One of the tabletâ€™s great promise is the ability to replace a lot of paper-based material: books, newspapers, magazines, and the traditional notebook. While itâ€™s a great replacement for the first three, it hasnâ€™t been that great a replacement for the last one.
Maybe itâ€™s my age, or maybe its because taking notes by by hand is supposed to be better than typing them up, but I prefer taking notes by hand to typing them up. Having literally a free hand at taking notes â€” use a thin or a thick pen, of different colors, being able to draw diagrams or connecting phrases or words with arrows or other figures â€” helps me process the ideas as I note them down. This is nearly impossible with a text-based note-taking app like Simplenote, or Plain Text, or at the very least it will be a tedious exercise that interferes with the flow of your thoughts.
But two main barriers make the tablet only a so-so device for hand-written notes. The first is the fact that the capacitative touch screen accepts inputs from fingers, or fat stylus tips; certainly nothing as fine as a pen. And itâ€™s hard to write with fat stylus tips because you canâ€™t really see what youâ€™re writing. The second is that since the whole screen is touch sensitive, laying part of your palm down on the screen to write some lines at the top part of the screen inevitably creates smudges and stray marks.
But I wanted to maximize the iPadâ€™s use, so I ended up getting three note-taking apps. Hereâ€™s how they stack up against each other in my usage scenarios.
One of the first things I did when I got an iPad 2 was to look for a note-taking app. Penultimate ($0.99, with in-app purchase options for paper packs and other ) was highly recommended by friends, and had fantastic ratings on the iTunes App Store. I liked the similarity to Field Notes notebooks, the option to use thin or thick pens, of different colors, the choice of using blank, lined, or cross-hatched guides, the ability to add notebooks so that I could keep my notes organized by subject or event.
I used it for a while, but soon found myself frustrated with its major limitation: the inability to zoom in on your writing area. Eventually, it felt like using a marker pen with a regular-sized notebook. You could only fit so many words into a line, and they looked scraggly at best. Even the recent update, which lets you now paste in photos and annotate them, wasnâ€™t enough to convince me to keep it on my iPad.
I moved on to Bamboo Paper, (free; $1.99 in-app purchase to be able to create more notebooks) which was meant as a companion app to Wacomâ€™s Bamboo Stylus but actually works with any old stylus you happen to have. The app is dead simple: itâ€™s exactly like paper. You can only write and draw on it. No importing photos or PDFs. The options for stroke thickness and color are also minimal, but are actually enough for most writing and sketching needs.
The two killer features, IMHO, are the zoom function (you can zoom in to about 3x), and the algorithm that creates the smoothest and most natural-looking pen strokes. Itâ€™s the closest experience to writing on paper that Iâ€™ve gotten from an iPad app. And so itâ€™s been my default note-taking app, for sketching out rough ideas to preparing lecture notes to taking meeting notes. And you can export individual pages as a photo, to be saved in the Photos app or sent as an email attachment, or to export a notebook as a PDF or a Bamboo Paper file to be used with the desktop app that comes with the Wacom Bamboo tablets.
Then along came Notability, (itâ€™s a steal at $0.99) which is a jack of all trades and, to my surprise, a master of most. This app offers the most features: it lets you take typewritten notes, or hand-written ones. It lets you import PDFs and highlight text or add hand-written notes. It lets you import photos and annotate them. You can record audio notes that are â€śsyncedâ€ť with your typed or hand-written ones (it lets you listen to the part of the meeting or lecture that corresponded to the time you took down particular lines or phrases)
Like Bamboo Paper, it also has a zoom feature, though limited to about 1.5x. It does have a â€śzoom boxâ€ť â€” a kind of loupe or magnifying lens feature that allows you to write really fine lines or take fine notes. And the killer feature: a wrist pad that you can pull up from the bottom to keep stray marks off the page.
Notability has quickly become my go-to app for marking up PDFs (correcting students papers, marking up and annotating reference for lectures, etc.), essentially replacing GoodReader. And thereâ€™s a good chance it might supplant Bamboo Paper for hand-written nots and Simplenote for typed notes.
It also exports its contents to, among other options, Dropbox and iTunes. The iTunes export is especially useful, since you can just pluck your annotated files off iTunes when you plug in the iPad.
So, in sum:
Penultimate: A nice enough app, but the lack of zoom keeps me from using it regularly.
Bamboo Paper: The app that is most like a real notebook, with generous zoom abilities and a fine line option that lets you take better notes.
Notability: A flexible app that lets you take handwritten or typed notes, as well as read and annotate images and PDFs. This gets my vote as the best of the three.
Whatever your note-taking or sketching need, Iâ€™m sure one of these three apps will most likely suit your need.
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