Answering Some Questions on Digital Inking and the iPad

I received this email from GBM Reader Adam K a few weeks ago. It’s taken me awhile to get this post ready to respond but here it is. First the email:


Thanks again for allowing me to reach out to you for advice. I watched your review of multiple options for inking on an iPad for taking notes and I had a couple of follow-up questions because I didn’t see something in there that suited all my needs and hoped you might be able to guide me in a particular direction.

Let me start by stating that I have held off on buying an iPad because it hasn’t been able to do what I need it to – related specifically to inking and marking up.

Like you, I very much take notes on the fly and need a device to be able to create new notebooks I can go back to and it needs to have a smooth penning experience where I won’t always need to be looking down to see if my wrist is making a mark :-) I can’t use an application where there is a little box at the bottom I write into and then it shows up somewhere above.


In addition I do a lot of work marking-up documents and presentations and I’d like to be able use that functionality you showed but do it on top of an already created document (e.g., pdf, .doc, .ppt, etc) Right now I have to have people send me documents, I have to print them out, mark them up with a pen and then scan and e-mail them back – hardly elegant. So I need to be able to write anywhere right on the document as you showed using Penultimate, albeit without an underlying document in your example. (I attached for you a redacted example of what I’m talking about)

I need to be able e-mail these notes and marked up documents back to people.

The first three are needs, the rest are wishes with the biggest wish being searchability. I can imagine a multiple page book of scribble and it would be great if I can search for a particular word or phrase – I still find electronic documents harder to find things in visually than the old flipping through the pages of a physical notebook, so this functionality would be very useful.

The last wish would be to use this in a way where I can display on a screen what I am marking up while actually doing it – sort of the 21st century equivalent to the transparencies at the front of a classroom but even better if I can walk around.

I’m guessing Adam K is not alone in thinking this. At the bottom of this post I’ll link to a number of other posts that I’ve put up on this topic, but here goes with some answers.


First to be clear and then again to be very clear, those of us who feel in love with Digital Inking on a Tablet PC are not going to find all that we are accustomed to on an iPad, or any other tablet or slate. Know that going forward. The technology exists, certainly, but the desire and marketing desire does not. We are a minority that for some reason doesn’t register as significant. And besides you can’t sell advertising on notes filled with Digital Ink.

So, what’s an Inker to do if they want to keep up? Well the first question you need to ask yourself is do you want to keep up. If the answer to that question is yes, than like it or not, the iPad (original or iPad 2) is your best solution out there at the moment. That’s due to some developers who see the opportunity and have been working diligently to make Digital Inking on the iPad a possibility. I’ve chronicled many (not all) of them before and you’ll find links to them in the posts listed below.

Next is to identify like Adam K what your needs are and see if there are Apps out there to do the trick. If I’ve read Adam’s needs correctly than there are iPad alternatives out there. Here’s my preferred list compared to Adam K’s needs list at the moment. (I say at the moment because it can change as developers continue to work.)

His first need is to create notebooks that he can refer back to after having a smooth Inking experience. Two Apps stand out here in my mind. Penultimate and NoteShelf. Both have very smooth Inking experiences for a capacitive display. Adam K sounds like his digital note taking is very much like mine. Quick, down, and dirty. I can’t afford to watch what I’m Inking, I just need to lay it down and move on. Penultimate is my first choice right now, but Note Shelf is a very close second. Both have their own methods of Palm Rejection or Wrist Protection. Are they as smooth as Digital Inking on a real Tablet PC. No. But they do come close enough for that kind of digital note taking.

Adam K’s next need is markup of PDFs and other documents. I’ve been working with a couple of Apps that allow that functionality. iAnnotate PDF allows you to do decent mark up of a document, as does neu.Annotate. iAnnotate PDF allows you to load in documents and mark them up via Dropbox, iTunes, or email. neu.Annotate allows you to transfer them over via iTunes. You can choose to open a PDF via email through this method. iAnnotate PDF is my number one choice here.

Adam K’s number three choice is to be able to email these marked up documents back to a client. Both iAnnotate PDF and neu.Annotate have that functionality.

If you’re just looking to sign a PDF (something I have to do all the time) there are several Apps that can give you this functionality. Two I keep on hand are Sign-N-Send and Sign My iPad. I prefer the former as it also allows rudimentary mark up.

The biggest missing piece falls into Adam K’s desires but not needs list. It’s also mine. That’s searchability. For those of us who use OneNote we know just how freeing that experience is. But OneNote is an entirely different animal when it comes to its complexity. Maybe one day we’ll see something that lays down the underlying text under Ink and allows searchability. But it is just not there yet. I’m afraid that one day is quite far off.

Adam K also wants to display on a screen what he is Inking on a screen. Well, we’re not there yet, but we might be getting closer depending on how the evolution of AirPlay develops. Mirroring for video and games is a first start there. Again, I don’t think Digital Note Taking is a high priority for this.

Adam K in his original response to my earlier post on this topic also mentioned audio recording. Again, a OneNote feature that many like quite a bit. Well there are a few Apps out there that offer that functionality. Notes Plus, Noterize, and smartNote are three I’ve tried but they don’t have as smooth of an Inking interface Palm Rejection or Wrist Protection. I take that back, Note Plus has its method of overlaying an area on the screen, but that doesn’t work as well for me. Again your mileage may vary.

Again, if you’re looking for the same Tablet PC experience you had with a Lenovo or a Toshiba or an HP or a Motion or a Fujitsu Tablet PC on the iPad or other current Tablet/Slate, you’re not going to find it. But you can get close depending on your needs. Let’s not forget that if you are in the handwriting recognition camp that WritePad and PhatPad give you some pretty good Apps for that kind of Digital Inking.

My advice is for those who do take up a stylus and an iPad is to engage with the developers of these Inking Apps and let them know what you want, need, enjoy, don’t like, etc… I sincerely believe that they do get it and are working hard. Encouraging their efforts is the best way to keep them doing so.

Check out these posts on some of the iPad Inking Apps mentioned in this post.


  1. the only problem with all of these programs is that they don’t work for left handed people! Penultimate claims to be worming on something but that seems to be getting nowhere. The Ipad inking capabilities are useless for us lefties! Too bad…

  2. Have any of these apps come up with a wrist guard solution that really works for lefties? I’ve tried a number of the ones you mention here, and some others, and none work well for me.

  3. Have any of these apps come up with a wrist guard solution that really works for lefties? I’ve tried a number of the ones you mention here, and some others, and none work well for me.

  4. I agree with Warner’s choices. I have tried them all and I believe that Noteshelf is the best for creating separate notebooks and just inking. I disagree with the selection of iAnnotate though. Inking is very jagged and I found the interface to be pretty difficult to use. I believe that UPAD is a much better app for annotating PDF’s. The inking is smooth like Noteshelf and the interface is more intuitive. Unfortunately there aren’t any annotation apps that handle other types of docs. You need to convert Word and others to PDF which is easy enough. I would also recommend getting Dataviz Docs to Go as it allows for wireless transfer of your files from the PC to your iPad. Doesn’t require going through iTunes. I would also get something like PDF Annotator for your pc so you can easily convert other documents to PDF format. I was ready to ditch my iPad until I found these two programs. Inking is very nice and meets my needs at college. I still plan on trying out the Motion CL900 as I tried the HP Slate, ASUS ep121 and didn’t like either of them. I think the sweetspot for a Windows 7 Tablet will be in the 10″ range, plus the Motion is good for 8 hours of use which is what I get with my iPad 2.

  5. Warner (and Adam): Please just look hard at what you profess you need; what you want; and what you desire.There is only one answer – tablet PC with OneNote (and perhaps Bluebeam). I too want a 1.5 lb ultra-slim and sexy slate with 10 hour battery – but you can’t have that and meet ANY of your needs, a few of your wants, and almost none of your wants. I realize you gave a great preface about OneNote Warner, but that is where you should have stopped. Don’t accept the compromises. Get an HP 2740p (3.5#) or Asus EP121 (2.5#) and don’t look back. Wait for the hardware and software to keep up with you – don’t feel compelled to keep up with the fashion trend.

    • dstrauss,

      I hear you and there was a time I would have agreed with you.At the moment that time for me has passed. While we still see Tablet PCs being made today (the HP 2740p is a fine piece of kit) I don’t have much hope that the Microsoft world is going to push anything beyond what we see now. I may be wrong and would be delighted to be so at some point in the future. In terms of my needs, while I miss some things I could do on a Tablet PC with OneNote and other Apps, I don’t think I’m compromising as much as I am adapting to new realities as I see them unfolding. Keep in mind that I’ve often said we’ll see a return to Inking at some point. Probably after everyone who thinks they can make money by creating devices that are essentially advertising push devices realizes the truth about that phenomenon. I’ve also said, I bet Apple leads the way on that. I still believe that to be true.

  6. It looks like the app, Sundry Notes, allows you to import PDFs and .doc to mark up and then email as a PDF. The handwriting is not the best, but you can do the mark up.


  7. Warner:

    Do any of the .pdf mark-up apps offer the kind of fine control that would allow me to (say) add an accent to an individual letter?

    I am a university professor, and I now only correct papers electronically on my (aging) Lenovo tablet. The problem is, I want to move over to the Apple ecology and away from Windows. I originally thought I would buy a Wacom tablet and use it under Parallels, but if I could ink well enough on the iPad, the total package would be lighter a a little more elegant.

    • I don’t think you can get there with any of the apps currently available. I’d place that problem squarely on the hardware and the stylus maker and not the software though. That said there are tons of impressive art works out there created on the iPad but that may be an apple and orange comparison.

  8. […] my corrections by hand, as opposed to type them on screen. I find this quicker and more authentic. “Inking” or “Digital Inking” is a way to literally write out what you want to say on a tablet and then that written message can […]

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