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Plumbago, a  Microsoft Garage Project was released in the wild on Friday. I first read about it a couple weeks ago and was looking forward to trying it out. As I had seen from the preview, the app has exceeded my expectations. Except for a couple quirks and maybe one or two features/options, it works as intended. There is already clamoring on the Plumbago Feedback page  to turn it into OneNote or Fresh Paint, or something that it isn’t. I can’t speak for the amazing folks at Microsoft Research (they haven’t called me yet) but my guess is they intended Plumbago to be a light, easy to use digital pen app for jotting notes, drawing sketches, tapping out some music, or general doodling. The app is not deep on features and should take anyone, even an old timer like me, no more than a few minutes to master every function. Plumbago is to OneNote, what WordPad (or maybe Notepad) is to Word.

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Plumbago is made up of Notebooks. Each notebook contains 25 pages, no more, no less. You can do whatever you like within those 25 pages. You give each notebook a name and then select what kind of paper to use; blank canvas, graph, graph dots, white or yellow ruled, music score, figures, handwriting or black (not sure what that’s for). All the pages of your notebook will carry the same background, but you can change the background anytime. And then change to something else. They are effectively, simple guidelines. Not integrated into the digital ink. Neat.

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Once you open a notebook, you can pinch to see all 25 pages in a 5 x 5 grid. From there, you can select a particular page to open. While on a page, swiping left right will bring you to the next or previous page. Page numbers are noted at the bottom left of the screen and they also popup momentarily as you are swiping through pages. You can also swipe up/down to jump to another row of pages. So, while page 2 is to the right of page 1, page 6 is just below page 1. Actually the canvas is one giant sheet and you can navigate all 25 pages by dragging around.

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Quirks: First, the orientation of your device when you create a new Notebook will determine if that notebook will forever be landscape or portrait. So, if your Surface 3 is in portrait mode and you click to add a new notebook, that notebook and all of its 25 pages will be displayed in portrait. You can’t change the orientation after creating the notebook. There is probably a good reason for this, as copy would get clipped off from the bottom or right edge of your saved work if you did. While I understand the reasoning for it being this way, maybe it should be pointed out when creating a new notebook. Or, after having read this, now you know. Plumbago is all about KISS. I like that.

Second; if you change orientation while already in a notebook, your digital pen will start writing an inch or more away from the pen tip. As soon as you turn your device to the original orientation, your pen will work fine again. If you reorient before opening a notebook, like opening a landscape notebook in portrait, the pen will work fine, although the page will be somewhat out of place. There is a faint gray line that appears on the page to tell you where one page ends and the next begins. Remember it’s one large sheet broken into 25 rectangles.

Both of these quirks  are sort of manageable. Although it might not be a bad idea to see the notebooks on the Home page displayed as portrait or landscape, so you know which way to turn your device before opening.

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Pages are simple to navigate. There is an intuitive radial menu for your pens, colors and add-ins, and a side menu for a few specifics. The pen selection is limited to; pencil, pen and highlighter, each with five thickness settings. There are 10 colors on the wheel ranging from black (I know, it’s not a color) to magenta. Swiping out from a color turns the wheel into a kaleidoscope of colors. I’m fine with the ten, but nice to have options. The wheel also has an eraser and lasso tool. The eraser gives you five spot options, 2x, 4x and all. Depending on where the eraser is set, the back of a Surface pen will erase a small or large swath of ink. The lasso tool allows you to circle an object, and then copy or cut to the clipboard and paste somewhere else.

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The left sidebar (which can be moved to the right edge for southpaws), includes icons for; Home – to go to the home page, Grid – to see all of the pages of a notebook (or you can pinch the screen), Hand or Stylus toggle – defaults to stylus on the S3 and Surface Book, hand on my desktop touch screen, Photos -allows you to add or edit a picture on a page, Save – to save the current page as an image file (png or jpg),  Options – limited to two at this time, and Undo – to undo your last keystrokes. That’s all there is to it. Note; To navigate on a touch screen without a stylus, like my desktop PC, toggle the mode to stylus and then you can switch, pinch, and do whatever without leaving ink behind.

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I am really enjoying Plumbago and will definitely find a good use for it. But there are a couple things that need addressing. When I installed the Plumbago on my Surface 3 yesterday, after a little searching I discovered that the app had created a folder under; OneDrive/Documents/plumbago. That’s great I thought. The app will sync with all my devices. Today though, I installed Plumbago on my Surface Book, and instead of syncing with the OneDrive folder the app created a folder in; User/Documents/plumbago. I have no idea why. All of my devices use the same Microsoft login. They all sync with OneDrive and they all sync the OneDrive/Documents folder. I spent an hour trying to find something different, even deleting the offending local folder, only to have Plumbago recreate it again. I then tried installing the app on my desktop PC and all of the notebooks stored in OneDrive were immediately available. Changes to any page synced up immediately. Still puzzled, I installed the app on my NextBook 8” Win 10 tablet. Again, like the Surface Book (although the Surface Book is NOTHING like the NextBook)  it created a local folder rather than syncing with OneDrive. I think it’s obvious that the Microsoft Research folks “intended” Plumbago to sync across multiple devices, but something it stopping that from happening. One common scenario that I have though of is that both the Surface 3 and desktop PC were upgraded from Windows 8.1 to Windows 10. The Surface Book and NextBook both came with Windows 10 preinstalled. I recall a setting in Windows 8.1 that would default all saved files to OneDrive (I was constantly trying to keep that off). I can’t find a similar setting in Windows 10, but not sure if it’s hiding somewhere and may have created these two different default folder scenarios. Hopefully the Garage Crew can work it out. Till then I can’t really use my Surface Book, my preferred device for taking notes, and have the ability to view them from other machines. Bummer.

One other thing I believe needs addressing is printing. You can save a single page as an image file and share it via email and social media. But it would be a good thing to have the ability to print from within in the app, at least maybe Exporting a page range to PDF. That could come in handy.

Aside from the quirks and suggestions above though, this app is ready for prime time. Light and easy to navigate and use. Not burdened by multiple menus and toolbars meant to dazzle the mind. You can find Plumbago in the Microsoft Store now. If you have a device with an active digitizer and stylus, or if you just like sketching with one of those rubber tipped things, or your finger, you will like this app.

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