The Third Device

A blog about the iPad.

Taking notes on the iPad

Both my wife and I are inveterate note scribblers, our preferred method usually being a Moleskine or equivalent. As I mentioned in a previous post, we also have a modest collection of fountain pens.

I’ve been eying the Penultimate app on the store for quite some time now, since it essentially replicates the Moleskine look and feel. However, I couldn’t bring myself to purchase it because I just don’t see myself writing anything using only my finger, unless it’s “WASH ME” on the back of someone’s car.

That all changed the other day when I found Pogo products for sale at the newly renovated Power Mac store in Greenbelt. I picked up a Pogo Stylus for myself and a Pogo Sketch for Cyn. Both are similarly constructed – a thin barrel with a soft foam tip on the end that brings to mind an eye makeup applicator. This is because a stylus needs to be capacitive to work with the iPhone or iPad; any old plastic spears you have lying around from the Palm Pilot days may actually do your screen more harm than good. (Here’s a link to a method for making your own capacitive stylus – let me know if it works for you!)

In celebration of my newfound writing instrument, I downloaded Note Taker HD and Penultimate from the app store. Cyn and I spent a few days scribbling with both apps and here are some of our thoughts.

With regards to the writing experience – Penultimate is possibly the closest you’ll ever get to putting a real pen on your screen. The accuracy with which the screen tracks your ink flow is remarkable – fast strokes produce thinner lines, slower strokes give thicker lines and even a hint of blot. You can experience this even with your finger, but it’s best felt with the Pogo stylus. Penultimate also lets you create virtual Moleskine-like cahier notebooks, with the option for ruled, graphed, or blank paper. It also boasts a “wrist detect” mode that you can enable to prevent your palm from leaving marks on the page while you write towards the top of your iPad. It works fairly well but isn’t foolproof, and in fact in my experience is better turned off if you’re writing at the bottom of the screen.

Yes, my handwriting is this bad in real life.

Note Taker HD, on the other hand, is not as elegant or visually appealing. If Penultimate feels like a Moleskine and a broad-nibbed Waterman, then Note Taker HD is a standard issue yellow pad with a Bic ballpen. However, I found myself using Note Taker intuitively and invisibly after only a few minutes of familiarization. In fact, I was quite surprised with how quickly I got used to it.

Not as pretty, but I find it more useful

You can edit in two modes: a whole page, like Penultimate, or Edit Mode 2, which really takes this app to another level. Using Edit Mode 2, you scribble in a small box at the bottom of the screen while your handwriting appears in a resizable target window on the paper up top. If you’ve ever done intensive data entry on a Palm using Graffiti, you know the feeling. Changing the size of the target window changes the size of your writing. Note Taker will even help you scroll once it detects that you’ve run out of room and need to start over from the left edge.  And in a nod to usability, Note Taker will automatically switch back to the pen tool after you’ve selected, erased and lifted off the screen using the Erase Tool. This lets you can keep writing without missing a beat. It’s flawless to use in a real world situation.

Edit Mode 2: the killer feature

Other minor points: both Penultimate and Note Taker HD do not let you adjust “nib size” on the virtual pen. With Penultimate, you’re stuck with what fountain pen aficionados call “a very juicy broad” … no, that didn’t sound right …. and with Note Taker, as I mentioned, you’ve got the equivalent of a disposable ballpoint. Both apps let you export the page or the entire set of pages either as image files or via email.  Only Note Taker allows you to write in multiple colors, which may be a deal breaker for some.

So at this point, it may come down to your own personal preference. I don’t want to call it a battle of style over substance because different people take notes different ways. For instance, Cyn was intrigued by Note Taker HD but she absolutely loves Penultimate.  And I can see myself preferring to use Penultimate for quick phone numbers or shopping lists.

Cyn has found her new favorite notebook app

Finally, I exchanged emails with Note Taker HD creator Dan Bricklin. Dan also created VisiCalc! And if you know what Visi Calc is, then I know how old you are.

Dan mentioned that his future update plans include looking into other inking options, though he would need to balance it with app performance once you factor in lots of different inks and zooming (options that Penultimate currently does not offer). He pointed out that, just as I discovered, “real life use” should always be a priority and in fact it remains his main area of concentration.

Just a reminder to conclude, both apps have pros and cons – but the bottom line is, to get the most out of either of them, you absolutely need a stylus. In fact, just this morning I found myself trying to push my stylus into a nonexistent hole on the top of my iPad. A muscle memory flashback to my iPAQ and Palm days!


June 13, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. Wow! You got to speak to Dan! Thanks for the review, I had a bunch of makeup applicators lying around the house – leftovers from failed experiments. My wife probably thinks I’m a closet gay by now.. will drop by Power Mac and get a Pogo!

    Comment by Jerry Tieng | June 13, 2010 | Reply

  2. Hello, I actually sent you a tweet about this before, asking the diff between penultimate and note taker HD. Thanks for doing this review 🙂 I’m with Cyn. I like penultimate but hopefully they’ll upgrade the app with variable pen and eraser(!) sizes. And hopefully page previews

    There’s also another nice alternative named smartNote. It’s a crossover between the two apps. It’s penultimate that you can use different pens, add images, even web browser screen shots. But inking experience is a little bit iffy.

    Comment by Ryan T. | June 13, 2010 | Reply

  3. Pogo Sketch + Dodocase = digital moleskin!

    Still waiting for my case, but I can’t wait!

    Jerry, try using the foam that comes with IC chips, those seem to work better that the make up applicators. I tried the aluminum foil method shown on some webpage, that didn’t work out… So based on Vic’s comments, I went and ordered a Pogo Sketch too… 🙂

    Comment by Hoho | June 13, 2010 | Reply

  4. One last thing about it … These notetakers can only be appreciated most when used with a stylus… And the stylus works magically on most screens. BUT on a wrapsol-ed screen, you have to press down pretty hard, and that slows you down

    … personally, I’m probably going to switch na to a simpler front shield protector (keeping the wrapsol for the back & sides) so the penultimate’ll work more smoothly 🙂

    Comment by Cyn | June 13, 2010 | Reply

  5. Hi Vic and Cyn! Does Penultimate also have the music staves paper option? 🙂

    Comment by Ria | June 14, 2010 | Reply

    • Hi Ria. Unfortunately not but that’s a great idea.

      Comment by Vic | June 15, 2010 | Reply

  6. Hi Vic! Thanks for the review!

    Did you ever consider PaperDesk? It comes up on the iTunes store when looking for Note Taker / Penultimate.

    Comment by VicB | June 19, 2010 | Reply

  7. Good review but, unless I have a different version of penultimate, you CAN write in different colours….

    Comment by Satcha | December 9, 2010 | Reply

    • Thanks, glad you liked the review.

      As of the time it was written (June 2010) Penultimate did not offer multiple pen colors.

      Comment by Vic | December 9, 2010 | Reply

  8. Thank you for a wonderful article. I’m abt to get my iPad today and one of the things I was hoping to do with it was note taking. Your article has really encouraged me that I can have a great user experience with note taking with the iPad. Also loved the references to Palm & Visi-calc. Have not used Visi-calc but I know what it is – so we are probably on the same age range 🙂

    Thanks again! Wonderful post, now I have to add the Pogo Stylus to my must buy list of accessories for the iPad. 🙂

    Comment by Marvin | December 17, 2010 | Reply

    • Glad you liked it! We’ve actually got a couple of iPad articles in the pipeline to celebrate today’s Philippine launch so you may want to check out my new site, See you there and enjoy your iPad!

      Comment by Vic | December 17, 2010 | Reply

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