My search for the best iPad handwriting tools


I’m a pretty fast typist, so generally I take notes by typing,  and I love keeping all my notes organised and searchable in Evernote.  But when I want to do some brainstorming: plan a lesson, a presentation or a project, I prefer to leave my keyboard, and sit in a favourite part of the garden, or a chair by the fireplace, and let my thoughts run while I doodle notes with a pen.   Somehow I seem to think better, pen in hand.

There is actually a body of research (see references), based on fMRI studies that suggest the physical act of handwriting does indeed help the brain to focus because unlike typing, the fine motor skills involved in handwriting activate the RAS; a small region of the brain which filters incoming information and prioritises attention.   I’m not a neuroscientist, so I can’t say whether that’s really true.  But for me, it sure feels like it.

The disadvantage of putting my thoughts on paper though, is that, well … that they end up on paper!   Unless I photograph them, I very likely won’t have them with me later when and where I need them and I’m also likely to misplace them.

So I have been looking for the perfect solution for handwriting on my iPad.  This is a status report.

1. The Best App

Not all handwriting apps on the iPad are equal.  I have tested most of them from the simple but free Bamboo Paper to the more expensive Noteshelf.  Many apps suffer from an annoying lag between when you move your stylus over the glass and when the line appears, some don’t offer any wrist protection (so that if your wrist touches the screen while writing, it leaves annoying marks), Some lack features such as export to Evernote or the ability to annotate PDFs.  In some (such as Penultimate) the ink-line is too thick. In some (such as Bamboo Paper) there is no cut and paste function.  Some, such as Pen HD ($1.99) are just a bit weird and buggy, and some have an ugly GUI.

My favourite (by a significant margin) is Noteshelf.  At $6.49 it’s more pricey than most of the others, but if you do much note-taking on your iPad, it’s worth it.  What’s so good about it?  In my comparisons, it’s better than all the other apps in every way except two: (1) Some apps allow you to import PDF files and annotate them.  I don’t need to do this often but if you do, I recommend Notability ($0.99).  (2) One app, Penultimate ($0.99) has a fabulous tool with which you can draw a freeform circle around a word or part of a drawing, and then simply drag it to another place on the page.  Noteshelf has a cut & paste function, which works OK – but it’s not nearly as useful or elegant as how Penultimate does it.

Those two features aside, Noteshelf is equal to or better than the others in every way.  The GUI is beautiful (very skeuomorphic), there are lots of pen colours, the width of the pen line can be adjusted from very very thin to very thick, and looks clean and natural.  There are lots of different paper types to choose from. It has the best wrist protection of any app I’ve tried (it’s truly excellent – and very smart). It exports pages to Evernote and Dropbox.  In addition to handwriting, you can type and even add emoji.  Finally, it has a zoom feature which lets you write neatly, even with a finger – should you find yourself stylusless. It’s hard to describe how the zoom feature works – you kind of have to see it, but it is quite clever, even automatically returning to the next line when you reach the end of one line.

I’ll keep Penultimate around for when I need that cool circle-drag-and-drop feature.  But Noteshelf is by far my preferred app, beating Penultimate in all other respects, and especially because it’s pen-line is so much more adjustable.  The finest pen-line Penultimate offers is still too thick for my liking – it feels more like writing with a Sharpie™ than a ballpoint pen. My writing looks much nicer in Noteshelf.

Written with the same stylus, actual size.

2. The Best Stylus

I recently purchased an Adonit Jot Flip stylus ($42) and an XtremeMac stylus ($20).  Comparing these two styluses,  do you get what you pay for?


Both are better than writing with a finger, but the XtremeMac stylus, which has a hollow blunt rubber end like most styluses, feels like you are writing with an eraser.  As the anaesthetised tip is dragged across the glass it feels numb and clumsy.  Not only that, but because it’s so bulbous, you can’t actually see the line at the point of origin!   The Adonit Jot Flip on the other hand is a joy to use.  It feels much more like writing with a regular ballpoint pen.  There is a transparent plastic disk at the end of a fine metal point, which lets you see the line as it forms.  More importantly because the tip is hard, you get tactile feedback when the tip makes contact with the surface.  Dotting an i results in a satisfying jolt, and an accompanying audible “tap”.  In terms of accuracy, I find that a regular stylus sometimes lacks the precision to even dot an i accurately, or to register a crossed t properly.  The legibility of the writing is not substantially better with the Adonit Jot – although I find the difference noticeable.  I can also write a bit  faster with it, because there is less drag. The most significant difference, though, is what I would describe as a feeling of “presence”.  It just feels much more natural to write with.

Though less important than function, the fit and finish of the Jot Flip is worth a mention.  It’s beautiful.  It feels more like a well-weighted, Sheaffer pen than a stylus.  The barrel is stainless steel and the pocket clip is springy (whereas the pocket clip on the XtremeMac stylus is the type that is too tight at first and then with use, becomes too loose).  Jot Flip’s integrated fine-tipped steel pen is also very thoughtfully designed.  It really is a nice piece of stationary.  It makes every other stylus I’ve tried look and feel like one of those cheap promotional pens you pick up at a conference.

Have you found another tool for iPad handwriting that you think is great?  If so please share it in the comments. 🙂

UPDATE: 22nd October 2012

Today NoteShelf was updated to version 7.  This update adds all the features that I felt were missing and more.

Most notably, you can now lasso an object or word and drag it to a new position on the page – the feature i loved in Penultimate.  A clear page button was added to the menu bar which is very convenient.  Also now, you can press and hold on any pen or highlighter tool and select a colour from a traditional Mac-like color picker (Ie. you have millions of colours to choose from).

As a result of these additions, NoteShelf is the obvious choice to make if you are looking for a handwriting app on the iPad.  Nothing else comes close now.


How Handwriting Trains the Brain.  G. Bounds 2010. Wall Street Journal Online.
Why You Learn More Effectively by Writing than Typing.  M. Pinola.  Lifehacker  Jan 21, 2011.


8 thoughts on “My search for the best iPad handwriting tools

  1. Have you tried GoodNotes? I use it for both note-taking and annotate on PDFs, the ink is smooth and clear even when zoomed.

    • Hi and thanks for your comment 🙂 I tried GoodNotes ($4.95) and I think it’s good depending on what you want to do with it. As you say it does allow PDF annotation, and the pen line is clean and thin (better than in Penultimate). I also liked the lasso tool which is very similar to the one in Penultimate that I wrote about in the post – that is a good feature (better than in Noteshelf).

      There were a few things about it though that I don’t like. Firstly unlike Penultimate and and Noteshelf it does not seem to export to Evernote (or am I just not seeing how to do that?). This is a deal-breaker for me, personally. I love the way Evernote performs OCR on the handwriting in notes I send to it from Penultimate or Noteshelf. I can search for words in the notes and it will (amazingly) find them most of the time. I can’t even find a way of emailing a note from GoodNotes – which would be a work-around as you can email a note to your Evernote account.

      Also compared to Noteshelf the wrist protection feature is very basic (you have to drag the protected zone down manually), and the zoomed writing feature is not nearly as excellent… again it’s not as automatic as in Noteshelf.

      Don’t get me wrong – it is a good app, and I can see that for some people it may be the right choice. If you needed to Mark-up PDFs AND you were not an Evernote user then it would be a good choice. But for just a couple of dollars more… I much prefer Noteshelf.

  2. I have never understood why Apple hasn’t integrated this into iOS in the way that Windows has been doing very effectively for years now.

  3. I have a quick question about Noteshelf. I don’t have an iPad but I wanted to get one to take notes on for college with the purpose of importing the notes onto a Word document; however, I do not know if Noteshelf has this feature. Above you said you can copy/paste in Noteshelf. Does that mean you could paste your notes into a Word document on your Mac?

  4. You can export a note as a PDF or JPEG – and then do whatever you want with it. If you export it as a JPEG and email it to your Mac, you would be able to then drag it from the email to a word document (or copy and paste it in). One consideration though is that if exporting as JPEG, you have to export each page individually. I prefer to export my notebooks as PDFs to Evernote – then in Evernote on my Mac I can type other notes after the fact. I’m not sure what your reason is for wanting to paste your notes into Word – I’m sure you must have a reason, but whatever the reason, I think to do that you would have to export the pages as JPEGs.

  5. Thanks for this advice! I have Penultimate and Bamboo paper, and a bulbous stylus. I found the writing thick and big, and I was getting stray wrist marks. Noteshelf and Adonit sound like the answer.

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