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An early knock against the iPad (and the iPhone) was that people want physical keys, that touch screen typing is difficult and unnatural. As we move more and more towards a paperless world, what's a non-touch-screen-typist to do in this tabletly world? With a wealth of handwriting apps in the App Store, where do we start?
Of the three handwriting notebook apps we look at this week, Cocoa Box Design LLC's Penultimate might just be the least feature rich. But that's not a bad thing. If you want an app that delivers on the promise of excellent "natural ink" responsiveness, then look no further.
Pretty app with a pretty helpful tutorial
Penultimate starts, like many of this week's apps, with a short tutorial showing off how to use the app. Tap the pen icon at the screen bottom to choose from six different colored inks and three pen thicknesses. Tap the eraser icon for the eraser; tap the X icon to clear the whole page. Tap left or right side of the bottom of the page to turn it. Nothing could be easier.
Simple controls don't even need explanation
Across the top are a button for creating new notebooks (all your documents are little notebooks), ones to undo or redo an action, a button to chose between graph, lined, and plain paper, one for a very stripped down option set, and an export button that lets you send as a PDF, save to your camera roll, or print. That's it. The designers strove for the simplicity of a physical notebook and succeeded excellently at that -- with a couple digital era twists.
We're going to go and recommend a stylus over your finger
The most important aspect of any handwriting app is just that -- how well does it tackle the job of converting your touches into handwriting. As we said earlier, where Penultimate lacks in juicy extras it more than makes up for in excellent responsiveness. In fact, we would go so far as to say, before we even get to the other two apps that none of them beat Penultimate in this regard. It simply is fantastic for transcribing your thoughts in your own handwriting.
You can buy papers or make your own and import
The three stock papers Penultimate comes with can be augmented with either in app purchases, including such helpful choices as staffed musical papers, checkbox task paper, and more. Each notebook only uses one style of paper, and you can even add your own paper style if you're not interested in buying from the developers. According to their site, more features are coming, and we are eager to see if they implement those as well as everything else.
Dan Bricklin has been working in computers for 30 years, including being a pioneer on spreadsheets, and he's come up with this iPad only version of his iPhone and iPod Note Taker. Where we discussed Penultimate as being feature light, this app is crammed with so many buttons we were overwhelmed. There's a tutorial to walk you through everything but with this many buttons and features, it's easy to forget all the details of what everything does.
We need practice writing (and drawing)... for real
One of the main troubles Note Taker HD tackles is that writing with your fingertip (or even a stylus) on a touch screen tends to produce large sloppy print. Bricklin's app handles this beautifully with an option that gives you a box at the bottom of the screen. Write your big fat letters down there, and they appear up top in smaller, finer print. With practice, you can get better at handwriting, depending on how well you can write with your finger or the quality of your stylus.
Our favorite part of this app was the handwriting magnifier box
Want to add more pages? Since each document starts out as a single page, the Tools menu is your friend. Here you can duplicate the page you've made, tag it, name it or change its name, export it as a PDF or print it, or staple other pages to it to create a notebook-like document.
Tons of features including all these drawing tools
Note Taker HD lets you organize your pages in various notebooks, change backgrounds including paper color, import PDFs for annotating, favorite documents or schedule favoriting to happen at a later date, alter your page layout for different screens, change pen widths and colors, switch to landscape view, and on and on. If there were ever feature exhaustion, we've got it after trying to parse out what every button and function did.
Wow, that's a lot of buttons and that's not even half of them
And while Note Taker HD has excellent responsiveness as digital paper, sometimes too much is too much. We like taking notes, we like writing big and loosey goosey on one screen only to have it smaller on the page, but beyond that Note Taker HD chokes us with all its options. Once we managed to perform one trick, we strove in vain to recall how we did it and to do it again.
Where Stan Miasnikov's PhatPad works to stand out above the crowd is in features that other apps lack. Want to draw nice circles (or other geometric shapes) but your handwriting is garbage? PhatPad can convert close-enough pointed lines into perfect arrows, misshapen blobs into circles, spastic trapezoids into the squares you always meant them to be, and so on. This is a helpful feature for the budding flowchart designer, but you'll want to turn it off when using the handwriting option, or else PhatPad will deliver you up some messed up text, taking your e's and making perfect o's out of them.
Our semicircular letters went all O on us
PhatPad, if you move through its tutorial, is feature rich like Note Taker HD, though not nearly so full. Also the designer hasn't forgotten the iOS aspect of the app and given us plenty of familiar icons and textual pointers to guide you through its array of options, picture insertions, presentation mode, audio recording, and page management.
Lots of features, but not too many
PhatPad also takes into account third party offerings and gives you the ability to kick your pages to Evernote, Google Docs, or email, to export as PDF, or to share across a WiFi connection. We'd not mind Penultimate picking up a few of these, though we're not sure where Note Taker HD would tuck them away amidst all the buttons.
Nicely tucked away, these features let you customize plenty
PhatPad also delivers the most customizable range of pen settings, colors chosen from a rainbow array and pen widths on a sliding scale. There is also the option of selecting previously written text and changing its ink -- or converting your handwriting to actual printed text. This worked decently, and when a letter showed up typed incorrectly, we could fix our handwriting and the app would correct the print.
Turns your sloppy handwriting into text, which is pretty sweet, when it works
This last feature was the one that wowed us when it worked, and that's the sticking point. PhatPad lags the other two apps when it comes to writing responsiveness. With the previous apps, letters appeared instantaneously -- almost as if they really were created from ink. With PhatPad there was just a perceptible enough delay that something felt off when writing. We found ourselves so frequently concentrating on individual letter creation that we quickly lost the flow of things we wanted to write. For digital pen, ink, and paper to work, it has to be as effortless as uncapping a pen and going.
Ideally, we'd want PhatPad's feature set and Penultimate's responsiveness. Note Taker HD mostly does this, but its UI is a hot mess to navigate. If sharing and cloud storage is more your racket, then PhatPad's got you covered, but you didn't come to these apps to upload directly to Evernote. That's a nice bonus, but when you get right down to it, you want the simplicity of paper and ink. Penultimate is that app and it's beautifully rendered. We can't wait to see what updates bring.