If you follow the gadget press at the moment, you’ll see that the humble wristwatch is under full frontal attack from a wave of smartwatches looking to replace the mechanical-age wonder with something (possibly) a little more befitting 21st century life. Not least from Apple.
It’s getting less coverage but there is another, even older invention also fighting off digital invasion. Technology is going after the humble pen and paper. Like the watch, you can buy a totally serviceable pen for only a few pounds. Or, if you want, you can spend the value of a typical house on one.
Traditional pen and paper have together fended off potential threats before. The computer keyboard must have given it a real fright, but it not only survived, it remained relevant. Even as the computer moved into the touchscreen age.
Who is the new challenger? It’s the stylus and tablet. Mimicking its form, but offering all sorts of digital advantages. Perhaps this time it’s the end? Good news for trees, but for us?
I’ve been a fan of the stylus for a while now. I love the combination of using one to take notes and the flexibility of having my scribble available to me anytime on any device afterwards. Perhaps strangely, Apple don’t have any official support for stylus input on the iPad, but companies like Adonit have it covered.
To help me find the best handwriting app for the iPad, I’ve also lined up three styli at varying price points. As an entry level, I have a silver stylus I was given free at a trade show. These can usually be picked up for under £5 or bundled free with phone cases as a sweetener. It weighs almost nothing and looks more like a crayon than a pen.
Secondly, I have a mid-range Adonit ‘Jot Pro’ stylus which retails at about £25 online. This feels much more pen-like, with a quality metal barrel, rubberised grip and a plastic disc containing the capacitive contact. It’s passive, so relies on good wrist detection from the handwriting app.
Lastly, I have an active stylus, also from Adonit. This is the ‘Jot Script’ and it uses bluetooth technology to create a very pen-like writing experience (no need for that plastic disc) and claims less interference from resting your hand on the screen. At £55 though, these are comparatively expensive, so I’ll also be considering if there is value here.
The apps themselves have all moved on since my last round up, so I’ve spent time living with four of the best, a week at a time, to see which is the king of the notetakers and to see whether 21st century note-taking really could kill off pen and paper for good.
Let battle commence!
MyScript Smart Note
Back in 2012, I really wanted to like MyScript Smart Note because it made a big fuss about its ability to turn handwriting into text. At £5 it was pricey, so I felt I couldn’t award it strong praise for its text recognition abilities, at least against my handwriting (which challenges many humans). The good news is that since then, it’s become a free app with the text export function being made an in-app purchase at a much more reasonable 79p.
The developers have certainly upped the polish in the intervening years and your digital handwriting is bound up in nice looking virtual notebooks sporting a wide range of attractive covers and paper that can be ruled, black or squared to suit your needs.
Your virtual stationary comes in two forms. There is a pen for handwriting and a pencil for drawing. Each uses a slider to set the gauge and the ink can be more or less any colour you want. The reason to split between handwriting and drawing is so that the software can single out words for text conversion on pages where you have a mix.
The general user experience is very nice, with little to distract you from your note-taking.
Starting with our basic stylus, I was initially surprised at the fairly natural handwriting I could achieve. Whilst it really doesn’t feel like a pen, after a few minutes of play, you can get to it without feeling distracted. Unfortunately, Smart Note really didn’t like it. Even with the wrist guard stopping my hand getting in the way, too many of my words were misinterpreted as gestures (a feature that recognises actions like scribbling out as word deletions). I thought switching gestures off would fix that, but then I found my work being regularly read as zoom commands instead.
The passive Jot Pro performed better and there is very little tag between your scribble and ink appearing on the page. Gestures were still being too clever for their own good though, so I left these set to off. I also had to turn off access to the iPad control centre (swiping up from the bottom of the screen) because it would constantly spring up as I approached the bottom of the page. Once I’d done this though, the basic ink results were superb.
Now I thought the bluetooth stylus would dominate this test, but in the case of Smart Note, I’m not sure what advantage it offers. Certainly it’s nice that it feels the most like a real pen, albeit with a larger barrel than I would otherwise choose (needed to accommodate the removable AAA battery). But in use, there is actually more lag apparent than with the passive ones and wrist detection was exactly the same. For me, the Jot Pro is the best stylus to use with Smart Note.
So what of Smart Note’s USP? Well, text recognition has gotten better, but it’s still not perfect. The last three years have not improved my handwriting any, but Smart Note is definitely picking up more than it did last time. A nice touch is where it will highlight text you've written that it doesn't recognise, so you can revisit easily and help it out.
Although much improved, I now wonder whether text recognition is so very important, at least within an app like this. I’d much rather be able to export my writing easily to other services like OneNote or Evernote, where it can be stored alongside all my other notes from other apps and be searchable from there. Those note repositories do a great job of reading my scrawl and that’s where I find it useful.
Still at only 79p on top of a free app and support for 54 languages, I’m happier to encourage you to give it ago than I was when it was the best part of a fiver. One word of warning though - the app uses a cloud service to run the conversion to text, so bare that in mind if you’re taking notes in confidential business meetings.
Notability is an app that has continued to ride high in the productivity charts on iTunes ever since it first came out. At £2.29 it’s about the same price as a premium coffee, but where the coffee will boost your productivity for an hour or two, this one will remain handy for years!
Other notation apps have you building a virtual library of notepads with nice leather-bound covers, but not this one. Notability takes a much more functional approach and gives you a Windows Explorer style view of everything with a list of notebooks down the left column and the individual notes on the right. It’s simple and easy to use, especially when you’re tracking down your notes amongst hundreds, but I prefer the skeuomorphic notepad approach for pure aesthetics. Paper notebooks are beautiful, I want my app to be too.
In terms of functionality there is little to criticise and several things worthy of praise. For stationary, you have a pencil with a choice of 12 different gauges and two styles, one of which gives the impression of a nice fountain pen. There are 16 different colours to choose from too, which should be enough for most, but other apps offer pretty much the whole gamut.
Once you get scribbling, you’ll notice there is a touch of lag if you’re not using the latest and greatest iPad. My iPad 3 kept up to an acceptable extent, but other apps saw even less lag, so perhaps it’s not all down to gadget horsepower. If you want to switch to typing, the text mode is the most comprehensive I’ve seen, with a decent range of word processor functions built in making it easy to switch between the two inputs seamlessly, which is great.
Once again, it’s not good news for those wanting to shell out for an active stylus. There is no support for them here. The Script performed fine, but the clever innards are redundant, making the Jot Pro the go to stylus for a pen-like experience. Those on a budget should definitely take a closer look at Notability, as it actually wasn’t too bad at all taking notes with the cheapo. The wrist detection is good enough for taking lecture notes for example and in that scenario, Notability also plays its ace card - integrated audio recording.
Given that the iPad can multitask, it may be tempting to get a free audio recorder and run it in the background of a different scribbler, but Notability trumps this by linking the audio to your note-taking. When you come to review, you can jump to a particular word in your writing and the audio will jump to the same place in the meeting that you were documenting. It works really well and should your mind wander, it’s a great way to fill in the gaps or check details later on in your own time. Just like a professional dictaphone, you can also set the playback speed during your review and get any transcription done quicker than real-time.
Notability remains a fine app. It’s great to see that development has continued (minor surprise at the lack of active stylus support) since last time I did this round up and I can see myself becoming a regular user again. However, one thing does hold me back and that’s the fact that you cannot export direct to Evernote or OneNote. These note repositories are very popular now and a lot of people use them to store notes from all their apps, rather than having to search through several different places. If this doesn’t sound like it affects you, then the audio recording abilities set this apart.
Speaking of Evernote - since my last roundup, they’ve gone and bought Penultimate and made it free! There are of course in app purchases, so if you want the widest range of paper types, you’ll have to visit the paper shop. If you’re an Evernote Premium subscriber, the shop is free too.
As a standalone app, Penultimate came close to winning the group back in 2012. However, this time round it depends, in part, on whether you use Evernote. Evernote is a fantastic service which comes in the form of apps and plugins for everything from your smartphone to extra buttons in Internet Explorer and Google Chrome. You can snip from anything, be it a website, some audio, a screenshot or anything and throw it all into your Evernote, where it will be indexed and made easy to find later. For some, like me, it becomes a core hub of your internet life and Penultimate links directly in to make your handwritten notes just as easy to reference later.
Each of your Penultimate notebooks will appear as a notebook in Evernote and the notes inside just the same. Whilst some other apps will export your pages to Evernote, they are limited to creating a brand new note every time, whereas changes to Penultimate notes magically appear as the same changes in Evernote! It’s a great feature and Evernote’s superb text recognition means that it can search out words your scribble just as easily as any other note you have stored.
So if you use Evernote, Penultimate is a hands down winner, right? Well, it could be. There are some other nice features that could keep you coming back including ‘Drift Mode’. All of the apps reviewed here have a zoom mode, where you can do all of your hand writing at the bottom of the screen in larger strokes - but drift mode takes it a stage further. Instead of moving your hand along the screen, as you would a piece of paper whilst you write, the screen scrolls along as you scribble in situ. The scrolling speed is automated and it will try to keep pace neatly with your writing speed. I found it a little disconcerting and distracting, but looking at other people having more success on YouTube, I reckon with practice, this could be an excellent feature.
So how did it get on with my three styli?
Not so well as it happens. Let’s start with the two passive styli. Whether you’re using that free one, or you invested in something like the Jot Pro, Penultimate is not particularly easy to work with. Wrist detection is a near constant battle and I’m almost unable to complete a sentence without either my resting hand drawing on the page, or setting off the scrolling function. Perhaps it’s because I’m left handed?
The big surprise is that the Jot Script was also a bit of a disappointment. The one I hold in my hand is the Evernote edition! There is no problem with wrist detection now, but plenty of problems with pen detection. Like some of the other apps, you can tell the app how you hold your pen. I hold mine in my left hand with the pen angled towards 2 O’Clock. This is not a calibration option, but I tried everything to get the pen to behave consistently and the only success I had was using drift mode. I find drift mode hard to love though. I want to write as if I’m using paper - not learn a new way.
Sadly it seems that Penultimate has taken a few steps backward since 2012. The clever integration with Evernote would have been a huge sell to me, but I simply cannot get on with it and any stylus. Is it because I’m a lefty? Or have you tried it and hand problems too? Let me know in the comments.
NoteShelf was my winner back in 2012 and revisiting it with my objective eye again today, I can still see why I was drawn to it over the others.
At the time, not only did it have a nice digital bookshelf to organise your notebooks, it was the most polished in almost every way. Where the others have worked to reduce the app as much as possible down to the digital page, NoteShelf still celebrates stationary with a beautiful selection of virtual ballpoints, fountain pens, pencils and highlighters to choose from.
If you’re as much a doodler as you are a serious note taker then look no further. Grab a pencil and doodle away and hope the boss/teacher doesn’t ask you a question.
Whilst the other apps have closed the gap a little in terms of writing performance - none suffer badly from lag between the pen and the ink - NoteShelf still does it more beautifully. My handwriting normally makes me look like I’m writing whilst sitting in a deep freeze it’s so shaky, but with a fountain pen, Noteshelf makes me feel like a calligraphy master and the pencils are just brilliant! I’m in my 30s, but I actually had real fun doing my colouring in for the screenshot above!
It’s not just about the pretty stuff. Noteshelf remains strong on functionality too. Individual books can be pincode protected and the automatic wrist protection does a great job of ignoring your hands when they connect with the iPad’s screen as you write. There’s even a special mode for lefties like myself who have never had it easy with languages where words are written from left to right across a page.
Business users and students will find much to like here too. Apart from being able to protect your notebooks with a pin, you can also quickly and easily import PDF files from Dropbox and similar services for a spot of annotation and then export a fresh copy back. Finally you can stack your notebooks into groups on the bookshelf. Tapping on the stack opens a new bookshelf, with all the individual notebooks in that group displayed.
Evernote support is there too, but you’ll have to pay £1.49 extra and for Evernote users, it most definitely is worth it! Once set up, a NoteShelf notebook will appear in Evernote and you can choose to sync one, or each of your NoteShelf books as a note in Evernote. From there, things are automatically kept in sync and of course your writing is totally searchable in Evernote.
NoteShelf is stylus friendly no matter what your budget. The wrist detection is the best I’ve seen, with a pointer on the right separating the wrist and writing areas (PDF editing relies on dragging up a non-active ‘cover’ instead). It will automatically work its way down as you write. It’s not perfect, but occasional jumps are easily corrected by dragging it back up without too much distraction.
Both the freebie and the Jot Pro work really well with NoteShelf although the advantages of the Jot Pro feeling more like a pen do shine through. You’ll not feel disappointed if you don’t have the money available, the free one works just fine.
As I mentioned, active stylus support is excellent and Noteshelf worked well with the Jot Script - but again not flawlessly. The wrist-rejection pointer is no longer needed, however the minor lag that has been introduced means I would suggest the comparatively high price tag of an active stylus is not quite justified. I expect this lag may go away when pressed against a shiny iPad Air 2 - but earlier models like the iPad 3 don’t seem to be quite up to it. But does this matter if you can get good results without needing the horsepower anyway?
Last time round, it was a close thing, but all change in 2015. Notability and Myscript Smart Note have both been refined and improved and if you need the text recognition or the audio recording - neither will let you down.
The close run competition I expected between Penultimate and NoteShelf however turned out to be a one horse race. Penultimate seems to be a weaker product than it was before. Its big selling point, the integration with Evernote, is negated with a £1.49 upgrade to NoteShelf, an app that literally does everything else much better.
I hope I may have also saved one or two of you £50 on an active stylus too. Whilst they can perform well, they’re not even close to the natively supported ones you get with a Microsoft Surface or Samsung tablet. More importantly for iPad owners they’re not so much better than passive styli, particularly on older devices.
So save yourself £25 and buy a good passive stylus, download NoteShelf and perhaps punt an extra £1.49 on the Evernote upgrade and you’ll be set. Trees everywhere will rest easy.
What do you think? Is Noteshelf the best? Are bluetooth styli best avoided for now?
Let me know in the comments.
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