iPad: The Best Stylus and Handwriting App

I’m pretty opinionated about my tech gear. You may not agree with my conclusions here about the “best” stylus and handwriting app for the iPad, but hopefully my use case and experiences will give you some food for thought. Developers and engineers have made major advancements in the last few months, so a lot of people (including myself) are taking this opportunity to redesign our workflows.

In the screenshot above I am marking up a syllabus of mine for next semester. You’ll also find me using the iPad to correct student papers, grade tests that I have scanned, and comment on papers written by colleagues. In other words, I mostly write on PDFs, so it isn’t simply note-taking from right to left for me–I need to move easily around the screen, zoom in as necessary, and write in relatively cramped spaces on the page.

Styluses

  1. Crayons
    • Most of the styluses (or styli, if you prefer) I have used over the years with the iPad approximate the experience of writing with a big crayon.
      • The Griffin, Targus, and Belkin styluses are the basic models that I would recommend for anyone who wants an inexpensive method to try out writing on the iPad.
      • The Wacom Bamboo is a step up from these, but in my opinion, not a markedly different experience.
      • The Kensington Virtuoso and iHome styluses are 2-in–1 writing utensils with a pen and a rubber tip – these are nice for people who need to write on both dead trees and tablets.
      • The best crayon stylus experience I have had is with the Pogo Sketch Pro.
  2. Pens
    • There are a few styluses out there that come remarkably close to writing with a pen on paper. Unfortunately, they are usually much more expensive like the $80 Pogo Connect, which apparently did OK with previous versions of the iPad, but didn’t work with many apps, and doesn’t support the current iPad Air.

      This year, I took all of my students’ work digital, so I thought it might be worth it to invest in a product that just came out, the Jot Script – Evernote Edition (made by Adonit). I’ve always been pretty impressed with Evernote software (this is one of their first forays into hardware), so it seemed like a safe bet to give this a try. So far, I’ve been extremely pleased with it. In particular, I like that it doesn’t wear out your wrist when you write for extended periods, something that rubber-tipped styluses tend to do (think of these like writing with an eraser on glass). There are lengthy reviews of the Jot Script with lots of nice screenshots elsewhere, so I won’t go into much detail here about the stylus itself. I’ll just mention a few issues and workarounds to keep in mind.

      You’ll want to have rechargeable batteries on hand (I go through about one AAA Eneloop battery a day) and make sure that the cap on the end of the stylus is tight (it seems to loosen up over time and cause the battery to lose contact). If the writing is suddenly off by a few millimeters, you may need to write holding it perpendicular until the pen and app figure out what is happening (this was the case for me using the GoodNotes app).

      The stylus tip makes a tremendous racket (in my opinion) that could be distracting in meetings (I have been fine so far) and your partner probably won’t be too happy with it if you use it in bed while they are trying to sleep (I have not tested this yet). Finally, the “zoom” features in apps (as I talk about below) work great, but the palm rejection on any app (letting you rest your palm on the tablet while you write) isn’t very impressive. This is the first generation of the stylus, and it definitely isn’t perfect, but it is such a huge step beyond the crayons that I am willing to overlook these issues.

      Other users have reported more negative experiences, so if you are having problems beyond the ones mentioned here, please look at this discussion thread in the Evernote user forums for possible solutions. In particular, this post by an Evernote employee explains which batteries are likely to give you the best experience.

iPad Writing Apps

I’ve got a few things I need a handwriting app to accomplish. First, it has to be able to import PDFs, because I annotate handouts, student papers, tests, scanned articles, article drafts, etc. Second, it has to have clear handwriting that is at least as good as regular pen on paper. Finally, I want it to have support for that new Jot Script stylus.

The note-taking apps below all have extremely powerful features that I am completely ignoring here. For example, Penultimate has a seamless sync to your Evernote account and Noteshelf has a huge variety of pen styles. Keep in mind that my comments are not meant to be comprehensive ones that consider all aspects of each app. I only write about how the apps address my particular needs as a writer, researcher, and teacher.

  • ZoomNotes: This app hits all three of my targets–it imports PDFs, has great handwriting quality, and works perfectly with the Jot Script. That would be enough to satisfy me, but it goes far beyond this. It also has an “infinite zoom” (you can zoom in to write as detailed as you would like), it gives you fine control over the pen type and colors, it allows you to calibrate the Jot Script for the app, and it even displays diagnostic information about the stylus (battery percentage). It is pretty amazing and, frankly, out-performs everything else I have ever tried.

    In the screenshot above, I have zoomed in a comfortable amount for what I am doing to correct my syllabus, but if I wanted to, I could easily zoom in more to write detailed comments in-between the lines. My handwriting is actually quite bad (as you can see here with pen and paper), but the app and stylus combination still manages to produce something legible.

  • GoodNotes: I’ve enjoyed using this app for a while now, and while I am more-or-less satisfied with the 3.10.5 version of it, the developer is requiring users to re-purchase the app if they want access to future updates. The developer has their reasons for doing it, and has responded to criticism like mine from the app’s user base. Before paying twice for essentially the same thing, I decided to give other apps a try, and the incentive that GoodNotes gave me to experiment turned out to be a good thing, because I am much happier with ZoomNotes for my use case. If ZoomNotes isn’t your thing, I’d definitely recommend looking at GoodNotes.

  • Noteshelf: It can import PDFs, the handwriting is OK (not as crisp as I would like), and it has support for the Jot Script stylus. The problem is that the zoom feature is not very customizable, and so for my needs I find it very difficult to comment on papers. If the zoom could be doubled or tripled in strength, then I’d be able to use it. Other users of the app have spoken highly about it for note-taking, but I hesitate to recommend it to anyone for annotating PDFs unless you are just correcting and don’t plan to write very much.

  • Penultimate: The Jot Script was designed to work with Evernote’s Penultimate app, and the two perform well together. However, Penultimate doesn’t support PDF imports, so as beautiful as the app has become, it doesn’t fit into my workflow. I only mention it here because of its close integration with the Jot Script (the stylus even has an Evernote logo on it), and I am sure there are plenty of people out there who are mainly looking for something to use for note-taking. Its “drift” feature is an innovative twist on the conventional “zoom” function that you see on every other handwriting app, and I have found it useful in meetings.