I’ve ditched my paper-hungry lifestyle for the new iPad. For two weeks I’ll be replacing the folding stuff with multi-touch gestures, apps and iCloud, amongst others. I never thought it was going to be easy, but already I’ve hit the first hurdle: choosing a digital notepad.
Usually, I have a notebook to hand at all times. It’s often a Moleskine, sometimes an unbranded sketchpad from Muji, but always in my bag, stuffed in a pocket or at least within arm’s reach. I have stacks of them, filling drawers, lining shelves and packed with a career’s worth of notes, quotes, ideas and doodles. Being without them feels odd. I must find solace.
But as packed as it is with potential replacements, the App Store is a lonely place for someone with such specific needs. My digital doodle-taker must have a few very specific features:
It must be simple
I can’t abide apps with feature creep and muddled interfaces. If it’s going to be my go-to jotter, I need to be able to fire it up and start scribbling, just like I would with a paper alternative. No messing about, I need to get in and unload my thoughts.
It must sync
The whole point of an iPad is that it backs itself up in a way no notepad ever could, ideally to iCloud, Dropbox or my Evernote account.
It must accept my scribbles
I type well on the iPad, but not perfectly. Without cheating and using a Bluetooth keyboard with Apple’s tablet, I must be able to scrawl handwritten notes at ease, with accuracy, and speed. This is, perhaps, the trickiest requirement of all.
This isn’t the first time I’ve attempted to ditch paper. After reading about Michael Hyatt’s experiences merging real paper with an Evernote account, I tried using EcoSystems notebooks with perforated pages and diligently scanning them in. But it was a short-lived venture. I wasn’t quick enough to scan them, and often found myself without a digital copy, and hurriedly looking for the paper version. My notes got into a mess, with torn-out pages left at home while I was without an internet connection to download them on the road, and I ended up going solo with paper once again.
This time, with the right tools, things will be different.
I’ve already mentioned Evernote. It’s a desktop app I couldn’t do without, but on the iPad it lacks several features. I can pretty much rule it out from the first tap, since it won’t let me scribble hand-written notes, draw diagrams or doodles, or annotate photos. It’s still a fantastic repository for my notes though, with superb syncing and excellent categorisation, and I’ll come back to this point later on.
Apple’s Notes app
Included with the iPad, and brilliantly simplistic, Apple’s pre-installed offering suffers the same fate as Evernote: If I can’t scribble on it, it’s not really a notepad, even if it’ll auto-sync anything I type into it with my Gmail account (a neat, and vastly overlooked feature).
It’s fast, it’s nimble, and it accepts hand-scribbled notes from a fingertip. But there’s no way to type text in a pinch, and its brush sizes, opacity settings and layers are a little too complex for my liking. It’s close, but not quite the jotter I’m looking for.
Now this is getting closer. I’ve mentioned before that I love Muji’s simple notepads, and their iPad notebook is similarly built. It’s a digital version of an A4 pad, with customisable backgrounds and simple colour and brush tools. But behind that simple interface, there are a couple of ultra-smart features that make it stand out.
It’ll let you scribble with a fingertip or stylus, but there’s also a specific handwriting tool. This isn’t handwriting recognition (although it does that too – very poorly), but rather a zoomed in area for you to jot notes into.
It’s positioned at the bottom of the iPad’s screen, so you needn’t worry about your palm making mistakes when it touches the glass, and whatever is scribbled in its large area is replicated on the page, in neatly shrunken form. Two shortcut keys within the zoomed area are the really clever features though: A large one moves the writing zone on, across the page, neatly positioning it where you left off, while the other begins a new line.
Muji’s developers have obviously spent time figuring out how to write on an iPad, and got it right. With a fingertip, it takes a few minutes to get used to. With a stylus (I’ve dug out the Ten1 Design Pogo Sketch for the occasion) it’s very comfortable, even natural.
And best of all? An export button sends pages to my Evernote account, sending pages as PDFs, so I can keep them corralled in a central location, ready to be filed away, tagged or sent to friends and colleagues.
Recommended by Twitterer (and iPad note taking obsessive) @JamieForster, this app builds on the features of Muji Notebook, adding in more notepad backgrounds, password protection, Twitter and Facebook sharing, tagging, highlighters and better brushes, not to mention a cuter interface (although not yet optimised for the new iPad’s Retina Display).
All this, alongside the same ‘zoomed in’ scribble area and Evernote export offered by Muji’s app. Noteshelf will also export to Dropbox and iTunes. But the question is whether all these extra features are necessary in the long-run, or if Muji’s simplified approach is less confusing, faster or simply preferable.
Released this week, this iPad notepad app makes a bold claim: Bringing the ill-fated Microsoft Courier interface to iPad. It’s ambitious, has the potential to change the way I take notes on the move, letting me mix webpage clippings, sticky notes and audio recordings in amongst my scribbles and typed-out text. At first glance, it’s impressive, although the interface is vastly different to Apple’s conventional swipes and taps. That’ll take a bit of getting used to, and time will tell whether it’s worth the hassle.
It’s also ever-so-slightly crashy at present, although seems to be saving my progress admirably, even when it gives up the ghost and bounces me back to the iPad’s home screen.
Can any of these admirable apps deliver paper-free nirvana, or is there a better solution? Tweet any suggestions @jamesholland and I’ll endeavour to include them in my two week quest to ditch paper completely, and stay tuned as I report back on my progress.