Notepaper App Showdown: Bamboo, FiftyThree, and Noteshelf

4/6/12Follow @wroush

Most geeks like me suffer from a condition called Amazing New Tech Syndrome. The chief symptom of ANTS is a happy delirium over the latest gadget you’ve acquired, followed by resentful disillusionment toward that same gadget as soon as a newer one comes out. You can only assuage the resentment by buying the new gadget, at which point the cycle starts over.

It happens with apps and software too, and I’ve been going through it lately with notepaper apps for the iPad. For a long time, I thought the coolest tablet app for drawing, sketching, and doodling was Bamboo Paper, from Wacom, the maker of pen-based displays tablets. But then I heard about Noteshelf, from Tokyo-based Fluid Touch. And then last week, a small New York- and Seattle-based design firm called FiftyThree came out with an app simply called Paper.

What’s a geek to do?! For anyone who sees notetaking and sketching as one of the iPad’s strengths, we’re in a moment of unparalleled bounty. In addition to the three apps just mentioned, there are dozens of other notepaper apps to choose from, such as Penultimate, Notability, and Taposé. You can download them all if you want—like many mobile apps, they’re incredibly inexpensive for what you get. But unless you don’t care about having your notes scattered across many apps, you’ll eventually want to pick one or two notepaper apps and stick with them. To help with that, I want to tell you about the best features of FiftyThree Paper, Bamboo Paper, and Noteshelf.

But first a word about styluses. Or is it styli? All of these notepaper apps work just fine without one, and obviously, the iPad is designed to be stylus-free. But there are situations where a stylus is helpful. (Incidentally, I think the new wave of pen-based gadgets such as the Samsung Galaxy Note have been unfairly ridiculed.) If you want to make full use of a notepaper app, I suggest investing in an iPad-compatible stylus such as the Wacom Bamboo stylus, which is what I’ve got, or similar doohickeys from BoxWave or Griffin. These all come with a rubberized tip that tricks the iPad’s capacitive screen into thinking that you’re touching it with your finger. You get the benefit of a more controlled stroke, plus you sidestep fat finger syndrome. (If you’re feeling cheap, you can make your own stylus from a plastic ball-point pen and a sponge.)

FiftyThree Paper

Makers of notepaper apps tend to veer toward either extreme simplicity or extreme feature-richness. FiftyThree’s free Paper app is a minimalist’s dream. You can tell the company strained to keep extra features out—indeed, sometimes at the expense of functionality. But the app is so pretty that you tend to forgive its shortcomings.

My first attempt at a sketch on FiftyThree's Paper app

When you open FiftyThree Paper, you see Moleskine-style images of your notebooks, complete with faux elastic band. On this opening screen there are only a few options: swipe between your notebooks; partially open a notebook and swipe through its pages; delete a notebook; share a notebook page via e-mail, Tumblr, Facebook, or Twitter; or create a new notebook. Much of the app’s beauty is in the animations that occur when you swipe between notebooks or open a notebook. Granted, these don’t add to the app’s utility, but they’re the kind of thing user-interface mavens like me tend to geek out over.

Within a notebook, your options are similarly spare. In fact, FiftyThree Paper is the only app I have ever seen that has zero onscreen buttons or controls—a new notebook page is literally a blank white screen. All the action happens using tools that you select from a slide-up drawer. There are six drawing tools—a fountain pen for drawing, a pencil, a highlighter, an ink pen for writing, a watercolor brush, and an eraser—and a choice of nine colors, all muted pastels. No glitter and neon here—at a poetry slam, the guys from FiftyThree would be the ones off in the corner scribbling haiku. (The company’s current business model is interesting. It gives away the app, and the fountain-pen drawing tool is free, but the other tools cost $1.99 each through in-app purchase. So if you got all of them, you’d wind up spending $8 on this app. Still pretty cheap, considering that a single Moleskine pocket notebook will set you back $12 or more.)

FiftyThree's navigation screens are model of simplicity.

And that’s about it. There are a few nifty features—for example, you can customize your notebook cover using an image from your iPad’s photo album. FiftyThree lavished special attention on the watercolor pen, which allows you to create new colors by blending the existing ones. And there’s a magical feature called “rewind”: moving two fingers in a counterclockwise circle will undo your last several actions.

But mostly, FiftyThree Paper is distinguished by what it doesn’t do. Clearly, the designers were aiming for a careful balance of function and beauty—they explain as much in “Making Paper,” an introductory notebook that comes with the app. Utility notetaking apps for coursework, to-do lists, and the like are “necessary” but “boring,” they assert, while expressive painting apps such as ArtStudio, ArtRage, and Sketchbook Pro have “lots of settings” and require “lots of skill.”

This app is close to the middle of that spectrum, but I’m not sure it hits the sweet spot. The absence of onscreen controls, for example, means that it’s easy to confuse certain gestures: if you’re trying to swipe from one notebook page to the next with a page-turning motion, you’re just as liable to make a pen mark in the right margin. Seemingly sensible features such as … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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