As much as technology permeates our daily lives it has been slow to enter the simple act of note-taking. Look around the next time you’re in a meeting: low-tech rules. If there are a dozen people in the room, chances are that no more than one or two will be using anything more sophisticated than pen and paper to take notes. And that’s not a bad thing; the technology we use to record notes shouldn’t take attention away from the rest of what’s going on in the meeting. So I find myself resisting this particular shift in technology just as much as anyone else. At least that was the story until about six months ago.

Writing with MyScript
Writing with MyScript

This post started out handwritten on an iPad using MyScript Memo, one of several note taking apps that I have been trying out. Having acquired an iPad my goal was to find practical uses for it. For example, could  I take it into a meeting room and use it with the same ease as pen and paper? If I was going to, I would want a note-taking app that would let me:

  • Write notes with a stylus.
  • Shift between handwriting and typing.
  • Add an images to a note.
  • Save a note as an image.
  • Convert handwriting to text
  • Transfer notes to other apps and devices.
  • Organize notes for later reference.

I found two good choices, Notability from Ginger Labs and MyScript Smart Note from Vision Objects. Neither does quite everything but both go a long way toward doing what I need.

Notability had become my everyday note-taking tool. Although I find myself using a stylus most of the time, I like that I can also add a keyboard to my iPad and type when I need it. The text input feature comes in handy when someone emails me a meeting agenda and I want to use it as an outline for my notes. The ability to mix text, written notes and images means that that I can capture a whiteboard session as an image and then make notes on it. At the end of a session I have a quick, accurate record of what happened together with my own notes for later use. Best of all, Notability lets me organize notes by topic and date so that I can find them again.

The one thing that Notability does not do is handwriting recognition. Most of the time that isn’t a concern because I don’t often transcribe notes verbatim to another document. When I do need that capability I turn to MyScript, which goes a long way in enriching a hand-written tablet experience. The big feature is conversion to text, which I used to convert the first draft of this post from my iPad to my laptop. It isn’t perfect, but most of the time accuracy is well above 90%, and it’s easy to copy and paste the result into some other app.

I started with with MyScript Memo, which is free, and recently upgraded to Smart Note, which adds some extra features including a set of editing gestures like a strike-through for deletion for making quick edits on the fly. With either, the writing experience is more like notebook-and-pen than any other app I tried.

Two big things to get used to with any handwriting app are the feel of writing on a smooth, hard surface and finding a natural wrist position. Both Notability and MyScript have wrist guard overlays that cover the bottom portion of the screen in order to help maintain a more comfortable wrist position. That helps prevent stray marks or other unintended effects from multiple points of contact, but I noticed that the screen would sometimes get jittery when there was too much wrist pressure on the tablet surface.

Choice of stylus matters. The Wacom Bamboo stylus is inexpensive and rugged. It’s rubber tip requires a firm hand, so the writing experience is a bit like writing with a crayon. The Adonit Jot-Pro claims fine control, and that’s true, up to a point. The writing tip is a small plastic disk, which does allows easier motion, at least for cursive writing. Printing is a little trickier – it’s easy for the disk to touch the surface between motions and leave stray marks. With either stylus, slowing down and forming letters more carefully produces a better handwriting recognition result.

After six months what can I say? My iPAD is with me most of the time when I’m in a meeting. It’s a lot less intrusive than a laptop and it provides a richer tool set for recording notes. Pen and paper won’t go away completely but paper notebooks are lasting a lot longer.