Essential Tools: Pencil & Penultimate

Since the iPad first came out in 2010 I have been longing for a way to use my iPad as an actual pad. You know, a pad for writing notes, jotting down ideas, keeping handwritten track of meetings, information, ideas, brainstorms, drawings, etc. To some degree of success or another I've used several different means to do that. I've drawn with my fingers, written with a stylus or two that haven't been to great, and tried to make it a regular habit to keep notes on my iPad. None of those methods have stuck or worked well for me. In fact, my attempts to write handwritten notes over the last four years have largely been failures.

For the most part the stylus was the main barrier towards keeping those notes. I couldn't find one that worked great and felt like writing with a pen or pencil. The inking apps weren't that useful either. They were slow, made my handwriting look worse that it already does, weren't searchable and just didn't seem to do the trick for me. Because of my desires to keep things well categorized and organized I couldn't find an app that seamlessly worked for me either. For the most part I had given up on writing handwritten notes with my iPad. That all changed with two useful solutions. 


First, I found Pencil.

For over a year now a free drawing and sketch app, Paper, by FiftyThree has been on my iPad as a place to doodle ideas here and there. It's a pretty good app. But it isn't a note-taking app. One day as one of my kids opened the app to draw a notification appeared for a new product they were developing, the Pencil. Immediately it was appealing to me. It looks like a carpenters pencil, it has bluetooth capability (which is becoming more and more essential for inking apps), and it feels fantastic. I decided to give one a run and see if was the stylus I had been longing for. Boy were my expectations exceeded. 

The Pencil is the first stylus for the iPad I've used (of four or five I've given attempts to) that actually feels like writing with a pencil (or pen). It fits comfortably in my hand, glides across the screen and drops digital ink where I expect it to. My handwriting looks likes, well, my handwriting. If you use the Pencil with the FiftyThree Paper app you get the bonus features of a Bluetooth compatible stylus that works even better. It had palm recognition that allows you to rest your hand on the surface of your iPad and as if you were writing on a real paper surface and have your ink only fall on where the pen touches the surface. Plus, it has a rubber "eraser" on the top of the Pencil that in Paper allows you to clear an area just by flipping the device over. Calling it a "stylus" doesn't seem to do it justice. 

While FiftyThree's drawing app, Paper, is nice for drawing, it really isn't a one-size fits all app for taking notes. So I needed another solution. For a long time I have been typing my meeting notes and other minutia into Evernote. The ideal situation would be that my handwritten notes would end up there as well. I had tried a few apps but nothing really seemed to be the magic I was hoping it to be. In my search I rediscovered Penultimate.


Penultimate was the original inking app on the iPad. Initially it had a lot of promise, but didn't seem to be the power users app of choice. Evernote saw the promise of the app and bought the Penultimate company and software. Shortly after that purchase they began to upgrade the app and allow it to sync and interact with Evernote itself. Penultimate users could draw, write notes, scribble thoughts and the like and they would sync and be searchable within Evernote. Perfect.

After a few more software updates Penultimate brought in zoom and "drifting" features that allow someone to write notes in real time as if they were writing on a real piece of paper.

Suddenly, I've found note-taking Nirvana. The Pencil is quite simply the best iPad writing device I've ever used. Paired with Penultimate the combination is amazing. Almost every meeting or thought I'm trying to write down is going into Penultimate (and thereby Evernote) with my Pencil. I'm hoping that Penultimate implements the forthcoming Pencil SDK so I can utilize the Bluetooth capabilities of the Pencil (and the eraser) within the app, but even without it Penultimate and Pencil are two of the best solutions to making your iPad function more like a real paper and pencil pad.

Here's an example of what my Pencil/Penultimate connection has formed. 

What tools do use for digital note taking?