Review: iPad note taking

Handwritten notes are very important in presentation design. I use 2 kinds:
  1. A very small note book with a beautiful leather cover to take meeting notes
  2. The back pages of old print out for slide design (I take more pages out than I add, the pile is shrinking fast)
For writing I use my favorite pencil: the Lamy 2000 (review).

Let’s look at application 1 first: meeting notes

Although I love my luxury micro note book, there is a big problem with analogue note taking: finding stuff. Since you write sequentially, and often use poor handwriting, it is hard to access notes that are part of a specific project (I can have more than 10 things going on at the same time).

Digital note taking on an iPad can solve this: simply create a note book for every project.

The key problem is the iPad-hand interface. Steve Jobs always was against using a styles, he correctly reminded us that we have 10 of them already. That is true for navigation, but not for writing large pieces of text (fast). The biggest problem is seeing what you do. Big fingers are getting in the way of your eyes, leading to illegible scribbles. And after a while you get tired of holding your finger straight. So there is no escaping from a style.

An iPad stylus needs to have a fat tip with a soft surface, mirroring the texture of a human finger. The resulting line can still be highly thin though, getting drawn at the center of impact of the soft tip. To show this effect, see fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld sketch drawings live on stage during the LeWeb 2011 conference in Paris last year (skip to 19:50).

At the moment, I am using the Cosmonaut, but I think it is too fat for my personal taste, and I do not like the plastic/rubber grip. I am curious to find one that enables you to see what you write using glass, but it comes at a price according to these iPad stylus reviews.

Back to the iPad apps. I installed and tried a bunch of them: Notability, Notes Plus, Note Taker HD, and Penultimate. Penultimate is by far the simplest one, and that is exactly the reason I like it best.

First of all the hand writing works best (at least for a left-handed person writing with a Cosmonaut. Other apps use a combination of text typing and handwriting, or have more sophisticated interfaces for handwriting (a magnifying glass that allows you to write big, but the words get stored smaller). But I think this is not the point of handwriting notes: you scribble, you draw, you write, you sketch. Hand writing is fast because it is visual, not organized, and you can use your own short cuts and abbreviations. Adding a cluttered user interface full of advanced features misses the point.

It is amusing to see that handwriting on the iPad makes you go back to that handwriting style you learned as a six-year old, when the teacher made sure you did not have to lift the pen from the paper in a word. I half-forgot how to use that technique.

The other thing to get used to is that as you write in very big fonts on your iPad, people sitting around you are likely to be able to read your notes (if your hand-writing is decent). So your note-taking privacy is pretty much gone, no more comments about how boring the meeting is...

Penultimate misses a lot of features that I do not need, but it should put in one: the ability to create folders and organize notebooks. Also, I wonder how much storage all these notes will take up. I am not sure whether each page gets stored as a full HD PNG image, these will be especially large for the new iPad retina display. And finally, it would be nice to be able to at least read my notes on my iPhone without having to go through Dropbox.

In short, Penultimate is my favorite for meeting notes.

Now about slide sketches (application 2). I will try over the coming weeks to use my note taking app. It has the advantage of a good eraser, so I do not need to use 5 sheets of paper for one slide design, and I can keep the designs organized.

A few months ago I reviewed the Wacom Inkling, a tool that enables you to store sketches made with a regular pen digitally. I voted with my feet, and I have not found myself using it very much. I guess the disconnect between drawing and seeing the actual result electronically makes it hard to integrate it into my workflow.

Do you have experience with handwriting and note taking apps?