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 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 a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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