Hands on with OneNote for iPad: Stylish for styluses

Hands on with OneNote for iPad: Stylish for styluses

The new update to OneNote for iPad makes it much more useful, especially for people who like writing with a stylus.

I've never really liked pens and pencils. I always had terrible handwriting, and once I got my first computer at home, I taught myself how to type. By the end of fifth grade I never wanted write anything with a pen or pencil again, because I could type fast and everyone could read what I typed. Unfortunately, there were no laptops back then and my teachers were not interested in seeing anything but good penmanship.

The advent of laptops and tablets has allowed me to take my preference for typing with me wherever I go. (As a result, my once-terrible handwriting has devolved into the scratches of a demented cave dweller.) When I mentioned my dislike of handwriting on a podcast recently, I was inundated with replies from people who write on devices--iPads, Surfaces, and other tablets--all the time.

It's not just that people love writing by hand--some do, some don't--but that many concepts can't easily be translated into letters typed on a keyboard. College students need to jot down equations and diagrams. Businesspeople need to mark up PDFs. Yes, you can take notes in purely digital ink on a tablet, but most of the people I heard from prefer to work in mixed media: They're typing notes and using a pen.

Clearly Microsoft has heard from these people, too, because the new version of OneNote for iPad--released Thursday--adds support for drawing implements, as well as OCR support for images. These are features that previously only existed on the Windows version of OneNote.

I've spent some time with the new iPad version of OneNote, and the inking features are a nice addition. OneNote is never going to be confused with an app like FiftyThree's Paper, but it doesn't need to be.

OneNote's Draw tab on  iPad

Microsoft has added a Draw tab to OneNote, beneath which you'll find options for three different virtual pen types (fine point, marker, and highlighter) as well as an eraser and a toggle to turn off drawing support and enter "Text Mode." Four color options are displayed in this view, so you can quickly touch your pen to one of the color swatches and begin inking in that color. There's also a pie-wedge swatch, reminiscent of nothing more than a Trivial Pursuit game piece, that will pop up a larger 16-color palette. A Thickness drop-down lets you choose from five different gradations of pen thickness.

Then there's the Palm Rejection item, which lets you tell OneNote how you hold a pen so that it can make some guesses about when you're touching the screen with your hand versus your stylus. One of the problems with most touchscreens is that they can be easily confused when you touch your hand to the screen as a part of your normal writing motion.

The iPad, which has a less advanced digitizer than you'll find in graphics tablets and the Microsoft Surface, is problematic when it comes to palm rejection. Microsoft has built in its own palm-rejection algorithm to OneNote. I found that it worked some of the time, and failed some of the time. Maybe it's my terrible way of holding a pen, but I ended up drawing a lot with the side of my hand, by accident. When I was more diligent in keeping my hand off of the screen, it worked quite well.

OneNote's features aren't just for drawing equations or--let's face it--doodles in the margins of your notes. You've been able to insert images into OneNote for ages, but that feature is much more useful with the addition of inking and OCR. Now you can take pictures of documents and OneNote will index all the text on them (via an in-the-cloud Optical Character Recognition engine) so that they're searchable later.

OneNote's OCR feature lets you find text in photographed documents.

And with the inking features, you can mark those documents up to your heart's content. Even a pen-averse guy like me can take pleasure in using a digital highlighter pen to mark up a handout so that it's always searchable and accessible in my library, rather than lost in a stack of papers on my desk.

And of course, OneNote files aren't just useful when they're on a tablet. They're accessible via a browser in OneNote Online, in OneNote for Windows, and OneNote for Mac. (OneNote for Mac was updated earlier this week to also support the OCR features added to the iPad app, so Apple-oriented OneNote users are doubly happy this week.)

In the notetaking space, Evernote is probably still the king of the hill. But with each incremental update to OneNote, Microsoft gets closer. The additions of ink and OCR make OneNote for iPad a much more compelling app, worth the attention of every iPad user.

TAGS: Office 365
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