One peculiar aspect of the iPad is how many apps attempt to replicate the appearance and feeling of using a paper notepad or diary, as if this were a gold standard. The built in calendar looks like a paper one; the Notes app uses handwriting fonts; there are many examples, but the subject of this post, NoteShelf, is certainly pretty explicit about it.1
There are quite a few drawing and notebook apps around for the iPad which allow you to draw directly on the screen with finger or – more usefully – stylus. Obviously I haven’t tried them all: I don’t get review copies and I’m not made of money. Brushes is one I use, as well as Omnigraffle, but those have different purposes – Brushes is for artwork and Omnigraffle is for diagramming. (Omnigraffle is very good by the way, but for the iPad enormously expensive, and not as useful if you don’t have the accompanying desktop app.)
What is it?
If one were going to make a physical comparison, NoteShelf is a pack of (erasable) coloured felt-tips of different sizes and an endless supply of cheap notebooks, as well as lots of stickers to put in them. Launch it and you have a Shelf of Notebooks, or initially, just one special one, which is the help and tutorial. Add a notebook with the + icon and touch it, and it opens up to give you a page defined by the type of paper you selected, which can be plain, lined or squared in either narrow or wide rule, or one of a few special-purpose pages like to-do lists. (It would be convenient for users to be able to add templates here.)
It is explicitly designed to replicate the feeling of using gel or felt tips on paper, with a sensitivity to the speed of the touch movement which produces thinner lines on fast strokes and slightly blobbing at the start and end of them. This is very comfortable, but does result in a slight lag that does contribute it to being a little hard to write legibly with. Having said that, I’m used to writing with posh pens on posh paper
Get a stylus
At this point I have to say you need a stylus to use this. There’s no point in using your finger if you want to do anything but sketch really big and clumsy pictures. With Brushes, you can zoom in on areas to do detailed work with your fingers; Omnigraffle’s tools have dragging and auto-alignment and can be edited after the fact. None of those apply here. I have a BoxWave Capacitative iPad Stylus which works well, though it has a big fat tip which obscures what you are actually writing – all styluses for iDevices seem to have this flaw, and I would love to see one which had a thin, precise point to it. There are other styluses around, I’m sure many other good ones, but if I were you I’d not get any cheap ones. Why risk scratching your iPad’s glass to save a relatively tiny amount of money?
Using the app
As well as drawing on the pages of your notebook, you can erase what you draw with three different sizes of eraser, and it has a full undo/redo system in case you entirely mess up a word, which I did regularly. There are an array of colours for your pen, which pop out cutely in a wooden drawer when you touch the pen icon at the top, and you can change the width of the pen as well, from 1 to 21. You can also add icons. Touching the icon icon gives you a quick list of your most recently used ones, and selecting “more” gives you the full set – these are the “emoji” characters present on iDevices on the Japanese international keyboard. Much like putting stickers in a paper notebook, these brighten things up, if you share a certain childlike attitude with me.
Icons top right let you jump to pages, move them around and delete them. You can also change the type of paper, though don’t do this without saving changes to your page by either moving to a new one or leaving and entering the notebook, again, or it will wipe what you’ve done.
To allow you to rest your hand on the screen without making unwanted marks, there is a “wrist protection” mode, which stops the screen from responding below a small marker on the right hand side of the page, which moves downwards as you write in a fairly intelligent fashion. With this mode on, you have to move a slider deliberately to change pages; otherwise, move backwards and forwards by tapping on left or right sides of the page footer.
This is one of the few apps that I know which are better when used in portrait orientation. In landscape, you have to scroll up and down to see the full page. It’s perfectly practical but portrait is more natural.
Export and import
You can export pages, a selection or en masse, in either PNG format (one file per page) or as a PDF document. As well as emailing them, you can get them via iTunes, or send them straight to Dropbox or Evernote. I used the Dropbox export to get the above pages in the gallery. The app creates a directory called “NoteShelf” in your Dropbox folder and puts either a PDF with the name of the notebook you are exporting, or a directory with its name and individual PNG files, into this NoteShelf directory. Quick and convenient.
You can import images from the photo library on your iPad – pick an image, then pinch and turn to resize and rotate, then slap it onto the page. This is fun but note that it’s not that precise, and the notebook pages are relatively low-resolution, so the final images will not be all that readable. Still, it fits in well with the “jotting” air of the whole app.
Why would I use this?
This isn’t a sophisticated document production app, but what it does excel at is letting you scribble down notes and diagrams that you would otherwise put onto bits of paper and lose. I jotted down some thoughts on pros and cons vs text-based apps and paper for this purpose, but since I bought it, I have used NoteShelf several times for things that I would otherwise have put on paper and had to scan. If you get a sudden idea for a wireframe, or want to do a rough mindmap, or draw some directions, or jot down meeting notes – this should be excellent for meeting notes, and I will be trying it next time I am in a meeting – or just doodle with coloured pens and stickers in bed without falling asleep and making a mess of your sheets, you can use this in the knowledge that you can easily back up and export the results without needing to mess about with a scanner. I won’t be throwing away any notebooks, but it will let me use them for specific purposes without wasting paper on random scribbles.
There are good reasons why one might want to emulate the paper experience on an iPad to a degree, by the way. For a start it is familiar and will let users quickly find the features they want to use. I am a great fan of Circus Ponies Notebook, which is basically a free form database and outliner that happens to use “paper notebook” as a UI metaphor. ↩