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Reflection: The search for the best notetaking -or rather handwriting- app

Introduction

In February I shall be starting an MSc in User Experience Design and as a consequence my thoughts have turned to the study tools, which I wish to make use of as a student. As part of this process I have been considering my arsenal of apps. I’ll likely talk about the full extent of my app choice plotting in future posts. In this post I shall provide my reflections on notetaking apps in-particular. In my experience early preparation has always been the best strategy when considering any new academic venture, so I look forward to sharing some of my findings on this blog in the lead up to and during my forthcoming period of study.

Productivity and notetaking apps that I use

In my professional life I have become a devotee of Evernote. I was not by any means an early adopter or rather I was but I got burned by a glitch circa 2009 which resulted in the loss on my web-based notes (at that time using it in-browser). I must stress that such a loss is not likely to happen with Evernote now but back then it was a relatively new thing and when on the cutting edge you may occasionally experience virtual paper cuts (thankfully I only lost a few notes)! However last year Evernote won my heart again when I decided that I wanted a solution with note tagging (keywords), multi-platform compatibility (in my case, Mac, PC, iOS, Android) and OCR capabilities (text recognition). After looking at a few app-based solutions it was the only option which gave me the flexibility I was craving. In my work I have come to rely on Evernote as an excellent option for recording meetings and consultations, being able to send a record of what was discussed and any actions to a staff person immediately after the meeting. I then link this information to my to-dos in Trello (I’ll write about the wonders of Trello some other time). Sometimes when I’m particularly busy I quickly jot ideas or tasks down on paper and then use Evernote’s document capture function to take a photo. I am always impressed by the OCR capabilities of Evernote when it comes to recognising my squiggly handwriting and making it searchable (the detects words in handwriting rather than converting handwriting to type). Also when you add in the photo annotation tools made possible through Evenote’s partner app Skitch I am one happy customer. But…and you knew that this was coming, there is something to be said for handwriting and when it comes to deeper notetaking and truly learning concepts; I personally need to write concepts down to retain and understand them. When the iPad first came out in 2010 (Apple, 2010).

Handwriting in apps

File management

I was an early adopter and one of the first apps I fell in love with was Penultimate. This app lets you draw or write with a stylus or your finger in virtual notebooks, later they added being able to add photos and voila it became a virtual sketchbook! I no longer wanted to carry a moleskin and an iPad and for a while Penultimate served me well for quick notetaking. Penultimate was acquired by Evernote in 2012 (Libin, 2012) and with that came the OCR capability of being able to ‘search’ your handwritten notes. However there were three functions which I have always felt are missing from Penultimate app which eventually caused me to abandon it. The first is the absence of a adequate notebook file management system, in apps like Goodreader, iAnnotatePDF and Notability, although more strictly for annotation of imported files, these apps allowed a far superior filing system. For example in iAnnotatePDF you can tag files with keywords, create folders and connect to Sharepoint (MyFiles) via WebDAV for backup purposes. In Penultimate, you just have an ever growing pile of notebooks.

File Management in iAnnotatePDF. The tagging function is shown.
iAnnotatePDF, the tagging function is shown.

Background colour

The second issue is the background colour, from my previous post you’ll know that background colour is very important to my efficiency when reading and writing. You do have the option of importing a photo to use as a background, so in theory that is a workaround and you can purchase notepaper types from Evernote Market, there are some good ones but these are more to do with line based layouts than page background colour. I have also found this enterprising site which allows you to create your own templates for Penultimate as well as use templates which other’s have created, in particular I was happy to find a Cornell Notes format template after the recent MELSIG presentation about it. With any drawing/handwriting app, as a workaround, you could draw a template on the page, but then it becomes tricky when you need to cut and paste your written sections as the background gets confused with your written content.

Notes Plus shows the list of background colours avaialble for selection.
Notes Plus - the background colours and template options available in Notes Plus.

On-screen wrist protector

The third issue is the lack of an adjustable on-screen wrist protector. Penultimate allows you to define your wrist position but as you will see from the image below, it has trouble deciding which marks my stylus is making and which marks my wrist is making. This was the deal-breaker, I’d be mid-flow in writing and half of what I’d written would fail to show up as in Penultimate’s view my wrist had been doing the writing!

penultimate app with handwriting and wrist created scribbles shown
Penultimate - the effect of wrist shown.
Cornell Notes template shown above from iPadPapers.com

So after four years of on and off trial and error, with periodic abandonment of the idea of handwriting on my iPad other than using very helpful PDF annotation apps for small comments (another post about these apps specifically in the future), I think that I have finally come up with my ideal list of functions which a handwriting app needs - and one app fits almost all of them - Notes Plus with Notability taking a close second place.

My ideal list of functions

  • File management and ideally creation of folders or notebooks for storage of different note types
  • Background page colour and template adjustment
  • Adjustable on-screen wristguard

iAnnotatePDF wristguard as a grey bar at the bottom of the screen
iAnnotatePDF - this is a pretty typical wristguard which you can adjust downward as you fill the page. A simple thing, but important.

  • Good virtual ink flow
  • Ink customisation and style
  • Two-fingered scroll and zoom support
  • Easy drag and drop customisation of already written text
  • Dropbox and/or WebDAV backup support - just in case
  • Hand-drawn shape recognition - I draw a circle or square and the app tidies it up for me automatically
  • Close-up mode - I not good at keeping to the lines or within box areas otherwise due to my squiggly writing

Two Examples of Close-up mode

Notes Plus

Notes Plus Ink customisation options
Also shows the excellent Ink customisation options.

Notability

Notability close-up writing mode
Notability - close-up writing mode. Both Notes Plus and Notability have great navigation tools within the close-up pane.

  • Audio memos - for when my writing isn’t fast enough!
  • Presentation mode: can this app be shown in a classroom, to demonstrate annotation or to draw quick diagrams?
  • Good tutorial materials to make the most of the app
    • Bonus:
      • PDF and word doc import - is it an annotation app too!
      • Layers - ‘send to back’ and locking options
      • Built-in Cornell Notes template
      • Handwriting to text converter (!) - in app purchase available in Notes Plus

Handwriting to Text Converter in Notes Plus

Handwritten text is selected by drawing around it
Select the text by drawing a circle around it. Select the conversion option.

The handwriting has been converted to type
It is accurate even with my horrendous handwriting.

Analysis

I analysed four apps based on these criteria: Notes Plus, Notability, iAnnotatePDF and Penultimate. The results are below, I have awarded 2 point for each “X”, the “+” signs indicate exemplary functionality. Bonus features are not counted towards possible total of 26.

New: Notability have just released a companion app for for Mac.

Criteria Apps Notes
Notes Plus Notability iAnnotatePDF Penultimate
File Management X X X+ iAnnotatePDF:has excellent file management options - tagging, folders, search etc.
Background page colour X X+ Notability: will even allow you to change the background colour of PDFs.
On-screen wristguard (adjustable) X X X
Good virtual ink flow X+ X X X iAnnotate is not quite as good as the others on this point.
Ink customisation X+ X X X Notes Plus has highly customisable and rather beautiful ink - it actually improves my handwriting.
Two-fingered scroll and zoom X X X X
Easy drag and drop of text X+ X X+ X
Backup options X Dropbox Google Drive X WebDAV Dropbox X Dropbox Box Google Drive OneDrive WebDAV X Evernote Dropbox Of course I would love all these apps to be able to sync with Evernote some how, but I would like to see all of them offer a WebDAV option and ideally also Microsoft OneDrive.
Drawn shape recognition X+ Notability does offer a nice function for drawing shapes and figures, but no shape recognition. This is where iAnnotate is more of an annotation programme, the ‘stamp’ tool has some shapes but it is limited.
Close-up mode X X iAnnotatePDF: does let you zoom in and type and it also has a signature tool for close-up signing on PDFs, but these are less well suited to original notetaking. Penultimate: has drift mode for this kind of writing experience, but I found the enforced motion quite difficult and also frustrating to get out of.
Audio memos X X X+ iAnnotatePDF: lets you place notes in-context throughout your document (in-place, a microphone icon is shown next to areas of text). Really helpful for formative feedback. Notes Plus and Notability: will link audio notes to the specific pages rather than areas of the page.
Presentation mode or allows projection X+ X X Further testing needed: Notes Plus has a VGA connection view which is great. Notability does not have a specific mode, but does project well, as is the case with iAnnotate. Penultimate in my experience has a strange presentation mode and in prior versions would not show when connected via VGA to a projector.
Tutorial materials X+ X X X Notes Plus: has a lovely developer website as well with a forum and they have responded very positively to my features suggestions in the past. iAnnotate: also have a superb website with tutorials and FAQs.
Bonus
PDF and Word document import X Converts to PDF X Converts to PDF X Converts to PDF
Layers X+
Cornell Notes Template (built-in) X
Handwriting to text converter X+ Notes Plus: offers an in-app purchase for handwriting to text conversion. It is very accurate for small sections of text and immensely useful.
Totals (26) 26 24 20 12

Conclusion

For written notes Notes Plus wins hands-down and it is also superb for combining PDFs, Word documents and written notes into self-contained notebooks or virtual binders. I have resolved to use it for the purpose of textbook related notes over the next few months. I’ll report back on how it goes. For decent notetaking and excellent PDF annotation Notability has clear benefits. iAnnotatePDF’s clear advantage over the other apps is its excellent file management  system and also the ability to place audio comments in context within a document.

References:

Apple, Inc. (2010) Apple Launches iPad [Online]. Available: https://www.apple.com/uk/pr/library/2010/01/27Apple-Launches-iPad.html (Accessed: 28 September 2014).

Libin, P. (2012) Evernote Acquires Penultimate. Evernote Blog [Online]. Available from: http://blog.evernote.com/blog/2012/05/07/evernote-acquires-penultimate/ (Accessed: 28 September 2014).

Fiona MacNeill

Fiona MacNeill

Learning Experience (LX) and UX

Passionate about creating inclusive and accessible experiences, tools, and services for learning and doing.

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