Handwriting on the iPad

I have written before about my love affair with paper, and even though a lot of my paper life has already transitioned into a digital counterpart, I still enjoy the paper experience of taking notes — writing things out by hand, scribbling around the ideas, sketching a diagram for illustration.  But at the same time, I want to be able to search these scribblings just like I search my online calendar for my last dentist appointment.  The Catch-22 for me is meetings — it feels rude to be typing during a small meeting, and yet I want to be able to get back to the notes I make.  Handwriting notes on the iPad is silent, unobtrusive, and I can immediately email the notes as a PDF or image during or after the meeting.  Send them to Evernote and – voila – you can search them, too!

For people like me who are in transition between paper notebooks and digital notes, there are wonderful handwriting apps for the iPad, so we get some of the experience of jotting notes on paper with some of the function of digital records.  I’m going to compare two of these apps:  Notes Plus and Noteshelf.  A lot of hype has also been made of the app Penultimate, but I find that one SO limited in functionality I’m not even going to bother with it. I’m primarily considering these two because they at least offer zoomed writing —  giving you a little “zoom” box in which you can write big and sloppy, but your handwriting will appear neat and not-so-big on the page.  Penultimate does not offer this, last I checked.

The perfect app would be a mix of Notes Plus and Noteshelf, but until that happens I find myself going back and forth between the two.  You can see screenshot examples at the Flickr set.  Here are some pros for each one.

Pros for Notes Plus (… or things it can do that Noteshelf cannot):

-  AMAZING –  you draw a circle around something you’ve written and then you can drag that selected chunk to some other part of the page. This is *wonderful* for brainstorming and it was probably the first big feature that really pulled me away from paper notebooks.  Rearrange your own handwritten notes! Love it.

-  AUTO-ADVANCE – when you’re writing in the Zoom Box, Notes Plus will automatically move forward as you write, creating a very smooth experience. Noteshelf has a different way of handling this and maybe I’m just not used to it yet.

-  TYPING – if you get tired of writing by hand, you can also add text by typing, which means you can copy text from a web page or email and paste it into your notebook. It also has many, many fonts to choose from if you do decide to type.

-  SOUND – you can record audio, say for a lecture or a meeting, and that audio will be included with your written notes.  I haven’t tried getting sound out of the app yet, but it looks like it just syncs to iTunes.

-  GOOGLE DOCS – if you live in Google, you’ll be happy to see that Notes Plus can directly export a PDF version of your notes into your Docs account.

Pros for Noteshelf (… or things it can do that Notes Plus cannot):

-  NOTEBOOKS – I really, really like how Noteshelf uses the iBooks-style wooden bookcase motif and lets you make several different notebooks. Notes Plus lets you make different notes, too, but the visual organization is not nearly as nice as it is here.

-  PAPERS –  for simulating the experience of using a paper notebook, Noteshelf wins hands down.  Whereas Notes Plus only has 4 paper templates — blank, lined, grid and small grid — Noteshelf has dozens!  Including day planner, meeting notes, shopping list, music score, and Cornell-style note paper.

- ZOOM CONTROL – although it doesn’t auto-advance the way Notes Plus does, Noteshelf does offer some fine-tuning for the Zoom Box, such as amount of zoom, size, and line spacing.

- SMOOTHING – both apps do a certain amount of “smoothing” to your handwriting so it will look more natural and less jerky; Noteshelf seems to somehow do this a bit better than Notes Plus.

- COLORS – far more colors to choose from for the pen, and a simple slider to set pen radius.  Notes Plus only has 12 colors and 6 sizes.

- ERASER – there is a dedicated eraser tool, whereas Notes Plus just has an option to change the pen to a white color.

- IMAGES –  insert a photo or screenshot from the iPad Photo Album, resize it, spin it around, and then write over it, around it and include it with your PDF export.  Very Snazzy.

- DROPBOX & EVERNOTE – This is big for me, since these are the two places where I store almost everything I use on a regular basis. Export has been very fast so far.

Export options:

… in Notes Plus:  Photo Album, iTunes, Email, Google Docs

… in Noteshelf:  Photo Album, iTunes, Email, Dropbox, Evernote, Print

A Word about a Stylus:

“You get what you pay for” is the rule here.  My library tried out the super cheap path and found that kind of stylus to be completely useless.  For my own use, I invested a little more for the Boxwave stylus and LOVE it — extremely smooth and nice to hold.  If you’re looking for something cheaper than the Boxwave but more functional than the super cheap stuff, you can try Pogo, which is definitely in the middle – for both quality and price.  But I HIGHLY recommend you splurge a bit and get the Boxwave.  You will be much happier going that direction.  If you plan on doing any handwriting or even drawing on the iPad, you will definitely want a stylus.