So far we have focused on pure handwriting apps during our review series: the point with those apps was to actually use your finger or a stylus to write on the iPad. Today’s review looks at an app that takes the concept even further and adds true text recognition to the mix.
WritePad and PhatPad, both by the same developer, share common ground but differ in the scope of features offered – ranging from simple text recognition up to complex note taking with the addition of images and much more.
The easiest way to explain what WritePad and PhatPad do is to use the word magic. Because that is what it seems to be. You actually write on the iPad’s display and the apps recognize what you are saying and convert that into typed text. The engines of both apps are actually so smart that they adapt the previously recognized text to what comes later, making the text recognition context sensitive.
Why is that such a great feature? Well, imagine taking notes in a meeting and having them ready to mail around immediately without having to type on the iPad’s screen or via an external keyboard? Or think of how helpful it could be to take notes in class (and meetings), mix them with handwritten notes and insert photos of drawings on whiteboards?
You can finally have everything in just one app without the need to spread different kinds of media across different applications or services.
WritePad for iPad
WritePad offers a minimalistic interface with a writing area at the bottom and a text area on top. Basically, you simply write on the lower part of the screen and your text is immediately processed and the result shown above.
The first time I fired up WritePad I was not expecting a lot – after previous experiences with text recognition or speech recognition software I assumed I would need to train the app quite a lot before it would become even remotely usable. Instead I was baffled: WritePad immediately recognized about 90% of my input correctly and converted it to typed text. Over time, thanks to the adaptive recognition engine, that percentage only rose.
Additionally, you can use the entire display as a canvas if you need to – the text you write there is recognized as well, only that you don’t have the benefit of seeing the process while you are writing. The benefit of this method is that you are not limited to the single line window on the bottom anymore but can write more, and faster, in one session.
If something is not recognized correctly, you can always bring up a keyboard and put it right (yes, you can also use the keyboard for simply typing which is not really the point of the app, but for complicated words that might be specific to your studies or job it comes in handy).
WritePad is available for different languages as separate apps. Make sure to buy the correct one – WritePad for German does not recognize English and so on.
As mentioned before, WritePad is smart enough to adjust the previously recognized text according to what you write later. Most of the time, it works pretty nicely. If you need to delete a word or letter, select text or cut and copy it – there are smart gestures for basic operations, allowing for smooth handling of the app.
It even allows you to tweet or post status updates directly from within the app and share your notes with a variety of different services such as Email, Google, Twitter, and Facebook.
With PhatPad, you can go even further than just jotting down your text and having it recognized. In my case, I use it for meetings where I take notes about what has been talked about (typed out via an external keyboard), I can add drawings if I have an idea about how to realize an idea and I can annotate it either directly on the screen or via a handwritten note. The handwritten notes can be turned immediately into text (or this process can be left until later) and I can insert photos of our whiteboards into the mix.
Now, that’s a complete note taking experience.
PhatPad comes along with some more neat features: for example it is capable of recognizing basic shapes (if shape recognition is turned on), it allows for grids (to make it easier to align content) and it also comes with a rich library of clip art with ready to use images to insert into your notes.
Just as its “little” brother WritePad, PhatPad offers synchronization with different services (including PDF export), but also a presentation mode. So, if you need to show your notes to someone without all the buttons and options visible, just switch that on.
At the moment, PhatPad only supports English as a recognized language for text conversion. I’ve tried it with German and though it worked on some words, it’s not a productive solution for anything but English.
The only thing I didn’t like about PhatPad is that it doesn’t seem to recognize properly when I change the iPad’s orientation from landscape to portrait and vice versa. Yes, the main window changes directions, but my notes are cut off going from landscape to the much narrower portrait page. That’s something that needs improvement.
Now that I’ve talked about these impressive features, how do the apps hold up in my every day routine?
I’ve found that while both WritePad and PhatPad are initially easy to use – just put your finger into the writing area and go with it – the interface itself isn’t as easy to understand as I would like it to be.
Especially when it comes to inserting written text into PhatPad or adjusting already converted text in WritePad, I often found myself lost and didn’t know how to proceed. There are tutorials which you can watch and a step-by-step guide which comes included with both apps, but I wish the entire process was more intuitive. If you keep using the apps on a daily or at least weekly basis, you get the hang of it eventually.
In retrospect I realized that I should really – really! – have taken the time to go through the included tutorials and make use of the online materials because they would have helped me to get the hang of the apps much faster. The time invested will pay off quickly as you will work more naturally with both apps and speed up your workflow. Both PhatPad and WritePad are much more complex than one would suspect on first glance.
WritePad and PhatPad are amazing just because they do what they do, but they will not be of use to everybody. You have to accept that getting to know your way around the apps might take a little while – even though you’ll be glad in the end you invested it.
Also, if you have lots of special vocabulary cropping up in your work, the apps might need a while to get to know it. Plain English is fine (US and UK) and WritePad now also supports the US Medical Dictionary terms via in-app purchase.
What is your take on text recognition in note taking apps? Do you have any experiences? How would such an app fit into your work flow? Let us know in the comments.