Notepaper App Showdown: Bamboo, FiftyThree, and Noteshelf

4/6/12Follow @wroush

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the ability to export a notebook page to your photo album are absent (although the easy workaround for this is to use the iPad’s built-in screenshot function). There must be ways to squeeze in a few more features without ruining the minimalism—that’s the whole job of a good UI/UX designer. I’m looking forward to seeing what tweaks FiftyThree comes up with.

Bamboo Paper

Wacom’s Bamboo Paper app took the minimalist prize until FiftyThree Paper came along. Now it’s the middle option between Zen and Zeppelin.

The app is a free download, but comes with only a single notebook, and once that’s filled up, you need to spend a modest $1.99 to purchase an additional pack of 20 notebooks. You can give your notebooks customized names and colors, and the main navigation screen lets you swipe between them. For drawing on notebook pages, you have a choice of pen or highlighter tool, with three line-thickness options and nine color options for each.

My attempt at mimicking Cezanne, from Bamboo Paper

One big difference between FiftyThree and Bamboo Paper is that notebook pages still have a little bit of what designers call chrome—that is, persistent onscreen controls for things like switching between the pen and the highlighter, bookmarking a page, or wiping a page clean. These buttons are unobtrusive, but they’re there, which is useful.

I get the sense that in almost every case, FiftyThree looked at Bamboo Paper’s features and said “we can get rid of that.” But the result is that Bamboo has a few valuable features that FiftyThree doesn’t. When you’re creating a new notebook, for instance, you can choose from a variety of paper types, such as ruled paper, graph paper, and even staff paper for writing music. I also love the ability to export pages to Dropbox or Evernote, my favorite online notekeeping service.

If Bamboo Paper has one minor quirk, it’s the fact that it only works in portrait mode—if you try to draw something in landscape orientation, all the controls will look sideways. Also, I’m a little put off by the way Wacom co-brands Bamboo Paper and the $30 Bamboo Stylus. You don’t actually need the Bamboo Stylus to use the app—as I noted above, you can use your finger if you want—but Wacom implies in a roundabout way that the stylus is required. (The description in Apple’s iTunes App Store reads: “Paired with the Bamboo Stylus, it turns your iPad into the ultimate communications tool.”)

Noteshelf

The $5.99 Noteshelf app might be called the King of the Notepaper Apps. It isn’t nearly as simple or beautiful as the Bamboo and FiftyThree entries, but it’s a great app for more complicated projects. In fact, it’s got so many features that it comes with a 17-page manual, which users are “strongly encouraged” to read before they dive in.

To me, Noteshelf comes closest of all the notepaper apps to providing a Courier-like experience. If you recall, Courier was the dual-screen notebook device under development at Microsoft between 2008 and 2010. It was envisioned as a comprehensive personal multimedia notebook and day planner, with a pen-based notepad as just one feature. Microsoft canned the project, but many of the user-interface ideas first developed for the Courier are turning up again in the latest generation of iPad notebook apps—in fact, several of the folks at FiftyThree are refugees from the Courier project, and the Taposé app, which I plan to review separately, explicitly resurrects the Courier concepts on the iPad. But Noteshelf is still, at heart, a sketching app, so it still belongs in the same category with Bamboo Paper and FiftyThree Paper.

Noteshelf lets you import images from your photo library.

Noteshelf starts with an iBooks-like bookshelf where you organize all of your notebooks. You can create an unlimited number of new notebooks and select a different paper and cover look for each. Individual notebooks can be password-protected (a useful feature for teenage diarists, I suppose). The writing area works much like the other apps, but with a few major additions. The two biggest ones: a text tool that allows you to generate text using the onscreen keyboard, rather than writing with your finger or stylus, and a photo tool that lets you add images from your photo library or, if you have a second- or third-generation iPad, directly from the camera. This image import feature is my favorite aspect of Noteshelf, as it allows you to use the app as a kind of scrapbook or commonplace book.

A few other interesting and useful features: tagging and searching, so that you can more easily look up old notes; a read-only mode for notes that you only want to review, not alter; a zoom mode that lets you make fine change to a specific area on the screen; a “wrist protection” feature that lets you safely rest your wrist on the screen while you draw or take notes; and export options that let you send pages in image or PDF form to your photo library, Evernote, Dropbox, or any e-mail address or iOS-compatible printer.

All in all, the choice of which notepaper app to use comes down to what mood you’re in and what kind of project you want to create. If you want to clear away all distractions and simply do some visual brainstorming, FiftyThree’s product is great. If you want all the bells and whistles—including a choice of 450 clip-art icons—Noteshelf will allow you to build media-rich collections. For everyday use, Bamboo Paper offers a nice combination of cleanliness and functionality. For under $10 you can give all of them a quick spin without fear of catching ANTS—so have fun sketching, and send us a note about your favorites.

Wade Roush is Xconomy's chief correspondent and editor of Xconomy San Francisco. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com. Follow @wroush

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