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PhatPad: a Newton-like note-taking app for iPad

There are so many good note-taking apps out for the iPad that it's hard to believe that someone just came out with one that will probably take the place of the ones we've already installed.

That's the case, though, with PhatPad (US$4.99). From PhatWare, a long-time developer of apps for handhelds and smartphones, PhatPad brings the best of Newton MessagePad note-taking to the iPad. That's right -- I just compared the ahead-of-its-time Apple Newton MessagePad of the 90s with the sleek and powerful iPad.

Two things that the later models of the Newton did very well were to convert handwriting to editable text, and to provide a way to sketch diagrams freehand and have them "cleaned up." By that, I mean that the built-in Newton software was able to take a scrawled circular shape and turn it magically into a perfect circle. It did the same for squares, rectangles and triangles.

PhatPad provides the same capabilities, and then it adds in the sharing capabilities that weren't available even in 1998 when the Newton product line was canceled by Apple. You can take handwritten notes and convert them to text later on, enter text via handwriting into text boxes placed in specific places on a blank page and annotate photos or other images with text or drawings. PhatWare's long experience in the handheld arena definitely shows in PhatPad. The app has many features that haven't been added in other note-taking apps.


Individual notes can be longer than one page, with buttons to tap to go forward or backward in a specific note. A lasso tool allows selection of text or graphic items on a page to move them, delete them or recognize them.

The handwriting recognition works pretty well. I won't say it's perfect -- no handwriting recognition is. But I'm very impressed on how quickly I can write something and have it converted to text. In cases where a word isn't recognized properly, it's possible to tap on it and see other possible words. The PhatPad recognition engine appears to be built on PhatWare's venerable CalliGrapher software, which has been available on various handheld platforms since 1997. I recommend using PhatPad with a stylus like the Pogo Stylus or Alupen, since that provides the most "pen-and-paper-like" experience.

Note that you don't have to use the handwriting recognition. PhatPad uses the standard keyboard entry as well, or you can save your notes as digital ink. Whatever works for your specific needs is what you can use to enter your notes or shapes. You can create multiple colors and sizes of pens that can be used in your note-taking.

The only complaints I have are pretty minor. First, although there is a line thickness adjustment available, it doesn't offer much of a range of widths. It would be nice to be able to create a pen that was a very thick "highlighter" that could highlight text with one stroke, but the only way to do that right now is to make the fattest possible pen and then "rub it" over the area you want to highlight. The other thing I'd like to see in PhatPad is a voice recorder. This is a very useful function to have in note-taking or brainstorming software, and it's available in many of PhatPad's closest competitors.

I was happy to see that version 1.0 of the software features Dropbox support. Documents can also be shared immediately with other iPads running PhatPad, synchronized via iTunes, emailed or exported as PDFs. If you want to create a quick hand-drawn presentation using PhatPad, it's possible to then show it using the presentation mode in a simple on-screen slide show. PhatPad also supports video out via the Dock Connector in case you decide to share your work with others.

I'll let PhatWare's video for PhatPad tell you the rest of the story. For a 1.0 release of an app, PhatPad is extremely polished, functional and bug-free. It's going to find a permanent spot on my iPad.

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