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iPad stylus apps reviewed, finding the best note taking apps to use with stylus pens

Editors Note: We have done an updated post on the best note taking iPad apps, with a focus on the apps that have a “zoom” feature. Make sure to read this post! 

The iPad 2 is upon us, and offers the same experience for stylus input for handwriting and note taking as the original iPad.

This final article in a three part series on handwriting and the iPad brings us to the various apps that developers have created for the clear purpose of translating strokes of the pen or finger to the screen.

My first article was about why the iPad needs better handwriting support, and the second article compared several iPad styluses on the market.

METHODS

To begin, I first created a simulated patient note with traditional pen and paper (below image). I tried to create a sample that utilized a lot of the previously discussed strengths of handwriting, including abbreviations and complex spacing throughout the paper. I then set about making sure I had the most recent updates for the software reviewed (current as of March 5, 2011). I have been using these apps to various degrees over the past 3 months, so I then set about using each app to best recreate the sample note.

This review covers five different note taking apps for the iPad that utilize a stylus pen: PaperDesk LITE, Cocoa Box Designs’ Penultimate, Notes Plus, WritePad, and Penultimate.

The primary criteria for evaluation was how effective the app was able to re-create this traditional paper and pen produced patient note using an iPad stylus pen. Secondary features were also evaluated, and apps received high marks for supporting synchronization services such as DropBox or Google Docs. They all essentially offered multiple pen thickness, colors, printing, and exporting to PDF, so these features were not mentioned.

The apps reviewed fell into three overall approaches when creating the interaction between a stylus and iPad: One to one note taking, handwriting with Zoom feature, and handwriting recognition.  This comprehensive review will compare the apps in each category and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each approach, as a whole.

The Plain and Simple Approach: Good, But Not Great

The first approach is a very straightforward one that acts exactly the way you’d expect when you think of the iPad as a notepad. The screen is a piece of paper, and your pen or finger is the pen. It’s incredibly simple, but there’s a huge glaring problem with this: you’re writing utensil is just too blunt. It’s near impossible to fit enough writing on the page. This approach might be useful for simple notes, lists, or drawing, but falls flat when you’re trying to write longer notes.

WebSpinner’s PaperDesk LITE (FREE)

PaperDesk LITE is free, and unfortunately, that’s where its strengths end.  The app is too clunky to recommend, unless you insist on not spending money. Because of the limitations of this plain and simple 1:1 approach, there was not enough space to write the note on the screen.

It has a rich feature set which is consistent with all the other apps. It also has the nice touch of allowing you to sync to Google Docs. It’s UI is decent and is overall fairly polished, although it does look a bit simplistic in certain aspects.

Pros:

- Free

Cons:

- Clunky User Interface
- Stylus/finger too thick for screen

iTunes Link

Cocoa Box Designs’ Penultimate ($1.99)

In addition to having the most clever name of the bunch, Penultimate really makes the most of the plain and simple approach. It’s been prominently featured by Apple in TV commercials and in the App Store, and for good reason. Its UI is beautiful and takes after composition books. It’s incredibly simple to use: tap on the pen to write, tap on the eraser to delete. No complicated features, and it works well.

One bonus feature is this app simulates brush strokes, the only one to do so in this comparison review. I say simulates because unlike older tablets for graphics, the iPad does not support pressure-sensitivity. However, Penultimate simulates some pressure-sensitivity based on the speed and direction of your strokes. If you look at the writing sample closely, especially on the boxes around PMH, you can see that there is some variation of thickness.

However, overall, the app suffered from the same problem as PaperDesk, in that the one to one translation of screen to paper did not leave enough room for the thick stylus.

Pros:

- Beautiful User Interface
- Simulates Brush Strokes

Cons:

- Stylus/finger too thick for screen

iTunes Link

The “Zoom Approach”: The Redemption of Blunt-Tipped Styluses

The Zoom Mode is a feature that allows the user to write in a zoomed-in box that then shrinks down the text, leading to the overall result of something much more similar to the fine tip of a pen. To better understand this concept, it’s like shrinking down the writing of a sharpie on a posterboard to the size of a pen on a lined piece of paper. Since you are writing in a “zoomed area”, even though you are writing with a blunt-tipped stylus or finger, the output will still be as fine as a pen.

Viet Tran’s Notes Plus ($5.99)

This app was the only one that was developed by an individual seller, but provides the best overall performance. As you can see in the image, it very closely re-created the original sample. The writing experience was extremely pleasant and simple. You press and hold down in an area to bring up the Zoom Box. If you don’t want to use the Zoom Mode, you can pinch to zoom in and out and just write directly on the screen. As you can see, the final product of this app is nearly identical to the original sample.

The Zoom Mode was very well-implemented: in the zoom box, when you are nearing the right edge of the box, the left portion of the box shows a preview of where your writing will go next, so you can just continue writing at the left side of the box without having to constantly move around the zoom box. (refer to below picture)

In regards to the feature set, the app provides intelligent stroke recognition that instantly creates linear shapes from your hand-drawn shapes. It also allows you to select groups of text by circling them, which allows you to then then delete or move the text. Try doing that with a pen and paper! Also, it offers the ability to record audio. Notes Plus also syncs smoothly with Google Docs, but it does lack DropBox support, which would have been very nice.

In addition to the lack of DropBox support, several other issues could be improved upon. For one, the undo stroke button was located at the top of the screen and it would have been nice to have one closer to the box where you do the bulk of the writing. Also, when writing in a column near the right edge of the page (ex. The list of medications), the app’s logic kept wanting to advance the writing to the next line. This would be nice in most instances as it allows you to easily start writing on the left margin on the next line, but just doesn’t make sense if you are TRYING to stay on the right margin to create a list.

Overall though, this app is the standout performer of the entire group.

Pros:

- Best use of Zoom Mode
- Folders
- GoogleDocs Syncing
- Low Price

Cons:

- Lack of DropBox Support

iTunes Link

Author:

David Ahn, MD (@AhnCall)

Staff Writer for iMedicalApps, and 2nd-year Endocrinology fellow at UC San Diego. His primary interests include Diabetes, Fitness/Metabolism, and wearable technology.

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36 Responses to iPad stylus apps reviewed, finding the best note taking apps to use with stylus pens

  1. Nick Bennett March 21, 2011 at 5:58 am #

    UPad is also a good one with zoom feature – and can project via the VGA cable and add notes to PDFs. I was torn between UPad and Notes Plus and ended up opting for the VGA output, as I teach a lot and the projection possibilities are important to me.

    • Iltifat Husain March 21, 2011 at 7:28 am #

      Interesting. With the new DVI out for the iPad, and the mirroring capabilities added for the iPhone 4 and both iterations of the iPad, I wonder if this will matter? Have you noticed with the new software update that you can mirror more apps?

    • David Ahn March 21, 2011 at 6:42 pm #

      thanks for the suggestion! i had not come across UPad in my search for an app, so i appreciate it. i’ll definitely check it out

  2. wanting to go paperless March 21, 2011 at 8:29 pm #

    The case for the iPad and the black strap around the guy- Where can I find that case? It is the case the residents at the chicago internal medicine program where in the news report about their program using ipads.

  3. AWong March 25, 2011 at 5:59 am #

    NoteTaker HD also is a good handwriting app. Edit 2 mode is the text zoom feature. I have used it successfully (with HardCandy and Alupen, at different times) for relative fast moving adult education courses as well as taking notes from textbooks.

  4. Stylus March 25, 2011 at 12:51 pm #

    I have to respectfully disagree with your comment that, “Note Taker HD is extremely functional and useful, but there are not many reasons why one would pick it over Notes Plus.”

    While I do agree that Notes Plus has a more appealing UI and definitely shines in the folder department, I feel you’re underestimating the utility of Note Taker HD’s zoom mode. I really feel Notes Plus is severely lacking in this regard – it is not customizable or tweakable at all, whereas Note Taker HD allows you to have much more control over how it works. Additionally, the ability to change the size of the zoomed area is huge.

    Notes Plus also lacks the ability to import PDF documents to write on. This is a HUGE disadvantage on the wards. I’ve got scanned copies of standard documents (HNPs, PEs, etc) and the ability to just pull them up and write directly on them in Note Taker HD is just awesome.

    It may come to personal preference, but I’ve found that Note Taker HD works with me a lot more when it comes to day-to-day use as a replacement for pencil and paper, and Notes Plus gets in the way.

  5. drrjv March 28, 2011 at 3:20 am #

    Here’s something for stylus fanatics (of which I’m not):

    https://www.kickstarter.com/pr

  6. aequology March 31, 2011 at 10:34 am #

    Very interesting post, thank you! I’ve tried several notes taking apps myself and one that I particularly like is Noteshelf. I bought a HardCandy stylus 6 months ago, it works very well too.

  7. Bob W April 2, 2011 at 4:25 am #

    I have tried Penultimate, Bookshelf, Notes Plus and have settled on Note Taker HD. The 5.0.5 update supports Dropbox and adds other drawing features. I use it now because I find the EDIT 2 in landscape easier to use and control than the others. The location of the zoom box advance and undo seem less complicated. All 4 are worth looking at since the features are changing quickly with updates. All seem to have room for improvement in organization of notes. I would not consider an app without an easy zoom box, dropbox support, and PDF integration.

  8. Csrcsr April 9, 2011 at 6:04 am #

    What is really required for writing accurately on teh Ipad is a section of the screen which is in different form: i.e. a large part of the screen as now to be “touch” sensitive and a ribbon screen to be “stylus” sensitive. That way stylus writing on the ribbon would be perfect due to teh precision while leaving the remainder as is. I know this does not permit precision drawing but i suppose you cannot have it both ways. So far as the pen is concerned it would have a stylus end and a touch sensitive style opposite end!!!! I have used a stylus for years and am a fan – trying the touch sensitive type of pen makes handwriting virtually impossible – and certainly when tried reduces input speed to about 1/10th of what a stylus can do

  9. guest April 19, 2011 at 9:18 am #

    I came accross your articles as I was looking for Stylus reviews… great work on those… thanks! You may want to look into uPad as another handwriting app… I use it constantly, and has been by far the best of these that I’ve found. It doesn’t support dropbox, but it is possible to export your files as pdf’s and email them… if I print off a pdf of my handwritten notes, they look almost identical to notes I’ve written with pen and paper. I sent an email asking the company about dropbox, and they responded that they hope to support dropbox in the future.

    • Iltifat Husain April 19, 2011 at 10:45 am #

      Yep — we are planning on reviewing this one! I’ve been using it the
      last few weeks and agree, really good app.

      • Roknedin Safavi October 25, 2011 at 11:28 pm #

        Which one are you planning to test? I am a psychiatrist and looking for a recommendation. What is the advantage of the programs that use a stylus over those that do not? My billing software is AdvanceMD; however, I am open to trying other systems; and furthermore, this note taking clinical documentation system can be a stand alone product for me.
        Additionally, Dr. Iltifat, what electronic prescription application do you recommend for IPads?

  10. Nrglawson May 3, 2011 at 2:10 am #

    Hi, really fascinating articles,
    as dyslexic im really looking apps like WritePad,
    to configure my scribbled writing into text,
    these programs would make writing a pleasure rather than a nightmare of unreadable notes.
    but know of any other which could be more versatile?
    Thanks

  11. dschoemaker May 9, 2011 at 1:07 pm #

    @fe714b1846a5fec322b1a59f2fecbb87:disqus as recommended above, UPAD seems to be the best I could find also. Has Zoom capability and works very well with Dropbox.

  12. Sklew May 15, 2011 at 3:51 am #

    Awesome reivews. I especially liked the stulus reviews amd ended buying the stylus recommended by you!

    In terms od note apps, my research tells me tht noteshelf is the best, but it seems yu have not reviewed is. Donyou plan on reviewiing this as well?

  13. Simon June 1, 2011 at 1:48 pm #

    I have been using Noteshelf for a few weeks now and have been very impressed with how natural it is to use. My handwriting is very legible and the addition of icons makes the individual pages pop. I also like being able to save the files directly to dropbox

  14. Guest June 5, 2011 at 12:48 pm #

    Simon, thanks for your post. I had been waiting for the HTC Flyer / Evo View and was disappointed. Going to pick up an iPad 2 and NoteShelf.

    David, thanks for the earlier review on each stylus

  15. rob damiani June 11, 2011 at 5:27 pm #

    How about “Notes Plus” or “Noteshelf”?

  16. Dave Owen June 20, 2011 at 12:35 pm #

    I am trying several handwriting apps for my brother, who wants to use it for psychotherapy notes during sessions. I find Noteshelf to be excellent and have several ways to dress up notes if needed. I have not tried Notes Plus but appreciate knowing about it from the reviews above

    • Lorena Duncan September 28, 2011 at 10:01 pm #

      Hey Dave – I’m a psychotherapist as well and am exploring the ipad as a note taking option as well. I take notes in my sessions as well and I’m curious what you settled on for your brother?

  17. Bouchra B September 19, 2011 at 3:05 pm #

    I just wanted you to know about a new promising iPad app called MagicalPad that offer free-form structure notes. it doesn’t have handwriting yet, but it is an amazing concept of structuring notes, outlines and checklists. Definitely worth checking. it works with DVI projection as well.

  18. J. L. September 20, 2011 at 8:35 pm #

    Hey everyone,

    My hospital is also lending us iPads and they’ve been quite useful with our mobile EMR for looking up labs on the fly. As for notepad apps, I don’t have a stylus yet so my assessment may be a bit crude, but I am using MyScript Memo right now. It’s free, and has okay handwriting recognition (and you can add your own words, like hemoglobinopathy, to the dictionary), and if you pay $4, will allow you to forever export your handwriting-turned-text to Evernote or other note-taking apps! It also supports multiple languages, and does okay with traditional Chinese!
    Let me know what you think.

  19. tim November 3, 2011 at 2:43 pm #

    I think updates to NoteTaker HD since this review was written make it the only app to consider. Folders, PDF markup, zoom function, etcetera make it an app I use daily and on each occasion have physicians asking me “how are you doing that”

  20. kerstyn November 18, 2011 at 4:26 pm #

    I definitely have to agree with UPAD being a top contender. Especially with its new updates you can inset pictures, write on premade PDFs (patient forms etc.) save the files as PDFs or photos, upload to google docs, drop box, email etc. And the handwriting part of it is very accurate with the zoom box.

    It’s my favorite note taking app hands-down.

  21. pe January 2, 2012 at 4:18 pm #

    This review MUST be updated! Please! It is a great review but can be much improved. there are new or unreviewed but EXCELLENT apps ie UPAD which is a clear leader that could be added, but all the major Note taking apps should be re reviewed. ( Noteshelf, Penultimate, UPAD, Notes Plus, NoteTaker HD, WritePad/PhatPad,) Everything must be redone, re-downloaded, and re-evaluated there are several apps that have come up that aren’t here, I wish I had read other sites too but this site has unique value, to be a place where the medical community trusts advice from the medical perspective, please update. People trust your opinion… your work matters, so thanks!

    • Iltifat Husain, MD January 2, 2012 at 6:26 pm #

      We actually have been working on a comprehensive review over the past few weeks and its going to be published within one to two weeks

      • Gavin January 6, 2012 at 12:30 pm #

        You may want to consider the HTC Flyer which has been specifically designed for notetaking and offers a similar resolution in a smaller format.

  22. kelvin wright February 13, 2012 at 5:22 am #

    Sorry Guys!…You are missing a very good note taking app for 2012 : GoodNotes App – http://goodnotes.com .

    I have used for my final year in medical school for taking notes and most important presentation with High Definition 1080i – HDMI cable connected to HD Plasma TV…really smooth!. Futhermore, it allows me to create different notebook and it can be used full feature for FREE , only limited to 2 notebooks : http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/goodnotes-free-take-notes/id483679173?mt=8

  23. Sonalee February 25, 2012 at 2:44 pm #

    I really like notability, it has the zoom feature, different paper styles, and also a lasso tool.

  24. Korky Kathman February 25, 2012 at 5:00 pm #

    As is usual, these kinds of articles tend to showcase those apps that are popular, and perhaps hit a wide swatch of price ranges. I recently purchased and tried several note taking apps and feel at least somewhat qualified to present my findings.

    I’ve tried the following: Notes Plus, Note Taker HD, Notability, Penultimate, uPad, Evernote, Circus Ponies Notebook (CPNB), and a few others that pretty much are significantly bare-bones. I’d rank them in the above order, by my criteria may be different from yours.

    First, I wanted a simple, intuitive app, that is feature rich. This means it needs to support a hierarchy of organization, provide the capability to take notes using a finger or stylus while resting your hand on the glass (i.e. wrist protection), the ability to cut/copy/paste within the application as well as external to the application. There needs to be the ability to mix writing with typing, capture and manipulate PDFs, and for me, since I am a current Evernote and Dropbox user, there needs to be a way to send pages/notebooks to those apps and/or backup/sync to DropBox.

    The first two apps. Notes Plus and Note Taker HD, have all these features, and much more. I would be willing, based strictly on the criteria listed, to call it a statistical dead heat. However, Notes Plus has a few more really amazing features that get my nod over the NTHD. First, it has a capability to view two notebooks/pages side at a time with just a swipe back and forth. The second pane can also be a webpage supported by the in-app browser that Notes Plus has. Further, for only a couple of bucks more (a steal) you can get handwriting recognition for multiple languages. Simply circle your writing, click an option, and your handwriting changes to text. Images are easier to pull from web pages, using Notes Plus also. Simply bring up the page you want in the in-app browser, tap on an image and flick it to the right. The picture magically appears on your note page where you can change it’s shape and even write over it. Really cool stuff.

    Note Taker HD, doesn’t have the in-app browser, or handwriting recognition, but can hold its own against Notes Plus on every other aspect. It easily has the best PDF management/manipulation tools of any note taking app. Simply bring up the PDF in Mobile Safari, click the “Open In…” button and choose NTHD, and voilla! Your PDF appears in a way you can read and even fill out a form…then send it to Evernote, Email it, synch it, or several other options. If you had print capability, you can even to that directly from the app. NTHD was created by Dan Bricklin (remember he was the pioneer for spreadsheets when he created Visicalc), and he personally responds to technical/customer support inquiries. I had an excellent exchange with him.during my evaluation.

    Both of the above applications cost a bit more than most apps. Note Taker HD weighs in at $4.99 while Notes Plus comes in at a whopping $7.99 plus $1.99 for the handwriting recognition (as an in-app purchase). The only real downside to Notes Plus is that because is has so much functionality, it can be a drain on the battery if you are using it a lot. I think that may be true of NTHD, but not as much.

    Notability might be the right app for most everyone on a budget. At only $0.99, it packs all of my criteria into a very intuitive package, and its PDF tools are exceptional. There is no handwriting recognition, or in-app browser, but all the other functions that are essential are supported. For most folks, especially students, this might be the most cost-effective app. Certainly it’s the best in it’s price range and is well-supported from a customer service standpoint.

    Penultimate and uPAD are about the same in functionality, but, uPAD is, in my opinion, overpriced compared with comparable functionality in NTHD for instance. It does have it’s coverage of features, but it seems more equal to Notability, but four times the price. Evernote and Circus Ponies Notebook both are comparable products, but they are much more for bare bones notetaking. Evernote is free for a limited amount of space, or $5/month for unlimited. CPNB, is a one time charge that’s less than a yearof Evernote Premium, and has lots more functionality than Evernote. However, CPNB is only available on Apple products.

    So there are my results. I hope others can find what they are looking for based on my own experiences. Your mileage may vary,. based on your own criteria, needs and budget.

  25. Lkw March 17, 2012 at 6:01 pm #

    I use noteshelf and it works pretty well.

  26. Frank April 17, 2012 at 5:57 am #

    I really like the infinite notes concept of Scribable, you should definitely consider it in your next review.

  27. Em June 26, 2012 at 8:28 pm #

    I used the penultimate a few times and it suddenly stopped working.The page is stuck and this is the first time I used since installing it. What should I do?

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