Digital Note-Taking Writing Tablet or Digital Pen?

John Ismyname

I've been testing for a long time different ways of digital writing without keyboard and here is my conclusion: tablets PC are still very poorly adapted for this purpose. There are only two types of stylus tablets that I find good: Microsoft Surface Pro and Apple iPad Pro .
I bought a Microsoft Surface and found it good. I had a matte protective coating put on it that made it better.

About 10 years ago, I bought an Echo pen, which was really good! I would write with this pen into their special notebooks. As I reviewed my notes, I could touch an area of my handwriting and get audio playback synchronized to that particular point! It automatically made a PDF of my note-page! 10 years later, their technology has got to be much better!

The best solution i have found is old fashioned paper and pen augment with a audio recording. nine times out of ten, I never go back to my audio recording.

if I make digital text notes, I will transcribe my chicken scratch. If it's a lot of notes, I use Dragon Naturally speaking to expedite this process.


Bringing new life to an old thread.. :)

I was getting sick of having all my physical notes taking up so much space, never around when I needed them and a hazel to search through..
So I went out and bought a Microsoft Surface Pro 4, was looking at the iPad Pro also but wanted the device to have multiple purpose (as my laptop and note taking device)..

First of all I love my Surface its mobile, quick and it just works.. but.... With OneNote the writing experience is not what I expected, feels wrong somehow, not that responsive.. So against my better judgement I went out and bought an iPad Pro 10" whits the Apple Pen (gave it a good 6 months before switching device) and i must say I LOVE IT!!

I use it for note taking in meeting and leave it on the desk for quick notes just like a regular pad..

IMO the iPad Pro has a better writing experience over the Surface Pro.


Another 2018 update to this thread started in 2008. 10 years!

I love pen computers. I am a long-time (since Compaq Concerto, Windows for Pen Computing, circa 1993) user of pen/tablet computers. I am typing this on a Microsoft Surface Book, docked at my treadmill desk - last week I was using the SurfBook in tablet mode on an airplane.

Here's my current take - my current system for note taking:

1) my Apple Watch is my primary capture system for short notes. When I am connected to the cell phone network "Hey Siri: remind me to write a Blog entry about the limitations of OneNote for GTD". When I am not connected to the cell phone network, I use the "Just Press Record" watch app, which records your voice, and transcribe it to text. I have to collect my notes and reminders from these apps as part of my GTD reviews. Correcting the transcriptions is part of the collection process.

I wish that I could get away with only using one watch app for such notes. Probably "Just Press Record". It's nice that JPR works disconnected, and also that JPR saves both voice and transcription, so you can figure out what hilarious errors Apple speech-to-text makes. But "Hey Siri" can be totally voice controlled, whereas "Just Press Record" is slightly more hassle to use, requires poking at the watch screen (sometimes with my nose). It's so darned tempting to use. Should I admit that I sometimes use "Hey Siri" while driving, voice controlled?

BTW, the joy of being able to "take" quick verbal notes without having to pull out a phone or PC is one of the great benefits of the Apple Watch for me.

2) I also use the LiveScribe 3 pen. This "smart pen" writes using ink on paper, and then transfers what I have written to the LS+ app on my iPhone. From there, what I have written is transferred to a notebook in OneNote, that, again, I must scan as part of my GTD reviews.

Why do I use the "smart pen" writing on "smart paper", rather than handwriting notes on my iPhone and/or inside OneNote directly in my SurfBook convertible pen computer?

MOST IMPORTANT THING: batteries. My PC and iPhone occasionally are out of power, and unavailable to take notes. My SmartPen can also run out of power, but at least then I can use it as a non-smart pen, ink on paper. I would have to run out of both power and ink - and then I can always fall back to paper, and later scan the handwritten notes into OneNote.

Also: paper backup and convenience. Once I have written it onto paper, I feel confident that I can keep the note around until my GTD review. Whereas I have lost stuff written digitally in so many different ways - synch errors, software bugs. Having the paper backup just makes me feel safe, and removes a source of stress. Plus, I often arrange my todo items on a wall or whiteboard, and wrioting notes on

ALMOST EQUALLY IMPORTANT: I can take paper notes much m,ore quickly than I can open up an app on my iPhone or PC to take notes. Less friction. The only thing that I have found easier is voice notes on my Apple Watch.

The LiveScribe pen is far from ideal. E.g. the way it synchronizes with OneNote leaves much to be desired. But, it usually works.

3) as mentioned above, I have an MS Surface Book - the big brother to the Surface or Surface Pro. It is a convertible tablet, can be used in both clamshell mode with a keyboard, and as at tablet

While I occasionally use the pen with my SurfBook, I find that I do so much less often than I have with previous tablet PCs (Compaq Concerto, Epson, Toshiba, Lenovo...). BIG REASON: the pen does not dock securely with the Surface Book. My previous pen computers have had physical slots or holes to store the pen securely. The Surface Book pen is magnetic. The magnet is strong, but not great. I have lost 3 pens so far. There are adhesive loops, the failure of which accounts for one of those lost pens. The next time I upgrade my PC, having secure physical storage for the pen will be a priority.

I most often use the SurfBook without the keyboard, as a tablet, on planes in Economy, where I cannot open the clamshell to use the keyboard. The touchscreen is sufficient to read email, review powerpoint slides. The pen is too likely to get lost in a plane seat pocket.

I most wish that I could use a pen when giving a presentation, wanting to use a shared whiteboard. But, if my pen has fallen off, I fall back to using touchscreen.

Apart from the problem of using the pen, it is quite a hassle to get out the tablet for quick notes.

But... not always. I took notes for 2 years of graduate school classes using an earlier pen computer. Unfortunayerly, MS OneNote seems to have gotten worse wrt pen management over the last 10 or so years.


A friend, a former coworker, used the LiveScribe Echo pen, whose gimmick was that it recorded voice as well as smart ink. He found it very useful to be able to go back to his notes, and then see what the speaker was talking about when the note was taken.

The LiveScribe 3+ pen has a similar feature. However, whereas the Echo pen records by itself, the LiveScribe 3+ pen relies on using your phone to do the recording. This is too much hassle.
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I've been testing for a long time different ways of digital writing without keyboard and here is my conclusion: tablets PC are still very poorly adapted for this purpose. There are only two types of stylus tablets that I find good: Microsoft Surface Pro and Apple iPad Pro, because it has good reaction and you can not only write texts, but paint with comfort.

As for digital pens, I am using Wacom Intuos Pro with Wacom MDP123 digital pen. I am painter and it's great for drawings, but I think it is not cool for simple text writing. So, if you want just type the text, the keyboard is the best solution in category price/quality.

I have been using pen computers since the Compaq Concerto circa 1993 [*]. I currently use a Surface Book.

IMHO support for "digital writing without a keyboard" has gotten WORSE. I used to write emails all the time by pen on airplanes. Now, I can barely stand doing so. I took all of my class notes on an Epson pen computer for several years of gradschool, using a combination of Aha!Inkwriter and InfoCentral (a graphical network database, not pen oriented). Microsoft bought Aha!Inkwriter, and I very much suspect that OneNote evolved out of that acquisition - but IMHO OneNote is less functional. OneNote's slavish implementation of the limitations of the paper notebook metaphor eliminate many of the advantages of having digital handwritten notes.


Note *: anecdote: this was the era of the Apple Newton, the false dawn of pen driven PDAs. I was contrarian - I would say to people at Intel "pen's are bad, what we really need is voice recognition". I bought the Concerto so that I could say this having given pen computers an honest chance. To my surprise, I fell in love with pen computers.

BTW^2, the same decline has also happened with voice recognition. Although voice recognition is much better nowadays, the usefulness of MS or Apple OS standard voice commands is much less than the usefulness of Dragon Naturally Speaking Pro in the 1990s. Pro - because it allows custom voice macros to be written.
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I use an Apple Pencil with either a 10.5" or a 12.9" iPad Pro depending on what I'm doing, and I combine this with Notability as it can both recognise my handwriting as well as record audio while I'm writing. It works really well, and there's no chance of missing documents or things getting blown off my desk my a stiff breeze and then being out of order!


Good to here from people about this. I pursued digital capture for a long time, but after the Apple Pencil appeared, I realized it was not what I wanted. A lot of my handwritten stuff was mathematical, and Apple now has reasonable support for LaTex equations. So I’m good there.

One thing I would like is a good replacement for a tool Omni discontinued called OmniGraphSketcher. It allowed you to produce easy, clean graphs by sketching that were perfect for lectures and presentations. If anyone has a suggestion, I would be grateful.
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John Welty

Agreed. I felt the same and it took me over a year before finally taking the dive. I haven't regretted it yet though. I'm finding it even more useful than I'd expected. I also have a Surface Pro 6 and a Surface Go. Yet the reMarkable is the only one I always take with me.