I have been reviewing some note taking apps for the iPad. I wanted to be able to use these apps, or at least one of them, to take notes in seminars and meetings without undue messing around. I wasn't sure that I could find a suitable app because the first few I tried were more like toys than a useful tools.
After some significant searching and testing I have narrowed my list to a few that I think are worthwhile. I am writing this paragraph with one of the better apps: Notify. Notify is one of the few note taking apps that does handwriting recognition. However to do this Notify makes use of software, via an in-app purchase, from another app called: WritePad. WritePad will only do handwriting recognition , but Notify does a lot more . More about the handwriting recognition later. For now I will just say that it is interesting and almost useful. But because of its limitations I will write the rest of this on my computer.
After checking out 10 or so note-taking apps, I zeroed in on the following roughly in order of usefulness (for me): Notify, Note Taker HD, Notability, WritePad, Ghostwriter, and Penultimate. However I would say only the first 4 are apps I will actually use.
Some of my requirements for a note taking app were that I needed to be able to take note by writing – not just by typing, that I need to be able to draw small diagrams (and doodle), and that I would like to also have some extras including typing if I wish, inserting figures, and a reasonable means of emailing and exporting as a long-term, reasonably accessible, document format like a PDF. Some of these apps are free, and some cost a modest fee. They were all obtained in late December 2011.
One of the problems with iPhone apps in general is that there are very few conventions regarding the interfaces used. It is similar to the situation with computer programs back in the early days of personal computing, each app has its own unique look and each had different ways of saving/exporting files or dealing with export to email. For that reason I am still learning these apps, so I may have missed some important things.
In the table below I have summarized my experience with these apps.
Overall Notify and Note Taker HD are my favorites. I have used Note Taker HD more, and actually used it for taking notes during a two day symposium last week… it worked fine. For taking handwritten notes I like it a bit better than Notify because Notify’s “ink” is a bit blurry when zoomed. On the other hand, if you want to try handwriting recognition from time to time then Notify would be the better option, assuming you have made the in-app purchase of the handwriting recognition tool. These two aps have very different interfaces but both are reasonably understandable. Note Take HD is less versatile for exporting, although you can “open-in” another app that allows export and syncing… for example using PDF expert. Notify, on the other hand, has a number of export and syncing options.
At first I was less fond of Notability, but the more I use it the better I like it. It has very clear “ink” when zoomed, and has a very user friendly optional auto advance when hand-writing. However the zoomed writing window can’t be enlarged as in Notify and Note Taker HD. Notability also has a wider range of export and linking possibilities than Note Taker HD. It is especially good at creating and placing text boxes, figures (which are created in a dedicated window), photos, and web clips, (although you must select text mode to resize and reposition such windows).
WritePad is a completely different type of app in that its only use is for handwriting recognition… the creation of text documents from your handwriting as you write. WritePad’s handwriting recognition engine is also used in Notify. Use WritePad if you want a clean interface for handwriting recognition and that’s all. In my opinion, with my handwriting, writing style, and spelling mistakes, WritePad in not something I could use to take notes. It is actually very impressive, but makes too many “mistakes” to be useful as a note taking tool. This is because correcting the mistakes slows my note taking. On the other hand, I can write very slowly and carefully… but then that is too slow as well. If you use this app be sure to examine and test the variety of settings that adjust how it works. For example you can tell it the general shape of letters you use, use a spell checker, have it learn your handwriting style, including an option for printed handwriting, among many others. I think that if you have a consistent neat writing style (and don’t do any doodling) this could be a very useful app. Also, notes taken with WritePad, because they are text, are computer searchable, which could be a big advantage.
The other two apps I tried, Ghostwriter and Penultimate, are not among my favorites, but others may like them better. Ghostwriter has no full window zoom, and its “ink” is a bit blurry. It has more limited features, but has an uncluttered and intuitive interface. Penultimate uses a very straightforward shelf/notebook/page paradigm and has a very nice interface. The notebook page is the size of the iPad screen and cannot be zoomed. Basically this is slightly larger than my favorite real notebooks: the 5×8.5 inch (21x13cm) Moleskine brand. Because of this similarity one might think that this would be my favorite app. However, writing on the iPad is a bit different than writing in a small notebook. Although I use a stylus, and I very strongly recommend you do too, a stylus does not have a fine point… even though you can draw a fine line. So placement of small text is a problem unless you use a zoomed window. In fact my handwriting on the iPad is roughly 2 to 3 times as big as my handwriting in a notebook, but writing in a zoomed window means that your writing is normal size in the actual document. Nevertheless, if you are only making brief notes, reminders, and that sort of thing, penultimate is a nice clean and straightforward interface.