Working the iPad: Note-taking apps

When meetings rule your life a good note taking application is critical. One of Microsoft's best efforts was OneNote - a terrific note taking app that can turn your meeting notes easily into tasks, assignments, contact information, webpage bookmarks, and searchable time stamped content.

Armed with my iPad, I'm trying to answer the question of whether or not the device can be a business tool. Step one is a great note taking app.

There are many for the iPad, I tested four: Notepad Pro, Notebooks, smartNote and SoundPaper.

In several cases, the developers seem to have focused more on the form than the function. And while there is no application that pulls it all together, each has particular strengths - and weaknesses. All of them allow you to transfer notes and audio - either by email as a pdf or text file or, in some cases, via Wi-Fi sharing. Another important aspect is price. The iPhone app world got us used to 99 cent applications. But the iPad apps are considerably pricier, so you're less likely to buy something just to see if you like it.

Here's how they stack up:

Notepad Pro ($1.99) is the least impressive. It is a straightforward note program ands only slightly expands on the toolset of the default note program that comes with the OS. The program lets you change the paper design and will accept drawing and audio recording. While you can change the color and line weight of the drawing tool you are stuck with a huge - maybe 24 pt - text size and no way to change it,

You can email the file as a pdf and audio if you need to get it out of the iPad and into your desktop.

The most frustrating thing about the app, however, was that the page did not scroll up. So with the keyboard displayed you could not see what you were typing once you got about halfway down the page.

Notebooks ($8.99) is an expensive offering but it also offers some unique features. What it does not offer is audio - the only one of the reviewed apps that doesn't. Although, future versions may include audio support. There is also no capability for adding drawings. What Notebooks does offer is by far the best organizational function.
With Notebooks you can create books and pages within those books. You can also nest books inside books, creating a familiar hierarchal system. You can change the font and type size you are working in, and the application makes it easy to move files to other folders.

You can easily create files from the clipboard or from the contents of emails or attachments. One of the coolest features is the ability to turn your page into a task list and add in due dates. A nice enhancement would be a task calendar view.

Notebooks is a very useful app for the notetaker who primarily wants typed in notes kept very well organized.

smartNote ($2.99) has just about everything you could look for in a note taking app. You can create separate notebooks with customized skins. There are paper temp
lates that run the gamut from lined white paper to a half court basketball diagram. Widgets let you add elements like push pins, bullets, sticky notes and more. There's even a widget that adds a web page to your notebook that can either remain dynamic or can be converted to an image.

Pens and text size can be customized both in size and color. And there are some nest little extras, like a wrist rest zone that the user can define that makes that a dead zone so you don't accidentally delete or change information in your note.

There is support for audio recording, bookmarking and full text search.

For $2.99, this is a full featured program that provides good value.

SoundPaper ($4.99) is the application I wrote this article on. It is a fairly basic app but has one feature that students, journalists and others will find hard to resist. Notes and audio are tightly integrated so if you click on a word or phrase in your notes, the audio recording will automatically move to that area in the timecode.

No more hunting around on recordings trying to find that great quote, I used this feature during a recent interview for a magazine piece and it was a huge help.

SoundPaper also supports drawing and full text search.

So what is the best app? The answer really depends on what kind of note taker you are and what you want to do with your notes after the fact. There is still room for improvement. Some of the things I'd like to see would be automatic recognition of hyperlinks, phone numbers and email addresses and the ability to automatically add those to your default contact application. Integration with some of the most popular to-do programs would be a nice addition, since so much of what happens in business meetings is the creation and assignment of tasks.

For me, I'll have to keep two - SoundPaper for the recording capabilities and smartNotes for everything else.