In April of this year, I will have been taking hand-written notes on my iPad for two years; I started doing this as a way to further my push myself towards embracing a paperless, fully searchable utopia. Now twenty-two months into this experience and with others often asking me what it’s like to go down this route, I’ll be self-indulgent enough to assume that my reflections might be be appreciated others interested in writing notes on the iPad.
In this post, I’ll outline what stylus I chose and what to you might want to consider when choosing a stylus. In future posts I’ll share my note-taking app of choice and I might close the series out with a post on how I incorporate these hand-written notes into my paperless system (and perhaps when I decide to take *real* hand-written notes).
Before I divulge my secrets, it is worth stating this from the outset: hand-writing notes on an iPad is not the same experience as hand-writing notes on with a pen on a piece of paper. So, if you’re looking for the same experience of pen-on-paper, switching to a stylus on iPad will leave you unsatisfied. There are technological limitations of the iPad’s input that has a cascading effect on the whole feeling you get when writing. Not that (for me at least) that it is so unnerving that you can’t get used to it, but it’s fair warning: it takes some getting used to.
My stylus of choice is now a Hand Stylus (pictured above). I really like it. It is a pen stylus, meaning that it has a retractable tip. This is important for me because styli tips are often made with soft material, so being able to retract the tip when not in use protects the tip. Why the soft tip? The iPad (attention: layman’s explanation ahead) recognizes the electrical field that emanate from your body; it is “looking” for a fingertip before it recognizes that someone attempting to tell it something. This means that if you’re touching the iPad screen with something smaller than a finger tip (~6mm) or devoid of an electrical field, the iPad won’t recognize it. The soft tips that make up styli mimic the body’s ability to bend a screen’s electrical charge.
But they’re not the ballpoint of a pen. Which brings me to the phenomenology of writing with pen on paper. Believe me, you’ve taken-for-granted this experience (or, if you’re really into pens, perhaps not). Some of the characteristics that make writing on paper by hand so unique: the precision of the tip of the pen on the paper; the sound (or lack thereof) when writing; the expected friction between the pen (okay, ink) and the paper; and the ergonomics of both the size and weight of a pen as well as the ease with which you can rest your hand on the paper (if you’re right handed, I guess) when writing. Writing with a stylus changes all of these characteristics to a greater or lesser extent. Choosing a stylus is really balancing the characteristics to get an experience you’re happy with. Keep in mind, like I mentioned above, writing with a stylus is qualitatively different than hand-writing notes.
Another benefit of the Hand Stylus is that it’s the size of a mechanical pencil. I’ve had smaller styli and I found when using for longer periods of time, my hand would cramp (due to the ergonomics). Finally, the stylus’ soft tip is replaceable. I’d certainly order extra tips when purchasing this stylus as they’re soft enough to slowly disintegrate as you write. In the year that I’ve owned the Hand Stylus, I’m on my third tip. The impact that these tips have on the writing experience is that there is perceivably more friction when writing. While certainly a difference in perception, I’ve gotten used to it. The Hand Stylus shipped in a metal “tin” which is great for storage.
The only other stylus I’d consider purchasing are significantly more expensive. Specifically, I’ve been looking at the Jot Script. Any (unpowered) stylus will have to have a tip 6mm or larger to replicate the fingertip on glass. As a result, this sometimes makes the use of a stylus feel less precise than the experience of a pen on paper (more like a worn-down marker).
Different companies approach this problem differently. For example, Adonit’s other styli come with this hinged see-though disk that gives the perception of precision (you can see exactly where you’re placing the stylus) but at the cost of this dinky disk that is attached to the stylus. Others who have purchased an Adonit stylus with this disk talk about the problems they have with it. So, while precision would be great, I’m not interested in micro-managing the stylus. BUT: this Jot Script is powered, so it has a smaller, plastic-like nib that through some kind of technological magic, the iPad recognizes as 6mm or larger, but is actually much smaller. People have said they don’t like that the plastic-like nib audibly “clicks” on the screen when writing, whereas the soft-tipped styli are (effectively) silent.
Another benefit of this stylus’ power is that it can connect to the iPad via low-power bluetooth (meaning it doesn’t significantly drain the iPad battery to use it). The significance of this feature comes when used with an iPad app that is designed to be used with the stylus (That list is here), the app is designed to recognize the tip of the pen and differentiate it from other touches on the screen.
This is significant when it comes to note-writing on the iPad as if you’re looking to reproduce the feel of writing a pen on paper, you’ll probably want to rest your hand on the iPad. In most other cases (like when I use the Hand Stylus), if I were to lay my hand, the iPad can’t distinguish between the stylus and the hand resting and it messes up your note-taking. In short, you can’t rest your hand. But the promise with the Jot Script, with the right note-taking app, is that you would be able to rest your hand on the iPad screen as you write. In the reviews of the Jot Script that I’ve seen, this feature sort-of works. This YouTube channel has a number of video reviews that you could watch to decide if you’re interested in this kind of stylus (The reviewer is French, so it’s got gallic charm, too).
So, TL;DR: I like the Hand Stylus for its ergonomics and sturdy build. But writing with it isn’t exactly like writing with pen on paper. If you’re looking for something more akin to that experience, you need to consider a powered stylus. My first choice would be the Jot Script. Downsides include that it costs more money, requires a battery and specifically designed apps to get a more pen and paper-like experience.
Like I’ve hinted, the other part of the equation is the app used to do the writing. In my next post, I’ll cover which iOS note-taking app I prefer for capturing my hand-written notes.