WritePad for iPhone and iPad
WritePad is an app from Stan Miasnikov that brings handwriting recognition to the iPhone and iPod touch; iPad users have a version all their own, WritePad for iPad. Having owned two Newton MessagePads, I’ve been eager to add handwriting recognition to my iOS devices’ bag of tricks.
WritePad offers several modes of operation: View, Handwriting, and Keyboard. In View mode, your screen gestures allow you to scroll up and down through your text and tap on phone numbers, email addresses and URLs to open them in the associated apps. Keyboard mode is what you’d expect but it also provides a useful auto-completion option that improves upon the iOS’s functionality.
Handwriting mode, though, is what the app is all about, and here there are two options—full screen, which lets you write anywhere on the screen, and a text input panel which provides a special text editing area that pops up from the bottom of the screen.
In Handwriting mode, your screen gestures are converted into text. (More about that in a moment.) A button on the toolbar brings up the setting screen that provides many text-conversion options, such as auto-learning your handwriting patterns, auto-correcting common spelling mistakes, auto-capitalization, and so forth. Other options let you tell the app how you tend to form each letter of the alphabet and whether or not you’d like it to ignore your palm resting on the screen. Other buttons on the bottom toolbar provide access to the undo/redo feature, enable the spellchecker and specify whether you want all caps, mixed case, lower case or numbers/symbols.
Using the full screen option, you can write anywhere on the screen and the converted text will appear after you pause for a short amount of time. (Like almost everything in the app, there’s a setting for this.) There are special gestures for deleting text, inserting spaces, removing spaces and so forth. Text selection, deleting, and cut/copy/paste are handled in standard iOS fashion. When you use the input panel, your handwriting is converted in near-realtime, and there are easier-to-use keys for common editing options. However, you can see only a few characters at a time and your text only appears in the document when you tap the “return” key.
The app provides a useful “shorthand” utility. For example, writing the word “date” and circling it will insert the current date. Several of these shortcuts come built-in with the app; you can also create your own. WritePad also provides a built-in calculator that evaluates your handwritten formulas. Your documents can be saved to Dropbox, converted to PDF or shared via email, Google Docs, Twitter or Facebook. You can also share documents directly with other iOS users via Wi-Fi.
The $4 iPhone version of the app works similarly to the $10 iPad version, with the obvious exception of the different screen size. It may come as no shocker that the iPad version is easier to use because of the larger screen. So, if you’re like me, you’ll get better results using a stylus with the iPhone. Additionally, the developer offers language-specific versions of the iPad app and provides a “medical pack” as an in-app purchase. (It would be nice to have multiple languages available within a single app.)
So, how does WritePad’s handwriting recognition fare? I think that it works acceptably well but I’m not overly impressed. I found that it performs best when I write carefully with large letters, and it is far less accurate when I write normally. This is where one would expect that the app would get better over time, however I can’t vouch for how well it has picked up on my style. Perhaps my normal handwriting is too illegible, or perhaps I simply haven’t provided WritePad sufficient time to learn my quirks. (My Newtons learned quickly.). But my converted text usually requires quite a bit of editing. It has taken me awhile to get used to the app’s editing gestures and I would prefer that it use the standard proofreader’s marks.
I also find the user interface to be too cluttered and confusing. The developer has apparently tried to make up for this by prompting you go through the tutorial before using the app the first time, but I think that’s a poor solution that could be better solved by simplifying the user interface.
Pros and cons aside, the most important question is how well the app suit your needs. I mainly need an app for taking meeting notes and I found WritePad lacking in that regard. My notes tend to be a combination of lists (bullets and numbers) and sketches, but WritePad provides no built-in tools for working with lists and it doesn’t handle graphics at all. (Note: the developer offers a separate app called PhatPad that handles text and graphics together.) But for composing simple notes, emails, tweets and Facebook updates, then WritePad works quite well.
I would prefer that handwriting recognition were integrated into iOS and available system wide, but with the arrival of Siri in the iPhone 4S, it’s obvious that Apple is leaning in another direction. So here’s hoping that the developer continues to improve WritePad for those of us who appreciate handwriting input on our iOS devices.
[Brian Beam is a software designer and partner with web development firm BOLD Internet Solutions, living somewhere near Kansas City.]