Take notes by hand--on the iPad

One promise of the iPad was that it would be great for students. A new note-taking app might be a big help in lectures, but is it better than using a laptop?

When the iPad first launched, we heard a lot of talk about possible uses for it in school settings. There was talk of downloading books (instead of carrying a heavy backpack); taking notes (even though the onscreen keyboard is less than ideal); and someday watching online lectures on the device (if sites would start using HTML 5 instead of Flash). So far, while the iPad has been a huge success with users, things that would really help students haven't quite come to fruition.

Note Taker HD
Use the magnified box at the bottom for actual writing. You can move the active writing area by swiping in the upper pane. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

A new note-taking app called Note Taker HD ($4.99) for iPad might be the lecture companion students have been waiting for--that is, if they like to write by hand. Note Taker HD gives you a paper-notepad-like interface at the top with a large box on the bottom where you do the actual "writing" with your finger (or an iPad-approved stylus). I wasn't very good at taking notes with the app initially, but after some practice I moved along at a pretty good clip.

One feature that helps with the flow of your note taking is Auto-Advance. With it turned off, you need to manually hit Advance every three or four words, which sounds annoying, but you get used to it pretty quickly. With Auto-Advance turned on, a gray box appears to the left of what you're writing. When you reach the end of the input box, simply lift your finger and continue writing in the gray area on the left; Note Taker HD automatically adds a space and lets you continue writing a sentence without the need to hit extra buttons.

Note Taker HD
Navigate through your current saved notes on left and get a preview on the right. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

Note Taker HD originally came out in May, but recent updates have made the UI more accommodating and added several features to make your note taking easier. You have your choice of text color to make it easy to call out specific notes, for example. You also get highlighters to outline important sections so you can find them later. When you want to draw a quick diagram, you can switch to full screen and draw directly on the page in the color and line width of your choice. If you need to fill out a form (with signature) you can import the form as a background, fill out the information, and sign on the dotted line using the touch screen. When you're finished, you can export a single page or multiple pages of notes via e-mail as a PDF file.

While Note Taker HD is a great idea, it's hard to say whether it can take the place of a laptop keyboard for efficiency. But if you take the time to get used to writing with your finger or a stylus, Note Taker HD offers plenty of options for more colorful and stylized notes that might, for some students at least, be easier to read.

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