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Review: Note Taker HD

June 10, 2010


I'm a writer. I write. Over the course of my scrivening life, I've noted, jotted, scribbled, penned, penciled in, composed, corresponded, dashed off, drafted, draw up, dropped a line, inked, scribed, and typed out everything from shopping lists to novels. I write in cars, planes, trains, buses, loos, waiting rooms, jury rooms, delivery rooms, elevators, churches, weddings, funerals, and in my dreams. I've written on grocery bags, butcher paper, newspaper margins, toilet rolls, and speeding tickets. I've stolen pages out of Steven Covey planners. I once pilfered a stack of pink community bulletins: short story for college. Sorry. Because Cezanne and Hemingway wrote in them, I started buying and filling up those perfect little black cardboard Moleskines from Italy. I once wrote a Hollywood treatment on an swindled Serbian train schedule. So I figured I might be the perfect person to offer an in-depth review of Dan Bricklin's interesting handwriting app: Note Taker HD. Just look at me. . .I'm getting all giggy inside. Using a handwriting application on such a high-tech gadget like the iPad is a bit of a conundrum. Why spent the greater part of a week's wages on a digital device only to deploy a form of written communication that performs very nicely - thank you - on a cocktail napkin? Well, defying all modern logic, guess what? Handwriting on the iPad is a kick! Dan Brickin's Note Book HD is a bit of a revelation: a handwriting app with a learning curve. Like your first bike ride though, once up to speed, the app hums and you’ll want to ride like the wind. Mr. Brickin, a world class developer and inventor of the spreadsheet (VisiCalc) offers a handwriting platform that is unlike anything in the App Store. Mr. Bricklin positions Note Taker HD as a serious productivity tool - one in which corporate types, field operatives, students, and others can write in all day, every day. But can he back up his claims? Before we dig deep into Note Taker HD, a sidebar please on the subject of iPad handwriting. Writing on a slick suspended screen using you pointer finger is a daunting task under the most perfect conditions. Our sweet little digit simply does not have the mechanical chops to produce nice cursive movements. Apply a $14.95 Pogo Stick by Ten One Designs and your writing life gets better geometrically. But still not perfect. The black squat Q-Tip end of the Pogo Stick can confuse iPad into thinking an alien finger is writing ‘ET Phone Home”. So, any handwriting developer must first overcome the technical challenges posed by iPad before excelling in the app game. One step back, two forward - so to speak. With Note Book HD, you can open the app, create a new page, and start writing. But, if you just stopped there, you'd miss out on the comprehensive power of this unique hand writer. Better to select the ‘Edit 2’ button and your workspace splits horizontally into a top viewing area and a bottom writing area. What you write smooth and big in the lower area is reflected clear, even, and small in the upper. There’s a floating control loupe (‘Detail Area’) in the upper region. You can leave the loupe alone and write in perfect straight lines - or you can drag the loupe at will and continue writing at the loupe’s new location. Slick. Select the auto-advance button and magical things start to happen. As your writing reaches the right-most edge of the lower area, a transparent gray band appears to the far left. Continue writing on the gray band and - voila! - More space appears on the right. In essence, you’re writing smoothly and effortlessly on an endless band below and your writing magically appears in perfect straight rows above. Neat. Some touches that only a world class UI expert would do: Click the erase button and the function remains active until you release your finger or pogo stick from the iPad. And yes, Virginia, there is both a ‘redo’ and ‘undo’ button - logically placed for your UI pleasure. As your writing approaches the logical end of the line as displayed in the upper area, Mr. Bricklin installs a matrix of dots on the far right side of the writing area - consider this the writer’s ‘speed bump’ or ‘soft shoulder’. Simply select the return button and the line is advanced. This is writing the Dan Bricklin way.


There's a respectable choice of paper types: Narrow Lined, Wide Lined, Narrow Grid, Wide Grid, Wide Lined / No Letter Area, and Blank. And how's the handwriting experience? Smooth and slick. In the current version, the color of the writing in the lower quad is dark pink (changing to a darker gray in an imminent release), but the preview version above shows in jet black (Dan is adding 15 more pen colors in the upcoming release). While in Edit Mode, select the ‘Page Setting’ button and revel in a vast assortment of organizational and archival tools. NAME: type in the name of the page. THUMBNAIL: navigate the thumbnail loupe over the document and select a postage stamp size area to show in the document listings. FAVORITE: Check this option and your opus will be saved to your Favorites List. FAVORITE LATER: Okay, so this document is still a work-in-progress. Note Taker will remind you to add the page to your favorites later. TAGS: Assign one or multiple tags to the page. Add and delete tags here too. FLAG: color-coded flag icons allow you to assign statuses to your writing. BACKGROUND: set the type of paper you want to write on. STATISTICS: Where Point and Stroke numbers collect - if you’re really into that sort of thing. OTHER VALUES: Here Dan adds the actual file name - for example ‘page - 12.txt’. Hmmmm, something for later perhaps? In ‘List Mode’ you can sort your thumbnails by ‘Last Modified’ , ‘Title’, and ‘Page Number’. You can display just your ‘Favorites’, show pages associated with a tag (no multiple tags yet), and bring up a helpful ‘tools’ menu with another round of functionality: Email Selected, Email All Listed, Reorder Pages, Choose Favorites, Delete Pages, Edit Tags, Set Tags to Pages . The output via email is PDF. In the App Settings section you can automatically set certain conditions and options like the default address for emailing, type of page background, and Auto Advance ‘On’ or ‘Off’. Sold Yet?

The Breakdown:

The Good

Dan Bricklin’s Note Taker HD is a serious and stable writer’s tool. You can pop open the app and jot down directions to that new Thai restaurant in Soho, or you can write out a short story, business plan, or a treatise on ridding the planet of fossil fuels. Writing smoothly and cleanly on an iPad is roughly half the story. There’s other equally important stuff - like navigation, archival tools, search, and integration. In these categories, Note Taker HD shines brighter then all other writer apps combined. Titles, Thumbnails, Tags, Favorites, Favorites Later, Flags: it’s all there. And for Dan, what really makes this product a serious productivity tool is the amount of text you can place on a page - equivalent to a hardcopy counterpart. No other hand-writer in the iPad pantheon can compete here. And. . .there is a full and well developed Help Section. Do yourself a grand sort of favor. Before digging into Note Taker HD, spend about fifteen minutes reading Dan’s instructions. I kept thinking: ‘whoa, it can do this’ about twenty times. And yes it can.

The Bad

There’s nothing really ‘bad’ about Note Taker HD. It’s really a matter of Need vs. Functionality. But, Dan. . .lose the app icon. Boring. I’ll create one for you free-of-charge. Okay, so the interface is not ‘pretty’ or ‘iPad super bad’. Various shades of brown, brown, and a bit more brown. But Dan Bricklin told me that ‘pretty’ was not his first priority. Functionality was. Make note though: ‘pretty’ is on the way. If you’re ONLY looking for a simple hand-writer to jot down phone numbers, ‘bread and milk’, or the license number of the rolling wreck that just bashed your Mercedes, there are free or cheap apps for that. But at $4.99, price is really not a pivotal make-or-break thing here. The real issue: do you want to invest the time to fully learn a feature and benefit rich productivity application? And. . .do you need to?. If any of these answers is ‘Yes’, then get your butt in gear, mosey on to the App Store, navigate to Note Taker HD, and buy the darn thing!

The Verdict

A major Note Taker HD release is imminent - a week or perhaps a bit longer. Dan bumps up the pen colors from 1 (Black) to 16. You will be able to create multiple sheet writing files, ‘staple’ single sheets to others, or remove sheets. You’ll be able to create a note title or change it while working directly in a document. Dan’s ink will run smoother the faster you write. And PDF output will now include page backgrounds, headers, footers, and page numbers. Yeah, I like it! Dan, a few things this reporter would like to have in my Note Taker HD: [1] Bookmarks. I’d like to drag out a lasso-like, color-highlighted thing and corral it around a paragraph or a section of writing within a sheet - then add a bookmark reference directly to the frame. I can later select from a group of bookmark titles. [2] Cut and Paste. Using the same lasso idea, allow me to corral a paragraph or section and [a] add it to an existing sheet or [b] create a new sheet from the snippet. [3] iPhoto Integration. I’d love to write, add a picture, write some more, another picture, etc. Please, please. . .pretty please. I want Dan to get the App Store popularity he deserves. My hope is that, with the release of Note Taker HD v3, we can watch his seriously powerful and flexible app climb the charts. I’d like to be impartial here but. . . I’m a writer. I write. But now, I’ve weaned myself off paper (of all stripes) completely. And the world, I assure you, is breathing a confirmed sigh of relief. I’ve got Dan Bricklin’s Note Taker HD safely secured to my iPad dock one icon removed from the App Store. Soon, it may be first and foremost.