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TUAW Review: Write and organize handwritten notes on your iPad with Penultimate

To look at my office, you wouldn't know right away that I'm a digital kind of guy. Rather than pull up a text editor on any one of the digital devices that surround me, I'd rather grab a pen and scrawl a note on a Post-it™ note. Eventually, the notes are either trashed or fall under some piece of equipment, so they're definitely not for long-term use. Over the years, I've also accumulated a pile of loose-leaf binders, Moleskines, and other notebooks containing the detritus from my brain.

Now that I am iPad-equipped, I finally want to move my note-taking over to the digital age. I've looked at a number of iPad apps, and most of them didn't fit my main requirement of being able to make multiple notebooks for different tasks. When I saw Penultimate from Cocoa Box Design (US$2.99 for early adopters), i finally pulled the trigger on buying a notebook app for the iPad.

While it's not perfect (I'll explain why in my review), Penultimate is the closest to what I'm looking for in an iPad note-taking app. Read the rest of this short review and check out the gallery to see what Penultimate is all about.



The idea behind Penultimate is that you can have a set of notebooks available right at your fingertips on the iPad. Each notebook can have a unique name and number of pages, and one of three types of paper on each page -- graph paper, lined paper, or plain paper. You don't type into Penultimate; instead, you use a finger or a stylus to write or draw on the page. Your tool set is limited to a pen, an eraser, and redo / undo buttons. I noticed that using a finger as your "pen" works much better. When I used a stylus, my hand wanted to rest on the "page," which either erased the page or turned to a new page. This could be resolved by putting the tools somewhere else than on the bottom of the page.

Penultimate comes with one notebook already filled in. It's called "Welcome to Penultimate," and it's an interactive guide to using the app. To create a new notebook, you tap the "New Notebook" button on the default My Notebooks page. Tough, huh? If you want to send a complete notebook to someone, there's a button for that below the notebook. You can also tap a button on each page to send a page or complete notebook via email.

Sending a page or notebook actually saves the "paper" as a PDF file, which is then emailed. Since I save most of my business documents in PDF format in my Dropbox, that's a very cool feature and a good way to back up my scrawls. The notebooks look great, like an electronic version of the popular Field Notes notebooks. However, Penultimate notebooks can have more than the 48 pages allotted to the Field Notes, you get as many as you want instead of three pocket-size memo books for $9.95 plus shipping, and you can read your Penultimate notebooks in a completely dark room!

I realize that this is the first version of this app and that there will probably be many new features in upcoming versions, but one thing I would really like to see is the ability to type onto a page. When I take notes during client visits, I'd like to be able to send those notes to the client in a legible form that they can read. That precludes my handwritten notes, which are legible only by me and my cat. I'd also like to see the ability to draw or write in different colors, as I often like to write notes in one color and then highlight them in another for emphasis.

Those Field Notes notebooks do have a lot of style, including that lovely sans serif font that graces the front of each notebook. I'd love to have Penultimate print the name of the virtual notebook onto the cover in that same font. Finally, it would be very cool to have a way to link directly to services such as Dropbox and Evernote to save copies of notebooks. Dropbox is apparently working on a way to email files to your account, so that may be something that will be solved quickly for Cocoa Box Design.

For me, Penultimate is turning out to be another big stepping stone on my way to a (finally!) paperless office. Be sure to take a look through the gallery above to see Penultimate in action.

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