The iPad Experiment: Hand Writing

January 2015 · 6 minute read

The Background

I’ve had mixed feelings about handwriting over the years. In my youth I didn’t like it that much. In my uni days I hated it as my hand would cramp up from stressful scratchings. In my working days during idea exploration I’ve enjoyed a lot.

In my youth I didn’t like it that much. In my uni days I hated it as my hand would cramp up from stressful scratchings. In my working days during idea exploration - I love it.

There is something about a pen in my hand that gets me thinking differently. For years I started to ignore this more and more as I moved to direct note taking with the Macbook Pro. But I recently cleared up a stack of papers and threw out note book after note book.

These note books weren’t meaningful. They were like an accessory to my short term memory. Helping me arrange the clutter. Things I needed to consider. Ideas I wanted to ask a client about but didn’t want to interrupt the current line of discussion. Note books.

How to make this applicable to my electronic age? Enter the stylus.

The Hardware

I’ve tried a couple in past that were both a cheap attempt at the concept. Soft rubber domed tips with pens inside. These were not a great experience. In the real world, I love the detail of a fine pen tip and taking on a pen that feels similar to a worn down crayon instantly doesn’t feel quite right. The friction, the pressure and the response all fell short.

I did some reading around and found this item:

The Adonit Jot Pro was the first stylus I came across that partially looked the part with its thin nib. I found the disk a little off putting as it’s very hard to assess by pictures exactly how writing with this would feel.

This question led me to the AMAZING youtube review series by Aurélien Chevaleyrias. I strongly recommend if you are considering a stylus and iPad productivity, go watch some of these even just to start understanding the topic. His review detail is superb.

I grabbed the Jot Pro and in summary:

Writing angle can be an issue

Note the last point. As shown in the picture, the more the pen angle moves from perpendicular with the page towards being parallel, the greater the chance the disc and ball socket will not allow proper contact with the screen. This changed my writing style a little but not in a way that was a problem. It’s more the kind of change you go through learning the best way to write on a whiteboard. Once you are holding the pen a little differently you don’t notice it too much.

To close this section I’m very tempted by the further offerings of Adonit as they move to the bluetooth connected devices. For now this is a very satisfying option.

The Software

I’ve tried multiple applications and I’ll save that discussion for a post of its own as there were a lot of pros and cons. The app choice does make a huge difference and I think the preference is likely to be very personal.

My current favourite is Notes Plus (App Store link) as its really responsive and my focus is writing quick notes and very simple line drawings rather than a lot of complex work with diagrams.

The Experience

The outcome at this stage is mixed.

More generally I have regained a love of holding a pen and writing quick notes as I think. I’ve found writing to be more effective during thought process than pressured pace note taking. The speed and accuracy of typing is still way more effective for me after 15+ years of keyboard activity. During contemplation though, drawing diagrams with different ink styles and shifting content around the page provides a slight advantage over paper and pen.

I found the writing angle issue does come up now and then but it’s a quick and obvious thing as the pen doesn’t tap to the screen properly. It seems to happen more as I jot notes on my lap than on a desk. Likely iPad and body position cause this.

My writing style has definitely degradedover the years and I’m used to a much smaller writing with fine tipped pens. The iPad can’t do this level of fine detail so most apps compensate with a zoom space. This is great for allowing larger movement to produce finer detail but it is larger movement so again you’ll be writing larger than on paper even if the result is equivalent. You can try writing to scale but I really haven’t found this to work well.


Recap of adjustments:
  1. Writing angle may change in different ways depending on the stylus.
  2. Larger movements in a zoom panel get the nice detailed writing but aren’t writing on on paper.
  3. Drag and surface pressure will feel different writing on glass no matter the stylus.
  4. There is a slight tapping noise and feeling for firm tipped stylus such as the jot pro as the pen meets the screen.
None of these are show stoppers for me and I intend to persist with writing as a contemplation tool at least. I also aim to try to increase my performance in meeting based note taking where a keyboard is not on hand.

My ability to spread notes around the page gradually clustering my thoughts was one key advantage of my notebooks and I’m keen to recover this on the iPad.

Overall we’ve come a long way towards giving the iPad some writing capability.