The ultimate note taking app smackdown, a new beginning! -
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The ultimate note taking app smackdown, a new beginning!

The detailed reviews are done! It is finally time to sit down and pull all of the data together into one master post. I struggled with whether this post was even necessary until I read this post about mind mapping applications for the iPad. I was not going to write this overview post until I found some real value in the way Hans’ post was laid out. In fact, I found his detail enormously refreshing and sorely lacking in most app reviews that rise to the top of Google. So with Hans as inspiration here is my note taking app round up!

I originally posted here that I wanted to simply compare NotetakerHD, Writepad and a yet to be mentioned third app. In fact I created a little query out on the GTD group about which app should be my third and I received responses for the expected Penultimate as well as one app I had not heard of called UPAD. Being a bit cheap (unlike Hans who purchased all the apps he chose to review) I simply downloaded the Lite version as it appeared to have all the major functionality and therefore enough bells and whistles to complete a viable review.

The testing process was definitely not scientific but I believe I gave each application enough of a stress test to warrant my conclusions. In summary I tested all the apps at a conference where I needed to take lots of notes across about 10 different 60 and 90 minute sessions. The idea was to use a different app on each of the three days that I was there which I felt would yield enough data. I ended up changing things a bit by using Evernote with the iPad keyboard during one session and then attempting to use Penultimate during another session only to quickly abandon the effort for the much more usable UPAD. What follows is a summary taken from each of my detailed reviews as well as some parting thoughts on each and a link to the app on the App Store.

NotetakerHD: $4.99

First Impressions at the conference
1. Writing is very smooth and natural
2. Screen layout is clean and non-distracting
3. Open-In to Evernote worked well, but the note name in Evernote is not in anyway related to the page name in NotetakerHD, wish I did not have to name the note twice

1. Still amazingly powerful tool focused on hardcore note taking
2. Documents can now organized in folders…much easier easier to organize lots of notes
3. Still easy to insert pictures into a note page, the pictures are appropriately sized to the page and very easy to manipulate
4. A lot easier to name documents, in the older version you had to click on settings and then navigate between two screens, now the user just has to click on the file name
5. Much quicker and more intuitive access to manipulate the file, I.e. export options, stapling, deleting, etc.; whereas before the user had to press and hold on the filename to be presented with the options
6. Easier to staple documents together right from the navigation screen

1. Complicated to learn for the casual user, even for the experienced user moving to the new version; read the release notes and the documentation!
2. V6 update takes some getting used to with a slightly different look and feel
3. Lots and lots of buttons! See con #1!


After having worked with UPAD, Writepad and Penultimate NT is still my go to note taking application. The interface is pleasing to the eye, the writing is smooth, the functionality is vast and NT simply works consistently.

My detailed review is here.

WritePad: $9.99

First Impressions at the conference
1. Very distracting to watch the recognition while taking notes, distracts from the presentation
2. After almost 2 hours of pre-training I still found it hard to keep up with the speakers
3. Even with improving recognition, it still was not good enough to cut errors
4. Sync with Evernote worked great and provided a nice text document that could be easily filed and shared
5. Consider mode where you simply view your writing and then review the recognition later like VR systems in radiology; editing later is not a big deal especially if this helps improve recognition

1. I love having my notes transcribed, better than my terrible handwriting
2. Excellent sync options, although you can either sync to Evernote OR sync to Dropbox; not both at the same time
3. The are lots of options for customization, it would take a 2000 word review to cover all the options this app provides

1. A real long learning curve! I literally practiced for an hour along with reading the release notes and the documentation before attempting to use the app to take notes during a conference
2. The process to correct words with the alternatives window is difficult and requires several clicks. Editing may be best left for another application like Evernote
3. Takes a real skill with your fingers and your stylus to be efficient with this app. I found that it took a combination of writing smoothly and navigating with my fingers to get the words down
4. The recognition and the function layout is just not efficient enough to take lots of notes in meetings, classes or any other function requiring a lot of writing.

Overall I love the concept of this app. Working in radiology I am utterly convinced about the benefits of computer recognition applications, specifically voice recognition. However for the office worker the concept of hand-writing recognition makes sense as well. The problem in Writepad’s case is that it just does not work well enough to allow the note taker to be efficient. The whole experience reminded me of a failed voice recognition project I managed about 10 years ago. I oversaw an upgrade that was supposed to make the application more efficient for the Radiologists so that they would not be wasting so much time editing their own dictations. Well, I also got to oversee the de-install of the application; the upgrade did not improve the experience for the radiologists! Even now with our newly installed voice recognition application we have dedicated transcriptionists that validate that the recognition is working correctly for each individual radiologist! So, until hardware gets faster and the software gets better I feel that handwriting recognition may take some time before it is truly efficient enough for the professional.

My detailed review is here.

UPAD Lite: free!

First Impressions at the conference
1. Nice writing feel
2. Nice screen layout
3. New pages are added to the front of a notebook, not behind, kind of annoying
4. Like the different ways to set the background
5. A lot of functionality for a free app….honestly
6. Note page layout very similar to Penultimate
7. Export functionality is neat, easy to choose which pages to export

1. Nice writing feel
2. Nice screen layout
3. Flexible background, i.e. grid, lined, blank, etc.
4. Tons of functionality for a free app….honestly
5. Export functionality is neat, easy to choose which pages to export

1. New pages are added to the front of a notebook, not behind, kind of annoying
2. Blurry output in Evernote (JPG vs PDF used by NotetakerHD)

You are probably wondering what exactly is the difference between the Lite version and the full UPAD version. I really did not know until I checked out a comment board which stated that the Lite version limits the user to 5 or less notes/pages…and judging from this picture

20110824-123540.jpg I guess the limit surely is 5! This would be a problem if you plan on keeping all of your notes in UPAD or if you like to keep a different notebook for every topic. I would suggest that the better process would be to have a few notebooks for your standard items of business and then simply keep these sync’ed with an Evernote account for storage and reference; remember that Evernote does try to recognize writing to better index your info. With this said the Lite version is simply an excellent hand-writing app to start with as the functionality is complete, easy to use and smooth.

My detailed review is here.


As you may have seen on the app store there are far more than 3 hand writing apps, in fact there was 44 when I first wrote the original post in August 2011. A review of three of them is hardly an exhaustive review. I will try a few more of them and update this post as I go…starting with 2-3 of the additional apps mentioned below. In the meantime I would not hesitate to recommend NotetakerHD as the tool to you if you are ok paying out the $4.99. That said, if you are still not sure about writing on an iPad give UPAD Lite a try, you will not be disappointed. As I mentioned in my WritePad Post; just stay away for now

Here are a few other Apps that are ranking well out on the App Store

  1. Noteshelf: I wrote a brief post here on this app, but not a full review…
  2. Notes Plus: Have not checked this one out yet, but great reviews…
  3. Notesy: Simple text editor for the iPad with direct Dropbox integration…again, have not checked this one out yet, but seems interesting
  4. Notability: This got some great Kudos out on the LinkedIn iPad Productivity Group…I think this is the next one on my list to review. Seems to have all the features of Notetaker and some of the features of Good Reader plus text recognition.

What apps am I missing?

About the author

    Chris Lee

    I am a healthcare administrator interested in being productive. I believe that the combination of a tablet (iPad Air 32GB) and a smartphone (iPhone 5 in my case) can drastically improve how we do work without adding too much complexity. The “how” of accomplishing this productivity is the focus of this blog. Here are just a few of the topics I hope to cover. Even though I use iOS devices currently I am in no way totally tied to Apple. I have used a Surface 2 for an extended time and am currently considering replacing my HP laptop with a Surface at some point, so keep reading to find out when this happens. Heck, I may even write a post some day on getting efficient with a Kindle Fire HD given that my daughter just got one for her birthday awhile back.


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