At the Core: My iPad sketchbook dilemma

This past weekend, I participated in the MIT Mystery Hunt, a delightfully zany three-day puzzle competition that asks its hunters to solve all manner of crosswords, ciphers, logic puzzles, rebuses, and more. Though my team expressly goes in with little interest in winning the hunt, it's a great time with good people, and provokes crazy questions as "How do you index into two Gilbert and Sullivan songs with different lyrics?"

It also made me keenly aware that, gadget geek though I am, I still love writing things down on paper.

The tasks we can and cannot do on computers

There are many, many things a computer is good for during a puzzle hunt. Quick calculations. Collaborating with friends. Translating morse code. Looking up obscure ocean creatures.

But when it comes to certain tasks, it's hard to deny wanting tangible objects to write in and move around. This year, we had to use a map of five levels of a text adventure game to create 3D letters that spelled words; we could have built this using some form of 3D modeling software, sure, but instead we used post-it notes.

I don't think it's just about not having the right software — it's 2015. In most cases nowadays, the software we want or need for a given task is freely available and easily downloadable.

There's just something about real tangibility. It's being able to move something around in your hands, twisting it and examining it from different angles and scratching it out. It's messy, and not always the easiest way. But it satisfies this weird itch for physical interactions that even the iPad can't always hit.

I love my iPad, and I really tried to make it my default "scratch paper" this hunt. But I couldn't do it for more than six hours. It's in part because the iPad still has trouble making handwriting not look terrible, even with a good third-party stylus — though perhaps an Apple stylus and digitizer could improve such things in future generations.

But when it comes down to it: as flexible as the iPad is when software is involved, its hard, flat, unchanging glass. And glass is difficult to tangibly interact with beyond taps and pinches. It's a lot closer to our natural interactions than a mouse or keyboard input, to be sure, but there's still something slightly removed, slightly alien about the whole thing.

The scratch paper computer

The funny thing is, even if tablet computing improves to the point where we're seeing haptic feedback and motion-tracked gestures, I don't even know if I want to give up my post-its and notebooks.

Software can imitate them, and even hardware might get to the point where a tablet computer feels more like a sketchbook than a pane of glass. But is it the right tool for the job, even if it's ostensibly the smartest one?

In theory, I would love to be able to just carry around an iPad and stylus and sketch and write whenever the mood strikes me. No art supplies, no pens, no erasers or messy tools! In practice, though, I miss the mess. I like the tangibility. I like being able to move index cards around on a blackboard rather than inside a digital program.

It's a weird struggle I've been bandying about this weekend, during a hunt that celebrates both sides of this argument: loving technology, but still having a strong connection to tangible tools.

How do you folks feel about pen and paper versus iPads and Macs 100 ? Are there tasks you still insist on using paper goods for, even though a computer may be faster or more efficient? Let's chat in the comments.

Serenity was formerly the Managing Editor at iMore, and now works for Apple. She's been talking, writing about, and tinkering with Apple products since she was old enough to double-click. In her spare time, she sketches, sings, and in her secret superhero life, plays roller derby. Follow her on Twitter @settern.

28 Comments
  • This is why I want an Apple pen for the iPad, although I am probably more optimistic about the prospect than the author seems to be here. I carry my iPad mini with me everywhere and use it for almost everything, but I still have to carry a nice fine-tip black felt pen and a small pad of paper everywhere as well. We aren't truly living in the future if we still need to scribble things on paper. My problem with iPad styluses so far, is that even the best of them with so-called "palm rejection" technology, basically require you to hold the pen and an awkward angle, in an unnatural pose, and then proceed very, very, very slowly. It's jut not currently possible to do any kind of effective communication in the form of scribbling, on an iPad.
  • I have tried more sketch, drawing, and note apps than I can remember and I'm still looking for just the right one. I really want to use my iPad for this but I'm with you, there is something intangible about pen and paper. There is just something about being at work and running an old fashioned Bic stick pen around and around on paper that soothes and let's me think.
  • iPad's tech isn't conducive to it. Unfortunately, the Note is closer. I'd like to see Apple pursue this. You have to get away from the fat tips that the screens require. We're all used to the shape of our pens and pencils and this is something that has to be duplicated.
  • As an educator, I've pursued this vigorously. I bought the first Intros stylus, then the Bamboo Fineline. As another commenter mentioned, the tip on the stylus and its shape created issues. The Fineline only works within apps designed to use it, and I am still disappointed in the fact that it's not (to my remembrance) marketed as such. I've tried handwritten notes during multiple meetings, and I'm still faster typing than writing. In the future, I think the 6+ will fill the quick-note-jotting gap far better than an iPad. The second issue is the simple truth that not everyone (depending on where you live) is on the same tech level. A pen is still needed, despite how much some of us want them to go away.
  • I see no reason to feel odd about still using paper; use the best tool for the task at hand, according to personal needs, tastes, and possibilities. The Romans didn't stop using wax tablets for notes and drafts until long after they had ready access to paper, because the tablets were easily renewable, paper was still a luxury. I am using the iPad a lot as I would scratch paper, partly because of WritePadPro, but I had to learn to write again to adjust my handwriting.
  • I have the same dilemma. I love jotting my notes in my own handwriting in one of my several Moleskine notebooks. I have the Adonit Jot for my iPad, but it just isn't there yet. Hopefully Apple can get that pen on paper feeling that works well.
  • I have gone through a similar struggle. I WANT to use my iPad more for jotting down notes, but I keep failing each time I try. Part of the problem is that a lot of the app manufacturers assume that if a person is using their iPad, they will be wanting to type on it, not use handwriting. There are some occasions when I would love to use handwriting. I know this will sound nuts, but I would love an app like DayOne that allowed me to do my entry via handwriting. I feel more connected when I write something by hand. One thing that I do successfully implement daily, is using my iPad as a scratch pad for "throw away stuff". For my job, I am frequently jotting down little tidbits of info that I don't nee to keep, I just need to remember for a short period of time. Rather than wasting dozens of post-it notes, I open a page in Penultimate and jot everything on my iPad and then trash it at the end of the day. I hope the physical notebook never goes away. I think they fill a different niche. Like you said, a notebooks is tangible. You can hold it, flip through it, embellish it, give it to someone. The type and style of notebook you choose can be a reflection of your personality, or phase in life. So much about the physical notebook just makes the experience much more personal. I have some of my notebooks from high school and college, and having those same notes in a digital format would not in any way bring back the memories of those events the same way that looking at my physical notes with all of their imperfections and messiness does.
  • There are some decent pens on the market for iOS, but I still think we're a way off having the tactile reaction of a sketchbook/notebook. There is great potential in an Apple pen, but that's more directed to areas of industry and design. For me, you can't beat the direct response of making marks on paper. That connected flow you get from the brain, through your solar plexus and out through your hand, is still a long way off being replicated. I still prefer to scan from sketchbook to computer for visual art projects, but if anyone can crack the code, then it's likely to be Apple. Sent from the iMore App
  • I use a note-taking app (Note Taker HD) and an iPad with a projector, rather than a chalkboard, to teach one of my math classes. But I come into class with some partial notes already in the iPad, and I fill in the missing pieces by writing with a stylus. I've tried just writing everything on the iPad, and can't do it -- I just can't write quickly and legibly enough if I have to write everything. I'm hoping the technology gets there, since there are some nice advantages to doing things this way (like having a complete record of everything I actually did in class, even if it deviated from my plans).
  • I use my iDevices a lot, for a lot of things, but have in the last several months begun to grab some good old fashioned paper and a couple pens, each with a different colored ink.
    Some times, for some things, it just seems to work better. And I draw or sketch seldom. Sent from the iMore App
  • I went through the same dilemma, previously carrying an A4 (larger than iPad) inch thick sketchbook, blue and carbon lead mechanical pencils, eraser, several sizes of pen and a paperback novel everywhere. I switched to an iPad Air, and a pair of Styli (reviewed at links below) - The Jot Touch 4 (with the plastic disc on the tip) which is pressure sensitive for drawing primarily in Procreate, and the Jot Script for note taking in Evernote (the old skeuomorphic version). It's a very effective combination that provides far more utility for a fraction of the weight of the analog versions. http://www.golgotha.com.au/2014/03/26/review-adonit-jot-touch-4/
    http://www.golgotha.com.au/2014/07/16/review-adonit-jot-script/
  • I use the iPad 4 with Adonit Jot Touch Pixelpoint for a notepad. Works very well for me though I do find myself writing slower. This is actually a benefit because my writing is horrible and it makes me think through some of the text as I'm writing to keep it more concise.
  • Moleskine has some small soft covered notebooks, with removable pages. Also, there are their normal sized soft notebooks. Not bad at all to carry around. I still like writing down notes, and If I need them on my iPhone or computer, its easy to scan them and keep them with a scanning app on the iPhone.
  • Exactly what i do... Using Moleskine and Evernote in combination was a good choice for me.
  • This topic comes up periodically, and I often wonder if it is really a problem with the devices, or whether it's a matter of what the user is familiar with. It's the turkey bacon problem. Using a stylus with an iPad is, ultimately, an attempt to make the device mimic a pen and paper. Unfortunately they aren't either, and so it feels *wrong*, lacking. Like Turkey Bacon. I wonder if people will still be pining for pen and paper in a generation or two, when they are no longer something used regularly.
  • I've totally ditched pen and paper for a tablet with stylus. Never looked back. Too great of an experience. So I have to disagree with perhaps everything the author says.
  • Which tablet/stylus?
  • Various. I started off with a note 2 and was just curious. Now using Surface pro for literally everything in university (no kidding) except for exams where they require you to submit in paper. I have an intuos for pc.
  • No wonder you feel that way. The pen on the Surface Pro is awesome. Alas I'm sure most of us have iPads here. Got to give it to MS. They nailed this one. Would love it if they made it compatible with iPad. I'm sure they would sell millions. The pen had a nice feel on the device. I thought I'm giving up the pen now. Was so disappointed when the Best Buy guy told me it was not compatible with any other tablets. Sent from the iMore App
  • Agreed! I'm extremely guilty of having too much technology and trying to use it for things it's not suited for ... but I still write 98-99% of my comics scripts in legal pads. It's the best tool for the job and you have something tangible you can hold when you feel like you don't get anything done.
  • Absolutely spot on! The thing I've noticed is that most apps are either built to (a) be the place to take purposeful long lived notes, i.e., meeting/class or (b) recreate the artists sketch book, with all the brush/pen/texture/fidelity that it ensues. Apps focused on quick, effortless, tactile, scratch paper are few and far between- it's less hardware problem, and more use-case priority problem.
  • For me, there is something innately satisfying and natural about putting pen/pencil to paper. The tactile response I feel when using paper provides a degree of confidence that allows me to focus on my thoughts without distraction.
  • Penultimate works great for me! Evernote just dropped a newer version too. It has a "writing window" that magnifies the area your writing in. I can write fast and can read it no problem. I use Adobe Ink with it. Best of all, it syncs with Evernote, and your written text is even searchable in Evernote! I'm happy, saves a ton of paper too! Sent from the iMore App
  • I actually prefer using pen and paper for taking notes of stuff. The whole interact-ability and tactile feedback is something that technology just can't quite catch up to currently. I can draw and scribble whatever, where ever basically. So far I haven't really found anything that comes close.
    Plus pens, pencils and paper in general are more reliable and - depending on your use-case - can be significantly easier to carry around than a tablet and a potential charger. Lot cheaper to replace too.
    I don't have anything about going "all digital", but I think that the tech just isn't there yet and has a long way to go. As a side note: at work when I have to share notes I do sometimes use note taking apps and just type. Easier to send to others afterwards, plus nowadays a lot of people seem to have trouble reading cursive.
  • I'm with everyone here. Bought expensive styli and still haven't found anything that can replace pen and pad. Interestingly the only stylus that made me shout 'finally' was the pen on the surface pro. Sigh. Sent from the iMore App
  • I haven't tried every stylus out there, and don't use one now on my iPad Mini (or iPad 3 before that). I used styli when I had a Palm PDA. I like fountain pens and the tactile pleasure of writing with ink on good paper is impossible to duplicate on a tablet. It just doesn't feel write (!) to me. Pen on paper just feels like your thoughts are more connected to your mind. I take meeting notes on paper, and then transcribe and revise when I enter them into a document or email. My long-term resoution is to improve my handwriting, and write more hand written letters. Call me anachronistic. :-)
  • I have been endeavoring to use my iPad as a note-taking device for a while now. It's almost there, but not quite. I tend to write copious notes and brain-storm on everything from regular notebooks, Moleskine notebooks, post-its...tons of things. The only problem is that they get lost. They pile up with a messy desk, get misplaced. Then I have a problem trying to search for something I wrote down. So to do this all on a tablet that I can _search_, would be fantastic. As I say, things are "almost" there. On the iPad there are a few apps that are close, but don't bring it all together quite yet. Goodnotes 4 or Notes Plus are nice. I just wish that OneNote for the iPad supported handwriting like it does on the Surface Pro. I like how OneNote works, and would be fantastic if I could only hand-write notes on it....as I don't see myself getting a Surface Pro any time soon.
  • How about a Wacom type device feature. Like a iPad case with a note taker on the inside flip cover. In fact, this type of marriage would make the iPhone quite hipster.