The combination of the Apple Pencil with an iPad Pro-based note-taking app like MyScript Nebo can provide a major boost to one's productivity.
I feel like an old fool (but where are we going to find one at this time of the day?). I've long disparaged the use of styluses for the purposes of taking notes on my iPad Pro, but my eyes have been opened by the combination of the Apple Pencil and the MyScript Nebo note-taking app.
Check out this short video to get an idea of what I'm talking about, and then I'll explicate, expound, and elucidate further (don’t worry, I'm a professional).
First, we need to set the scene a little. Let's start with the fact that I'm almost invariably working on something or other. Even when I'm sitting in our family room watching television, I'm thinking about articles (like this one) and book projects (like the Arduino series I'm currently writing). Thus, I'm usually to be found with a piece of paper and pencil in my hands, jotting down notes and sketching diagrams.
The same thing happens when I'm on an airplane. I usually travel in the meanest economy class where the chairs are so close together that my knees end up wrapped around my ears. This means there's no room to use my notepad PC, so -- once again -- I'm relegated to using pencil and paper.
One problem with this approach, of course, is that I will eventually have to laboriously transcribe my hand-written notes to Word running on a PC. I'll also have to either scan in my sketches or recreate them in Visio. Another issue is my modus operandi, which involves capturing random thoughts as they bounce around my noggin, and then going back and fleshing things out, moving paragraphs around, deleting some things, editing others, and adding new material as it pops into my mind. The end result typically involves lots of crossings out and forward/backward pointing arrows with instructions to myself like "Move this part to here" and questions to myself like "What the heck did I mean when I wrote this?"
Ever since I purchased my iPad Pro, I've longed to be able to use it to capture my notes, but I type at a snail's pace on its soft keyboard. By comparison, my wife (Gina the Gorgeous) is a typing diva on her tablet computer -- I wouldn’t have believed anyone could type so fast on a soft keyboard if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, but we digress...
Over the years, I've tried using a number of different styluses to capture hand-written notes, but the results have invariably been horrible. You know what I mean. It's like when you are at the checkout in a supermarket and you have to sign your name on the credit card machine's display and the result looks like you only learned to write earlier that day.
Then, about a week or so ago, I heard about two apps that are currently available for free in Apple's app store: MyScript Calculator and MyScript Nebo. I started with the calculator, which allows you to write your problems using your finger or a cheap-and-cheerful stylus. As you can see from this video, this really is an amazingly clever little tool, and it immediately became my calculator of choice for the piddling little calculations I typically wish to perform.
Next, I launched MyScript Nebo, and immediately ran into a problem, which was that it refused to allow me to proceed without my having an Apple Pencil. The bigger problem came when I discovered that the Apple Pencil costs a whopping $99, which certainly made my eyes water. To be honest, it was only the fact that I found the MyScript Calculator to be so awesome that caused me to throw caution to the winds and order an Apple Pencil from Amazon.
I had been vaguely aware of the existence of the Apple Pencil, of course, but I'd always assumed it was just another unintelligent (passive) stylus. I couldn’t have been more wrong. In addition to a much finer nib than I expected, this little scamp boasts pressure sensors and tilt sensors and suchlike, and it talks to the iPad Pro via Bluetooth. Mating the pencil with the tablet is a breeze -- you just remove its magnetically attached cap and plug the end of the pencil into the lightning connector on the iPad. After a second or so, you are presented with a prompt saying "Do you want to mate this pencil?" You click the "OK" button and you're done (you only need to do this one time).
The iPad Pro scans the pencil's signals 240 times a second with almost zero latency. The result is as close to writing with an ink pen on paper as you can imagine (or using a crayon or a piece of charcoal or a paintbrush, depending on the application). In the case of MyScript Nebo, the handwriting recognition capability is nothing short of phenomenal. It's much better than anything I've experienced before and way better than I ever expected it to be (it even corrects my spelling on-the-fly).
It's easy to delete letters, words, sentences, and paragraphs with a simple scribbling motion, and you can also insert additional material wherever you wish. When you are ready, a simple double-tap is all you need to convert your hand-written note into machine-readable text. Speaking of which, you can also search both hand-written and machine-readable text, which is very, very tasty indeed.
It's also possible to insert math equations into your document (using an embedded version of the MyScript Calculator), along with intelligent diagrams like flowcharts and hand-drawn sketches like the one shown below.
(Source: Max Maxfield)
In the case of a sketch, everything is captured "as-is" (you can use the eraser tool to rub parts out), which means you can see how bad my handwriting has grown over the years. The fact that the main app can actually work out what I'm trying to say is amazing to me.
You can create multiple documents, each containing as many pages as you wish. Whenever you are ready, you can export your Nebo document in HTML, PDF, or Word format and email it to yourself on your main computer.
Now, there are many other notepad editor applications out there. I'm also a big fan of Notes Plus, for example, which allows you to do all sorts of cool things, including embedding audio recordings in your notes. At the end of the day, however, everything I've played with has either been too limited in its capabilities or too complex for my taste. My personal feeling is that MyScript Nebo falls nicely in the Goldilocks Zone in the middle of these two extremes. In fact, its user interface is so intuitive that the learning curve is close to non-existent, and it's not often you'll hear me say that about any application.
The bottom line is that the combination of the Apple Pencil and MyScript Nebo provides an amazing productivity tool. Overnight, it's changed the way I work, and it's probably saving me an hour or so a day based on me not having to transcribe my handwritten notes. It's also saving me all the time I used to spend hunting for the various scraps of paper scattered around the house.
How about you? Is this old news as far as you're concerned? Are you already using some stylus-app combo to capture your notes? If so, I'd be really interested to hear what type of stylus you are using and which notepad app you favor. Alternatively, have you been shying away from taking the plunge based on past experiences or for some other reason? In this case, has reading this column changed your mind in any way?
I'm about to get one of these. Heretofore I've always made copius notes on engineering paper. I spend a lot of time converting formulae to circuit diagrams with all the pipeline stages made explicit. I have to do this because synthesizer tools are still poor, which I used to complain about, but now see as job security. FPGA companies, please continue doing what you are doing. I like drawing these diagrams, but if I want to email them I have to scan them, I end up with reams of notes that are difficult to search, and major editing is difficult. The new iPad with the pencil comes pretty close to the feel of writing on paper. It's not as romantic, to be sure. Who imagines FL Wright with a big iPad at his drafting table, Claude Shannon taking notes with a stylus, or Hemingway tapping away on a screen?
@Antedeluvian: ...I have report on using Notes Plus (plus the Apple pencil and the iPad Pro) as a replacement for a project notebook...
That's wonderful -- I played with Notes Plus a year or so ago, but I was using my finger as the writing implement, which skewed my impressions.
My gut feel is that Notes Plus is the more powerful app, but MyScript is really easy to learn and use -- since you already have the Apple Pencil, if you download MyScript for free, I'd love to hear your thoughts, and I look forward to reading tyour column on Embedded.com
For my next blog (for March) on embedded.com I have report on using Notes Plus (plus the Apple pencil and the iPad Pro) as a replacement for a project notebook. I do think it's sufficiently different from this blog to warrant going ahead with its publication, but since you're the editor you get to decide...
Watch for it in your inbox.
When and if it gets published I will add the link here.