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Tablet Artistry: Tools and Styluses Tested

Use a pen to take notes: Use Your Handwriting and Bamboo Paper

If you’ve ever used Square--that gadget small sellers at markets or festivals attach to iPhones so they accept credit card payments-- you’ll know that you can do a reasonable job of writing a signature with your finger on an iPhone screen. But, that’s very different from writing words and notes in any detail. Tablets are the size of a notebook or pad of paper, so why do you have to tap everything out on a touch keyboard?

Use Your Handwriting lets you write notes, on what looks like an old-fashioned slate, in gently glowing text that looks unusually neat. It isn’t doing handwriting recognition, just using a calligraphic ‘nib’ for your strokes, with three options (hard, soft and fragile) that give slightly different effects. The slate takes up a lot of room on screen and you get a writing area that’s only about a third of the screen; when you get to the side of the screen your handwriting disappears to give you more writing space – you can speed that up by switching on the ‘hyperwriting mode’ that lets you start writing at the left-hand edge straight away but if you haven’t written all the way to the right-hand edge you can end up overwriting your first letter instead so it’s faster but trickier.

Inserting space leaves a blank area in your writing – use it to add words rather than get space for writing. You can undo one stroke at a time, delete the whole line or turn the pen into an eraser (the eraser icon also brings up the different pen colors, including a rainbow pen that changes color).

You’re not limited to one line of writing; double-tap to get a new line. You can also turn one note into a new list (the built-in lists are hidden under the theme button because they’re organized by ink color, though you can name them instead).

You can get up to a reasonable speed with handwriting, but you can’t see the whole note until you finish or edit it and going back and forth across the screen between the ‘new note’ button at the top, the handwriting area at the bottom and the ‘Done’ button to save a note in the middle of the screen slows you down on a large screen like an iPad.

Use Your Handwriting has some handy features; if you're writing a to-do or shipping list, you can check off items and press Zap to delete them all. And you can copy handwriting into other apps, although only if you copy every note you write – and what you paste is a picture of your handwriting, not the words. That makes this useful and definitely artistic – a handwritten ‘thank you’ note looks great - but not a complete alternative for the keyboard.

Bamboo Paper

Wacom’s companion iPad app for the Bamboo Stylus (currently free) is a simple notebook that lets you write, draw or scribble – and save either a page or the whole book as a PDF, which makes it an interesting way to take notes. (You can also print, email or save individual pages as images but again, there’s no handwriting recognitions). You can pick four different colors for the cover and choose between blank, lined and squared paper (although annoyingly that changes the whole book, not just the current page). There are three pen thicknesses and six colours to choose from, plus and eraser, but you can’t create any new ink colours. And while you can bookmark a page or press and hold on the page number at the bottom of the screen to swipe through thumbnail pages, you can’t search.

What you can do is jot down notes, lists and ideas the way you would on paper. Bamboo Paper doesn’t tidy up the strokes of your handwriting but it does do better than many iPad apps at blocking scribbles from your hand if you lean it on the screen as you write; we still had some random marks on screen where the edge of a hand was detected as a pen but you can write more naturally than holding the stylus bolt upright. And writing with the stylus is definitely neater and faster here than using the tip of your finger.