AMITIAE - Friday 8 April 2016

Smart Note: Usable Output from Handwritten Input using Apple Pencil on the 9.7" iPad Pro

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By Graham K. Rogers

Smart Note

When I saw a demo of the new iPad Pro 9.7" this week, one of the apps that was shown to me was MyScript Smart Note which allowed handwritten notes written using the Apple Pencil to be exported in various ways, including to text. The potential here is obvious as users move away from computers and embrace hand-held devices. This of course also could allow those like me to abandon paper, which I have long used as my preferred writing medium before I move to the computer (or iPad).

The brief look I had on Thursday morning, convinced me to download the app, but my own results were a little mixed. It may be either that the app needs training, or I do (more on this later). The SmartNote interface has a number of options but the user is required to create a separate notebook for each set of notes.

Smart Note

As the app comes, only one such notebook is available, although this may have many pages (not unlimited). Unlocking the premium features for $1.99 allows unlimited notebooks and pages, as well as a number of other features:

Import from iTunes, Dropbox, Evernote, plus the ability to annotate PDF files Export to PDF, LaTex (particularly valuable for academic use), print, sound and MyScript.

Despite my early problems with the text export (my fault - see below), the Pro purchase seemed good value (about 65 baht). Having the use of extra notebooks immediately gave me some more flexibility; and there were those additional features to consider as well.

Smart Note

When a notebook is opened a blank page is shown with several tools displayed at the top of the screen. Writing tools are in the center, file manipulation icons to the right. To the left are back and forward arrows, Close file and a language selector. When I first saw this I was shown that it is not simply the normal 19 or so Apple-favored languages, but a full list of over 60.

Smart Note

Selecting a new language to add to the app-capable languages requires a download which takes a few seconds. This must install an OCR algorithm or some related software so that the app is language capable.

Smart Note

My first attempts were disasters. I was quite disappointed having seen the app work earlier in the day, but there are a couple of points to consider:

  • I tried first with finger input: not using the Apple Pencil. The characters on the screen are sometimes indistinct, broad and blurred.

  • I do have lousy handwriting. My students gasp when they see a demonstration of the writing process that I teach, which starts with a handwritten plan, then notes. Even with the Apple Pencil, the script is spidery and uncontrolled

  • I was using the Apple Pencil with the iPad Pro connected to the Smart Keyboard. The screen was therefore at an angle and this is not natural for writing. We usually input text with the writing medium flat on a table or supported on the knee at a comfortable angle for working.

When I did make a change to a supported position, and made use of the palm rest (this pulls up from the bottom of the screen and automatically slides down as the text fills the page), there was a considerable improvement. It was not perfect: charge for change; thin for this; plus some other understandable variations, but it was showing me some of the potential I had first imagined. This paragraph was originally hand-written in Smart Note.

At work I tried a couple of tests with Thai characters. I can read a little, but certainly cannot write, so enlisted the help of a couple of colleagues. The first wrote some words in Thai and commented that the resultant text was perfect. The second noted that it was almost right so on this first acquaintance - she commented that the Apple Pencil felt surprisingly heavy - was perhaps going through the same learning process as I had.

My first colleague did suggest that one of the differences between his output and mine was that Thai characters are all separated while my English writing was cursive: joined characters.

Smart Note

Writing input icons allow writing and drawing with a choice of colors and stroke thicknesses. There is also an eraser tool. As a character is written on the screen there is a slight change to its appearance, but this may be the software adjusting and optimising input.

To the right are a number of controls starting with a + for additional input: images, equations, and sounds. Images accessed several sources that one expects, including camera input and DropBox. The Equation input opens a panel with a graph paper-like background on which I was able to write an equation. This was converted into solid characters, although initially I had problems with the square root (practice again). Export works to PDF and LaTex but not to text

Smart Note

Sounds offered iTunes and Dropbox as well as "New Sound" which gave me a recording interface at the bottom of the screen. The recording remained onscreen and could be exported, but not all export types accept sound files.

The Settings panel allows management of the languages used and other aspects such as gesture recognition and recognition feedback, so some learning of input styles can be expected. Other pen input types are possible and these can be added here.

The value of such an app to any user depends on ease of input and reliability of output. My initial impressions were not supported by my earliest personal experience with the app, but over a number of hours, the levels of accuracy did begin to rise. The app is certainly also useful for languages that do not have cursive text, such as Thai or Chinese.

The ability to add in sound recordings or equations is also really useful for notetakers: rather than being anchored to a computer, useful work can be done in the classroom, the workshop and even the street using this and many of the apps now being optimised for the iPad Pro models.

See also:

9.7" iPad Pro 9.7" Available for Thai Users

9.7" iPad Pro in Thailand: Open the Box

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs. He is now continuing that in the Bangkok Post supplement, Life.



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