I enjoy using a stylus to take notes on my iPad, but I realize that it is not for everyone, and often it is not even for me. When I have to take notes at my fastest, such as when I am in trial or a hearing or taking a deposition, I stick with a pen and a legal pad. But when I can can take notes at a less feverish pace, such as during a meting or when I am just monitoring a hearing or a trial, it is nice to use just a single device—the iPad—to store my documents, take notes, check e-mail, etc.
There are quite a few apps you can use to take notes with an iPad, and my favorite one is Note Taker HD because it is so powerful, although the interface is confusing. Earlier this year, I reviewed Notes Plus, a powerful app that I really like; my main complaint is that app lags in keeping up with your stylus. Los Angeles attorney Robin Meadow posted a comment to that review stating that he uses Noteshelf and that: "I find it very easy to use and very responsive for pure note-taking -- it feels just as fast as ink on paper." This wasn't the first time I've heard praise for Noteshelf, so I asked the developer for a free review copy and I've been trying out the app for a few weeks. It's a great app. [UPDATE 4/18/12: Meadow posted a long comment to this post that is worth reading.]
To take notes, you first choose an existing, or create a new, cover for your notebook and then select the default page type for the notebook. There lots of covers and pages includes, and you can visit the in-app store to purchase even more. If you are looking to mimic a legal pad, the app comes with several relevant paper choices such as "Legal Pad," "Ruled Paper" and "Wide Ruled Paper."
The paper you are seeing in the following screens is the Wide Ruled Paper. The paper fits entirely on the screen when you are in portrait mode. In landscape mode, the paper width stays the same, and the area on the right is used to scroll up and down. You cannot pinch to zoom in and out of the page; the size of what you write remains constant at all tmes (except for the zoom box, discussed below).
If you want, you can write directly on the screen. One minor complaint that I have about this app is that the pen stroke seems somewhat more fuzzy in this app than in other note-taking apps. (Click on one of the screenshot images on this page to get a better sense of what it looks like.) I suppose this is just an issue of personal preference and some may prefer the softer look of the virtual ink.
To write more precisely, the app includes the feature that I consider essential to any serious note-taking app: a small window at the bottom that enlarges a portion of the screen so that you can write larger at the bottom and have it shrunk on the page.
I think that the implementation of this feature is poorer in Noteshelf than in Note Take HD or Notes Plus. For example, in those two app the gray area where you can cause the line to advance is on the left, so you get to decide when to move your stylus to that area and have the window advance. In Noteshelf, the gray window is at the right so there is automatic advance until you reach the very end, whether that is convenient or not. Note, however, that you can also manually tap the arrows to advance the window. Also, the zoomed text is far more blurry in Noteshelf than in Note Taker HD or in Notes Plus. The instruction manual acknowledges this, stating: "As the zoom panel shows the page bigger than its original size, it is slightly blurred. This blurry effect increases as you increase the zoom factor." Perhaps this is just a tradeoff for speed. [UPDATE 4/18/12: I agree with Robin Meadow's suggestion in his comment that this blurriness is caused mostly by the app not being compatible with the retina display on my third generation iPad. I just tried the app on my iPad 2 and most (although not all) of the blurriness goes away. I could live with what it look like on the iPad 2, but on the new iPad this is a problem that will hopefully be fixed soon.] Meadow was right about this app doing a great job of keeping up with the stylus, perhaps even ever so slightly better than Note Taker HD. But the zoom box area in Note Taker HD is not blurry at all, and I prefer that even if it comes with a very slight tradeoff in speed.
You can change your pen width and color using beautiful windows that pop-up when you tap a tool. Similarly, when you select an eraser, instead of just having one eraser tool with an adjustable size, the app shows you graphical representations of three different sizes. Nice touches like this make this app a joy to use.
If you have the need to change the paper type, you can easily do so, either for the current page or for subsequent pages. In other words, you don't have to have the same background for all pages in a notebook, so you can have a lined page for notes, followed by a blank page for a picture, followed by a grid page for a more precise drawing, etc. Unlike Note Taker HD and Notes Plus, the app doesn't have a built-in feature for creating perfect shapes and lines. You can, however, insert pictures from the Photos library. You can also insert Emoji symbols like smiley faces, hearts or a football, although that's unlikely to be a feature you will find useful when taking notes in court or in a meeting.
Noteshelf has many other features too. For example, in addition to writing on the paper you can also insert typed words. The app can search for those typed words across notepads, and you can even add tags to notepads to make them easier to find later. You can export one or more pages as either pictures or a PDF file, and you can e-mail it, print it, or send it to your Dropbox or Evernote account.
Noteshelf doesn't have all of the features of Note Taker HD (which can do almost too much) or Notes Plus (which can convert handwriting to text, turn a circle or square you draw into a perfect circle or square, etc.). It also seems to use a smaller piece of virtual paper than those other apps; the paper doesn't seem as large as a legal pad so I seem to get far fewer words per page than with Note Taker HD or Notes Plus.
On the other hand, Noteshelf does have more features than some of the simple note-taking apps, many of which don't even let you zoom in on a portion of the screen to draw in a smaller window at the bottom. Most importantly, if your goal is simply to write or draw on lots of different kinds of paper, Noteshelf handles that core task just fine. And finally, as you can see, Noteshelf has a beautiful design, the best that I've ever seen on a note-taking app for the iPad.
I consider Noteshelf to be a perfect mid-range entry in the world of iPad note-taking apps. It does a lot more than the simple apps that are only useful for jotting down a quick number as opposed to taking notes in court. Noteshelf is definitely good enough to be a true legal pad replacement. It lacks many features in other more advanced apps, but those may well be features that you'll never want to use anyway. By including just enough features, and by packaging it all into a beautiful design that is fun to use, Noteshelf is sure to be a favorite note-taking app on the iPad for many, striking the perfect balance between features and simplicity. I still find myself going back to Note Taker HD for most of my note-taking, in part because I appreciate the extra features notwithstanding the confusing interface and in part becuase I prefer the way tha the digital ink looks in Note Taker HD, but I suspect that I'll still come back to Noteshelf from time to time because it is such a nice app.