iPad App Review: Notes Plus vs. Notability

Notes Plus App for iPadVS Notability App for iPad

Since I recently acquired an iPad 2 (last October-ish), I decided I wanted to use it to take notes in some of my classes, mostly in ECON 110. We graph supply and demand curves 90% of the time in that class. Taking notes on my computer wasn’t practical; I tried making graphs in PowerPoint. I also tried using the pre-installed Grapher app that comes with OS X Lion. Nothing was really working for me. Drawing with a track pad is very tiresome. So I went ahead an bought a stylus on eBay for about $7.00 and started researching apps. The two apps I ended up trying are Notes Plus and Notability.

(If you don’t want to read about my experience, just skip to the Epilogue: General Features & Screenshots)

Notability: An Impulse Purchase

I first purchased Notability because I saw it was “on sale” for a couple days and bought it for ~$1.99. I was very impressed with most of the functionality.

My greatest disappointment was adding figures and drawing. In order to draw with this app you have to insert a figure. In other words…

While all other functionality was more than satisfactory, I felt like I really needed an easier way to draw straight into my notes. So I spoke with a friend of mine who also has an iPad and who I had seen using it to take notes in some of my classes. He recommended Notes Plus.

Notes Plus: Referred by a Friend

So I give my friend a short demo of Notability and then let him try it out for himself. He seemed reasonably impressed and didn’t have anything really bad to say about it. Then he gave me a short demo of Notes Plus. It seemed pretty comparable. They had some different approaches to the same problem but both were well executed. However, what caught my eye most was that with Notes Plus you can draw straight into your notes. No extra, separate figures. AND it has great options for automatically detecting, smoothing and straightening lines and shapes. I bought it and downloaded it within the hour.

My first fuss with Notes Plus was that the drawing/note-taking space wasn’t big enough. I had to keep adding more pages to my economics notebook. However, that was just a dumb move on my part. There is actually an option for making the pages bigger. So I tried that for a while. It worked great.

My biggest beef came down to this: my hand writing is so sloppy even with a stylus that writing out notes on the iPad was messy and inefficient. Even with the gorgeous character smoothing, it just wasn’t enough. I would write and undo and rewrite and erase and…yeah. And as easy as adding textboxes is in Notes Plus, it just isn’t simple enough or hassle-free. It takes a lot of extra time to move the text boxes around and resize them. In the end, I was getting more and more behind in my notes and I never had time to really focus on what the professor was actually lecturing on. I spent all the time people were asking questions just catching up. Eventually, I decided I would just have to resort to the old graph paper notebook.


So it’s a sad story of how I fought the battle of traditional mediums vs. technology. But if tech just doesn’t do the trick, why bother? Why inconvenience yourself? Besides, my wife still uses the apps to draw, and I’ve found they are great for other things like entertaining children at church or visiting nephews. Though, I’ve found better drawing apps for that too…

Something worth noting about both apps is that they can sync your notes to Dropbox.

For all general purpose note-taking (when I don’t need to draw), I use Evernote or Simplenote because they sync to my existing accounts online where I store all my notes. What has been your experience with note-taking on the iPad? What works for you?

Epilogue: General Features & Screenshots

I’ve included the primary features (as described by the developers on the AppStore) for those of you potentially interested in either of these two apps.

Notes Plus

Hand write comfortably with your big finger, your text will show up as fine as with pen and paper. Auto-advance feature let you write even with your eyes closed. Advanced stroke smoothing algorithm makes your writing look as good as ever; the faster you write, the better it looks.

Lay your palm comfortably down with Palm Pad.

Let you insert keyboard text anywhere on the page with many type faces, font sizes, and colors.

Let you draw a basic shape (ellipse, rectangle, line, polygon, …) with your finger, auto-detect and insert the perfect vector shape, then let you edit it.

Let you record audio while jotting down the note. Perfect for meetings, classes, or conferences. Recordings are linked with pages to provide easy playback.

Let you select handwriting text by just circling around it, then erase or re-arrange it. Erasing a writing is as easy as drawing a line over it. No awkward switching between erase tool, selection tool, and draw tool.

Provide a complete folder structure. Private folders can be password-protected. A folder can have many notebooks; a notebook can have many pages. Pages are listing with thumbnails. Provide ability to move, copy, duplicate and delete notebooks or individual pages.

Full undo/redo support. Yes, it does have REDO function; touch and hold undo button to reveal the undo/redo action sheet. Also let you recover your deleted notebooks or pages.

Many options are provided including: stroke color, thickness, transparency; text font, size, color; paper background, etc.

As you can see from the screenshots below, this app stands out for its clean interface. A great effort was put in to hide controls so that it would not cluster the interface. You should be able to start without a tutorial.

The developer encourages you to email him with any questions concerning features since he has only listed his “top 10.” It might be worth your time since he tries to respond to all emails within 24 hours.


** Full-featured Handwriting **
Amazingly smooth ink makes capturing ideas easy and awesome. Notability’s zoom window helps you quickly and clearly draw every detail and the palm rest protects your notes from unwanted marks. Our scissors let you copy, move and even re-style the color and width of any ink. Reordering notes is a joy: drag-and-drop thumbnails, while adding or removing pages as needed. Your notes should be as unique as you are, so choose a paper to fit your style and use a variety of pen colors and widths to create beautiful notes.

** PDF Annotation **
The same tools that help you take beautiful notes in Notability equip you to annotate PDFs: record, type or handwrite on anything. It’s easy to share your annotations with anyone using email or Dropbox and more.

** Advanced Word-Processing **
Notability’s features like styling, outlining, and spell check are the perfect tools to get the job done quickly and accurately. Other tools like bullets, bold, italic, underline, font presets, cursor controls, and more, seamlessly integrate to help you create rich notes.

** Linked Audio Recording **
Audio recordings automatically link to your notes, so go ahead and take notes with confidence. While reviewing your notes, just tap a word to hear what was said at that moment. Our advanced audio processing features create brilliant recordings in any setting. Use the recording feature to capture your own voice for memos, presentations, or speech practice.

** Auto-sync **
Work with confidence: with Notability’s auto-sync, your notes are always backed up in the cloud. Easily collaborate at work or school sharing ideas and notes on the fly.

** Media Insertion **
Enhance your notes by adding pictures from your photo library or from the iPad camera. Insert web clips, figures, and drawings to compliment your notes. Crop, resize, and draw on images to make them perfect. Your text will automatically flow around them.

** Library Organization **
Your ideas and notes are incredibly important to you, so Notability makes it simple to organize, protect and share this information. Drag and drop notes into a subject and use a password to keep notes secure. Auto-sync makes backing up simple: your notes are automatically uploaded to Dropbox, iDisk or WebDAV. Import notes, PDFs, and RTFs from the cloud or web. And share notes via Email, Dropbox, iTunes File Sharing, and AirPrint.


Notability - Mainscreen

Notability – Mainscreen

Notes Plus - Notebooks

Notes Plus – Notebooks 

Notability - Writing

Notability – Writing

Notes Plus - Writing

Notes Plus – Writing

Notability - Note Taking & Figures

Notability – Note Taking & Figures

Notes Plus - Drawing Figures

Notes Plus – Note Taking & Figures

Mini-App of the Day: BetterTouchTool

BetterTouchTool IconIf you don’t know what BetterTouchTool is, you should read this post. If you have a Mac, you should really read this post. If you have a PC, you should still read this post. It will be worth your time to see what you are missing out on either way. It will also answer why you’d ever want to buy a Magic Trackpad if you are a Mac user and you’re saying to yourself, “Isn’t a mouse better in all regards?” For those of you who know what BetterTouchTool is and currently use it…just glory in your preeminence. ;)

BetterTouchTool is a big reason why I have loved my switch to a Mac for the last 2 years. I’ve always been a PC user. I have nothing against PC’s in general. I had some bad luck with a Dell laptop once, but I’ve seen plenty of Macs crash and burn too (some of you are probably sitting there saying, “You should have bought an HP” or “…a Lenovo.”). Though, those Asus Ultrabooks are looking pretty slick if you want the PC version of a MacBook Air.

BetterTouchTool is a utility designed to give you more control of gestures on your trackpad.  Apple did us a huge favor by making trackpads a lot bigger and by integrating the button into the pad. Genious. Apple also did us a great favor by eliminating (and returning to their old standard I might add) the second button because now if you want those menus, you just tap with two fingers. Also genious. (I realize this is up for debate depending on preference and habit, but if you are going to just argue more is better, I won’t humor you. I will entertain that two buttons–one on the left, one on the right–is just as good.)

So what does this mean? Well, Apple included a few gestures in Leopard, then a few more in Snow Leopard, then a few more in Lion. Maybe they’ll finally have a sufficient amount in Mountain Lion, though I doubt it. BetterTouchTool (BTT) makes up the lack thereof. You can go ahead and turn off most of the default gestures Apple gives you and re-program them how you want. That’s what I did. BTT allows you to add almost as many gestures as you can think of and assign them any number of preconfigured actions or a shortcut key. So now, instead of having to move your cursor everywhere or even reach to your keyboard for a shortcut, you can just use your trackpad.

For example, if you want to open and close tabs in your Internet browser, or go back and forward in your navigation history, you can do that with a gesture. You don’t need to click the button with your cursor or press Ctrl/Cmd + T or Ctrl/Cmd + [. Just program those shortcuts into gestures. This goes for any program.

Since it’s kind of hard to demo this with screenshots because you would need to verify I’m not using the keyboard, I went ahead and made a simple screencast video.

The following video gives you a short idea of how to actually “program” these gestures.

One limitation to gestures is that you inevitably run out of easy to remember and easily executed gestures. There are a lot of different gestures available, but some of them are hard to execute so chances are you will just resort back to keyboard shortcuts or cursor clicking. That said, I would encourage you to not give up after the first couple attempts to use some of the gestures. Putting all five fingers on the track pad and clicking is a little awkward the first time (just like the first time you played Halo and had to get used to the strange joystick combination or the first time you drove stick shift or rode a bike). Naturally, your muscles will adapt and you will react on muscle memory as soon as your mind thinks “Finder” or “New Tab.”

For your convenience and demo-ing. I’ve included a download of my current BetterTouchTool configuration below. I admit there is a lot of room for expansion into other apps I don’t use regularly; however, the basic and most powerful functionality that I need is there and I use it everyday. I highly encourage you to check this out and spend some time customizing it to your needs. It will highly improve your Mac experience.

Download BetterTouchTool.
Download BTT Functionality Demo Video or view on YouTube.
Download BTT Preferences Demo Video or view on YouTube.
Download My BTT Configuration File (you’ll want to remove the .txt extension before importing).