The Future of Handwriting: Penultimate (1/4)

After speaking, what is our most basic and universal tool for communication? It’s writing. We start by using our fingers as kids, then advance to crayons, and (hopefully at some point in our childhood) end up with pens. While the keyboard has become an essential tool for us in the digitized world, many still feel most comfortable when “jotting down” a note with a real pen on real paper, and it’s because that’s how we started out writing in the first place.

With the iPad and its huge capacitive surface, we’ve now been given the chance to mix the best of both worlds: using our deeply ingrained skills of handwriting while still creating a digital, quickly reusable record. One of the Apps that excels in this field is Penultimate, and I’ll take a deeper look at it here in the first in a series about handwriting apps on the iPad.

Handwriting on an iPad?

It’s not as crazy as it might appear. Of course, we’ve gotten used to keyboards as means of inputting data digitally and they have their merits, there’s no denying it. But what for those of us who aren’t the 60-words-per-minute types or who simply prefer to write the way we’ve been taught as kids because it feels more intuitive? The huge, touch sensitive surface of the iPad allows for amazing drawing apps, so why not writing?

It’s quick, natural and – to steal from Steve himself here – you’ve got the tools you need with you all the time (hint: on average, you carry ten of them). So, far from being antiquated, one could consider handwriting on the iPad as the perfect symbiosis of old and new.

Penultimate: The Basics

Penultimate is one of the best known apps when it comes to handwriting support and has recently been featured on the iTunes App Store. It’s quite simple on the surface, but there’s a lot of power hidden in the few settings available.

Notebooks in Penultimate

Notebooks in Penultimate

You can have any number of notebooks within the application and the notebooks in turn can have any number of pages. You can set the paper style for the entire notebook (not single pages, though) with the choice between graph paper, lined and plain. Penultimate comes with a nine-page guide that explains all options and I’d advise you to leaf (pun intended) through it to familiarize yourself with the app quickly.

Besides choosing a paper style for your notebook, you can also select between different pen colors and widths (thin, medium, thick), giving you a comfortable variety of pens which you’d have to carry around with you otherwise. Here you can select them with as little as two taps.

Paper and Pen Options

Paper and Pen Options

Working with Penultimate

The reason Penultimate is regarded as one of the best writing apps is because of its ink rendering. To look real and give you the feeling of really writing on a digital surface (instead of drawing awkward pixelated lines that sometimes look like letters and sometimes not), an app needs to render our strokes into smooth lines that look like we’ve just put them down with a fountain pen. It needs to feel real and it needs to happen fast, otherwise there’s no comfort in writing.

Penultimate excels in this task. Its rendering engine is so precise that it mimics the appearance of real text written with a pen: the beginnings and endings of letters (where you put down and lift up the pen) are a tiny bit thicker than the rest of the lines.

If you write with a swing, the line will be heavier where you started and lighter where you ended.

Perfect rendering of the digital ink

Perfect rendering of the digital ink

Of course, while writing is the main aspect of Penultimate, it doesn’t mean you can’t draw or doodle on the pages as well. If you use the app for taking notes in class, for example, you can sketch down images and annotate them.

Sketching in Penultimate

Sketching in Penultimate

If you’re not satisfied with your results you can either undo, erase parts of the page, or clear the entire page altogether.

You can’t set the width of the eraser, unfortunately, so you’ll have to be careful when using it.

Tools for correcting content

Tools for correcting content

Neat Features

Penultimate has some additional features worth mentioning. The most important one is “wrist protection”. That means that you can actually rest your wrist or palm on the screen while writing.

Activate wrist protection and set location of tools

Activate wrist protection and set location of tools

That’s an enormous relief. Just pick up a pen and try to write one page without ever putting down your wrist. I bet that after just three sentences your arm and shoulders will start to ache. With the sensitive iPad screen the app has to differentiate which input comes from the skin on your wrist and which one comes from your writing finger or stylus. While Penultimate’s wrist protection is pretty good, it can happen that you get some lines on the bottom part of your page where your palm rests.

Also, you can set where you want your tools – either on top or on the bottom of the page. Now, when you use Penultimate in portrait mode, I’d advise on having the tools on top so you won’t accidentally hit anything while resting your palm.

When you’re using Penultimate in the landscape mode, however, it’s best to put the controls back on the bottom – which means they will be on the left part of the screen. If you’re writing from left to right, it will help you avoid hitting anything by accident.

A note of caution here: While you can rotate your iPad and the controls of Penultimate, the app unfortunately doesn’t allow for real rotation. For one, lined paper will only make sense in portrait mode since it doesn’t rotate into the landscape mode. Also, when you write something in either mode and then rotate into another, the writing itself will stay. While I realize that it might be a technical difficulty to scale the content of a page to a changing orientation, it sure would be nice to accommodate this for different types of notes.

Rotating content is not possible

Rotating content is not possible

Exporting Files

You can export your files from Penultimate in either the App’s native format (to share with other Penultimate users), as a PDF (via Email), or save notebooks as images to your photo album.

Exporting content from Penultimate

Exporting content from Penultimate

This is an area that definitely needs improvement. For one, you can’t simply create a PDF and open it directly with another application, Good Reader for example. If you want to store your notes on the iPad, you’d have to email them to yourself and then import them again into a PDF compatible app. This should be streamlined so Penultimate allows for an iPad-only workflow.

Also, the PDF export of Penultimate is not indefinitely scalable. Other handwriting apps use line drawing commands on export (much like vector images) which allow them to scale pages to infinity and still have sharp renderings of the content. When I zoomed in a tiny bit into the exported PDF from within Good Reader, I could already see that the text started to pixelate.

If you always stay in Penultimate, that might not concern you, but if you plan to export your notes and print them it may become an annoyance.


Penultimate is an amazing App for handwriting. The rendering of the digital ink is beautiful and actually gives the feeling of truly writing on the iPad. The rendering engine is even fast enough to keep up the most hastily scribbled of notes. The user interface is very intuitive and uncluttered, allowing you to focus on content instead of worrying about a multitude of options or controls.

Areas of improvement include being able to adjust content to the screen orientation and improving the output quality. Also, a zoom feature would be quite helpful (as it can be found in similar apps).

As it is now, it’s difficult to get a lot onto just one page since using your finger or even a stylus doesn’t enable you to have a really fine control of the writing. By zooming into parts of the page and thereby enlarging it, you could write at your normal size but have the text or sketches scaled proportionally on the actual page.

Still, even with those flaws Penultimate is a very fine application for a fair price. It might not suit everybody’s needs or style of writing, but we will be covering more writing apps in the near future and maybe there’ll be something there that more perfectly suits you!


Penultimate allows you to write and sketch on your iPad as you would on paper. Organize your content in virtual notebooks and share content with friends and colleagues.

  • eslienna

    This review is so amazingly detailed. I love the screen shots (a picture is worth a thousand words) and your tips as well. Penultimate looks like an app that would be useful enough for me, especially for the price. Thanks!

    • Julia Altermann

      Thank you :)

  • Phil

    Needs a Windows version for the Asus ep121 Slate

  • Fred

    Not having a zoom mode makes this handwriting app nowhere as useful as other apps on the market. Zoom mode allows you to write at a size that actually works on the iPad yet have your text appear at a size on the page which renders handwritten notes useful. Otherwise you only get a couple of dozen words per page which look like they’ve been written by kids.

    The other thing that any really useful handwriting app should have is handwriting to editable text. Until handwriting apps provide that service they will remain a novelty item on the ipad.

    • Julia Altermann

      Hello Fred,

      in the upcoming articles in this series I will introduce apps that address exactly the needs you mentioned: zoom functionality and amazing handwriting recognition.

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  • Reinhard

    FYI: Screenshots are missing. (2012-11-19)
    Anyway, thank you for the excellent review. :)

  • Tom

    Love penultimate! For actual stylus writing I use the JOT stylus by Adonit. Makes a world of difference!

  • Jonathan

    Yes thank you for the review. I particularly find the lack of no page orientation annoying especially now that it saves notepad to Evernote… But reviewing in Evernote then can look a mess and its not possible to can page orientation on Evernote…