The Future of Handwriting: Noteshelf (2/4)

Continuing with our series about handwriting apps, we’re now going to take a look at an app that takes the functionality of the previously reviewed Penultimate even further.

Meet Noteshelf, your digital collection of notebooks of all kinds. Noteshelf has full support for image placement, icon usage, and even zoom, which allows for even greater control of your handwriting.

Read on to transform the way you take notes!

The Basic Principles Behind Noteshelf

First of all – Noteshelf is a handwriting only app. There’s no support for keyboard input, you can use your fingers or a stylus – that’s it! As you will see, this is by no means a shortcoming of the app.¬†

The name of the app is prominently reflected in the beautiful start screen, which is designed like a shelf where your notebooks are stacked.

View of all your notebooks

Your notebook shelf

As you can see, there are lots of different kinds of notebooks available and this is one of the most amazing features of Noteshelf. The app comes with 17 different styles, ranging from plain paper, through personal style papers for diaries or notes, to business layouts for meetings notes, and even specialized papers for musicians.

Select the type of notebook you'd like to use

Select the type of notebook you'd like to use

I don’t think it’s too much to say that most of you will find something useful there. And, if you happen to change your mind about a layout while already working in a notebook, you can change it immediately. And as often as you want.

Have It Your Way

Where Noteshelf has a definite advantage over the previously reviewed Penultimate, is in its true support for either landscape or portrait orientation. Everything rotates – the controls, the page, and most importantly, the content!

Noteshelf in portrait mode

Select the type of notebook you'd like to use

As you can see below, when you work in the landscape mode there is a textured area to the far right that serves as a scroll bar – enabling you to access every part of your page. While in the portrait orientation you don’t need it as the entire page is shown.

Noteshelf in landscape mode

Noteshelf in landscape mode

Why am I going on about the orientation? Because, the flexibility is important.

It will depend entirely on my situation, and purpose, whether I use my iPad in landscape or portrait. I may be restrained due to my location (at a desk or in a train), what I want to achieve (sketching vs writing), or even due to how I feel comfortable.

In landscape mode I can rest my palm much more comfortably on the screen of the iPad, while in portrait mode it will slip off the edge of the device more quickly.

Working with Notebooks

Once you’ve picked a style and created your notebook, you can start writing immediately! You should take the time to leaf through the user guide though, since it has some handy tips that can make your experience even better.

Here in landscape mode you can see all the important elements. The main part of the screen is occupied by the paper you will be writing on, while the controls of the app are located across the top, and the scroll bar to the right.

Since the user guide explains all of them, I want to point out only the most significant ones. First of all, there’s the wrist protection.

Write with activated wrist protection

Write with activated wrist protection

The wrist protection basically makes parts of the iPad’s screen immune to any input. When you rest your palm there while writing, it will not cause the app to think you’re trying to write something.

The red arrow at the right side of the page shows you where the wrist protection starts/ends – you can drag it up or down as you need.

The next key element I’ll look at is, of course, your pen. Noteshelf offers 17 different pen colors and a slider that helps you to control the width of the pen.

Since the pop up window closes immediately after selecting a color, you can save yourself unnecessary taps by changing the width first and then the color if you want to adjust both values.

Select pens and pen widths

Select pens and pen widths

By far the greatest feature of Noteshelf is the zoom, something I sorely miss in Penultimate. The zoom option allows you to magnify the tiny part of the sheet you’re writing on.

You can actually write in the area magnified by the zoom. But, why is that so important?

It’s important because, when writing with your fingers, it can be awkward to be precise. The zoom feature comes in extremely handy for anyone with normal sized fingers and average motor control!

It’s worth noting, however, that your writing will look rather large compared to the use of a pen. When you write in the magnified area, it will be proportionally scaled to fit on the paper. Once you zoom out your writing will look much better, and you’ll be able to fit much more on the paper… uhm, screen, that is.

Use zoom to write more naturally

Use zoom to write more naturally

You certainly shouldn’t worry about the writing looking blurry in the magnified area – that won’t be reflected on the final (exported) page.

There are more controls along the zoom window which allow you to fine tune just how much you want to zoom in. It’s worth taking a little time to play around with these to find the settings you’re most comfortable with.

Apart from the undo and redo controls, you have an eraser to remove specific parts of your writing. Additionally, you can enhance your writing with a rich variety of icons that come packaged with Noteshelf.

Multiple pages of icons available

Multiple pages of icons available

Your most often used icons will always be shown in the ‘lesser’ view, with all icons accessible in the ‘more’ view. While it may look like a childish thing at first, many of the icons can really help to make certain aspects of your notes stand out. They can even help to clarify the meaning, making it a very helpful feature of the app.

If your notebooks grow large, don’t tire yourself out with flipping through all the pages individually. You can access all of them very easily by tapping the binocular icon in the top right.

One last thing to note is the ability to add images to your notes. That’s something only a few apps offer, with UPAD offering image annotation but not insertion, and PhatPad the only app to allow for a real mix of written, drawn, and imported content. It’s worth looking at why adding images is important?

Insert images anywhere on a page

Insert images anywhere on a page

Speaking from a purely business viewpoint, imagine taking notes on your iPad during a meeting or a conference. You have a brainstorming session on a whiteboard, or maybe a speaker shows something projected on a wall, and you snap a photo of it.

Wouldn’t it be nice to import those images into your notes, so you’ll have everything neatly in one place? Instead of having to reference the images or even copy the content of the photos by hand?

Unfortunately, while you can easily import images, scale, and rotate them – once you place them on your page there’s no way of moving them around or adjusting them. If you made a mistake, but have done some work in the meantime, you’ll have to use the eraser to get rid of the image.

Quickly access pages

Quickly access pages

Exporting Your Notebooks

Every notebook application is only as good as its export options, since most of you will have to share notes with coworkers, friends or classmates. And, although it may be hard to believe, some of them may not have an iPad or Mac!

Noteshelf offers two export formats – images and PDF files. The latter has the distinct advantage of being indefinitely scalable. With Noteshelf, the export is a lot better than with Penultimate, but it’s still not perfect. The output is not unforgettably crisp, but is very readable and printable.

Moreover, you can decide which pages you want to export. You have the choice between the full notebook, selected pages, or just a single one. Noteshelf sets itself further apart from the competition by offering more than simple Email-export, as most apps do:

Wide range of export options

Wide range of export options

The only thing I can think of that is sorely missing, is the option to export the actual notebook file. This would enable teams using Noteshelf to edit the original notes from another team member and pass them around.


As an honest reviewer, it would be foolish to say an app is perfect – there’s always room for improvement! But Noteshelf is pretty close to a perfect app. It’s stable, offers a wealth features, and the zoom option is the icing on the cake.

The only gripe I have with the app is its inability to edit images once they’ve been inserted into a notebook, and it’s inability to annotate PDF files. Also, owing to the fact that I’m a rather impatient person, I wish the notebooks would load a tad faster. Saying that, there’s really just a 2/3 second delay when tapping a notebook to open – it’s not all that bad!

If your desire is to write quickly and easily on your iPad, while also being presented with a multitude of delightful styles and options, then Noteshelf may be for you!

If, however, you need to annotate PDF files on a regular basis, or even need handwriting recognition, you should keep an eye out for the other apps we’ll be reviewing later in this series…


Noteshelf is a handwriting application for the iPad that allows for a natural writing experience in beautifully designed digital notebooks.