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Notebook Pro: The Bee’s Knees of Tablet Writing Apps

I purchased a Surface 3, minus the fancy keyboard, to use as a tablet. One the many things I hope to do with this new device, thanks to it’s extraordinary N-trig pen,  is to finally wean myself away from traditional pen and paper. Although Microsoft’s Surface Pen has been pretty well integrated with Microsoft OneNote (a tap of the top of the pen launches OneNote and opens a new note) I was looking for an app designed specifically for handwritten note taking. I should note that I love OneNote. Been using it extensively, and talking it up to anyone who will listen since 2002. But sometimes a program can become more than you need it to be. So, while I’m sure I can hand write notes in OneNote, that’s not the program’s primary use for me. And I certainly wouldn’t want to start changing default settings to accommodate my occasional hand written notes.

While I had a chance to play around with Notebook Pro on my Lenovo Yoga Tab 2 w/AnyPen a month or so ago, it wasn’t until yesterday that I tried it out on the Surface 3. The results were impressive. The app has a file structure much like OneNote, with Sections, Folders and Pages. You can print, move or copy pages within folders. Or Export as PNG, JPG, BMP or Document formats. Tapping a page opens it. All pages and changes are auto-saved as you use and navigate the app. When you create a new page you can give it a name, along with a detailed description. You can also select orientation, paper size (letter, legal, tabloid, square, A4 or screen size) and paper type (blank, writing, graph, notes, storyboarding or other). You can also choose an image that you could then annotate.

On the Page screen you can select from multiple modes; Pointer, Draw, Eraser and Shapes. You can also Add (typed) Text or Images anywhere on the page. Note that Shapes are an Add-In feature ($2.99) although the app itself is FREE. Once you have selected a mode, an options icon for that particular mode appears in the lower right. With Pen for example, you can choose pen types; pen, pencil, marker, high lighter, paint pen or water colors, Nib size from 0.003” to 0.6”, as well as a palette of colors. The bottom tool bar includes Undo/Redo buttons so you can quickly move back and forth between changes.

A swipe down at the top of the screen reveals another menu bar to; go back to the Folder/Page selector, move between pages or add a new page, or see more options, including; Clear page, Live Broadcast, Print, Export, Lock Rotation & Zoom, Lock All, Reset View and Page Setup. The page setup screen allows you to edit the page name and description, change the page type, style, size and orientation. You can also set a page as the default type. Notebook Pro includes, what I would consider, the most detailed Help section I have ever seen in a Windows app. The developer went though a lot of effort to make sure you understand how the app works, although most of it is intuitive. In addition to the top/bottom menu bars, a tap and hold on the screen (or right click with a mouse) brings up an options wheel. From the wheel you can Undo/Redo, select Mode, open Options, see Recent Pens, and add Text or Images. I wasn’t going to mention Live Broadcast, which is listed as a BETA tool, as I couldn’t get it to work on my Yoga Tab 2. But as I was finishing up this article I decided to give it a try on my desktop and it worked nicely. Takes about 30 seconds for information to transfer from the Surface 3 to the receiving device, and I can’t quite figure out how to change the screen viewing size in IE (zoom does not change the image/note size). But for a beta, it does what it says it does.

The Surface pen includes two side buttons. The bottom button is used for erasing, and works well within Notebook Pro. The top button is designed to initiate a right-click (you have to press, then tap the pen to the screen). That function does not work in this app. But it also works rather poorly in OneNote. Once you have pressed and tapped, it takes several seconds for the context menu to appear, slowly transitioning from transparent to full view. On the desktop, or in File Explorer for example, the press/pen tap works fine. So it may be a driver issue with OneNote that will be addressed at some future point. You can accomplish the same thing with a finger tap and hold, but it takes a couple seconds for the menu to appear. And yes, I already adjusted my Pen & Touch settings as low as I can get them without initiating false positives with finger taps.

When writing in Notebook Pro, with college ruled paper for example, you can zoom in a bit so that the digital ink fits between the lines of the paper. It’s just a fact of life that digital ink requires you to write a little larger than naturally, so that the pen touches are picked up properly. Maybe in another five years…….. Anyway, two fingers can quickly zoom in/out or shift the page around the screen. Once you have finished your notes, you can print the page and it will look quite natural, rather than having been written by someone in grade school (or I guess pre-school now – kids learn stuff so damn fast these days). The app includes a couple General Settings that confused me a bit, but now I have them where I want them. The first, “Only Draw with Pen & Mouse” was obvious and was on by default, as I assume the app detected that the Surface 3 uses a pen. The second one mixed me up a bit, “Always use pen exclusively for drawing & erasing”. I naturally thought that as I was using pen for drawing and erasing, this should be on. But with this on, I couldn’t bring up that wheel menu by tapping/holding on the screen with my finger. Nor could I create any shapes, like squares, circles or lines. With this set to off, my finger still cannot draw or erase anything, thankfully. So my fingers or palm do not leave any artifacts on the screen.

Overall, I am really pleased with the performance and functionality of Notebook Pro. In portrait mode, writing on my Surface 3 is just like pen to paper, Erasing is a snap, as is changing pens. Although I wish each pen type had a default (remember the last use). So for example, if I selected High Lighter, it wouldn’t be set to black and 0.014”. Uggh. I should note that there is a History area in pen settings, although it’s a tad hard to understand. As mentioned, the app itself is free, so worth it for anyone with a pen input device to give it a try. I don’t think you will be disappointed. Even though my Yoga Tab2 w/AnyPen is a capacitive touch device, Notebook Pro still worked best of all the apps I tested because of a Hand Rest function (only available on touch device-not pen devices like Surface 3) which block a part of the screen from input. Add Ons Include; No Advertisements, Shapes (as mentioned above), High Definition, which changes resolution from 2048 x 2048 to 4096 x 4096, and Custom Colors, expanding the current palette of 56 colors to any RGB or Web/Hex value. Each Add On will cost you $2.99, although there is a combo pack which includes everything except Shapes. I have opted in for the first two. Don’t need the added colors for note taking. And not sure how the increased resolution would affect what I would consider damn near perfect right now.

Some things for my Wish List.

-Exporting to PDF

-Pressing the upper Surface Pen button to initiate a right click and open the Options Wheel

-By default, Lock Rotation is turned off. So every time you try to zoom or move the paper, the paper spins. Drives me nuts. For each new page, or opening an existing page,  I have to remember to Lock Rotation first (after Resetting View if I already twisted the paper). I can’t think of any use for this function, so I believe Lock Rotation=On should be the default. But if there is some purpose that I am not aware of, then please make Lock Rotation=On an Option, or add it to the Page Setup where it can be made a default setting for new pages.

You can find Notebook Pro in the Windows Store here.