The app I tried
Some of you may remember the blog “The app I need” where I discussed the features that I would like in an electronic notebook that would replace the traditional approach that I have used to date. Recently I decided that technology had progressed sufficiently to evaluate an approach.
When my Microsoft Surface started showing its age I decided to upgrade to a 12” Apple iPad Pro along with an Apple Pencil since this seemed to be a suitable size and despite Steve Job’s misgivings on electronic pencils I thought a stylus would match my input requirements. I initially evaluated Microsoft “One Note” and I thought it looked promising especially since I could also run it on my PC and it was free, but a recommendation from a chum (yes, that chum) directed me to the app called “Notes Plus”. I committed to work on one project using this approach.
There is much to recommend Notes Plus. It interfaces flawlessly to the Apple Pencil and truth be told, I preferred the Pencil to a real pen or pencil when writing in the notebook. It will also convert handwriting to text with a very credible success rate. Hand entry of lines and shapes give the option to upgrade the shape to geometrically perfect shapes like straight lines and circles. Of course you can enter text, although I found the manual scrolling of the screen (a drag movement on the left of the screen whilst writing) difficult to master. The app interfaced perfectly with the iClever Bluetooth keyboard.
Notes Plus had the ability to independently introduce shapes that can very simply be used to produce a flow chart, although the diamond decision rhombus must be tweaked from a rectangle - it would be nice if that was in there by default. Also a compound arrow (the kind with an elbow kink) must be made up of 2 symbols. Another shape (perhaps it is a more complex concept than a shape) that I found missing (and was in One Note) was a basic table template. You can freehand it, of course and use the auto-straighten of the lines, but still…
Another features that I liked, although unused, was the ability to record audio which I thought would be good for meeting minutes. One of the concerns of any notebook is that it is dated and immutable when used to defend a patent and some other legal challenge. I am not certain that Notes Plus does this well. You can place dates, but it must be user initiated and you can turn the page into read-only, but of course that is reversible.
As you would expect it is straightforward to import photos and other pictures and I thought it was a great feature since the iPad camera has a setting to allow thermal images to be captured. Of course, the thermal images are uncalibrated, however early indications of thermal problems can help in the design process. I presume it will work with external thermal cameras that are available for the iPad.
A Notes Plus file can only be printed directly via Air Print, but can be backed up to a pdf file and easily manipulated from there. Which segues into importing pdf files into Notes Plus. I have some issues with that. Importing the pdf file is not a smooth process - it actually defaults to importing it as a new file, you have to actively persuade it to place it into your current document. It is brought in as new pages to the file with no sizing - in my paper world I am used to pasting these images onto a current page so I found this disconcerting. Whilst you can “write” all over these imported pages, you cannot read or search them. It is exactly like paper in this regard, but it would have been nice, or maybe I am overthinking that. In order to import an Excel (or Word) table, you first have to convert it to pdf and then import it with the same inefficiencies as described above. It may be possible to cut and paste from Office 365, but since I opted not to get this software suite for the iPad I cannot pass comment.
I also found that scrolling back or forward a few pages less convenient that flipping through pages, and I did have some finger trouble with the on-screen extended keyboard.
As a result of my original blog, I was approached by an organization GradientOne who are creating a universal interface for oscilloscopes, spectrum analyzers, frequency generators etc. with the settings, data captures and reports stored on the cloud. The reports that they produce can be in pdf format and imported into Notes Plus. It is an interesting approach, but slightly off-topic as far as this blog is concerned. It would be deserving of an in-depth blog at some other time.
In the end I felt that the Notes Plus approach came close to my wishes, but still no cigar. But it was more the hardware than the software. I have to fault the Apple designers - the pencil is a cylinder and they never provided anywhere to put it. It rolls away and onto the floor. How hard would it be to have put a flat face on it or a clip? I also have a Logitech iPad cover - couldn’t they have put a holder on that. I will be the first to admit I am a messy guy and my solution to having to search for a pen is to flood the area with pens that I get as freebies at shows. Unfortunately at $100 for the Apple Pencil this approach doesn’t work. Notes Plus does allow you to enter you writing/drawing through a finger touch (which is what the esteemed Mr Jobs wanted), but the results are awful (I blame me). I see Belkin has a stand for the pencil now, but at $30 somebody is making a killing. Another bugbear - the cap at the end of the pencil that protects the connector is also free to roam. And if you don’t think that is an issue, I challenge you to visit any Apple store and find just one pencil on display that has the cap! A couple of months ago in “Monkeys everywhere” I mentioned I would pass an opinion on the Apple Pencil. This was it.
In addition to the Pencil the auto power shutdown of the iPad was annoying. Every time you put it down to make a measurement or something you have to turn it back on again with a thumbprint or 6 digit code. Yes I know you can extend the shutoff time, but there is that tradeoff between battery life and convenience. An additional point is that the Pencil connects via Bluetooth and hence places an additional drain on battery life. Despite the weight figures quoted for the iPad, I found it quite heavy when especially dragging it around in my (already weighty Samsonite) briefcase, which brings me to the biggest influence on my decision - the iPad is my personal property and dragging to and from work every day trying to improve my workflow with no incentive from the boss left me somewhat unmotivated.
The thought does occur to me to try the Surface 4 since it does have a pen holder and of course compatibility with all the usual PC apps like Word and Excel. Of course I would be trying it out together with Microsoft One Note. But I do need a sponsor - any volunteers?