A notepad test: take a pen and a piece of paper or notepad and write a few words or your name. Easy, isn’t it? Now what about doing that on your iPad, but add the ability to carry with you many pens and paper types, preprepared perfect shapes, highlighter pens and a virtually unlimited reference book that you could cut and paste from (the Internet). Sound a little bit better than the pad and pencil? You’d like to think so.
Here’s the ultimate question: can you replace a notebook in college or your workplace with an iPad and some good software? Well, lets take a look at some of the best offerings out there and see how well they match or exceed your notepad test.
Notes Plus features a really good tutorial, and feels the most accomplished of the apps reviewed. It has an excellent tutorial, and it uses its own features to demonstrate ease of use and flexibility. Hand-written notes, diagrams and arrows point out the useful areas on-screen.
And the feature list is extensive: circle anything on screen to move it; automatic shape recognition converts hand drawn shapes to vector images; insert images and photos; record audio and attach it to the page; customise your pen thickness, style, colour and fill — the list is endless.
One of the most outstanding features is the ability to write on the screen in a continuous flow (with palm pad rest area too). The elegance of the writing input, accessed by a press—and—hold gesture on screen, is unmatched, allowing you to just keep writing in a large input window, and the writing is shrunk down and fitted expertly onto the page.
Also, the integrated browser functionality is truly exceptional – this allows you to snip and throw images, text, virtually anything from a web page into your document. Having a web page always to hand is immeasurably helpful when researching.
Note Taker HD allows you to zoom in to the page to write, or you can use the zoom editor for a close-up view of your writing. It features auto advance, where your written text follows by writing and rewriting into the grey area. I did find in my testing that I would occasionally get lost pen movements when using auto advance.
With support for pre-defined shapes, customisable pens and pen presets, and an intelligent and accurate select and move function, composition is a breeze. You may take a little getting used to selecting the Mode button in between functions, but the ability to tag documents with keywords, and have custom document thumbnails are superb bonus elements.
With the typical Save, Edit and Mail commands you have the ability to create standard PDF files, or import a PDF for annotation, to fill in or sign a form, for instance. The built-in help system is extensive, but quite serious and not as graphically fun as the Notes Plus tutorial. Simple well thought out touches, like the eraser automatically going back to pen mode after an erase, show a maturity in the interface.
Much is driven by using the mode button to switch modes between text, shapes and handwriting, or by using the icons around the edge of the screen. You can resize and rotate ink to any freehand angle, and there is support for languages that write from right to left, such as Arabic or Hebrew, as well as external screen output.
Penultimate uses the notebook tutorial style to great effect, having you interact straight away with the screen, drawing, erasing, changing paper and colors as you flick through the introductory pages. Limited to only six colors and three thicknesses for your pen, this really is designed as a quick and simple interface to just get your work recorded, and it does this brilliantly. Notebook changes such as paper type are global, so you can’t have individual settings per page. There are many different background papers available in the Papershop, Penultimate’s in-app store, and it’s a shame these can’t be mixed and matched within one document.
Penultimate allows the customary export to PDF, and you can email a page or even the whole notebook for future editing. There is support also for graph paper, although in my testing it is not as accurate for detailed graphs and figures. For elementary algebra and equations, it’s going to be just fine, though. The app works best, I found, primarily in portrait mode, and whilst the menus and pen symbols rotate, the page numbers, headings and content do not.
For quick sketches and notes, there is ample room to just get something down, but I found the fixed area real estate too limiting for sprawling notes and mind maps. One tremendously useful feature is its seamless integration with Evernote that allows the searching and indexing functionality to extend into your handwritten notes.
Bamboo Paper — Notebook is available as a free version, and I must say I am exceptionally impressed at the speed of writing achievable with virtually no lag. In a direct comparison of all apps mentioned in this article, this app storms the field for sheer speed and simplicity. It has its limitations, however, with only nine preset colors, and three pen thicknesses for each of the highlighter and regular pens. It would be nice to have an adjustable eraser too, as this is a fixed point size. In other apps, you can work around this by selecting White as your drawing colour, but that’s not an option here either.
Crucially, Bamboo Paper asks if you are right or left handed, a vitally important question for an electronic notepad, I guess. Perhaps this is why it is so forgiving of the palm resting while you write. With support for up to five photos, inserting them is a breeze, and you can reposition at any time with a simple tap and move, or tap and delete. In landscape mode, many elements adjust, but the page numbers and document title stay in portrait.
There were several apps on my shortlist to review, which didn’t make the cut for one reason or another, but are worth your time to have a closer look. One of my selection criteria for note taking apps was that they should be standalone, and not require an Internet connection to function. Lecture theatres and meeting rooms are not always equipped with useable Wi-Fi, and even with a 3G connection or a mobile personal hotspot, do you really want to have to rely on a ‘net connection to take notes? This took PaperPort Notes and Evernote (for integration) out of the equation, but I know there are many who get good use from these apps.
Another worthwhile app is Note Anytime, a promising contender, but taking notes with your palm resting on the iPad just made the screen jump around uncontrolably, as it was trying to resize my canvas thinking I was trying to pinch and zoom. It’s a shame, as the simplified layout of all control functions hidden under a pen icon works well, and there are the ususal paper and pen selections, export facilities, and cut and paste functionality.
There are many useful additions to note taking apps, such as converting writing to text, and support for specific types of writing such as mind mapping. Fundamentally, though, the basic input method has to be solid and strong. The other features, however comprehensive, are a bonus if this base is there, but a waste if not.
It is very frustrating as a consumer to read in the description of applications that one app or another is “the best note taking and sketching application for the iPad.” These claims seem to me to be similar to the scene in the movie Elf, where a shop is selling “The worlds best cup of coffee.” It’s not, of course, it’s awful. That’s why, hopefully, reviews like this one on AppStorm are crucial, as we actually try and test these applications (and claims) and hopefully help you make informed choices, or at least provide you with a few helpful notes for you to scribble on your iPad.