The Search For A Digital Notebook

Posted on July 5, 2013

I like gadgets. Plain and simple. If it’s cool, new, and uses some form of technology, there is a good chance I have it. From micro projectors to tablets to arial drones, i’ve pretty much tried everything that’s available at this moment. Despite owning way to much tech for the average guy, theres one device that continues to elude me.

And that is the digital notebook.

I have always loved this concept. It’s so much easier to just throw a tablet in your backpack as opposed to several large notebooks. As a current college student, I see the benefit for a device like this every day, and am continually shocked that no one recognizes this market and has stepped up to produce a truly worthwhile notebook replacement. I’ve put a decent amount of effort into this, probably too much. But at least I can chronicle some of my experiences for you here.

What I am looking for a in a good tablet:

  • Large screen (bigger than these 8″ tablets that are starting to pop up) so it can mimic an 8.5×11 page as close as possible
  • Fantastic battery life. I want to leave this thing in my backpack and not have to pull it out every night to charge
  • Great exporting/syncing options
  • Digitizer, none of this capitative stylus crap.
  • Intuitive apps.

The ideal use case for a tablet such as this is to have a simple device that can stay in your backpack and allow easy, quick, and accurate note taking. These notes are then automatically synced across all your devices, so you can access and study whenever it is convenient.


Note: The following descriptions are by no means intended as reviews, but simply my experiences and why I did, or did not like each individual product.


LiveScribe Smart Pen

The first thing I tried, way back in high school, was the Livescribe smart pen. I stayed with Livescribe through two evolutions of their pen (the first original smart pen, and then the Echo). This is an awesome piece of technology and the company has really done a good job with it. The desktop client works pretty well, and the pen itself takes a little getting used to, but is also well made.

This was a decent solution for a while, but I found it was lacking in two main areas. First you had to plug the pen in every night to transfer your notes (this has been addressed in the newer Sky version I believe). This was a big hassle and quickly grew annoying. Also, the biggest problem with the¬†Livescribe smart pen is that it’s not a true digital solution to notes. You still have to lug around all your big heavy notebooks and make sure you have the right pen with a full charge to actually take notes. While this isn’t THAT big of deal, I quickly grew tired of it and moved on to look for a new solution.


HP Tablet PC

I made a big step up and bought a full fledged tablet PC. You know, the ones with the single swivel hinge in the middle that engineers are always running around with on college campuses. The biggest advantage of this was having Microsoft OneNote and a full digitizer. The note taking experience took some getting used to, but overall was pretty smooth.

What I didn’t like about the HP, was the fact that it was a full fledged computer. I didn’t need that. All I wanted to do was take notes and leave it at that. But having all this extra power and overhead to run a full fledged OS meant really bad battery life. Also this meant it was very expensive. I was constantly worried about it in my backpack taking too big of a jolt or fall. Oh and also the hard drive died after two weeks. I returned the computer and never bought a tablet PC, or a HP again.


Apple iPad

I bought every single stylus and every single note taking app that came onto the market for about a year. Some apps have taken note taking on the iPad a long way and offer features that make it slightly less painful to write on a capacitive screen, such as palm rejection and pressure simulation. But if you plan to take notes with any speed that are legible, skip this option completely.


Asus Eee Note EA800

I found this little gem my sophomore year of college due to some heavy google searching magic. Asus made this tablet a few years ago and marketed it specifically to artists. It’s basically a low powered 8″ tablet with a non-backlit LCD display, Wacom digitizer and a really really really bad version of linux. The product page is still up on Asus’s site, but the device was never really sold in the US, or much of anywhere really. It was mainly sold in the UK, and in China. This made getting one a real pain. But for the determined, anything is possible! It took some searching but after a few weeks I found one for sale from China on eBay, and payed a little over $300 for it. Which is absurd in retrospect.

I got the tablet and used it for taking notes for a few months. It was good at a few things, namely battery life and being small and light. The battery life would last almost a week if used only during classes, and the form factor wasn’t bad. It was so small that it could quickly disappear in a backpack, but I also found myself having to hit “New Page” every minute or two because my writing filled up the screen too quickly.

Now the bad parts. The screen and the OS were atrocious. The screen was a non backlit LCD, which basically made it look an e-ink screen with awful contrast. The OS came from the factory with Chinese, but with a little tweaking in the system files you can convert it to English. Since it’s basically running linux, you can obviously hack the crap out of it, and there’s a pretty decent community online that does just that and still holds tight to these things despite their many drawbacks. But, it basically comes with a bad note taking app, a calculator, calendar, a few bad games, and a terminal (which is awesome, it’s running linux remember!). There was no support for 3rd party anything so I knew this wasn’t getting any better. There is no Mac client for this, so configuring and transferring data to it requires a PC (and the included app never worked in parallels for me on my Macbook Pro). Exporting the notes was a little deceiving. The Eee Note has Evernote baked in, which at first seems awesome, and is. Until you hit a certain data threshold. This little device will happily export all your notebooks to Evernote as long as you have less than a certain number of pages (I forget the magic number, but it’s somewhere around 75 I believe). After this point, you’re screwed as theres no other way to get the notes off of the device. I found myself creating multiple notebooks just so I wouldn’t hit this export threshold. But I eventually had enough and sold it on eBay for almost what I payed for it. I’ll take it.


Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1

My hope was fading at this point, and I actually used real paper and pens for a one semester of college (gasp, I know). But then I found this new little tablet from Samsung on an impromptu trip to BestBuy. I played around with it for a few minutes, googled some reviews (not many as it had just been released the week prior), and bought it on the spot. Now this is a pretty good device, and it’s what I am currently using. The bundled S-Note app is pretty good (although I left it behind after a few weeks – but that story is in Part II), and the stylus is one of the most accurate I have tested. The battery life is pretty great as well. It usually lasts about 2-3 days on a full charge – I’ll take it.

Despite the good, I still have a few things I don’t like about it. First off is build quality. Yes it barely leaves my backpack, but I cringe every time it does. It’s shrouded in ugly grey plastic, and I’m pretty sure the thing creaks when it flexes. The stylus is the famous Samsung S-Pen, which isn’t bad, but It’s not great either. It’s more poorly constructed plastic that will actually bend if you press decently hard with it. Second is Android. I hate Android. And this isn’t because I’m some bandwagon iOS fan either. I owned the original Motorola droid, and have since bought numerous Android tablets (close to 3 I think…). But it doesn’t help the fact that Android is downright ugly, and bloated to hell and back. The Note is no exception. it’s loaded with so many google and samsung apps (that you can’t delete) that it makes my head spin. The lack of organizational customizability in the menu drawer drives me insane, and the baked in Samsun “S” suite of apps isn’t necessarily the best thing to ever happen to the tech scene. Also, the tablet UI that android has optimized places the notification draw exactly where the average right handed writer will rest their arm on the screen. This is annoying has half the time when you go to write something, this drawer pops up instead.

The Galaxy Note was close to what I was looking for, but it wasn’t quite there yet. I still needed to find a good note taking app and set up syncing the way I wanted. And that story is more fun, because I got to write code!