Handwriting/Note taking apps for iPad – overview

I’ll get right to the point:

There are plenty of apps out there, but don’t be fooled, the price of the app doesn’t always reflect its quality!

Here’s just an overview of several apps. I will only mention functionally important features, any quirks or minor bugs (not directly related to usability) are not covered here.

WhiteNote ($3.99):

Pros

  • Import (and annotate) PDFs
  • PDFs can be appended to an existing notebook easily
  • PDF imports are quick, so is flipping pages
  • Typed notes
  • Voice memos
  • Supports portrait and landscape modes
  • Ability to zoom in entire page
  • “Zoom area” for writing – zooms in a small portion of the screen in a window for writing (on the bottom), leaving the rest at 100% zoom

Cons

  • Smoothing on handwriting is very unnatural, almost robotic
  • Interface is very ambiguous and definitely NOT user-friendly
  • All options are either hidden or several taps away – all in various places – hard to find anything
  • Switching between table of contents and writing page is not intuitive
  • No wrist protection area (have to keep your hand in the air)
  • Major glitches when switching between portrait/landscape mode
  • Very noticeable lag when writing by hand – cannot be used for taking notes in a meeting or in a class
  • MAJOR pixellation when zooming in
  • Severe lagging when writing
  • Landscape mode doesn’t provide more width – table of contents takes up the right hand side
  • NO ERASER – can only remove an “image” – large area of written text

Bottom line: NOT RECOMMENDED

Notes Plus ($4.99):

Pros

  • Palm rest – dynamic area that slides from the bottom so you can rest your wrist while writing
  • Full page zoom
  • Gestures for various functions (customizable)
  • Clean writing at all zoom levels
  • No lag for writing (very small lag for smoothing)
  • Preset highlighter options
  • Highly customizable pens
  • Typing ability (also gesture-based)
  • Voice memos
  • Shape detection (circles, polygons)
  • Can select written text and move around on the page
  • Ability to export a single page or entire notebook as PDF
  • Integrates with Google Docs
  • Landscape mode provides more sheet width
  • Has trash bin (deleted notes can be recovered)

Cons

  • No PDF import ability (maybe in the future?)
  • Flipping pages can be sluggish if there’s a lot of writing on a page
  • Erase gesture sometimes not recognized (and no option to turn on eraser manually)

Bottom line: RECOMMENDED if you only need to take hand-written notes (especially quickly)

neu.Notes (Free):

Pros

  • Very smooth handwriting
  • Full page zoom
  • Ability to preset pens for quick access
  • Can import images (after import image can be zoomed or rotated before it’s “stuck” in place)
  • Ability to insert a map (from google maps)
  • Can write outside the “sheet” !
  • Portrait and landscape mode work equally well – more width in landscape mode
  • Decent pen smoothing

Cons

  • Automatically zooms in quite a bit to the center of the sheet (??!!) when adding a new page (no option to reset it)
  • No PDF import
  • Export PDF only to email – useless for very large PDFs
  • No palm rest
  • Sheets are squared (could be a one of the Pros, depending on the preference)
  • No voice recording

Bottom line: RECOMMENDED – very nice, light app for quick hand-written note-taking, and it’s free!

PaperDesk ($1.99):

Pros

  • Voice memos
  • Handwriting has very little lag
  • Typed notes
  • Export entire notebook as PDF
  • Printing

Cons

  • Ink thickness goes from thick to thin depending on speed, but in jumps (not smooth) so you end up with “clumps” of ink
  • No PDF import
  • Smoothing is very poor
  • Very limited options
  • Landscape mode does not provide more width
  • CRASHES RANDOMLY – BEWARE!

Bottom line: NOT RECOMMENDED (due to crashes)

Sketch Memo ($2.99):

Pros

  • Zoom window for writing
  • Has ability to “backspace” symbols written from the zoom window
  • Resize/move/rotate/align chunks of written text – lots of options
  • Insert pre-defined shapes
  • Import photos

Cons

  • CRASHES ON iOS4 FREQUENTLY
  • Can only export as a photo (1 page)
  • Very poor page navigation and menus
  • No eraser (!!!)
  • No page zoom
  • No palm rest
  • Zoom window creates very tiny handwriting, have to go in the settings to enlarge – very cumbersome

Bottom line: NOT RECOMMENDED

Sundry Notes ($4.99):

Pros

  • Can import images
  • Can move written notes around
  • Voice memos
  • PDF import and annotation (currently limited to 20 pages)
  • Ability to type text
  • Bookmarks

Cons

  • Smoothing is very poor
  • No zoom (have to write in large letters)
  • Handwriting is very unnatural
  • No wrist protection area
  • To do handwriting, have to enter into special “whiteboard” mode – can’t take notes quickly
  • Interface not very intuitive

Bottom line: NOT RECOMMENDED

SmartNote ($2.99):

Pros

  • Import and annotate PDFs
  • Insert PDFs into existing notebooks
  • Wrist protection area (can be any size, moved anywhere)
  • Has beta version of handwriting recognition
  • Voice memos
  • Full page zoom
  • Bookmarks

Cons

  • Landscape mode is buggy and practically useless
  • App frequently mistakes zoom and movement gestures as writing
  • Undo button is very small, and in an odd location – can be missed easily
  • Handwriting has virtually no smoothing
  • Significant pixellation when zooming in
  • MAJOR lag when flipping pages

Bottom line: NOT RECOMMENDED (due to lagging and pixellation)

Noteshelf ($4.99):

Pros

  • The most natural handwriting of any app
  • Perfect smoothing level
  • Beautiful iBooks-like interface
  • Dropbox and evernote integration
  • Export as PDF or images (can select which pages to export)
  • Wrist protection area (slides up from the bottom)
  • Import photos

Cons

  • No zooming
  • No PDF import
  • Landscape mode does not provide more width

Bottom line: RECOMMENDED for quick note-taking, where no PDF annotation is needed.

NoteTaker HD ($4.99):

Pros

  • Decent smoothing on handwriting
  • No lag when writing
  • 2 handwriting modes: full page view (ability to zoom full page) and zoom window
  • Landscape mode provides more sheet width
  • PDF import and annotation
  • Preserves the PDF structure (text remains as searchable text)
  • Can move a sheet from one notebook to another.
  • Can combine 2 notebooks into one
  • Wrist protection area (slides up from the bottom)
  • Printing

Cons

  • Appending PDF files to one another is not straight forward
  • Some menus are obscure
  • Handwriting is not completely natural
  • Eraser is sluggish and only 1 size
  • Wrist protection area is difficult to notice

Bottom line: RECOMMENDED

Overall impressions:

Noteshelf takes the cake for the most natural paper and pen experience – it actually feels like you’re writing on a real paper. Beautiful interface is icing. If you need to take notes in a meeting or a classroom, and don’t want to get bogged down with menus and tons of options – this is the perfect app for you.

If you need more options, voice memos, highlighting, typing text but don’t care much about annotating PDFs – go with Notes Plus this app has what you need.

For PDF annotation and highlighting, direct printing, lots of pen styles and options, comprehensive notebook/sheets manipulation definitely check out Note Taker HD

You can find all the apps in the app store with their screenshots and full descriptions. Some of these apps have Free versions on the app store – be sure to check them out!

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