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iPad Review: Taking Notes

One of the biggest reasons to get an iPad, in my opinion anyways, is that a tablet seems like the perfect note taking platform. So I was rather surprised when I first turned it on and encountered Notes, the built in software. If Apple's goal was notepad, then sure... mission accomplished but I expected more from a company that does graphics and media so well. This lead to the search for the perfect note taking tool and I've played with a few at this point, so I figured they were worth comparing. All on screen writing was done using the Pogo Sketch, an absolutely amazing stylus that I recommend for anyone using one of these tools.

There are a number of common features, so as I walk through these tools, next to their names I'm going to list a series of letters, the letters stand for:

  • P -- Pen Function
  • E -- Eraser Function
  • T -- Text (Keyboard) Function
  • U -- Undo Function
  • R -- Redo Function
  • C -- Colour Support

PaperDesk ($1.99) -- PETC

You will notice from the screenshots that this is PaperDesk Lite. While I paid for PaperDesk, a mix-up in the app store has lead to all people who purchased PaperDesk having the Lite version for now. So it may have additional features that I can't comment on at this point.

One of the most interesting aspects of PaperDesk is the ability to do VGA out. When you select to create a new notebook you have the option of creating a Notebook or a VGA Output whiteboard. Since I haven't purchased the VGA Adapter yet, I can't comment on this functionality, but it is on my list of iPad add-ons that I want to buy.

After you've selected your notebook, you are presented with a page on which you can type or draw. Paper options are available and include Lined (White), Lined (Yellow), Graph, Blank. While you can draw anywhere on the page, text entry is limited to word processor style entry (top to bottom, from the left side of the page).  You can't draw an item and then type a note next to it. It was also nice to see that colour and brush size selection were available.

Another handy feature of PaperDesk is the ability to record while taking notes. The recording quality (from a few feet away) is quite good and recordings are saved with timestamps so you can easily reference them. While the ability to clear all text or all drawings from a page is available, I was not able to find the option to clear recordings.

Another nice feature of PaperDesk, if you use it frequently, is the bookmark feature. You can bookmark a page, so that you can easily jump back to it. The annoying component of this is that, like recordings, it is handled via timestamp and you cannot specify a name, each bookmark is simply stored as a timestamp. If you were a student using this for lecture notes (which I think would be the primary purpose of this app), you may have a hard time jumping back to a specific topic.

The email functionality of PaperDesk sends a single page combing your text and drawings, however it also extracts the text and sends it in the body of the email.

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Penultimate ($2.99) -- PEUR

Penultimate is on the first page of my iPad apps and is the one that, so far, I've used the most. It gives you multiple notebooks and multiple paper types (Lined, Graph, Plain) much like PaperDesk but that's where the similarities stop. Penultimate doesn't allow for text input, has a single pen colour (black) and supports undo and redo. This means that there's not a lot to explain about Penultimate, it's a bare bones notepad that allows you to quickly diagram or jot down notes without features getting in the way.

So why is Penultimate on my main page, while the others are buried in the app list? Penultimate has the killer feature that every one of these tools needs to add in order to really compete. The feature? Wrist Protection. I can lay my hand on the touch screen and write as if it were a pad of paper with Penultimate and it knows to ignore my wrist/palm. This is the killer feature for notebook/whiteboard interfaces on the iPad.

My biggest complaint with Penultimate (which is ultimately an expected feature for most) is that my screen turns. I could simply enable the screen lock, but it isn't that I don't want the screen to turn, it's that I want it to turn differently. As you'll see in pictures 2 and 3 below, when the iPad is turned into landscape, the notebook remains the same size, leaving a portion of the screen to the right unused and requiring that I scroll to access to the entire page.

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Sundry Notes (Free) -- PETURC

Sundry Notes is probably the most feature packed of all the tools. In fact, if you're looking for drawing/whiteboarding it may be too jam-packed with features. Also note that while Sundry Notes is free, it does have two in-app upgrade options (based on Donations). A donation of $2 or more will allow you to change the background on the main screen and the covers of the notebooks, while a donation of $7 or more will remove the watermarks from exported PDFs.

Let's start with the basic components of Sundry Notes first and then move to the more complex stuff. The bottom of the screen contains a menu bar with a number of options (in portrait mode... in landscape, the menu is on the left). You can create text boxes (and place them anywhere on the screen), draw with the whiteboard feature, import pictures and record voice notes. Additionally you can bring up a calculator ("equation solver"), a list with many common symbols and surf the web (You can't enter an address directly, but you can search Google and click into pages). The web functionality is one of the more interesting features I've seen in any of this software. You can cut any portion of a website and bring it into your note as a picture that you can then draw on and mark up. The selection method is quite simply, however I've found it hard to bring in a the entire viewable area of a page.

Since you can place a textbox anywhere and start typing, Sundry Notes far exceeds the text input capabilities of PaperDesk, as well as surpassing the types of paper packgrounds available in either PaperDesk or Penultimate. The whiteboard has a colour selector and supports many shapes along with the pen and eraser. Sundry Notes interfaces with SundryNotes.com online (which I have not used) so you can upload your notes and view them online. You can also share your notes on Facebook, Twitter or Picassa or email them as a PDF. Notes can also be backed up to a computer as a PDF or Zip file.

With so many features, getting a handle on everything you can do with Sundry Notes will take some time, but I suspect that the benefits are substantial.

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Adobe Ideas (Free) -- PEU

Adobe Ideas is designed as a whiteboarding tool. It supports single page whiteboards with no concept of a notebook. Once you're in a whiteboard, you have access to a pen and an eraser, beyond that all you can do is undo actions and adjust the size of the pen. I actually think this is a really smart design, it's extremely basic (pretty much the opposite of Sundry Notes) and allows you to get in and quickly jot down an idea without wasting time getting setup or fiddling with options.

There are two features that I think are worth talking about with Adobe Ideas, the first is the ability to import a photo to draw on, I think this is crucial. You bring in your initial concept and then you can easily mark it up. The second is Auto-smooth. Something that is unique to the Ideas product. Your images come up almost cartoonish with certain final brush strokes, but the end result is much nicer because your shapes have all been smoothed out for you. Ideas, like most of the products, also supports emailing the end result.

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Draw for iPad (Free) -- PEURC

I don't think that Draw was ever intended to fit into this category, it's simply a drawing program for the iPad but I think it's a nice edition. Like Adobe Ideas, Draw is a single page that you can draw and sketch on, however it's even more basic than Ideas (which allows you to save individual whiteboards), as it only has a single page. Draw does support multiple colours, along with undo, redo and clear (a function lacking on many of these applications). It also supports a few more interesting features.

Like most programs, Draw will allow you to email your end result, you can also post it to twitter. The icon for bluetooth connections still eludes me (I only have one iPad)  but my guess is that it allows multiple people to share a drawing board, and if so that makes it one of the better options available (since none of the other tools support multi-iPad collaboration).  Like Ideas, you can also bring in a photo and draw on it.

Another addition (although maybe not of use to most people sitting here) is that draw contains some pre-built pen/paper gameboards, primarily Dots and Tic-Tac-Toe. This may seem like an odd option for a productivity tool, but as an entertainment tool, it's pretty awesome. My wife and I actually sat the other night playing Dots on my iPad.

The final option worth mentioning (and you'll see this in one of the screen caps) is that draw supports freehand or snap-to drawing. However touching the pen down in snap-to mode doesn't mean you'll come out with a single straight line, it just eliminates the curves.

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WritePad ($9.99) -- TUR

WritePad may not really fit in well with this review, since it is the only tool that doesn't have a drawing/whiteboarding capability but I felt I should include it. WritePad allows you to write on iPad and converts your handwriting to text with incredible accuracy.  You can write until you fill the screen, wait a couple of seconds while it converts and then begin writing again. WritePad includes spellcheck and will auto-learn your handwriting the more you use it. You can even setup shorthand that it will convert for you. WritePad also allows for keyboard input if you don't want to make use of a stylus. The final interesting feature of WritePad is it's built-in translation abilities. You can have it translate for you (I'm not sure if it's using Google Translate or another service) which may make it an interesting communication tool. Written work can be emailed from within the application.

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While I'm not going into full write-ups on these, I felt there were additional items that deserved honourable mentions:
  • Dragon Dictation (Free) allows you to simply record voice notes that are transcribed to text. Your recording is uploaded to their servers for transcription so an Internet Connection is required. I've found that the speech-to-text isn't quite as good as Vlingo on my BlackBerry but if you speak slowly it is fairly accurate.
  • Bento ($4.99) is Database software from the Filemaker. While you most likely won't be taking notes inside a database, the forms you can build are quite nice and this may be the perfect application if you are doing structured, repetitive notes.
  • Evernote (Free) is popular across every platform and allows you to centrally store your notes on their servers. The Free package is a little light on storage space and monthly upload, so heavy users will need to pay for the service. The software allows you to jot down text-only notes that can be saved and accessed with Evernote on any supported platform. Additionally, text within images is made searchable within the Evernote application which is a nice added bonus of using this product to store content. Ideally the other tools on this page will one day let you sync to Evernote.

So that's it... my review of some of the more popular note taking devices available for the iPad. I recommend you keep Penultimate handy for jotting things down quickly without worrying about your wrist getting in the way. With a few improvements (named bookmarks for example), I think that PaperDesk will become a tool that no post-secondary student will live without. It is a nice melding of note taking, lecture recording and drawing. For those looking to save money (or for the most features) I think that the combination of Adobe Ideas and Sundry Notes gives you both power and flexibility. In the end, unless I hit my app limit, I don't think I'll be deleting any of these applications from my iPad.

  1. June 8th, 2010 at 01:26 | #1

    Great review! I was looking for a comprehensive reviews of drawing apps (because I am building one), and came here. I am looking for somebody who can give us feedback on our apps. The very first app, neu.Notes, is already available on the app store and it's free. I'd really appreciate if you could try it, and give me a feedback.

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