A different approach to Note Taking

I take a lot of notes. I use them for reference. I use them for speculation about topics of interest. I use them to note down ideas so that I don’t loose them.

Before the digital age I had many paper notebooks and boxes full of index cards.

In those days I used to carry a HP 200-LX computer in my pocket and I thought it was an ideal note taking solution, oh if only I could buy one again, oh the nostalgia …

Whilst I was doing my degree I used to take notes at lectures on paper despite having several digital solutions available. I found that writing on paper helped me recall the material that I was writing much better than if I typed it onto a computer.

The physical act of writing is more visceral, it connects with the consciousness at a more basic level than typing. When typing one can go into autopilot and concentrate on the sequence of letters rather than the meaning of the words, the material gets typed accurately but it leaves little lasting impression in the memory.

But computer solutions are better organised and more compact. If one relies on paper then one accumulates many scraps of paper and old notebooks which are difficult to keep organised or refer to.

What I am looking for it the best of both worlds.  A paper notebook with unlimited pages which can transfer it’s content onto a computer, without many scraps of paper to keep track of, and hopefully without the paper.

Trees generate oxygen for our planet, we should not chop them down to be made into newspapers or chipboard furniture or paper notebooks.

For a long time I have relied on an application called ConnectedText which has served me well for a long time. It is a wiki with many powerful features, but recently I have found it to be less satisfactory than it used to be.

This is because I bought a new laptop and monitor with very high resolution screens.

The advent of high DPI screens and Windows 10 screen scaling has meant that the icons on ConnectedText are now microscopic and the titles of topics are only partially displayed.

The development of ConnectedText has now ceased and so it will probably never be updated and will continue to fall further behind as operating systems change until finally one day some update will break it.

This is particularly annoying for me because some while ago I paid quite a lot of money for perpetual licenses, the developer sold me licenses which would be for life, if there were any new versions of the software I would get an update to my license so I would get the new version for free.

He probably already knew that version 6 would be the last one and I already had a license to version 6.

If the developer has abandoned development it would be better if he were to release the source code as an open source project but I suspect he is keeping it going just to get a little more money from the current version.

I cannot now recommend ConnectedText for anyone wanting a new notetaking solution.

Perhaps it is time for some lateral thinking.

It would be nice if one could have digital paper, a screen on which one could write and draw but which could send these images to a computer and/or recognise the handwriting. Like a paper notebook with unlimited pages, no more stray scraps of paper to keep track of.

There are several possibilities.

One could use an Android tablet.

In my experience handwriting on an Android (a Sony Xperia mobile phone) is awful, the line drops out at random and the screen is slick, there is no friction and this tends to make my handwriting more messy. Also the note taking apps I have tried are cumbersome and awkward to use.

An Android device can also act as an e-reader for PDF and text files.

Despite this Android is not a good solution.

Dr Andus recommends a Boogie board.

I have tried a Boogie board and writing on the screen is much better and it is more responsive than an Android phone. However the Boogie board is not a very good solution for other reasons.

It is a write only solution, this is not what I want.

Once you have written a page or drawn a diagram, once you move onto a new page you can never go back to the previous page. The device stores them but it cannot display them. You can upload the stored pages onto a computer and this is the only way to see one of your previous pages.

The Boogie board is cheap but it is not a solution to the problem.

There is another device by Sharp, the WG-N20 which seems more capable than the Boogie board. It is an electronic notepad. You can look at and edit any stored page, sounds good, but there are problems.

The first big shock you get when buying one is the hidden costs. This is a Japanese import and so the price you see on the Amazon website is not the price you end up paying.

On the Amazon website it boasts free shipping to the UK but the UK Customs and Excise will open your package and impose an import duty on it. The shipping company will then demand this import duty plus an ‘administration charge’ before it will release your parcel for delivery.

The price you end up paying is about one and a half times the advertised price.

The manuals are in Japanese. So is all the text displayed by the machine, on the on screen buttons and in the dialog boxes.

The screen is slick and has little friction but despite that it has a better writing experience than an Android phone or tablet. The screen contrast is not very good, you are writing on a grey screen with slightly darker grey. This tablet needs good lighting to be able to use it adequately and there is no backlight.

The screen is a conventional LCD screen not e-paper. It is not an e-reader, it cannot import or display text files or PDFs.

It is not a good solution.

I have even been into the local Apple store to try out an Apple iPad.

I didn’t get along with it very well, the iPad suffers from a frictionless slick screen and the note taking application seemed to have some fundamental flaws. The iPads are expensive for what you get.

The staff in the Apple store are so full of artificial enthusiasm, everything about their products is wonderful and the fact that the annotations can be in any colour you like more than compensates for the fact that if you insert text the annotations don’t move with the text and are now in the wrong place.

I didn’t agree with the sales person!

I would rather have something in black and white that works properly than something multi coloured that doesn’t.

A random search (a clutching at straws exercise) pointed me at a potentially good solution for note taking which is the reMarkable tablet, but it is not available yet and it is expensive. If the advertising on the website is to be believed then they are trying to produce something which seems to fit almost exactly with what I want.

It is an e-reader, it can display PDF files (and e-pub files but I have no e-pub files), it cannot display plain text files which I think is a bad decision on the part of the designers.

There are an awful lot of legacy text files out there. But to be fair the text files could be printed to PDF files but this will increase their size.

Which brings us to the question of storage. The reMarkable tablet has 8 GB for storing documents and notes and drawings. This may seem like a lot but it’s only 100,000 pages. I can envisage filling that, maybe not very quickly but it is possible that I might be able to fill it up. There is no expansion, no SD card slot and the USB socket seems to be only for charging.

Once the storage is full you will have to either delete something or transfer something to a computer to make room for new items.

It is also big, just a little less than A4 size, 18 cm by 26 cm (7 inches by 10 inches). This is good for reading but definitely not pocket sized. What is needed is a small version which I could put in my pocket, 5 inches by 7 inches would be ideal, I wouldn’t use this as an e-reader just as a notepad.

Although it is not ideal it is far better than any other solution I have yet discovered so I ordered one. At the moment (in June 2017) there is a 33% discount on pre orders but I will have to wait five months, current delivery schedule is October but that keeps going up because demand is greater than their production rate.

If they had a pocket sized version then I would probably be ordering both the big and small versions, especially if they could transfer notes and documents between them.

I will write a review of it when I get it.






8 thoughts on “A different approach to Note Taking

  1. I know several well-organized academics who are prolific note-takers who swear by the iPad and have enthusiastically demonstrated it. I’ve not taken the plunge yet. Apparently using a matt screen saver makes the writing experience more tactile. You can also rest your hand on the screen unlike with the Samsung system. Some research certainly appears to support the idea that writing by hand is better for cognitive processing than typing, at least for some tasks.

    • This may be true but I am not going to get one. It seems to me that Apple is overpriced for what you get and although my play with one was only about five minutes (not enough) I was also put off by the overzealous sales person.

      Besides I have already pre-ordered the reMarkable tablet.

  2. The remarkable tablet looks like it has a lot of potential. I hope it can live up to everyone’s expectations. You’ll probably still need an additional way to organize though. I have contacted them to ask if they provide integration with third-party applications so other services can import these sketches and allow you to use them in a personal knowledge base.

  3. Concerning your comments about ConnectedText, I sincerely hope that you’re wrong and that development resumes one day (fingers crossed).

    As for handwritten notes, another development to keep an eye on is convertible Chromebooks with handwriting recognition. Currently there are only two on the market, Samsung Chromebook Plus and Pro, but there are more in the pipeline, and as long as Google doesn’t abandon Chromebooks as such, this could emerge as the main avenue for handwritten note-taking (if US schools continue to adopt Chromebooks at the current rate). I haven’t tried the Plus/Pro myself yet but I am following it closely (being a big Chromebook fan). It seems that currently one is still restricted to Android apps such as Squid (some Chromebooks now can run Android apps, and supposedly all most Chromebooks will in the future), but that may change, as Chrome OS evolves.

    Basically it looks like Samsung’s Galaxy Note product range with the S Pen has basically cracked handwritten note-taking. I’ve seen the S Pen in action and it’s very impressive. I wonder if the iPad pens are as good. Unfortunately for me, both Samsung and Apple are companies whose products I want to have nothing to do with (other than the Apple iPod Touch, which is the only option for a smart phone without the phone).

  4. P.S. As for CT + Boogie Board Sync, that combo continues to work for me. CT runs perfectly on my Win7 laptop with a FHD screen (though I understand your problems with the high DPI). I sync my BB notes via Bluetooth, I have a semi-automated workflow (a couple of clicks) to convert the PDFs into .PNG image files (in PDF-XChange Editor), and then drag and drop them into a CT topic. It’s a bit convoluted, but the benefit is that my handwritten notes are integrated into my knowledge base, rather than being lost or forgotten in binders gathering dust on my shelf.

    • Dr Andus said :- It’s a bit convoluted, but the benefit is that my handwritten notes are integrated into my knowledge base, rather than being lost or forgotten in binders gathering dust on my shelf.
      That is exactly what I’m looking for but the Boogie Board seems more like a toy, it is a write only solution, once a page has been saved you cannot review or edit it, it is gone, until it appears on your computer.

      That is a big disadvantage in my opinion.

      Even the Sharp WG-N20 is better than the Boogie board in that respect.

      • Pen and paper is a write-only solution as well. 😉 While the BB Sync is a limited appliance in functionality (though it does have some other interesting features like being able to use it do draw directly on the screen of a connected device, which then, if projected, is excellent in live presentations to an audience in a room as a whiteboard solution that also saves your notes), it needs to be understood that it is a symbiotic device, i.e. it needs to be used with another device (a computer, tablet or smartphone with blutetooth and the BB Sync app on it) simultaneously. It only takes a second to sync one note. Then the problem of not being able to see or alter the notes disappears. In fact I sometimes add my own typewritten notes onto the PDF before turning it into an image file and sticking it into CT. But one needs to accept these limitations.

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