Handwriting on the iPad Pro

Handwriting on the iPad Pro

Here’s a quick write up of using the iPad Pro for handwriting.

I’ve seen a lot of opinions from designers and artists on the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil combination, but not much from writers. This post is an attempt to remedy that.

The iPad Pro has been in my toolkit for just under a year now, so I thought I’d discuss my experience with it so far from a handwriting perspective.

Should writers buy an iPad Pro and Pencil?

My goal for my tech setup and writing workflow over the last few years has been to find a way to take the best bits from the analogue and digital worlds.

What do I mean by that?

I value the tactility of writing with a pen: The slowness, the deliberateness, the freedom of writing on the page and making marks wherever I want.

But I also want the benefits of going fully digital: Having my notes synchronised and backed up in the cloud, ready to read across devices and easily shareable with others.

I have also dreamed of credible handwriting recognition, so I can search across my notes without having to manually type them up (which I used to do).

If I could get this best-of-all-worlds workflow set up without a dozen apps and multiple exports/imports each time I make a note, I’d be delighted.

So I bought an iPad Pro & Apple Pencil. And my dream has been realised.

Writing with the Apple Pencil

As a step in the writing process, taking notes – and handwritten notes in particular – is crucial.

Multiple studies have shown that you recall information more accurately and elevate comprehension when you take handwritten notes.

For that reason, I really wanted the Apple Pencil to replicate the handwriting experience. It’s why I went for an iPad Pro over an older model without Pencil support.

So, is it any good for handwriting?

Yes!

The Pencil is a game-changer.

First of all, the Pencil is much more responsive than a non-Bluetooth enabled stylus.

I previously used a Wacom Bamboo Stylus,which did the job – I edited most of my PhD with one – but it didn’t give the responsiveness, the tactility of a real pen. The Pencil does.

Writing with the Pencil feels like writing with a normal pen; I don’t have the impression that I have to make any compromises to my handwriting technique to make it work.

It’s as long and as thin as a normal pen or pencil. It’s not like writing with a sausage which some digital handwriting options feel like. (I’m looking at you, Livescribe.)

iPad Pro accessories to consider

Here’s my actual gear/app setup:

Obviously, you need an iPad Pro. The iPad Pro is the only category of iPad that works with the Apple Pencil.

You’ll need to get the Pencil separately. Warning: it’s a pricey add-on.

To avoid losing the Pencil and to give the pen and iPad together as buddies (because I’m like that), I looked for an iPad case that incorporated a Pencil holder. Surprisingly, Apple doesn’t produce one of its own.

I went for this one and can highly recommend it. It props up the iPad perfectly and keeps the Pencil in a ready-to-write status: iPad Pro Case with Apple Pencil Holder.

Because I don’t intend for the iPad Pro to be a bona fide desktop replacement, Apple’s keyboard case didn’t appeal to me.

I do, however, have a cheap ’n’ cheerful external Bluetooth keyboard,so I can type directly into the device when I need to. I use Google Docs a lot, and the app works great with a keyboard. (Which I guess means the iPad could be my desktop replacement, even if it’s not my primary use-case.)

A battery pack makes sure I never get caught without power. That said, the battery life of the iPad has been stellar so far, but you never know. I use the monster Anker PowerCore+model, which is bulky but can also charge up my Macbook Pro.

That’s the hardware. Next up is the software.

iPad Pro Apps for writing

MyScript Nebo

 

Nebo is an Apple Pencil optimised note taking app. You choose the paper-type and then have choices of pen types, colours, and highlighting options to create notes. There’s also a focused-view auto-scrolling option, which I don’t really use but some might like.

Write legibly between the lines and the app will recognise and digitise your handwriting. It doesn’t convert your handwriting on the page, but you can then export a digital version of your note in a variety of formats.

The handwriting recognition algorithm isn’t perfect but the app makes it very easy to choose the correct word as you write with the Pencil. The digitised version appears above your handwriting; to correct the text, you just tap the word and tap the correct word.

This is a really good app that I use all the time.

(I should note that I write non-cursive so that influences my experience with Nebo.)

Paper

 

Paper is a free-form note taking app. You can draw and sketch and write all over the interface. If there’s one criticism I have of Nebo – which is my favourite app right now – it’s that you must write line-by-line for the handwriting recognition algorithm to work properly. I use Paper when I want to scribble and draw lines and arrows and squiggles on the page.

Devonthink To Go

 

I started using Nebo because it’s effortless to export your handwriting to an RTF text file (which is amazing!!). If you have a Devonthink database on your iPad then your handwritten notes can be uploaded to your desktop version easily.

The killer feature of the Nebo-Devonthink combo is that your notes – if your handwriting is legible – is indexed and becomes searchable. This means that your notes are backed-up and are fully searchable in your desktop Devonthink database. That’s cool. Really, really cool.

Goodreader

 

This is my favourite PDF reader. There are others like it, but I’ve been with Goodreader for a while now and don’t want to deal with a learning curve. (I’d rather spend the time reading PDFs :-) )

Goodreader syncs with Dropbox, so I store PDFs in a Dropbox folder and keep it synced with my laptop.

I also sync the PDFs attached to my Zotero library to my iPad using ZotFile. This is awesome. My laptop and iPad feel part of the same writing workflow now, not two devices that I sellotape together with odd software hacks.

Overkill? Is an iPad Pro & Apple Pencil worth the money for digital handwriting?

An iPad Pro and Pencil combo are not cheap at all. Are they worth the cost or are they total overkill?

There was nothing broken with my notepad-then-digitise approach that I’ve been using for years. I liked it and it got me through my PhD.

But over the last few months, the iPad Pro has now become my ‘creative hub’. I write, type, read, and annotate on it. I don’t take my paper notebook with me anymore, which, if you knew me, would raise eyebrows.

Using the iPad and the Pencil is a cue to ‘create’ in a different way to sitting in front of my laptop. Holding the Pencil in my hand somehow puts me in a creative/critical frame of mind.

Split screen: Reading Pocket and hand writing notes in Nebo.

Should you buy one?

The iPad Pro and Pencil tandem fits nicely into my workflow.

It’s a nifty bit of kit, but you have to justify the iPad for your own use case. It’s undoubtedly expensive.

For me, the iPad Pro – the Pencil in particular – turns the iPad from a media consumption device into a content creation device. That’s a big deal.

Even seeing the Pencil clipped into the case gives me (welcome) pangs of guilt that I’m not using it and should be writing.

Is an iPad essential for that? No. But it keeps your handwritten notes digitised, organised, and backed up.

This isn’t a silver-bullet solution that will make you a better writer. But I think that it brings a broad set of useful writing tools and workflows onto one device.

When I have the iPad with me, I can do all the tasks that serious writing projects require. I can read material and take handwritten notes (with all the benefits of handwriting) but also be synced, backed up, and have them searchable.

For me, writing the deliverable – a book, article, or blog post – is so much easier with the iPad and Pencil in my toolkit.

 

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13 replies
  1. Brian Chjnsamy says:

    Hi Nick. I have a I Pad Air 2. I have been writing with styluses for the last 6 years using Noteshelf, Penultimate and Notability. I have the evernote stylus and the Jot script. Unfortunately the Air 2 I Pad is not compatible with the apple pencil. It is such a pity because now I have to buy the latest i pad to use the pencil, and my Air 2 is great. It does the job of note-taking quite well. Which other stylus would you recommend comes close to the smoothness of the apple pencil that I can buy to get the same feel as the apple pencil? Thanks Brian

    Reply
  2. Nigel says:

    Dear Nick, enjoyable and informative post. Thank you. I have bought and sold 2 iPads (non pro) as I found they soon become black holes of time wasting and entertainment. I’m now tossing up replacing my aging MacBook with the latest iPad Pro. Two questions if I may: 1 Which do you find better for writing long essays, an iPad Pro or MacBook? 2. How do you stop yourself wasting time on an ipad? I quickly find, my good intentions to write get lost in the siren call of pointless websites, and click bait.

    Finally, your spot about doing a PhD is a god send. I have waxed and waned for several years about doing a PhD but have always struggle with “why.” Academia is becoming a precarious cash driven, revenue model in Australia, and the ubiquity of free information (albeit poor quality) on the web, has denuded the value of paid expertise from PhDs in many fields, thus I struggled with why bother? Accomplishment yes, but for a career- no. You’re excellent articulation of the pros and cons of doing a PhD helped me solidify my decision. Don’t pursue a PhD but pursue my love of the subject through other means. Thank you again for your enjoyable and insightful writing. Regards Nigel

    Reply
    • Nick Blackbourn says:

      Hi Nigel, Thanks for your comment, I appreciate it! 1) Most of my serious writing is on the Macbook, but I do use the iPad to read and take notes. 2) There’s no good way to avoid procrastination; it’s a daily struggle! One tactic I use is to hide ‘unproductive’ apps on another screen.

      A PhD is a huge commitment — you can gain and contribute to knowledge without the credential.

      Reply
  3. Steve Medeiros says:

    Nick,
    Thanks for the comprehensive review. I have been taking handwritten note from meetings for 30 years now. I never throw them away. But I have trouble finding notes from 6 months ago.

    I am in the tech sector. My director was using a re-markable. This pad looked remarkable and customer designed for this kind of thing. But it is a one-trick pony and about $600.

    I have a 2013 iPad, which I have always used, just around the house, for reading and surfing, but the beast is now tired. So I was considering a re-Marrakech or the new iPad. But had questions as to how well it could do as a notebook replacement.

    I found your research so thorough, that I did not bother my normal test phase with a trot to the apple store. So I just pulled the trigger on the new 2018 iPad 9.7 with a pencil and a case to hold it all together.

    I am confident I will like the set up. Worst case, I have a new iPad. May write back if I can add any new info to what you provided. Thank you again….

    As for the fellow promoting Windows, I would like to say that I don’t buy products designed by engineers in the computing space, Apple pioneered using human factors designers to provide the best personal experience. If you are that worried about price, then I guess one would not be too concerned about lack of user experience, integration across apps and platforms, and let’s not forget personal security.

    Thanks again and Best to all.

    Reply
  4. José Pedro Barbosa says:

    Not to sound like an Apple-hater, just throwing my two cents into the discussion: you mentioned using a MacBook Pro and an iPad Pro with the Apple Pencil. The “Windows vs. MacOS/iOS” debate isn’t a can of worms worth opening, but from a purely “price vs. performance” approach, I have to say that some Surface devices (as well as other OEM equivalents) would have a better outcome for a lower price. While more expensive than an iPad Pro, a top-of-the-line Surface Pro or Surface Book (the Surface Laptop and Surface Studio aren’t good for this) would definitely come off cheaper than an iPad Pro and a MacBook Pro combined, while replacing both at once. You mentioned using MyScript Nebo, which is available for Windows as well, and I’d argue that the writing experience with a Surface Pen is better than with an Apple Pencil, although that may be down to personal taste and the fact that I’ve been using it for longer. It seems to me that the Apple Pencil is more artistically inclined, doubling up as a crayon or brush, while the Surface Pen is actually made with handwriting in mind. Have you ever tried using one?

    Reply
    • Nick Blackbourn says:

      Hi! I’m intrigued by the Surface — it looks like a great product and I would like to try it out. For my workflow, the hardest thing would be to break out of using Mac-only apps, DevonThink in particular. Aside from that, I’m no Apple fanboy. If you find that the Surface works better for your workflow as a whole, that’s awesome.

      Reply
  5. Deb Sheely says:

    Thanks for this info. Apple just came up with their latest iPad that can now use the Apple Pen, not just the iPad Pro.

    I’m wondering if it can still do the same things that would assist someone wanting to do the handwriting to actual typed (for lack of better word). I have a therapy record that I’d like to write to record. I take notes in therapy and don’t want to type them in.

    The idea of having workflow be better has vexed me for a LONG time…

    Thanks!

    Reply
    • Nick Blackbourn says:

      I might have misunderstood your question, but with Nebo, you could go back over your notes after a meeting to check on the quality of transcription. Then you could export your notes (with the updated, correct transcription) to an appropriate file format, like txt. The clearer your handwriting is as you write, the less work it would be to check over later. Hope that helps!

      Reply
    • Nick Blackbourn says:

      Hi Nick,

      I use the 9.7-inch version of the iPad Pro. And the handwriting recognition is pretty good — when you scribble words that the app doesn’t recognise, you can correct it via a drop-down menu either as you write or later on. It’s pretty adaptable to how you want to work!

      Reply
  6. Anonymous says:

    Another option for digitizing handwriting, and a less pricey one, is to scan your handwritten notes and convert it to digital text with an iOS app. You can write your notes on paper, in the good old fashioned way, and then scan it with an app, converting it to digital text. ‘Pen to Print’ (see on the App Store: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/pen-to-print-handwriting-ocr/id1308003011?mt=8) is an iOS app allowing recognition of scanned handwritten notes into text that can be edited, searched in and stored on any device or cloud service. It works pretty well, it downloads for free and very easy to use.
    See more details on https://www.serendi.me/pentoprint I’m sure you’d find it useful.

    Reply
  7. Marc A. Kastner says:

    I fully agree with your article. I am a PhD student and got the iPad Pro as complementary to my laptop/desktop computer; just for handwritten notes and PDF annotations. Well, it is pretty expensive, just for that, but greatly helps my workflows. I love it and bring it to every meeting (all my meeting notes are digitally.) Instead of a clip, I got a rubber “sleeve” thingy for the Pencil, so it gets a better grip when holding the pen.
    Liquid

    I also wrote a couple of thoughts on different apps and workflows with the Pencil: https://www.productived.net/getting-most-out-of-apple-pencil/

    Mainly, I have a couple of other apps I want to mention, as you might enjoy them: On top of the apps you recommend, I’d also highly recommend looking into a couple of other applications like GoodNotes or LiquidText.

    GoodNotes can do OCR, similar to MyScript Nebo. Other than Nebo, which directly formats the handwritten text as RTF/Text, it will just process and index handwritings for easy search. I usually export the PDFs from GoodNotes to Evernote, so I can search them later on; but DevonThink would also work.

    LiquidText can work with workspaces of multiple PDFs for bigger projects.

    For pure PDF annotations, PDF Expert is also pretty great. It can 2-way sync a folder from cloud storage like Dropbox.

    Reply

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