Turn your iPad into a virtual notepad

Three iPad apps--the $5 Note Taker HD, $6 Notes Plus, and free Use Your Handwriting--make it easy to record your thoughts via handwriting on virtual notepads.

Dennis O'Reilly Former CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Dennis O'Reilly
6 min read

Many people use an iPad or other tablet almost exclusively to view Web pages and e-mail. For them, the machine's tiny onscreen keyboard and other input limitations are no big deal.

Recently I've been doing extensive note-taking on my iPad. I could use Apple's $69 iPad charging dock with attached keyboard or the company's $69 wireless keyboard. But lugging around a keyboard--however compact it may be--makes the iPad a lot less portable.

I decided to test three handwriting apps for the iPad: Software Garden's $5 Note Taker HD, Viet Tran's $6 Notes Plus, and the free version of Gee Whiz Stuff's Use Your Handwriting (UYH) (which is also available in a Gold version for $1).

It's no surprise that the fee-based products offer more formatting, entry, and file management features than the free version of UYH, but the freebie does a serviceable job of recording your finger-jottings, although UYH's controls aren't very intuitive. (Note that UYH is also available for the iPhone and iPod.)

Create shapes, add images to notes with ease
The feature that sets Note Taker HD apart is the program's ability to add shapes, arrows, borders, shaded boxes, and other items to your notes. Note Taker HD offers 22 items for creating flowcharts, six different text boxes, and various borders, elements for creating graphs and grids, basic forms, and time stamps. It also provides a handful of architecture-specific items, as well as blank sheets for music staff lines and guitar tabulature and chords.

Note Taker is easy to learn and use. The default view lists all the pages you created and shows a thumbnail of each note, its title, and page number. Press the plus sign in the top-right corner to create a new blank page, open a PDF file for annotation, or start a new page from a template. You can also list pages by the tags you give them or only those you've designated as favorites.

Note Taker HD main window
The main Note Taker HD window lists your notes in the left pane and the selected note in the right. Select a note to open it, or touch the plus sign to create a new note. screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

The program's tags tool comes in handy because there's no other way to organize your pages into "notebooks." You tag notes by opening them, clicking the gear icon in the top-right corner to open the Page Settings dialog, pressing Tags, and selecting the tag from the current list or entering the name of a new tag.

Other Page Settings options let you change the name of the note, adjust the note's automatic thumbnail, add the note to your list of favorites, flag the note, change the background and layout, and see the note's statistics: the number of points and strokes it contains, the note's .txt file name, and its time and date of creation.

The primary edit view lets you write your note directly on the virtual pad, but when I wrote notes in this mode, the resulting text looked like I was writing with my off hand. The second edit view opens a large text-entry box at the bottom of the page and highlights the spot your writing appears in the main window above it.

Note Taker HD Edit 2 text entry mode
The second of Note Taker HD's two text entry views lets you write in a larger area at the bottom of the screen to provide more precision. screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

In addition to shapes and images, you can add text using the iPad's keyboard and change the color, size, and other formatting of all or selected text and graphics. The program's editing tools let you duplicate the current sheet, insert a sheet, e-mail it as an image, add the sheet to your photos list, and view and change the sheet's thumbnail.

While the quality of my handwriting in Note Taker HD wasn't equal to my writing on real paper, it was the most like my on-paper writing of the three programs I tried. The program doesn't scroll automatically as you write in its big text-entry box; you have to click the Advance button on the right. This inconvenience aside, Note Taker HD's many formatting, annotation, and other features make it my favorite of the three handwriting apps I tried.

Notes Plus is a doodler's delight
If you're looking to convert your iPad into a sketch pad, Notes Plus offers a wealth of options for changing the stroke thickness, color, and opacity, and the fill color and opacity of figures. You can choose from dozens of fonts, sizes, and colors for entering text via the iPad keyboard. One of the five paper options is for writing musical scores, and another is virtual graph paper.

Notes Plus lets you password-protect the notebooks your notes are stored in, change the paper line height, and enable gestures for selecting and deleting text and other elements. You can set the program to detect shapes automatically, change the size of the eraser, and change the sort order. You can also add voice notes and other sounds to your scribblings.

When used in the iPad's landscape mode, the list of notes in the current notebook appears on the left and the note itself is available for editing on the right. This shrinks the note, making text difficult to read. Changing to portrait mode removes the notes list and enlarges the page, making it easier to create and edit your notes.

Notes Plus text entry in portrait mode
To get the clearest view of your note, use Notes Plus' portrait mode; in landscape mode, the note is shrunk to make room for a list of the notebook's contents on the left. screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

When you approach the right end of Notes Plus' text entry box, the last bit of text appears on the left, allowing you to scroll the text entry box to the right automatically. This feature worked well when I tested it, but as I wrote, the letters would flicker. While this didn't affect the words' appearance in the note, it was a little distracting, and I never got used to the strokes' brief disappearances.

Notes Plus does a great job of keeping your notes organized, and while the program lacks the formatting and editing options of Note Taker HD, the handwritten notes it creates are easy to read. It's also a breeze to share the notes as image files or PDFs via e-mail or by exporting them to photo albums, iTunes, or Google Docs.

No-frills handwritten notes for free
Even though Note Taker HD and Notes Plus cost only $5 and $6 respectively, some iPad users will balk at spending any money for the ability to create notes by handwriting. Before shelling out for the fee-based note-taker apps, I tried the free version of UYH. The program gets the handwriting job done, but its formatting options are basic, and it offers no way to organize your notes.

UYH's most serious limitation is its inability to left-justify your text: everything you write is centered, and as I used it, some text would appear on a new line after I had written only a few words. The lines can be readjusted manually, but the program's autoscroll feature was often too fast for me, requiring that I scroll backward in the text entry box to dot my i's and cross my t's.

The app's default view is a lined black page on which you write in one of five pastel colors. There are also two lined white pages, one with a flowery border and one with a holiday-themed border.

You scroll through your notes by swiping with two fingers across the screen. Click the Theme button on the bottom of the window to view a list of your notes. Select one by pressing its name on this list, or press the plus sign in the top right corner to create a new note.

To add text or edit existing handwriting, press the section of the note and then press the Edit button at the bottom of the window to open the text entry box. The text you add in this box doesn't appear on the page until you press the Done button at the top left of the text box or press the eyeball icon on the right side of the box to view the complete selection.

Use Your Handwriting text entry box
The free Use Your Handwriting app for the iPad, iPhone, and iPod is a no-frills note taker that centers all your text and offers only a handful of formatting and text-editing options. screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Other buttons in the text entry box let you activate the eraser, pause the automatic scrolling, scroll left or right, and undo the last strokes. UHY lacks any automatic sharing options, so the only way to "export" your notes is by using the iPad's built-in screen capture function and then attaching the resulting image to an e-mail or uploading it manually to an online storage or photo site.

If you write notes by hand infrequently, you may be satisfied with UYH's bare-bones approach. The text you write with your finger or a stylus is legible, but the dearth of formatting and sharing options and the program's too-quick autoscroll make it a challenge to use for anything more than a few short notes.