Saturday, January 7, 2012

Notes Plus - Handwriting App for the iPad

Note: if you don't have an iPad (and won't be getting one any time soon), you probably won't care about this entry, as I'll be reviewing the Adonit Jot Pro and Notes Plus v3.0 - writing tool and app, respectively, for the iPad.
For several semesters, I have been using a variety of notetaking apps on my iPad 2, the best of which I consider to be Notes Plus. The newest version is 3.0, and simply put, it's phenomenal. It combines everything you could hope for (with the temporary exception of Dropbox synchronization, which is said to be coming soon in version 3.0.1) in a digital handwriting application.

My main reason for having an iPad is how nice it will be for medical school, where everyone says you're bombarded with material in the form of presentations, coursepacks, pdf articles and more. All of those can be stored, viewed, edited and annotated on the iPad. The newest version of Notes Plus is the best app I've used (and I've tried all the mainstream ones) for taking notes and annotating PDFs on the iPad. Before I review a few of my favorite features of the app, I'd like to note that I use a Jot Pro by the company called adonit, pictured below:
The adonit Jot Pro has a plastic disc rotating on a stainless steel ball as its tip. This allows it to interact with capacitative touch screens like that of the iPad without sacrificing range of motion or precision, as you can see through the plastic to more precisely place it when writing or drawing. The overall size of the Jot Pro is also more comparable to a real pen. It's a bit pricey, but well worth it and definitely what I would recommend if you're looking for a pen tool.
Now, on to the review of my favorite features of Notes Plus:

1. The layout.

Below, I took a screenshot of the portrait layout of Notes Plus, imported the screenshot, and annotated it in Notes Plus to show the features and tools available. The layout is simple and intuitive, easily customizable.
2. Customization

All of the tools and pen styles can be customized to be whatever the user wants, allowing each person to choose exactly what they want and where they want it. You simply press and hold on the tool or pen style, then slide to select the tool that you want to have in that space.
The variability of Notes Plus leaves nothing to be desired in terms of pen tip styles and font options.
3. The Browser Panel

The Browser Panel is probably (for me) the most useful addition to the Notes Plus user interface. Accessed by sliding the center panel to the right, it allows the user to grab any image simply by pressing and holding on the image, then "tossing" the image over to the notebook they're currently working in. The image smoothly shoots over for placement on the page. Images can then be duplicated via copy & paste, rotated, and resized.
If what you want to include in your notes isn't a picture, you can take a snapshot of a portion of the browser, then insert it as an image in your notes.
Once you're done getting content from the browser, simply slide the center bar back to the left and keep taking notes.
4. The Close-Up Box

The close-up box is probably one of the very best features, separating Notes Plus from the rest in simple ease of functionality. Its lack was always the first thing that bothered me about other handwriting apps; it's the most natural way that I've found to clearly write whole paragraphs on the iPad. Obviously, the close-up box is much smaller than the whole line, since it's pretty much a zoomed-in view. As you write from right to left, you will approach the right side of the close-up box long before you reach the end of the line. When this happens (and when you actually reach the end of the line) a grey box appears in the left-hand area of the close-up box, as shown below.
That grey area acts as a sort of transportation window, moving your writing point either further along the current line of writing, or directly to the following line on the paper. The result is a seamless experience that makes the creation of paragraphs effortless. If you happen to notice a mistake earlier in your writing, you can simply grab the dotted grey box that shows your writing area and move it to the appropriate portion of the paragraph. Notes Plus also supports the ability to zoom in and write/draw directly on the text without using the close-up box. I use this option extensively when drawing chemical molecules and annotating figures, but not as much when I'm just taking notes.
5. Moving & Manipulating Written Text

I don't know why this isn't something that all handwriting apps can do, but so far Notes Plus is the only one where you can select and move groups of text after you've written them. After selecting a group of text, an arrow appears that you select to access options for what to do with the selected text.
a. The first two options, Draw stroke instead and Draw shape instead are useful for interconverting between drawn shapes and vectorized shapes. That's right - Notes Plus can create smooth, perfectly-proportioned shapes.

b. You can also Group your selection to make it easier to move or keep track of. This option is handy for when you want to keep shapes, written text, and typed text together.

c. One of the most advanced options is the Convert to Text feature. Sadly, it's only available as an in-app purchase for $1.99, but apparently the developers are taking a hit even at that price, as the handwriting recognition engine license is leased on a per-user basis and actually costs more than that. Regardless, the feature is great. It recognizes handwritten text and converts it to typed text with incredible accuracy. The resulting text is then searchable, allowing you to search a notebook for a specific word or phrase without having to sort through the pages manually.

d. You can also Copy or Delete your selection. The Send to Back option is very useful when trying to arrange a figure or photo behind some written text. Selecting or editing an image will bring it to the foreground, so a handy option for sending something to the back layer is a good thing to have.
6. Flexibility in Tools

The tools and flexibility offered by Notes Plus are great. Not only can you directly import PDF files from your email or a web browser for annotation (done by selecting Notes Plus from the "Open In..." option), you can also save PDFs directly to Google Docs. While at the time of this writing Drop Box synchronization and exporting is not an option, it will soon be enabled in Notes Plus v3.0.1. See the below screenshot for the options available in the Tools menu.
The ability to change the page settings is particularly useful. This allows the user to create gigantic pages - very useful in creating flow charts and poster-sized documents to view later on a larger screen or print on poster paper.
7. Recording Audio

I can't tell you how many times I've wanted to hear what the professor said when going back through a confusing part of my notes after a lecture. With Notes Plus, it's easy. You simply tap the microphone icon on the center bar. It will glow red when actively recording, as shown below.
You can play recordings back while maximizing your view of the notes by sliding the playback controls from beneath the microphone icon.
To organize and manage your recordings, just go to the Audio section of the Notebooks menu:
8. Textbook Organization

The organization of notes in Notes Plus is simple. You have Folders, Notebooks, and Pages. Folders contain Notebooks, and Notebooks contain Pages, just like in real life. Unlike real life, Notes Plus allows users to move or copy whole pages or even entire notebooks from one place to another. Below is how I currently have my documents organized - one folder for this Spring semester, a template (read-only) notebook to be copied for future classes (all the pages are a custom size), and a scratch-pad notebook for miscellaneous doodlings.
Within the Spring 2012 folder, you see my two notebooks:
Within a notebook, you can see a preview of each page. Notes Plus also allows users to give each individual page a name, which is then searchable within the notebook. Simply drag the list of pages down to access the search field.
While this in no way covers even half of the features and functionality offered by Notes Plus, it at least gives you a feel for what you can expect from the app before purchasing it yourself. Unless something better comes along (doubtful) I plan on using it throughout medical school and possibly (probably) beyond. Hopefully you've found this useful; feel free to leave any comments or questions that you might have.


Larissa said...

You've done a better job selling me on Notes plus than their own site could do! I use Notability for note taking & recording lectures but I prefer to type in the ipad and draw equations & molecules and such in my notebook. It means I have my notes in 2 places but I needed the respite from writing to help a hand injury recover.

Justin said...

An anonymous poster left this comment, which I accidentally deleted when it showed up in my inbox. I'll repost the text here:

"seriously, as a physician i now use UPAD does everything notes plus does and even better. Use it in lectures and taking patient histories

The current version is too unreliable and too many people have lost notes because of crashes and have been unrecoverable.

UPAD is the way to go! "

I would respectfully disagree. First, while it's true that old versions used to be unstable (when the app was written on an entirely different code base), the newest version is perfectly stable. I personally never experienced any instability in the old version, and the new version has been working like a dream for me. Second, in NO WAY does UPAD have all the functionality that Notes Plus has. There's no browser from which you can take snapshots or photo drag-and-drops. There's no shape recognition or selection and movement of text. There's no copy and paste option. 'Nuff said. Third, I didn't like UPAD's writing interface as much. The close-up box's progression wasn't as intuitive as in Notes Plus. Perhaps that has changed since I tried it out last October, but I doubt it. The close-up box in Notes Plus has always trumped the other apps, no contest. I also disliked the GUI display; UPAD just didn't seem as professional and clean, if I remember correctly... In the end, with two perfectly functional apps, a lot of the time it just comes down to user preference.

Justin said...

Also, I'm dubious that the poster was a physician; most doctors are experienced enough with typing to use correct capitalization and punctuation... Just saying...

Anonymous said...

Justin UPAD has working dropbox, and stability.

I am not sure if you have been reading the notes plus forum it's scary. Would never put patient information into notes plus and lose it.

UPAD does templates for medical docs especially for docs commonly used such as requisitions, patient history charts etc..

UPAD has a more apple like feel with its file management and the inking is far superior. I see more than 40 patients each day using this and works fine.

UPAD has a better GUI and is overall much better. UPAD allows import of pics and takes pics via camera. Oh did I mention the inking is much better and there is Ajirprint!

Alan Rathe said...

Thanks for this, Justin. Question: are you using your Adonit Jot stylus WITH NotesPlus? I've heard the two don't always play well together. What's your experience?

Justin said...

First, I will respond to the post by anonymous by saying that people will have different opinions, and sometimes we won't agree. this post was not intended to be a form for debating what is good and what is not good about various apps. I like notes plus, and I enjoy using it. Enough said.

As for Alan's question, I definitely have to say it took some getting used to, and it works better in the close-up mode than if you just zoom in and write. I've become accustomed to it now though, and have been effectively using it all semester without any problems. That's my take on it, for what it's worth. I mostly like the added precision that comes with the clear tip, and the weighty machined steel is a plus as well; no more flimsy hollow aluminum tube that's the length of half a finger...

Alan Rathe said...

Thanks, Justin--your comments are helpful. I see on the NotesPlus site that they're planning on integrating an SDK from Adonit into the software in the future... That ought to make the pairing of the stylus and the program even better than it is now! Peace.

Anonymous said...

Hi Justin you sould look at the new notability for $.99 it looks like a incredible program maybe better than notes plus and more stable

Justin said...

Anonymous: I purchased Notability back when Notes Plus was in the throes of version 2.0, and actually used it to take notes for the better part of a semester. The main reasons I switched back to Notes Plus with version 3 were the deficiencies I perceived in Notability's close-up box, inability to select/copy/move written text, and web clip insertion capabilities. It seems with their most recent update, they have come a long way. I still like the interface / GUI of Notes Plus much MUCH better, but I will spend some time looking into Notability this semester. One area in which I feel Notes Plus is significantly behind the game is audio recording; I've stopped recording my lectures this semester largely because Notes Plus' audio recording feature is disappointing. Yes, it works (technically, it DOES record sound), but I have noticed some glitching, and the exportation of the resulting files is just way too difficult. It exports in .caf? And you can't load .caf files into iTunes? But that's the only way you can export your .caf files from Notes Plus? Not good. I've submitted these ticket issues to Notes Plus, and hopefully audio recording will be much improved in a release later this Spring.

As far as addressing an earlier Anonymous content regarding Dropbox functionality in Notes Plus, it's true that it currently doesn't work similarly to other apps. This is because the developer originally targeted Drop Box as a good backup feature, back in the days when Notes Plus wasn't as stable as it is now. He is currently working toward an import/export functionality that I believe will be more similar to how it currently works with GoogleDocs. I'm looking forward to that, as are many others. Until then, I just export to GoogleDocs and transfer my notebooks to my computer that way.

There's definitely an endlessly shifting plethora of options for taking notes on the iPad; Notes Plus is great and continues to show a lot of promise - and that's a really good thing, as there is a lot of promising competition out there. Notes Plus was the first to have the widest range of functionality, but other apps are slowly and steadily catching up...

richImages said...

I have many handwriting apps. I settled on UPad and used that for quite a while. Last week, I pulled up Notes Plus. I was pleasantly surprised ... very nice GUI, and no having to hit a carriage return button to advance. Everything was automatic!
UPad does seem to be a bit more stable, but Notes Plus is stable enough. Only every now and then does it not follow for a split second. I can correct just fine. I like Notes Plus better now.

Anonymous said...

Great review and very informative. I am new to the iPad world and i am trying to decide on a note taking app for work.

I've looked at upad, note taker HD and notes plus. I just don't know which is the better app. Seems like each of them have pro's and con's.

Have you used the other 2 apps? if so where are they lacking? (asides from the lack of a browser).

Many thanks and look forward to hearing from you!

Justin said...

@Anonymous - I have tried both of those apps, and I ended up deciding to go with Notes Plus for several reasons. I felt that both UPAD and Note Taker HD were lacking in the quality and functionality of their close-up boxes. Granted, it has been a while since I tried them out, but I doubt that the functionality that made me decide against them has changed because they worked just fine, doing what they were programmed to do, but they just didn't do as good of a job as Notes Plus at being intuitively easy, allowing you to focus on writing instead of fiddling with things like advancing a closeup box. While UPAD does a much better job than Note Taker HD, I don't like how you HAVE to reach the right side of the closeup box before the box will advance. Sometimes, I like to have the advance go before I finish the whole width of the close up box. The mirroring feature of Notes Plus allows me to do this smoothly and intuitively. Note Taker HD does not even have an auto-advance feature for its closeup box; you have to manually click an arrow every time you want to advance e box, causing an interruption in your writing every 3-4 words, not cool.

I love the way Notes Plus allows you to select text and objects without switching from the pen tool. It has algorithms (which can be turned off if you don't like them, just like almost every other feature of the app) that detect when you are trying to circle something. Then, you just drag the thing you selected wherever you want it to go. I don't thing UPAD even allows you to move your writing after you have written it, and come on - that is one of the biggest advantages about digital notetaking. While you can select things with Note Taker HD, it is horribly awkward, forcing you to draw a rectangle about the thing you wish to select, oftentimes forcing you to select nearby things. Sometimes my writing is really close together, or things will overlap in such a way that this just didn't work well for me. Notes Plus' method was just much better.

The support of Notes Plus is also great. They listened to all of my suggestions, and even implemented some of them in the newest versions. They have since given me a soot on their Beta testing team, and now I can have an even greater impact on development. Just yesterday, I suggested that they include the option to duplicate something immediately after selecting it. Currently, the only options to copy it to a clipboard, which can en be accessed from a menu for pasting. They plan on including that feature within the next couple of updates! They listen well to any and all suggestions.

Aside from that, I like the UI of Notes Plus the best, and it is only going to get better. The main developer, Viet Tran, is currently working on a brand new UI to implement a lot of suggestions that we beta testers suggested. Hopefully that will be out soon, but in the meantime the app is incredible. I have done all of my notetaking knit for classes over the past three semesters, and I have yet to have an issue with stability. I know that some people reported instability with older versions, but Viet has completely rewritten the app from the ground up since then, and I have never lost a word of writing. It is definitely an app that you can trust, and with the new exporting features allowing you to save individual pages and notebooks directly to Dropbox, it is easier to use than ever before.

Hopefully that helped! Enjoy!

Anonymous said...

Hi Justin,
thank you very much... your input was the deciding factor in purchasing the app... playing around with it now.

mind if i hit you up if i have any further questions?

Many Thanks,


Justin said...

No problem at all! Glad you found it helpful, and hopefully you enjoy the app. Feel free to contact me any time using the Contact Me tab at the top of my blog. The messages go straight to my phone, and I make it a point to respond within an hour, - even if it's just to let you know that I don't have time write back immediately, but will be able toget to it later. Have a good one!

Anonymous said...

Can you create a task list or "to do" list in Notes Plus? One that you can check off things as you complete them and it creates a current list each day for you?

Thanks for your wonderful review.

Justin said...

You're welcome! Unfortunately, I do not believe that functionality is or will be a part of notes plus. It is really intended for if you want to write a large amount of notes, more in a class or business situation. As far as a productivity app that can help you with your list-making needs, I would recommend 2Do Lite. It is free, and has all the functionality that I have ever needed. It allows you to enter a ton of tasks and their due dates, along with notes and other information about the task, like where you need to go to complete the task. Then, it organizes all of your tasks by date so that you can easily see what you need to get done today. When you check off a task, it does a nifty little animation of a pencil crossing off the task. That is what I would recommend. Hope you find it useful!

Anonymous said...

Hey Justin,
I was looking for a good stylus... I was going to try adonit jot but their site indicates that If you have ghost armour screen protection jot does not work well. that's what I have on all my devices.

Is there any other fine tipped stylus out there that you would suggest? I'm thinking I'm probably going to keep running into this problem with my ghost armor screen protection. I have one of those macally stylus temporarily.. It seems like the screen doesn't always respond quickly to it.



Justin said...

@Beau - unfortunately, I don't know of any other precision-style styli similar to the jot. My favorite of the rubber-tipped styli is the Styra by Boxwave, but there isn't a whole lot of difference between the rubber tip on that and other models. Sorry I can't be of more help!

Anna Lam said...

Thanks for the review. For a while I used a combination of Notes Plus and traditional pen and paper for note taking - I wasn't quite sure about which would serve the purpose better. But nowadays I use a notebook to "sketch out" my latest programming experiments. I find that it's a lot more simple (for lack of a better phrase).

Justin said...

@Anna Lam - you're welcome! As the developer says on his web page, digital notetaking is not for everyone. The app is designed for people who take a lot of nots on a daily basis, so it won't suit everyone's needs equally well. Regardless, I am glad the review was helpful to you and that you found a solution that works for your needs.

Anonymous said...

Hey! This review was definitely helpful! I've been trying to figure out exactly what I want to purchase in the way of technology for med school next year and have been looking at the iPad. This review, along with a few other things I've found, are really convincing me iPad is a good way to go, even if I'm a hardcore PC user. Anywho, most, if not all, of my lectures are going to be powerpoint based next year, so I'm looking for an app with really good PDF import/annotate features, which you didn't mention much about in the review. I'm just wondering if you've used it much in Notes Plus and what you think of it. Can I add in pages of handwritten notes between the lecture slides? Is it easy to make notes and doodles around powerpoint type text/slides? Any input would be much appreciated!!

Justin said...

@Anonymous - Thanks, and I am glad you found it helpful so far. And you're right! I hardly wrote at all about the PDF annotation feature! I can't believe this, and you've convinced me that I need to write a post about using the iPad for med school. I took all my notes for all my lectures over the past four semesters on my iPad using Notes Plus. My recent professors gave us the PowerPoints for each lecture beforehand, so I converted them to PDF and annotated them in NP. It works like a dream; all I had to do was put all the PDFs in a folder in Dropbox, and then from the free Dropbox app on the iPad, I could simply use the "Open in..." feature to open the PDF in NP. You can also open PDFs in NP directly from your email or from a web browser. This is how I plan on taking my notes throughout med school, as MSU CHM provides all students with a course pack of all the PDFs and PowerPoint files given in their lectures.

To answer your questions, it is incredibly easy to annotate PDFs in Notes Plus, and the export options are awesome - email, dropbox, wireless printing from within the app, and more. Also yes, you can insert new pages between the imported PDF pages very easily. Hopefully that helps, and let me know if you have any more questions!

Anonymous said...

Greetings Justin,

This is Philippe From the Notes Plus blog. ;-)
Congrats on your move from "per-med" to "med student"! Your review is still one of the best ones on the web. I like how you apply your real world needs.
I wanted to let you know that the NP version 3.0.5, just submitted to the App store, has some new features you might like. Hope Apple approves it soon.
• The "Recording" icon now has hh:ss (per one of your rsuggestions)
• There is a new Extended (text) Keyboard that provides quick access to:
Tab, (bullet "•” and "-" chars), Date & Time, cursor keys, Undo and Delete right.
You previously requested date and time stamps so this might fulfill some of your needs?
• I'm still researching better ways to convert audio .CAF files to MP3 files, especially on a PC. No complete solution, yet.

Good luck on your journey to becoming a Doctor.

Philip ( who can't get enough posting on NP blog?!? ;-) )

Anonymous said...


Can notes plus search your handwritten notes without the need to have first converted them to text?

If yes, can you run the one search across all your notebooks, or can you only search from within a given notebook? These subtle differences make a huge difference in usability!!

Justin said...

@Anon - No, NP cannot search your notes without first converting them to text. Sorry :(

Vince said...

Love this app but how do I get the in app purchase of HRW? I must be a little slow. Thanks

Anonymous said...

How do you edit your notes after converted to text?
And how do you copy your text to paste into an email? I select copy but then i can't paste on an email.
These are the things that are frustrating me and disallowing me to use this as a legal-pad replacement at work.
In addition to random mishaps while writing which i don't know if are due to the jot pro's round disc, or the app.
And there are no bullets features that i can find.
I've even purchased 7notes, but that's worse.
If you could help, i'd greatly appreciate it!!!!!

Justin said...

@Anonymous - while I would love to take the time to answer your questions, at the moment I have a huge Anatomy exam on the Abdomen that I've got to be studying for, so I'm afraid I'm going to have to refer you to the support website:

I know they check and answer questions promptly, so hopefully they'll be able to help you out!

Steve Simos said...

You're article is great. I just purchased Notes Plus and I have a question I can't seem to find the answer for and was wondering if you might know. Once I convert my handwriting to text, how do I edit that text?


Justin said...


Be sure that the two-finger tap for text option is turned on in the settings. Then, tap with two fingers on the text box that you want to edit. It should automatically allow you to edit the text. At least, that is how it works for me. Let me know if this doesn't work by using the Contact Me tab at the top of my page, and I will put you in direct contact with support personnel at Notes Plus if I cannot figure out an answer. Thanks for reading,


gusbilly said...

Can you write on powerpoint slides with it. I am also in medical school and would like something I could write on to PDF and powerpoint slides.
Thank you

Justin said...

@gusbilly - No, you would have to convert the powerpoint to a PDF before you would be able to write on it with Notes Plus. Sorry about that :(

Duyen Truong said...

Hi Justin,

I have got an Ipad 2 and I am not very techno minded. I am still a bit confuse and would like to clarify with you that Notes Plus would be the best app for me to type down notes on my Ipad and draw in one page. I also need the apps to allow me to save it on dropbox with all the amendment that I made. I also should see these amendment on my Samsung Galaxy S4 phone and Mac book pro.

Justin said...

Hi Duyen,

Though Notes Plus just went through a major overhaul (Version 4.0) in the last week, I DO know that it is capable of exporting to Dropbox. If you have the Dropbox apps installed on your phone and computer, you will be able to instantly see any PDF document exported from your iPad to Dropbox. Hopefully that helps!


Anonymous said...

Justin I understand it has been awhile since you wrote this article, but considering it has probably been upgraded since you wrote the article, do you think it is worth using to record the lecture still while you take notes or are you using a different app. to accomplish recording?

Justin said...

You're right, it has definitely been a while since I wrote this. I never actually used it to record the lecture while I wrote, mostly because my school recorded the lectures for us and I could always just go back and review that if I needed to. I'd say you could give it a try and see how it goes. I don't know how much space long recordings would take up on your iPad. Over a semester, I could see that being an issue with a full-time schedule. Sorry I can't give you a better answer than that :/

Anonymous said...

I appreciate the answer! I'll look into it and if you're interested I'll be back to let you know in December!

Anonymous said...

Sorry for the stacked comments, but also, you can import your slides from pdf like you can in goodnotes correct?

Justin said...

Yes, you can definitely import PDF files into Notes Plus. You can also export selected page ranges from an imported PDF as a new PDF document.

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