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7/2/2010
03:03 PM
Fritz Nelson
Fritz Nelson
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Review: Dan Bricklin's Note Taker HD Puts The "Pad" in iPad

Note Taker HD, from Visicalc founder and productivity software entrepreneur Dan Bricklin, is a work of art. This is how you should take notes on a tablet. It takes getting used to, but it is ideal for many tasks, and will quickly become a necessity for any iPad owner.

Hate, if you must, but the iPad's usefulness skyrockets with every inventive app and every inventive user. For content consumption, consider streaming NetFlix, ABC and Hulu, or reading books (Kindle Reader or iBooks) and that might be enough. But the productivity side is also getting surprisingly interesting. Dan Bricklin's (creator of VisiCalc, the first personal computer spreadsheet program) Note Taker HD, a necessity now for me, lets you take notes with a stylus right on the screen -- I mean, this is a tablet, right?

There are plenty of iPad apps that let you create a document, from Apple's own Pages program to the fabulous Evernote, but there's something about writing notes with a pen that's liberating. I find I listen better when I'm summarizing thoughts onto a page, rather than typing what people say (unless I'm interviewing them and need to get a quote exactly right). Moreover, on paper, you can also draw figures alongside your writing, and you can do that in Note Taker HD too. Paper, unlike Note Taker, is hard to share.

Notetaker
Note Taker HD
(click image to view the slidehow)

Now Note Taker HD does take a little getting used to. The stylus I use (from Pogo Sketch) isn't as fine as a pen's point, and I have awful handwriting to start with. Crafting a document in the main editing mode was just an exercise in frustration. But Note Taker's Edit 2 mode pulls the page into a view-only mode and provides a smaller detail window in which to write. (You can see some of this in our Note Taker HD Slideshow.) Whatever you write appears instantly on the page, but over time, it just lets you concentrate on the text you're inputting. The details window offers finer control over the page, but its size is limiting by design, so it employs a few nifty tricks that make things brilliantly easy.

For example, you can hit an "advance" button when you get to the end of the details box, and then keep writing; or an "auto advance" option just does it for you. The auto advance is a bit tricky to implement at first: as you get to the end of your input box, a small grey box appears back at the beginning of text entry; you simply put your next letter (or whatever) and it auto-advances. It sounds kludgy (and I suppose in some ways it is), but after a few note-taking sessions, you get used to it and it just simply works. I don't even think about it now. A visual queue tells you when you've run out of space on that line, and a "return" button acts just like the normal keyboard return function.

There's plenty more you can do here, like adjusting margins and your display area, shifting the orientation of the page, entering elements in color, and adding sheets when you run out. It really, truly makes note taking as simple as doing it on paper (and, let's be honest, more so). My one major gripe is that I couldn't go back and insert a blank line between lines of text -- like inserting a row or a column in a spreadsheet. I actually had two occasions to do this.

(You can see Note Taker HD in action in our video demonstration with Dan Bricklin directly below.)

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What you do with your documents also gets interesting. Of course, in the program's home, or main view you can see all of your thumbnails (Evernote style), and you can customize the view in a variety of ways, making some documents "favorite," re-ordering them by hand, adding visual elements to certain ones (flagging) to make them stand out, or simply tagging them to make them easier to find.

As with any iPad productivity app, in Note Taker, you can easily e-mail your documents. The default turns them into PDFs, but you can also send them as JPEG files. The latter is an interesting option, because you can send them into Evernote, which does handwriting recognition. I tested this out and it worked, sort of. I'm sure part of this was my horrid handwriting, but Evernote brought up my Note Taker documents on some text searches (like "Flash") but not others (like "Android"), even though they were in the same document multiple times. Still, this could be a promising development for those who've become reliant on Evernote -- and there are many of us.

Other things you can do: any document can contain multiple sheets, but you can also virtually staple several documents together and e-mail that (or just keep them organized that way); you can use VGA output to display a document on screen during a meeting; the PDFs can retain the background elements from within Note Taker. There's plenty more, some of which is documented in our slideshow and in the video demonstration above.

Bricklin is working, as always, at improving the application. Future priorities include the ability to cut and paste from and into Note Taker. And let's say you pasted or imported a picture, you could make that part of the background, or incorporate it into your document, perhaps even adding annotations. Bricklin also said he's working on the ability to send native Note Taker documents between Note Taker users.

In other words, this amazing tool is just going to keep getting better. At $4.99, what's not to like.

Fritz Nelson is the editorial director for InformationWeek and the Executive Producer of TechWebTV. Fritz writes about startups and established companies alike, but likes to exploit multiple forms of media into his writing.

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