Tablets

Taking notes on the iPad: Philosophy, function, and apps

Find out why and how Patrick Gray uses his iPad as an electronic notepad, including some of his preferred note-taking applications.

Tablets have often been cited as lacking practical business applications. Sure, a lightweight computing device sounds nice, but aside from chucking flying birds at virtual hogs, what pragmatic applications do they have in the enterprise? For me, one of the prime uses of my iPad is as an electronic notepad, largely replacing my use of paper notebooks. Like most emerging technologies, there are several tradeoffs involved, but the benefits largely outweigh the drawbacks in my use.

How I work

Many commentaries about new technologies neglect an important component: how the author actually works. This provides the context for their recommendations or caveats and can help determine if a technology that's successful for the author is even relevant to the reader. In my case, I travel frequently and interact with a wide variety of teams, projects, and clients. Key to these interactions is being able to see a quick summary of our last interaction. On Monday, I might be advising a client on an enterprise software deployment -- and on Tuesday, talking with a potential client in a completely different industry about a product they're developing.

In addition to direct client work, I write for TechRepublic and several other outlets, and will often outline or brainstorm future article ideas, since idea generation and article writing seem to be two distinct activities. The ability to brainstorm on a tablet or phone, and have the information seamlessly sync with my desktop, is a huge plus. At the end of the day, I take a lot of notes.

A $500 notebook?!

The fundamental question you must answer when considering a tablet as a note-taking device is whether you want to spend a significant sum on a tablet that replaces a pen and paper notebook that can be had for pocket change. For my style of working, it's eminently worthwhile. One lost paper notebook could disrupt a six-figure engagement, so the cost of a tablet that can back up notes to a cloud service is a no-brainer. The sharing functionality also provides a direct economic benefit, so for my use, a tablet looks like a cost-effective investment. Depending on one's working style, that may not be the case.

Why iPad?

I started my adventures in electronic note taking with Microsoft's Tablet PC. One of the biggest promises for me around the Tablet PC was its note-taking ability. Microsoft's tablets combined a dedicated stylus with their note-taking software, called OneNote. The latter was very capable, but it seemed like a forgotten stepchild vs. the rest of the Office suite. Like so many things Microsoft, it was 90% of the way there. Similarly, the Tablet PC hardware just wasn't fully up to the task -- it was plagued by short battery life and long boot times. When you're sitting with a potential client, you just shouldn't ask for a power outlet or have to wait two minutes for your note-taking tool to boot up.

The pen is mightier than the squishy rubber tip

The iPad seemed to solve the battery and boot time problems, and it also offered similar connectivity in a smaller and lighter package. However, while Tablet PC was designed from the ground up with a stylus in mind, Apple and most other tablets shunned pens for a finger-friendly interface.

The touchscreen technology behind this finger-friendly bias engenders the largest single detriment to note taking on the current crop of tablets: a terrible stylus experience. The capacitive technology used by nearly all Apple and Android-based tablets doesn't respond to a traditional hard-tipped stylus, so we're left using a squishy rubber-tipped pen that's "suboptimal" at best. Furthermore, since these capacitive screens are designed to respond to human skin, the natural act of resting your palm on a piece of paper as you wield your pen presents a technical problem: your tablet wants to interpret your hand as the tip of a pen.

Some applications use "palm rejection technology" that claims to be able to determine whether the object it detects is your hand or your pen. This works 95% of the time, but having stray marks and strange behavior even 5% of the time makes note taking a challenge. Others apps offer a dedicated writing area of the screen that your palm naturally falls below. Essentially, you write in one small area that represents a zoomed-in view of the virtual notebook page. While this is unnatural and makes drawing diagrams or multi-line charts difficult, it's my current preferred solution.

What about the new "notepad" tablets

There's a new crop of Android-based tablets from Samsung and HTC that offer a dedicated stylus, claiming to offer the best of both worlds: the finger-friendly interface that the capacitive screens are famous for and a true stylus similar to the Tablet PC days. I've investigated some of these options, and the key problem I have is the same problem I have with Android-based tablets in general: a lack of software. The whole "we have more applications than you" debate is overwrought, but in the tablet space, Apple still has a distinct advantage. Furthermore, the note-taking applications on these devices still don't approach my gold standard: Microsoft's OneNote.

Read about note-taking applications.

About

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

9 comments
iTakeNotes_iPad
iTakeNotes_iPad

iTakeNotes has been released on the appstore recently: the principle is to formalize notes during the meeting and get a meeting report as soon as the meeting is over in pdf and in .txt if you want to review the format. They provide audio recording and camera so as not to lose any data during the meeting. The app exists in english and french and a spanish version is on its way, it is a very productive tool for those who spent desperate time formalizing their meeting notes.

Poloid
Poloid

My essential business app on iPad to organize my work and take minutes is Beesy . It helps me to organize my day with tasks, toDo list automatically generated. Very useful also in meetings to don’t miss a thing. You can add quickly and easily every tasks during meetings. You can also send your meeting report at the end by mail. I hightly recommend it

reggaethecat
reggaethecat

Evernote is one of the best applications I've found for a long time. It allows you to take notes either by keyboard, voice (with voice to text conversion and also stores the sounds), allows you to forward an email to it, save web pages, and many other features. All your notes are searchable and taggable, and there are clients for pretty much everything you can think of, plus a web interface. I wish I'd found it sooner.

theoldguygamer
theoldguygamer

I've got to have a good note-taker, and even though I have an iPad and laptop, I still tend to use a pen and note pad. I really do like OneNote and transfer lots of hand notes to there. I wish I could do it directly using the touch screen. I also do research and collect data and need a way to not wrte data by hand and then transfer it to SPSS or Excel. I agree about the capacitive touch screen (didn't know they were called that...), and I tried but didn't like the spongy stylus. I'm still waiting for teh right thing.

rhonin
rhonin

Situations like this are great for phablets like the Samsung Note. I have had moderate but not great success on the iPad and other tablets. Best is the transformer as I can add the keyboard dock....... the current non-Note stylii leave a lot to be desired....

KristinCScott
KristinCScott

I call DropBox, Noteshelf, and Evernote my "Big Three" apps and the standard for the others -- if it's not completely cross-platform, it probably won't work for me.

eboyhan
eboyhan

Your technical exposition of the problems with capacitive touch screens is right on. However, none of the app/stylus combos currently available work well recording cursive handwriting (or as you stated, diagrams/sketches). I use Dragon voice recognition with quite a lot of success, but there are many venues where that won't work (classrooms, meetings, libraries, etc). Virtual keyboards are a mess (besides I don't type very well :D). Things like swype or swiftkey are helpful, but no panacea. For 40 years we've basically been using a KVM UI paradigm. If new form factors like tablets are going to be really useful in enterprise scenarios, we desperately need some UI innovation. Now, if my tablet could only sense what I'm thinking, and turn it into text ... :-)

Regulus
Regulus

NOTE to EDITOR here: When giving us a multiple page article, please give us the option to view as one-page. This option is much more pleasant for some of us. Thank You