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Review: 3 note-taking gadgets keep you scribbling

Today's tech can add new functionality to an old-fashioned task.

By John P. Mello Jr.
June 16, 2014 06:30 AM ET

Computerworld - Old habits die hard. That's especially true for note taking.

Despite a plethora of digital gadgets -- laptops, smartphones, phablets and tablets -- pen and paper remains popular among note takers. Why? Probably because a digital equivalent hasn't been invented yet to satisfactorily mirror the experience of scribbling notes on paper.

Also, there's evidence that old-fashioned note taking has benefits missing from its digital counterpart. To begin with, writing your notes manually instead of typing them may aid memory retention (see the sidebar below). In addition, the New York Times recently cited several studies concluding that children learn better if they write by hand.

As a result, some tech companies continue to woo note takers with digital alternatives to keyboards. For example, Microsoft's recently introduced Surface Pro 3 comes with a sophisticated stylus so users can write or draw on its touch screen.

Other vendors have sought to add note-taking abilities as well. In this roundup, I've tried out three products with different approaches to combining the act of writing manually with current technology:

  • Improv Electronics thinks digital slates like its Boogie Board Sync 9.7 are the way to go for note takers.
  • Adonit believes it can make note taking more attractive on a tablet by improving the instrument used to put ink to glass, and so has come up with its Jot Script Evernote Edition stylus.
  • Livescribe tries to tie analog and digital note taking together with its Livescribe 3 Smartpen, a system that involves special paper and a high tech pen to digitize notes.

How well do any of these products work for those who want to write? After spending some time with each method, here's what I found.

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Scribbling bests typing for knowledge retention

Keyboards may allow you to capture data fast, but if you want to remember what you've captured, you should resort to good, old-fashioned scribbling.

A recent study by Pam Mueller, a graduate student at Princeton University, and Daniel Oppenheimer, an associate professor of cognitive psychology at UCLA, found that students who used laptops to type their notes didn't retain information as well as those who took handwritten notes.

The study found that "participants using laptops were more inclined to take verbatim notes than participants who wrote longhand, thus hurting learning," the researchers write in their report.

Since the laptop users took more complete notes, it seemed reasonable to assume they would have an advantage when the time came to review their notes for exams, but that turned out not to be the case.

"[W]e found the opposite," the report continues. "Even when allowed to review notes after a week's delay, participants who had taken notes with laptops performed worse on tests of both factual content and conceptual understanding, relative to participants who had taken notes longhand."

How the mind works when notes are written by hand may go some way toward explaining these results. "If you're doing something letter by letter, that's a lower level of processing than engaging with the content well enough to paraphrase it," Mueller says.

"If you're hearing the words and just putting them down on paper, you're not processing at a deep level," she adds.

But while handwritten notes have benefits, unlike digital notes, they're not easy to search or to share. That's changing, though, as digital tablets proliferate.

"We're not going to get people to write in notebooks all the time," Mueller says, "so an electronic tablet can give people the best of both worlds. They're forced to be judicious in what they write down but they'll have this electronic copy that later -- with improvements in handwriting recognition -- will be searchable."



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