I have been intrigued with the concept of digital ink ever since I started using PDAs in 1997. However, even though there have been times where it seemed like that killer application was just around the corner, ink has never seemed to fully get there for me. I used it to scribble quick notes on […]
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Review: Noteshelf for iPad

I have been intrigued with the concept of digital ink ever since I started using PDAs in 1997. However, even though there have been times where it seemed like that killer application was just around the corner, ink has never seemed to fully get there for me. I used it to scribble quick notes on my old Microsoft Windows CE, Pocket PC, and Windows Mobile devices, but I always hated the fact that, if you were in a hurry and didn’t have time to title your note, you had to go searching through assorted generic titles to find it. It just didn’t work that well on small screen devices. Then there was handwriting recognition. (Head shaking back and forth)

Looking back, it’s hard to believe that we ever thought handwriting recognition of any kind was going to be the input of choice on mobile devices. That tech might as well be from the stone ages in light of today’s mobile world. Whether it was Graffiti, Jott, or Calligrapher, none of them was fast enough to ultimately beat out the hardware keyboards that were coming around the corner. I briefly had a flicker of hope when Microsoft introduced the Tablet PC and OneNote. I went to a launch event and tried it out, and it did a very good job with natural handwriting recognition. The best part of OneNote, though, was the fact that it allowed you to text searches of your ink notes. That was a big leap forward for digital ink, but unfortunately, Tablet PCs were expensive and just never took off the way Microsoft hoped.

Now, fast forward to the iPhone and the capacitive touchscreen era of today. Despite the fact that direct finger input seems to be such a natural fit for digital ink, and that the processors and memory of today’s devices can do much more than those older devices, neither Apple nor Google has made digital ink of any kind available on either of their OSs out of the box. That fact certainly hasn’t stopped developers on either platform, however, as there are plenty of free and inexpensive options for digital ink on both platforms. On iOS, these include apps geared toward quick notes, drawing and sketching, doodling for fun, and even good, old-fashioned handwriting recognition. Pretty much all types of ink entry and use cases are covered somewhere in there. There are also several capacitive screen-friendly styli available for those who want more precise control over their drawings than an index finger can provide. The fact that these apps and products seem to be flourishing leads me to believe that there is definitely demand for digital ink technology on our current mobile devices.

When I got my iPad back in May, one of the only things that bothered me about it was the lack of a digital ink solution. I have tried several free apps that cover different aspects of digital ink, but they have all been geared more toward the artistic side of things, and really didn’t fit the bill for me as a note taking program. Most of my iPad notes, no matter what kind they are, are generated in Evernote, which was one of the first apps I loaded on my iPad when I got it. I have been using the Evernote service off and on since I got my original iPhone, but using it on the iPad’s bigger screen has really brought its versatility and usefulness into focus. I take meeting notes with it, take clippings of web sites for work research, keep all my genealogy research in one place, and collect and tag scanned documents. I also create and keep all of my iSource review notes, outlines, and drafts in Evernote, as well as clipping copies of my final published reviews. Yes, I am typing this review on my iPad keyboard right now.

If you are an Evernote user, you are probably aware that there is ink and drawing support built into their desktop apps. I don’t really use it, since I have never found a mouse to be an effective drawing tool. However, being that the Evernote team had seen enough value to add it there, I figured it was only a matter of time until they added digital ink support to their iPad app. Its large, responsive touchscreen just makes digital ink a no-brainer. Evidently the Evernote team agrees, as they have committed to add ink support. They have talked about what a natural fit it is with the iPad in their podcast, and written about it on their blog, but it has been over six months and for some reason, we are still waiting.

Recently, I came across the iPad app Noteshelf from Ramki Krishna, which is specifically geared toward using digital ink to take notes. One of the features that really caught my eye was their built-in integration with Evernote. I have been using it for a couple of weeks now, and all I have to say is that Evernote better deliver something really good if they want anyone to use their ink solution, because Noteshelf is capable of filling the digital ink gap and is definitely worth the $4.99 price tag.

When you first open Noteshelf, you are presented with a bookshelf view of your notebook files, similar to what we are used to with iBooks.

The User’s Guide is pre-installed here, and all of your notebooks appear here after you create them. You can add new notebooks with the “+” icon.

When you tap it, you get a menu that allows you to name you notebook and select the background style. This is where things get interesting. Selecting a background for your note doesn’t sound like a big deal, but Noteshelf provides you with a lot of unique and interesting options on which to base your ink notes. Some of these options include the usual writing and drawing suspects, such as plain paper, normal and wide ruled lined paper, large and small grid patterns, a couple of decorative papers, and the ubiquitous yellow legal pad.

In addition to these, however, Noteshelf has some backgrounds that aren’t widely available for use with digital ink, including day planner, task list, meeting notes, shopping list, Cornell-style notebook, Baseball score sheets, guitar tab, and music staff.

I haven’t used a pen and paper for personal organization for many years now, and never even used digital ink notes for anything more than quick diagrams and scribble notes, but testing out some of Noteshelf’s backgrounds got me to think differently about using digital ink. Using my finger worked acceptably, but when I used an iPad compatible stylus is when things really clicked. It felt good. It was natural, just like taking quick meeting or class notes on a legal pad used to be. Being a former music teacher, the music staff really drew me in and got my attention.

Boy, I sure could have put this to good use several years ago. I used to scribble down quick exercises for students in pencil on staff paper, but as anyone who has done a lot of that can attest, it can be a real pain. Make a mistake or a change, and it quickly becomes a real mess. With Noteshelf, I can neatly and easily erase what I need to without making smudges on the page and having the music staff fade out on me along with the erased notes. I can take an exercise from a Noteshelf notebook and easily export it for printing or just use my iPad’s large screen on the music stand. I probably went through a couple of forests worth of staff paper giving exercises to students in my time as a teacher, so having that option is really nice to cut down on needless paper waste.

As far as the note taking interface goes, Noteshelf is very clean and intuitive. The top toolbar has 12 function icons separated into 3 groups of 4 icons each. The first group has a link back to the bookshelf, a clear the page function, and undo and redo.

The second group has all of the pen and object settings. The icon highlighed in blue is active for use when you touch the screen. First off, the Pen icon brings up a menu for controlling the line color and size.

I love the drawer look and animation for all of the color crayons. That was a nice design touch.

The second icon controls the eraser selection.

There are three distinct erasers shown, but the only difference between how they work is the size that they erase on the page.

The third icon opens a menu with a wide variety of icons that can be added to documents.

Some common selections are included in the small menu that comes up first. By tapping the More icon, you get a much larger selection, broken into five pages.

The categories are People, Nature, Things, Travel, and Signs. There are a total of 465 icons included for use anywhere in your drawings.

The fourth icon allows you to select and add pictures from your iPad’s Photo Library.

When you select a picture, it is immediately included on whatever background you have selected. You can scale the picture as you wish, up to the full size of the page if the picture’s resolution allows.

You can also tilt the picture freely to any angle on the page. I wasn’t sure about the reason for going beyond the normal 90 degree increments of rotation, until I remembered the inclusion of “scrapbook” paper in the background choices. Tilting a picture to an odd angle may not make sense for a picture in a business document, but it absolutely does if you are trying to style a scrapbook page. Once you have finished your picture positioning and scaling, tapping the Done button at the bottom of the screen. Once the picture is added, it is a part of the background, and can be draw or erased however you see fit.

One thing to note is that, if you are using Noteshelf in landscape orientation, you have to scroll to the bottom of the page to see the Cancel and Done icons.

The third group of icons deal with document setup and export. It leads off with Wrist Protection.

This is a cool feature that lets you lock an area of the bottom of the page for your wrist to rest on while writing, which keeps you from inadvertently making marks when you touch the page while resting your hand. Once Wrist Protection is turned on, you can set the area with a slider on the right side of the page. As your writing progresses down the page, the slider automatically moves down the page with you, so you don’t have to continually reset it yourself.

The second icon in the third group opens the Export menu. This is definitely one of the features that makes Noteshelf stand out.

There are a lot of options available for you to customize how your ink note comes out looking on the other end of the export. First, while the name is automatically matched up with your Noteshelf notebook’s name, you can change that for the exported version if you wish. Second, you can choose whether to export as a PNG image or a PDF file. Next, you can choose whether note’s background and the page and title designations are part of the export. Last, you can decide what pages out of the notebook get exported. You can export either the whole notebook, the current page, or you can manually choose which pages are included.

Once you have your settings selected, you have multiple ways to export your document. You can send your ink note as an email, make it available using iTunes document sharing, export it to Dropbox, or export it to Evernote. In both the Dropbox and Evernote settings, you have the ability to set up your account information and what folder or notebook your files will export to.

All of the export methods work great, but as I stated earlier, I am a huge Evernote fan, so I spent a lot of time playing with Noteshelf’s Evernote export. Exporting as a PDF file is ok if you are a premium user, as they are allowed to open any document type from within an Evernote note. However, exporting as a PNG image file is really the best choice for Evernote users, as image files take the most advantage of what the service offers. All Evernote users have access to view image files inside their notes, and can use Evernote’s awesome image search and recognition tools.

I remember how game-changing Microsoft’s OneNote seemed a few years ago with its ink recognition. Evernote has made that same technology available to everyone, and now with Noteshelf, that tech is available on the iPad at a reasonable price, and in a format that makes sense.

The third icon in the third group allow you to change the name of your notebook and change the background.

It is the same menu that you get when you create your notebook from the bookshelf screen. One thing to note is that, if you change the background paper, it will change for the entire notebook, not just that individual note page.

The last icon brings up the Find menu. This menu gives you a look at all of the pages in your current notebook.

From this dropdown menu, you can select a page, add a page, delete any page, or change the order of the pages in your notebook.

I honestly didn’t find any major problems with Noteshelf during my testing, but there are a few minor things that I wouldn’t mind seeing the developer address in future updates. While Noteshelf is geared more toward notes than artistic work, there are only 17 pen colors available. It would be nice to see the selection beefed up a bit. I would also love to see basic text typing capability added. While I realize that Noteshelf is geared toward taking notes in digital ink, the capabilities of the app would be greatly expanded if you could make pages with a combination of ink and text. This would be highly useful in annotating and labeling photos in documents like scrapbook pages.

The other minor issues I had were with some aspects of Noteshelf’s Evernote integration. First, you can only export your notes to a single notebook in Evernote at any given time. I know that Evernote gives third party developers access to users’ notebooks and tags, because I use JotNot on my iPhone, which takes advantage of this capability. You can always move your notes around once you get them into Evernote, but it would be nice to do it right from Noteshelf’s export interface. On the same subject, it would also be a handy addition if you could take a notebook in Noteshelf and make it its own notebook in Evernote without constantly changing Noteshelf’s Evernote export settings.

Another small issue with the Evernote integration is that, when you export an edited version of an already exported document, you get duplicate copies with the same name in Evernote. Evidently, this is typical for documents exported to Evernote, but it is a bit annoying since you have to manually clean out the old copies. However, I think this issue is more on Evernote’s end than Noteshelf’s.

There are also a two other features I would love to see made available in future updates. First, it would be nice to see other cloud services, such as Google Docs, Box.net, and iDisk added to go along with Evernote and Dropbox. Second, it would be extremely helpful for editing ink notes if there was some level of copy and paste included. The ability to copy and paste sections of ink inside of a note would be especially useful for music applications, as it would allow you to easily duplicate repeated passages. Even more important than in-document copy and paste, is the ability to duplicate pages within your notebook. This would allow you to make an alternate copy of an ink note for further editing while preserving the original note.

Despite whatever small issues Noteshelf may have, it is absolutely a great value at $4.99. It brings digital ink and notetaking together on the iPad in a way that no other app that I have seen has. Combined with a capacitive screen stylus, Noteshelf lets you take digital ink notes for whatever purpose in a very fluid and natural way. Combined further with Evernote, you have the added power of archiving, universal syncing, and advanced image searching. All together, Noteshelf is absolutely the way to go if you have an iPad and want a fresh take on legal pads and paper organizers in the digital world.

Noteshelf 2.1 is available for $4.99 from the Apple App Store here.

The developer, Rama Krishna, provided a promo code to iSource for the review of Noteshelf 2.1. For further information regarding our site’s review policies, please see the “About” page.

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