I purchased an iPad Mini a few months back and though I had a lot of things I wanted to do with the Mini, like playing games, surfing web, reading books, etc. the most important application of the iPad Mini for me was to use it as a notebook that I can carry wherever I go to take notes, I mean handwritten ones. My work as an Engineer involves a lot of note taking, in meetings, in the lab, at my cubicle, at the coffee shop, etc. So before buying the Mini, I did some research on this particular use case and found some helpful articles, but they did not help me decide conclusively if an iPad can be used as a note taking tool effectively or not. Hence I decided to buy one for myself and try it out.
Before I proceed further, why an iPad Mini and not a bigger iPad? There were a few reasons for my choice namely cheaper price, easier one hand use (important when you want to take notes standing) and more importantly the bigger iPad is due for a refresh to the iPad Mini form factor any time soon, while iPad Mini might be refreshed soon but the expectation is only some spec bumps and probably retina display, though I doubt it!
The note taking experience on an iPad is theoretically not great as the iPad uses capacitive touch technology which works great with finger touches, but not that with precision stylus. There are two parts to this particular use case on an iPad, a note taking App and a stylus. Let me start with the App. After a lot of product reviews and videos, I have tried four different Apps, Notability ($1.99), Memo (free with in-app purchases), Evernote's Penultimate (free) and Tapose ($2.99). The App makes a great difference to the way you use your iPad as a note taking device and it can overcome the limitations of the capacitive touch on the iPad. Another issue is palm rejection and most of the Apps take care of this by giving the users to blank out an area from the bottom of the iPad from where touches will be ignored.
For this review I will start with the challenges and issues with the worst Apps and then go to my choice of the best note taking App on the iPad. I will also not go through all the features of the Apps as most of the Apps possess all the basic features, some have a few specialized feature set than the other. Before deciding on anyone of the Apps, make sure you spend some time researching each App's feature set.
Evernote's Penultimate is a basic App that lacks even the wrist/palm rejection feature. Writing on this App is really difficult and you can squeeze in only a few words in a page. Since its Evernote's App, there is good integration with Evernote. But again like the screenshot below writing on this App is a nightmare.
Next, Tapose has more features than Penultimate and is much better. It has a zoom in feature that helps achieve two things, any area other than the zoomed in area is ignorant to touches (palm rejection) and this also helps in achieving precision writing. But again the accuracy with this App is nowhere close to being acceptable and makes a high precision stylus a necessity.
Memo is a basic note taking App that has an interesting feature, handwriting to text conversion. It actually works great. It has an adjustable wrist rejection pane at the bottom of the page. But other than this feature there is not much to like about this App. There is no zoom feature and though this App has better handwriting resolution, writing on it still is not great.
Now to the star of the show. Notability is the best note taking App that I have tried. It has all the necessary sets of features like folders, multiple paged books, tags, search notes, etc. But to emphasize again, the most important feature of a note taking App should be the ease at which you can write with it. And Notability succeeds with flying colors.
Basic writing on this App is just as bad as on the other Apps. It has a palm rejection pane at the bottom of the page (darker grey pane in the above image). But again the difference in Notability is the unique zoom function pane at the bottom of the page that lets you write in bigger fonts and converts it into smaller fonts in the actual note. Also this feature ensures that your wrist does not move in the vertical direction while writing and only horizontally. I cannot praise this feature enough as it has a profound impact on the speed and efficiency of your writing.
To draw illustrations or images, you can get rid of the zoom pane and zoom in on the actual page and draw. This results in much higher precision and resolution in the text or image, but again this is not suited for writing long sentences or lengthy notes.
The text written in the zoom pane is shrunk in the actual page, resulting in a very natural looking experience and the actual font size on page can be modified based on the selection box's size in the zoom mode. Smaller selection box means, small text as the end result and viceversa. I prefer to have this somewhere in the middle as that results in an ideal number of words per line on the page with acceptable legibility.
The text color, depth, bold or italics, can be customised. There is a text mode where you can type in text with the inbuilt keyboard and this text is indexed and searchable. Note that only the typed in text is searchable. So I use it for headers and tags for important phrases, that I can find through Search later. Notability is also suited for any type of writing; free style, cursive or mixed and for illustrations as well. It also integrates well with Dropbox where it creates folders automatically and syncs all the documents over the air for offline use. You can also use PDF Apps on your laptop if you want to edit the documents back and forth. Notability also has the ability to annotate PDFs and images.
The second part of the note taking on an iPad is the stylus (check this article for in depth stylus reviews at The Verge). As I mentioned before, since iPad uses capacitive touch that it is more suited for finger touches than high precision styli. There are basically two types of stylus for the iPad, the cheap and ubiquitous ones with soft tip miming a finger and some high end stylii, that work around the need for soft wide stylus tips by some clever implementation, like the Adonit Jot Pro.
I tried both types of stylii, a cheap round and soft tip stylus, TruGlide, that looks ugly with its black and gold finish and the Adonit Jot Pro, the smart looking high precision, expensive stylus. The Jot Pro not only looks good but also has very high precision and while using Apps like Memo or Tapose that do not have a good zoom in feature, the Jot Pro out performed TruGlide by a big margin, I could not even use the TruGlide to write or draw with any accuracy with these Apps. I am not going to review these two styli here, but even with the Jot Pro the high precision stylus writing on an iPad greatly depends on the App and not much on the Stylus itself. Notability makes even the cheapest and not very accurate stylus work great. Actually I like using the TruGlide with Notability more than the Adonit Jot Pro as the TruGlide is super fast to write and of course is also cheap.
So in conclusion, the common misconception when it comes to note taking on an iPad is that you need a high end accurate stylus and from my experience that myth is busted. For the best note taking experience on an iPad, you need an efficient and a smart App and Notability is the one for me. For a paltry $1.99, it is a steal and will change the way to use your iPad for note taking.