a text editor that is ideal for writing code and short text-based content. I use it for writing short snippets of NXC code for my book when I am out and about with my iPad. Nebulous is linked to DropBox; it reads content from your DropBox account and saves it locally for you to edit. When you are back online you can upload the content into the DropBox account where it is available on your PC or Mac.

I used Nebulous to write an entire chapter for my upcoming book. I would write the text in Nebulous and save it to DropBox. I also wrote all of the sample programs in NXC using Nebulous and saved them to DropBox. Once I was back at my Mac I was able to import the text into Scrivener (a writers program on the Mac) to create the final draft of the chapter.

Nebulous has a customisable top-row on the on-screen keyboard that allows you to add commonly used characters to speed up your typing. I added the standard punctuation characters that NXC uses.


Textastic - a programmers editor

The iPad was conceived as a content-consuming device; reading web pages, emails and viewing movies. But it has quickly become an effective content-producing device, especially if you pair it with the Apple Bluetooth keyboard. It didn’t take keen programmers long to realise that what they wanted was a programmer’s editor on the iPad. An editor that understood the syntax of the language you were writing, one that colour-highlighted syntax elements, correctly tabbed and indented code and gave programmers the tools they need to get code written without any fuss.

Textastic is a clean and effective coding tool for the iPad. I moved over to Textastic to create the NXC code for my book. Naturally it links to DropBox, so all of your files can be downloaded from DropBox into Textastic, edited and then uploaded again. Textastic understand the syntax for C (which covers NXC), Java (for leJOS) and Lua (for pbLua).


Last updated 1 February, 2011

All content © 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 Mark Crosbie

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