Early last year, I reviewed an app called Note Taker that lets you take handwritten notes on an iPhone. I considered the app to be an interesting novelty but of little use. The iPhone screen is far too small of a surface to comfortably take notes. The most interesting part of the app for me was that it was created by the computer pioneer Dan Bricklin, who in 1979 co-created VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet program for a personal computer. On the large screen of an iPad, however, taking notes makes a lot more sense. The iPad screen is even about the same size as a small legal pad. When I first started using an iPad in November of 2010, one of the first apps that I purchased was Note Taker HD, the iPad version of the Note Taker app that I had reviewed many months earlier. I've used Note Taker HD extensively over the last eight months, first on my iPad and now on my iPad 2, and it is a phenomenal app for creating handwritten notes on the iPad.
[UPDATE 8/9/11: There is now a new version of this app, Version 6.0, that improves the interace and adds some new features. My description of the app in this post remains accurate, but note that app now has a different look than what you see in the below screenshots.]
There are many apps that let you write on your iPad screen, which you can do with your finger but works much better if you use a stylus such as the Kensington Virtuoso Stylus for Tablet that I reviewed yesterday. But because the iPad is made to respond to the touch of a fingertip and not a much smaller pen tip, your letters cannot be too small. Jotting down a quick note or a phone number works great, but if you want to take notes during a hearing or a conference, you quickly run out of space. For example, here is a note that I wrote using Penultimate — a great app, but one not suited to writing long notes because you would have to change pages after almost every sentence:
Note Taker HD gets around this problem by giving you a special area in which you write. That way, you write using the larger letters that one must use on an iPad screen and whatever you write is made smaller at the top of the screen. Essentially, you are writing in a window that represents only a small portion of the screen. That solves the problem of your letters being too large, but creates a new problem — you can only write a few words before you run out of space in that window. Note Taker HD addresses this problem by having a gray box pop up in the left side of the window after you have written a word or two. When you get to the end of the window, just pick up your pen and continue writing in the gray box, and the "Detail Area" (the portion of the page as a whole on which you are writing) advances to the right. I realize that this all sounds rather complicated, and it does take a few minutes to get used to it, but after you do so it makes a lot of sense.
This mode of Note Taker HD is the one that I use 95% of the time when I am taking notes with the app, but there are many other modes. There is another edit mode that lets you write directly on the screen (just as you would in an app like Penultimate) in case you want to use the whole page to draw a picture, or to draw a line from one part of the page to the other, etc. You can also switch to a mode that lets you type on a page, a mode that lets you insert shapes on a page, a mode that lets you insert a picture on the page, and a mode that lets you move something you have written to another part of the same page (but unfortunately does not let you cut and paste to a different page).
The number of settings that you can customize in Note Taker HD are mind boggling, which is a good thing if you want a lot of control, but can get confusing for new users. For example, even for just the page backgrounds there are tons of settings. Do you want wide lines, narrow lines, a grid or a blank page? Do you want a white background, a light yellow (shown above), or some other color? You can also create your own backgrounds. Or if someone sends you a PDF form for you to fill out, you can use that PDF file as the background — handy if you want to fill out a form on your iPad.
You can change your pen width and color, or even turn the pen into a highlighter with different color options. When you get to the end of a page, you can tap the plus button at the top right to add an additional page to your notes. After you are finished taking notes, you can switch from the edit mode to the view mode to see the full page of your notes.
The app can hold many different sets of pages, and you can give names to those sets of pages, but there is no option to organize your sets of pages into folders. (At least not yet; Bricklin notes on his website that there are many features being worked on for a future release such as folders, Dropbox support, and a simplified user interface — all features I would appreciate.) [UPDATE 8/9/2011: Version 6.0 of the app is now available. It adds folders, a full-screen preview, an improved user interface, and several other features. Still no Dropbox support.]
After you take notes, it is simple to e-mail them as an image or PDF file. I usually e-mail my notes to myself as a PDF and then I can store them in a folder on my iPad using GoodReader and/or store them in my document management system on my computer. For some reason, the color of the background isn't included in the file, but the lines are. Once again, there are many options that you can select such as the file name, what appears in the headers and footers, etc. If you want to see a sample of what the notes look like as a PDF file, click here to download as a single page PDF file the notes shown above.
So Note Taker HD is a great app for taking notes on your iPad. Should you do so, or should you stick to the traditional note pad and pen? To be honest, it depends, and taking notes on the iPad is not for everyone or for every circumstance. Let's start with some of the problems. First, you cannot take notes on the iPad as quickly as you can using pen and paper. In part that is because you need to write much larger. In part it is because even with a nice stylus with a nice tip, you cannot write with silicone against glass as fast as you can with an ink pen against paper. When I am in court arguing a motion, taking notes while my opponent speaks, I stick with pen and paper. Another problem with this app is that it has so many options that it can get confusing sometimes. Perhaps the upcoming interface redesign will help. [UPDATE 8/9/11: The new interface does help, although there are still a lot of options and thus you need to spend some time with this app to learn its features.]
On the other hand, if I don't need to take notes at top speed, for example in a normal business meeting or when I am watching someone else argue in court, I prefer using Note Taker HD to take my notes. I love keeping my notes in a digital format so that I can store them for future use. With pen and paper, I need to remember to scan the pages of notes to do this, which normally I don't get around to doing, and then I cannot find my notes when I need them weeks later. I also like that with digital notes it is also easy to erase and fix something you wrote. The app includes an undo button with multiple levels of undo. And with my iPad in my hand in a meeting or in court, I can quickly switch apps, for example switch to GoodReader to look at a pleading that I have stored there, then switch back to Note Taker HD to continue taking notes. Indeed, it is nice to be able to go to a meeting or court carrying just my iPad and not be weighed down by legal pads, pleadings, highlighters, pens, etc.
Note Taker HD is not the only app that includes a window at the bottom dedicated to writing so that you can shrink your writing and get more words on the page. For example, I will soon review Notes Plus, another app that does the same trick. (I'm waiting for version 3.0 of Notes Plus to be released with lots of new features, which should very soon.) But after eight months of using Note Taker HD, I can tell you that it works very well for those circumstances in which you are willing to live with the limitations of taking notes on an iPad so that you can enjoy the advantages of doing so. If you want to try using your iPad as a replacement for your legal pad, get yourself a stylus and give this app a try.