Apple Pencil Note-Taking: Why You Should Use Apple Notes, actually.

I'm a bit of a digital ink snob. I've been writing actively with digital ink for over 10 years, and there's a lot of things that most developers get wrong when developing note-taking apps. There's a plethora of them available for the iPad Pro & Pencil — only two of which I find to have acceptable inking implementations.

The iPad inking world

The first inking application we'll review is very popular, and is the typical choice for digital ink snobs (such as myself): Notability. It costs $10.

Notability has excellent, responsive, and fast, and (very) pressure-sensitive inking. It allows you to categorize your notes into a single bucket of folders (this isn't the most polished experience), is vector–based (infinite zoom) and features an infinite canvas. It is great for drawing sketches or doodles as well as simply writing down text. Notability's pressure-sensitivity is highly adjustable and configurable, but by default, the pressure gradient goes from minute thickness to tremendous thickness. This is considered to be a feature, to many, as you don't have to dive into a menu to have a totally different thickness in your pen — you just press harder (or much lighter) than usual. In addition, it also offers a Mac app that uses iCloud syncing to seamlessly view (and potentially edit) your notes on your Mac. 

Another app that is less well-known, but extremely well made is Note Always. Note Always features a great non-variable thickness (aside from velocity) pen,  with a vast number of colors to chose from, as well as a small assortment of pre-determined thickness. This app is not pressure sensitive, which I find to be surprisingly enjoyable, when writing. This "feature" allows your text to look much more uniform as you write, and can make your handwriting appear to be slightly better than it truly is. 

My favorite feature of Note Always, which I have yet to see anywhere else, is the ability to map your finger to stroke selection or erasion. This is extremely nifty, as it allows you to simply run your finger over a section of notes and move it anywhere you please (or change it's color, etc). This is the reason I love this app, and have been using it for a long time — both to plan, design, get things done, and simply explore the contents of my own mind. 

There are two categories that you can file any note-taking app in the App Store into:

  1. Text-first design. Apps like Bear and Evernote fall into this category. They typically focus on organization as a feature. 
  2. Ink-first design. Apps like Goodnotes, Notability, Notebook+, Neebo, Note Always, etc fall into this category. They typically have categorization as a secondary consideration, and text is just something they slap in there, if they do it at all. They then focus their development efforts on inking technology and workflow optimizations — in which they are typically (which some notable exceptions) lagging behind in. 

Apple Notes

Apple Notes is the only app that falls into both of these categories (text-first design, ink-first design) without making any compromises. OneNote also fits into both categories, but text suffers a bit in that application, unfortunately. You wouldn't want to use it without the inking features, as the movable text boxes surround everything you write. 

Apple Notes is one of those apps where I tried it for 5 minutes, for inking (I've been using it casually for text notes for years), and immediately dismissed it. It lacked all the things I was used to in my third-party applications: there's no ability to adjust the thickness of the pen, for example. The pencil, while novel, seemed… weird. It just seemed like Apple threw together this app haphazardly and was like "yay look here's an Apple Pencil demo for y'all!". Upon futher examination and exploration, however, I now find the opposite to be true. 

Apple Notes is hands-down the most well–designed, thought–through note taking app available for the iPad Pro. It is exceptionally well designed, and if you leave your preconceptions about what a note–taking app should do, I think you'll find yourself agreeing with me, once you give it a real try/chance. 

Allow me to present my case:

  1. Un–obvious superior inking. As I mentioned before, there are only two apps on the App Store which I consider to have acceptable inking performance: Notability and Note Always. OneNote gets an honorable mention, but it really fits in with another category of application. All others have inferior inking available, or they significantly lack in other areas (e.g. workflow, note organization, etc) — enough to dismiss them as viable options entirely.

    P.S. I've literally purchased every single note-taking app on the App Store, and have given them all a non-dismissive amount of time to show their colors. Most are truly total junk. Design matters. And I don't mean visual design — I mean UX design, thoughtfulness, pen responsiveness, etc — the truest form of engineering.

    The inking available in Apple Notes, while very unconventional, is actually hands-down the most well-engineered inking system I've ever encountered.

    You can't change the size of the pen. There is one pen. It is a pen.

    Not only is it a pen, that presents itself as having static thickness, but it is a modal pen (capable of smooth thickness gradients) that is both pressure sensitive, and also helps assist your handwriting by being of uniform thickness at the same time. I can tell you that a significant amount of engineering and thoughtfulness went into this pen — far more than any other app available. And, if you really use it as it's designed, you'll be blown away. It's the best pen I've ever used. I wish I had one in real life. But, I do — I have Apple Notes. Digital is real life, today.

    One design consideration they engineered is quite un–obvious to most users, but doesn't go unnoticed to people who have been digitally inking for 10 years. If you start a stroke with medium pressure, a medium line is drawn. Then, if you finish the stroke with firm pressure, Apple Notes knows that you intended for the entire stroke to be of the firm pressure's bold thickness, and it goes back and changes the rest of the stroke to match. This feature is very intelligent too — if you're drawing, for example, you'll present a lot of pressure gradients to Apple Notes, and it will still render them as expected. They're doing some very advanced analysis here to determine whether or not to back-fill the pressure of a stroke. I'm extremely impressed.

    In addition, the pen's thickness works extremely well for writing of all sizes. I tend to write as small as humanely possible, at times, and the precision of the strokes and the clarity it renders is unmatched by all other software and hardware options available. If you write large, you'll find that the pen renders your strokes quite nicely too. It's the world's first true "universal pen".

     Notice that there's no settings for the pen — no adjustments can be made. A strong design lesson that was instilled upon me at my tenure at Heroku was "Remove levers, even if it's very expensive to do so". In Apple Notes, there are no levers. This is not a testament to laziness — in fact, it is quite the opposite. Extraordinary efforts were put forth to ensure that no configuration is needed in the first place. 

    So, if you dismissed Apple Notes because you didn't see a bunch of settings, think again.

 

  • Excellent organizational abilities. Apple Note's folder (and sub-folder) structure allows you to build a very complex (if needed) heirarchy for storing your notes. The only application that has a comparable organizational system is OneNote. 
  • (Perfect) Syncing. Instantaneous real-time syncing of all notes to all devices. First-class client available on all Apple devices. Can't complain there, in any way.
  • OS Integration. Press your Apple Pencil to your lock screen, and instantly create a new note. Who wouldn't want the app that fires up to be configurable? Apple doesn't want it to be configurable, because Apple knows that Apple Notes is simply the best tool for the job. Once there are real competitors in this space (OneNote could be argued to be one), I'd like to think that Apple would make this configurable, but it would require a significant amount of currently non–public APIs to do so. e.g. this ask is not a simple one. 
  • Precise eraser and selection tool. Other apps often have a very imprecise eraser or selection tool. Apple Note's uses the Apple Pencil for these things, and is stroke-based, so erasing just one letter in the middle of a word is trivially easy. In some apps, that's impossible. A nice bonus feature of the common selection circle is that you can simply draw a line through a line of text, and it will select that text automatically. Well done!
  • Screen orientation perfection. In some apps, there's a dichotomy between portrait and landscape mode. In Note Always, the paper you're using actually determines the orientation. There is no switching between modes, without changing your paper, and possibly losing sections of your notes. In Apple Notes, screen orientation effects only the presentation zoom level of the width of the page (which is fixed). Apple Notes lacks the conventional pitch-to-zoom feature (as does actual paper), but you can easily change between different comfortable zoom levels by changing into fullscreen–landscape, landscape, or portrait mode. Very nicely done and seemless.
  • Excellent pencil tool. At first glance, the pencil tool seems childish in nature, but in reality, it is the most advanced pencil emulation I've ever come across in a note-taking app (Sketches Pro has a better pencil emulation, but it's a drawing app, with a totally different use case (and many, many configuration options). It works very well for handwriting, as well as drawing. It's an excellent tool for embellishing your notes, and I have to admit, I've fallen in love with it. A bonus feature is that if you scrape the side of the tip of the Apple Pencil across your screen, it acts exactly like a pencil would in real life, drawing a long, soft line of graphite down. Very nice touch.
  • The marker tool is not a marker, it's a highlighter. It renders its strokes beneath any ink that has been laid down, and is clearly not a marker after all, but a highlighter. 
  • Color constraints. Apple Notes, in the default "Handwritten Note" mode, gives you an option of five (5) colors. There are no other colors. You cannot change them. This is excellent — let me tell you why. The color selection is as follows: black, blue, green, yellow, and red. The red is not the tone of red I typically invoke, and this bothered me at first, until I took a closer look at it's relation to the other available colors. It's a shade of red that both opposes the shade of blue and green available, as well as compliments the yellow shade. These colors were very carefully thought out and designed, and I'm very impressed — even the order in which they are presented in the UI is clearly carefully thought out. Let me show you what I mean:.
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These are not five random tones. These are tools for thought exploration that interweave and interact with each–other, in subtle ways. Apple Notes is a seriously well–engineered application for inking, and the best one available today

The Downsides

Of course, every tool has it's downsides, and I'll present them here, concisely.

  • No ability to change the color of selected ink. They should add this, in my opinion. If you want a line to be red, you have to draw it red. You learn to adapt to this quickly.
  • No ability to change the orientation or scale of a selection. I don't care about this, as I very rarely want to do this.

That's it. Once again, I have learned a lesson from Apple that I always tend to forget — foroget what you think you want and, with an open mind use what's provided. It's usually in your best interest.

This is why I use Mail.app for my email.

Thanks for your time, and I hope you enjoyed this deep overview of inking technologies, and the shocking conclusion that Apple Notes is superior to any app in the App Store. 


META

P.S. Here are my (sloppy to you, organized to me) notes for creating this blog post, if you're interested. Note the use of the pencil to embellish and augment the pen ink. Also the occasional use of those opposing/complimentary color tones.

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First Soundtrack Scoring!

Many months ago, I created and scored my first soundtrack for a short film — Day One by Continuity Pictures (Derek Thomas).

Copyright Derek Thomas. Soundtrack by Kenneth Reitz of Infinite State.

The process was quite fun — I never watched the film before scoring — I scored as I watched the film for the first time. This allowed for a very authentic sonic expression for the audience.

I'm very pleased with the results. I believe it's some of my best musical work to date. 

Source: https://vimeo.com/277104968

Sony RX100 Mark 5 Thoughts

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I recently did my first photoshoot (nsfw) with the Panasonic GX850, and realized that it was a little bit too entry–level for serious photography. So, I did a little bit of research and ended up picking up the fantastic Sony RX100 Mark 5, an even smaller camera. My first photoshoot (nsfw) with the Sony proved it to be a superior camera for my needs. 

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It is a "point and shoot", but it offers a level of control that I'm comfortable shooting with (Auto ISO, Aperture Priority mode), so this classification means nothing to me. It's a camera, in every way as much as the Fuijfilm X100F is. 

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I couldn't love this camera more. It's small, compact, has a reasonable lens (which I keep at 24mm most of the time), and a fantastic sensor. Its color reproduction (the aspect the Panasonic was lacking the most) is top–knotch, potentially beating out even my previous Fuijfilm X100F.

It's small enough to easily fit into my pocket, so I always have it with me. Despite reviews to the contrary, I find its battery life to be quite adequate.

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The pop–up viewfinder is my favorite feature of the camera — after shooting without a viewfinder for a while, I realized how essential this tool is for the type of work I prefer to do on the daily.

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The articulating screen is another big plus — as it allows me to view the screen while having the camera above my head, which is something I often try to do while shooting cityscape photography. It also does the opposite, of course, allowing for me to view the screen while the camera is far below my head, close to the ground. Overall, the screen on this camera is just excellent, especially for the price.  

Conclusion

Overall, I'm thrilled with this purchase, and I highly recommend this camera to anyone looking for something small and pocketable.

Shop Sony RX100M5 on Amazon.

Panasonic GX850 Review

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I recently decided to switch cameras (again). This is something I do every few years, out of boredom, mostly, and it always inspires me as a photographer.

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I usually end up switching between Leica and Fujifilm cameras, but this time is different — I decided to pick up my first Micro–Four–Thirds camera — the smallest one on the market. One that’s so small, it even lacks a viewfinder.

I opted for the Olympus 17mm f/1.8 lens, which is the closest thing to my preference of 35mm f/2.0 (on full frame).  

Size Beats All & Inspiration

For me, size is king right now. I want the smallest camera reasonably possible, as I want to carry the body with me everywhere, and every millimeter counts a lot towards the feel of the camera on your body.

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I was very happy with the superior quality and size of the Fujifilm x100F, which I highly recommend to anyone — and while this camera is absolutely a step back in terms of image quality, it holds a candle, and, most importantly, it inspires me — something that, after several years, the Fujifilm no longer was doing.

Creative inspiration is the most important quality a camera can have, and I’m finding it in this novelishly–small Panasonic camera.

Overall Impressions

The 3:4 aspect ratio is a serious downside to this sensor size. Luckily, the camera offers 2:3 cropping for JPEGs, and when importing images from JPEG+RAW mode, Lightroom CC (even on the iPad) automatically applies the crop to the RAW image. So, my GX850 is effectively a 2:3 camera, with some extra vertical pixels to play with if I ever need them.

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I’m impressed with the image quality, given the size and price of the camera. The camera pales in comparison to the Fujifilm x100F, which was to be expected, especially when it comes to things like getting white balance just right, but overall I’m quite happy with its quirks.

The dynamic range of the resulting images are “good enough” to work with, far from excessive, and is taking some getting used to, for more creative work.

The form factor is worth these tradeoffs, in my opinion. There’s also something comforting/humbling about shooting with what’s considered an “entry level” camera when you’re a professional–level shooter.

Life Without a Viewfinder

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So far, life without a viewfinder is quite okay. I was very apprehensive about this, but the portability of the camera (meaning I always have it on me), is easily worth the trade–off of not having a viewfinder. Plus, I have experience with a viewfinder–less system from the Ricoh GR, so I knew what I was getting myself into.

Shooting with a screen has a few unexpected benefits:

  • You’re less noticeable on the street.
  • People don’t consider you a professional when they do notice you, so they don’t mind you snapping a photo, and mostly ignore you.

Most importantly, the screen articulates 180 degrees upwards, for selfies or shooting 4K video of yourself. This is a very fun aspect of the camera that I don’t expect to use often, but I expect that when I need it, it’ll be considered quite useful.

Final Thoughts

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I love this camera. It’s inspiring me to shoot.

That’s something that the fantstic Fujifilm X100F was no longer doing, hence me getting rid of it. I miss it dearly already, but there’s no need to hold on to things that are no longer serving you.

I expect myself to pick up the next iteration of the X100, once it’s released. It’ll likely be time to be re–inspired then :)