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Targus iNotebook: Pen, paper and iPad

Targus iNotebook Pen, paper and iPad

Despite having the latest in high technology at my fingertips, I like to take notes on good old paper. Yeah, I know -- I should at least snap photos of my scrawls and upload them to Evernote, but being middle-aged, it's hard to get rid of some old habits. Targus has just released an iPad accessory that may work for me (and Dave Caolo, my paper-notebook-addicted cohort here at TUAW) by letting me write on regular paper with a real pen, and capturing my notes in an iPad app. The iNotebook (US$179.99) isn't exactly as inexpensive as a pad of paper and a regular pen or pencil, but it offers a way to capture, annotate, and organize your handwritten notes.

Design

iNotebook doesn't need to be near your iPad all the time. It's able to capture and store up to 100 pages of notes that can then be synced to the iPad with a touch of a button. That's a good thing, since the iNotebook is about the size of an iPad in a case, meaning you'd have to lug around two devices.

Inside the nice case -- there are two varieties, one made of black leather, the other covered with cloth -- you'll find a notepad. You don't need to use this particular notepad, so if you happen to be a fan of Moleskine's Professional Notebook you can drop one of those in. There's a place for the back cover to slide into so that the paper notebook doesn't move too much while you're using it.

There's one negative point to using the iNotebook -- both the sensor in the case and the pen need to be charged before use. Both have a mini-USB connector, and there's a handy two-headed charging cable included so you can charge both pieces at once. The pen takes about six hours to charge fully, while the sensor charges in about three and a half hours. On the plus side, once both are charged up and ready to go, they'll happily wait up to 60 days for you to use them in standby mode. Working life when not paired to your iPad is about 15 hours, but only about six hours when you're paired via Bluetooth.

While waiting for everything to charge up, I took the time to install the free iNotebook App that provides the repository for your notes. It's of the skeumorphic design school, with a cherry wood bookshelf with all of your virtual notebooks. Those notebooks can be named anything you want, and with a tap and drag, your individual captured note pages can be moved to any notebook.

The pen comes with a trio of refills so you can continue to take notes and not throw out the pen. Additional refills can be purchased for $7.99 for a pack of ten.

So, how does the sensor know where the pen is on the piece of paper? The sensor is covered with a transparent red plastic and there are what look like IR LEDs behind a transparent part just above the pen tip. It's smart that they're using IR to do this, since the iNotebook itself uses Bluetooth to talk to the iPad and you wouldn't want any battling Bluetooth signals.

Functionality

Let's start with the charging process. There's a red LED on the pen that shows when it is charging, and a red icon on the sensor that glows during its charging period. Both LEDs go out when charging is complete.

Pairing the iPad and iNotebook is easy. While in the Bluetooth settings on the iPad, you press and hold the power button on the iNotebook until a green light flashes, then press the Bluetooth button on the iNotebook until the blue light flashes. Once iNotebook appears in the list of Bluetooth devices on your iPad, you tap the device name to pair it.

In the iNotebook app, you tap the New icon on the bookshelf to create a new notebook, then open the notebook with another tap. Another tap on the New icon creates a new page. At this point, you can start writing in the notebook. Whenever a page is filled, you either tap the + icon to add a new page, or press the physical "page" button on the sensor.

I like the fact that there's no special paper or notebook required for the iNotebook. Basically, anything that is 5 inches wide by 8 inches tall or smaller can be used.

Now, let's get into the actual operation of this device. The first unit I got wouldn't charge up, and fortunately the folks at Targus were good about sending a second test device and taking the first back for troubleshooting. However, I had some issues with the second unit that made me a bit trepidatious about recommending the iNotebook.

The first issues came about when I had linked the device to my iPad and was busily writing on the paper pad watching my writing being captured in digital ink on the iPad. Very cool! Then, all of a sudden, I noticed the writing capture turning to an illegible pile of scrawls. I also had a problem where some text was suddenly angled on the page differently from the rest of the text.

That was just plain odd. I was able to figure out what caused the first problem to happen -- the notebook was just thick enough that the upper right corner of the page was sticking up and blocking the sensors. There's a small elastic band that can be used to hold down the corner of the page and stop that problem. The angled text seem to occur when I slightly changed the position of my hand of the page while writing. I was able to get the hang of how to hold my hand pretty quickly, so that issue went away.

Next, I decided to try writing in the notebook, capturing my pen motions while nowhere near the iPad. I turned on the unit and as I wrote, I saw the flickering green icon that indicated that my writing was being captured. When I was done writing (it was a list of dinners for the week), I went to transfer that to my iPad.

The first time I tried, the green light on the iNotebook went solid green, indicating that the sensor memory was full. I doubted that, since I was on page three of my notebook. I kept trying to import the writing from the sensor, and kept getting an error message. Not good. And finally, I found that I could not turn the sensor off. I found a small hole next to the switches, and used my handy iPhone SIM removal tool to reset the unit.

After that, I was able to do the import of information from the sensor unit. Although I had written three pages of text, the app imported a full eleven pages. Five of those were blank, three had drawings I had not made, and the other three were the pages I had created. I erased all of the pages that weren't mine, and then used the "clear sensor memory" command in the app to hopefully get rid of the garbage pages.

WIth that done, I decided to shut off the iNotebook and turn off the iPad, and try again. I wrote a complete page of handwritten notes, then turned on the iPad and imported that information into my digital notebook in the iNotebook app. The import showed that I had accumulated 42,442 bytes and it slowly brought the information into the iPad.

Sure enough, my writing was straight and almost as clear as what I had written into the notebook. Victory at last! With four pages of handwritten notes now in the app, I decided to use the app to try sharing the notes.

For individual pages, you can email a page. This saves the page as a PNG file and emails it. Pages can also be saved to the Camera Roll, saved to Dropbox, or printed. For a group of pages in a notebook, you can email, print or save to Dropbox from the Export command. Multiple pages are saved as a PDF before mailing.

A couple of thoughts about the software. It's quite easy to create a group of notebooks -- say one for each class you're taking or project you're working on -- to put on your virtual shelf, organize the notes by tabs, and move pages to different tabs. To do the latter, you just slide a page to a particular tab. That's quite intuitive.

Finally, there are a number of pens and annotation tools that can be used after the fact when your notes are in the iNotebook app. You can add text boxes, use highlighters, and more. There's also a voice notes feature that could come in handy to provide a verbal backup to your written notes.

Conclusion

Despite the few issues I ran into, I eventually got everything working properly. I would suggest to anyone who wants to use an iNotebook for classes or work to practice with it for a while to make sure you get the hang of writing, capturing, and transferring notes. Once you're up to speed, then you should be able to use the iNotebook with no problems.

However, to me there just seem to be too many manual steps involved in capturing your notes. Open the notebook, turn it on, grab the pen, write, make sure the iNotebook is connected to your iPad, launch the app, import the captured information, send the information to yourself or others via email or Dropbox. It's a workflow that just doesn't make me want to use the device.

As much as I wanted to like the iNotebook, there is an alternative available that I feel might be more useful to those who want to use handwriting to take notes. The Evernote Smart Notebooks by Moleskine ($24.95 to $29.95) don't require any batteries, sensors, or special pens. Basically, they're regular Moleskine notebooks with a special page design. You can write on them with any pen or pencil, then take a photo with the Evernote Page Camera app for iOS and they're "cleaned up" and uploaded automatically to Evernote. In addition, the service (which requires an Evernote premium account) also allows users to place special stickers on pages to automatically tag them for searching in various categories.

Another way to keep handwritten notes that has a drop-dead simple workflow is to use an app like Penultimate ($0.99) and a stylus to just write the notes right onto the iPad. That way you don't have a notebook and an iPad to keep track of, and your notes can be on a variety of different "paper" types. Photos can be embedded in your notebook pages, and since the app has been purchased by Evernote, it's simple to sync your notebooks with both Dropbox and Evernote.

The iNotebook is an interesting device, but make sure that you really have a need for a separate device to capture handwritten notes before you consider purchasing one. And seriously, think about the workflow involved -- if your notes go to Evernote anyway, either the Smart Notebooks or Penultimate might be a much less expensive and "busy" alternative.

Honestly, when I want to take notes, I want to just sit down and write 'em, not worry about whether my notebook and pen are charged, whether or not the pen motions are being captured, or whether or not those motions will be transferred to the iPad app. The iNotebook isn't the device for me, but it might work for you.

Pros

  • Good looks, and much less obtrusive in meetings than an iPad since it just looks like a regular notebook
  • Ability to use different notebooks, plus standard pen refills
  • App provides good organization and annotation tools

Cons

  • A rather expensive way to take handwritten notes
  • No direct way to upload to Evernote
  • Workflow is somewhat complex unless you rarely upload your notes to the iPad -- it's just easier to write on the iPad or just take a photo of your handwritten notes

Who is it for?

  • Those who prefer to take handwritten notes but want a way to capture them electronically

Giveaway

Although the iNotebook didn't receive a rave review from TUAW, we're giving one of these away to a TUAW reader for whom it may be the perfect answer to capturing handwritten notes. Here are the rules for the giveaway:

  • Open to legal US residents of the 50 United States, the District of Columbia and Canada (excluding Quebec) who are 18 and older.
  • To enter, fill out the form below completely and click or tap the Submit button.
  • The entry must be made before December 26, 2012 11:59PM Eastern Standard Time.
  • You may enter only once.
  • One winner will be selected and will receive a Targus iNotebook valued at $179.99
  • Click Here for complete Official Rules.