4 iPad apps for hand-writing and idea-sketching

Soon after Computerworld posted my feature article on 8 useful apps for reading and writing on the iPad, a reader e-mailed me asking me about apps for taking notes by hand and sketching out ideas.

It was a great question -- and one that never occurred to me as I was writing the article. I'm a writer, I think in words, not pictures, and so I wrote an article about tools for writing using the keyboard. But many people think visually, they can't come up with an idea unless they can make a picture of it first and write notes by hand. The iPad has great tools for visual thinkers too:

Adobe Ideas 1.0 for iPad This free app lets you make sketches on a huge virtual canvas, zooming in and out and expanding and contracting the size of individual elements. You can import images from your iPad photo gallery, and use variable-size brushes and colors. Ideas supports layers to handle different parts of an image separately. When you're done, you can export your sketches as PDF files, and import them to Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop for further work. It's a terrific drawing tool, very simple but powerful, and even more remarkable for being free.

Penultimate ($1.99, Cocoa Box Design) lets you write notes by hand or make sketches in multiple colors on a variety of different paper-like backgrounds. You can separate groups of notes together into different notebooks, share pages of notebooks with other people, or whole notebooks as PDFs. Penultimate has a handy-dandy algorithm for recognizing when you rest your hand on the glass, and not leaving a mark when you do that.

Penultimate iPad app

Penultimate

Note Taker HD ($4.99, Software Garden) is a handwriting notebook app with a twist: You write in great big letters on the screen, and the software automatically shrinks down the letters and lines them up into words and sentences. Pages can be organized by tags, time modified, favorites, and more. The developer is Dan Bricklin, who, 30 years ago, developed VisiCalc, the very first spreadsheet application for the personal computer. VisiCalc was an important driver in changing the PC from a hobbyist toy to a business tool, making Bricklin a pioneer as important to the industry as Bill Gates or Steve Jobs.

Use Your Handwriting Gold ($0.99, Gee Whiz Stuff) is a tool for handwriting notes with calligraphic pens and organizing them into lists. My friends at the Literature and Latte writing forums think highly of it (they like Dan Bricklin's Note Taker too).

With all of these programs, you can draw with your finger, or use a stylus. The iPad requires a specialized kind of stylus, one that reproduces the electrical qualities of your finger; the Pogo Sketch stylus is priced at $14.95. Or you can make your own, using your favorite pen, some conductive foam (used in electronics), and a few inches of wire. Or just use a pen, some metal foil, and Scotch tape.

Like I said, I do all my creating and thinking by putting words in a row. But these apps and styluses look like so much fun they make me want to buy them and use them. This is going to be like when Moleskine notebooks were popular a few years ago; those notebooks are so beautiful that I bought a few, used one or two of them, and the rest are still sitting in a pile on my desk, blank and pristine and unused, while I continue to bang away here at my battered, tea-stained keyboard.

Mitch Wagner

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is a freelance technology journalist and social media strategist.

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