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.

By Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a leading global professional services firm, where he helps companies rapidly invent and launch new businesses. He is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companio...