We all have smartphones, laptops, and tablets, but there are many people who still prefer the feel of pen on paper for taking notes or writing. Making the transition to digital writing isn’t easy and the path is littered with dozens of bad ideas and gadgets. The key is finding the right tools. With that in mind, we’ve created a handy guide to help you out. In the sections ahead, we will go through some of the best digital pens, note-taking apps, and tablets with built-in styli.
How to digitize your regular writing
Digital pens have been around for a long time, but only in the past few years have we seen any that work smoothly. There are two basic types. Two-piece models utilize a receiver clipped to the top of a piece of normal paper. As you write, the receiver detects pen strokes and translates that to digital data. The problem is that these pens rarely detect strokes across the whole page and usually aren’t very accurate. Solo pen models have a camera or other sensor built in and use special paper with tiny dots to accurately record strokes. The Echo and Sky Smartpens from Livescribe are the most popular and well-known of this type right now, for good reason.
Digital pens have been around for a long time, but only in the past few years have we seen any that work smoothly.
Both the Echo and Sky record pen strokes and audio simultaneously and sync the audio to what you write. With a tap, owners can start the audio at the exact moment of a pen stroke, no scrubbing back and forth to find the exact moment you need to hear. Livescribe makes it easy to transfer the smartpen data to a computer or to cloud services, where it exists as a digital copy of your handwriting as well as a synced file containing both the writing and the audio. The difference between the two models is that the Sky is Wi-Fi enabled and syncs directly to the cloud where owners can view and manage notes in Evernote. The Echo requires a wired USB connection to transfer data to a desktop app, and can then sync to Evernote, other note taking programs, and cloud services. While we appreciate the ease and mobile-friendly wireless component to the Sky, we still recommend the Echo over it. That connection to the Livescribe Desktop app and the ability to send to multiple third-party apps is the biggest reason why. Evernote is widespread, but it doesn’t offer handwriting recognition (from smartpens) or ability to convert to editable text. MyScript for LiveScribe by Vision Objects does and integrates smoothly with Livescribe’s app. This is particularly useful for students, researchers, and journalists.
Going digital is about more than just having access to your notes everywhere, it’s also about what you can do with those notes that you can’t by sticking to analog. Tagging, searching, organizing, and converting are all important features that digital pens bring to the equation, but key drawbacks often keep pen lovers away.
The Echo and Sky are limited to ballpoint pen tips; fast writers who prefer the smooth ease of gel ink or fountain pens won’t likely find the experience satisfying. People particular about the kinds of pen and paper they use don’t have to switch to a smartpen to get the benefits of digital enhancement. The best solution we’ve found is Evernote’s new Page Capture feature. With Page Capture you can use a smartphone with a decent camera (5-megapixels at least, 8 or 13 is better) to scan a journal page and save it as a high resolution image. Evernote then scans page captures and attempts to recognize the handwriting and index the words so relevant pages show up when you search all notes. The recognition isn’t as good as you’d get from a digital pen that records data about your pen strokes, so if your handwriting is somewhat messy the results won’t be as useful. It’s still better than any other non-digital pen based solution.
Page Capture will work with any piece of paper or journal. To improve the accuracy of the recognition you can buy special Moleskine notebooks made for Evernote. In addition to ensuring that the journal page is aligned correctly, the notebooks also contain areas for auto-tagging. These notebooks aren’t necessary to getting a good capture. The key thing is a well-lit and straight on shot of the page. This can be hard to get by hand.
For the most accurate captures and scans, we suggest investing in or making a scan box for smartphones. Scan boxes hold a smartphone steady at a good length and at the right angle for accurately capturing pages, both handwritten and printed. Inexpensive, portable models like the StandScan Pro are easily folded up and stored away. The more bulky and less mobile ScanDock comes with a much higher price, but the great lighting and color accuracy make it worthwhile for people who need to capture or scan documents of all types at high quality using a smartphone.
(Read our in-depth comparison of ScanDock and StandScan.)
The best stylus for your tablet
Going all-digital is natural for people raised with computers and smartphones and tablets. Still, digital natives don’t necessarily eschew writing by hand, they’re just less tied to the tactile feeling of pen on paper. A stylus and tablet combo are satisfactory 21st century replacements in theory. Once again it’s about finding the right tool.
Capacitive styluses mimic finger touch on tablets like the iPad, and come in a wide variety of styles. At first glance they all seem similar, varying only in fanciness. Most have round, rubber tips that allow for tapping and dragging without damage to the screen. There are significant differences in those tips that make some styli better for writing than others. Precision is key, as is how the tip glides across the display. Finding the right balance means better legibility and more accurate strokes.
Going digital is about more than just having access to your notes everywhere, it’s also about what you can do with those notes that you can’t by sticking to analog.
Those styli all have round tips that somewhat obstruct your vision when writing in a way that a real pen does not. The Jot Pro from Adonit uses a clear disk mounted to what feels like a normal ballpoint pen. It’s still capacitive, thus it will work on any modern tablet or phone, not just the iPad. Since you can see the exact place where the pen touches the screen you can be more precise with your strokes. The way the disk is attached to the tip gives you a wider angle range than most rubber tip models.
The best stylus apps
A good stylus is only one part of a good writing experience. A great app is the second. Writing and note-taking apps are about more than just organization and tagging. The best ones also help smooth out pen strokes to keep writing legible and incorporate features like palm rejection for more comfortable writing.
iPad apps: For the iPad, we recommend NoteTaker HD, Notability, and MyScript Notes Mobile. NoteTaker is particularly good if you work with and need to mark up PDFs in addition to taking notes. Among Notability’s more awesome features is linked audio recording. It’s not as good as the Echo or Sky smartpen’s functionality, but is the closest you’ll come in a tablet app. MyScript Notes Mobile incorporates handwriting recognition that is surprisingly accurate. With that app you can change your scribbles into editable text and export it to other programs.
Android apps: For Android tablets, our top picks are Papyrus, Handrites Note Notepad, Antipaper Notes, and MyScript Notes Mobile. Papyrus and Antipaper Notes are both free and feature-rich as well as being straightforward and easy to use. The Lite version of Handrite gives you both writing and keyboard input so you can mix the two. MyScript is expensive for an Android app but worth it for the good handwriting recognition and translation to editable text.
Windows 8 apps: For Windows tablets, the best solution is from Microsoft (surprise, right?). You can sketch and scribble in OneNote and keep your notes that way or translate handwriting to text.
All of these apps work well with capacitive styli to a point. There’s still one major drawback they all suffer from: poor palm rejection. This is more of an issue with larger 9 – 11-inch tablets since the size often necessitates resting the writing hand on the screen. Even apps that attempt to mitigate this problem can’t fully eliminate it. In order to get true palm rejection you need more advanced technology.
The best note-taking tablets
A couple of stylus makers have attempted to create pens that actively communicate with the iPad for better stroke accuracy and palm rejection. The Pogo Connect and the Jot Touch both connect to the iPad via Bluetooth and work best with specific apps designed to sync up with the pens’ signal. Great idea, not quite there on the execution. Plus, the majority of the partner apps are geared toward drawing rather than writing. None of the best iPad note apps can take advantage of these styli.
Good news though; this particular problem got solved long ago. Windows convertible tablets with active digitized pens have existed for decades, mainly in the business sector. Just as with fashion trends, everything old is new again, so digitized pens are making a comeback. Windows 8 tablets like the Samsung ATIV Smart PC 700T and Toshiba Portégé Z10t sport pens for accurate writing. Those same companies brought that technology to the Android realm. Samsung’s Galaxy Note 8.0 and 10.1 and Toshiba’s Excite Write all have active pens and software to put them to best use.
Digitized pens aren’t just fine-tipped versions of capacitive styli. They actively communicate with the screen via an extra layer of technology (in many cases developed by Wacom). That way, the tablet knows when the pen is close and can ignore input from a hand or fingers. Thus, you can rest the edge of your hand on the screen and write without the note application getting confused. That active connection also means more precise pen strokes, so your handwriting should look the same on screen as it does on paper. In addition, good writing tablets fine tune the display’s surface and the pen’s tip so that when you write it won’t feel like plastic scratching glass. We haven’t found a tablet that feels exactly like pen and paper, but the ones mentioned above come very close.
Both Samsung and Toshiba also developed apps and programs in-house that enhance the handwriting experience. Samsung’s S Note for Android and Windows captures smooth handwriting and offers recognition and translation to text (thanks to a partnership with MyScript). Toshiba’s TruNote takes that one step further by allowing owners to search for handwritten words throughout their notebooks with their own handwriting. All of these programs can sync to cloud services or export data to Evernote, word processing programs, email, and more. Outside of these proprietary ones, several of the best Android note apps offer enhanced functionality for active pens. OneNote for Windows does as well.
Tablets with digitized pens are the most perfect pen and paper replacement for people who want to keep writing by hand and want the advantages of mobile technology. Like digital pens, tablets record accurate strokes and save the rich data. Digitized pens feel and move across the screen like real pens. And while you won’t get that new journal smell when you open up an app, you also won’t ever have to worry about losing your notes to water, misplacement, or the ravages of time.