September 28, 2021

Taking Analog-Digital Notes

Is there a best way? No. But there is a way.

by @HarryGuinness

Writes words, takes photos, etc. Bylines at The New York Times, Popular Science, Men’s Fitness, Lifehacker, and more websites than I can count.
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Taking Analog-Digital Notes

There is something special about taking notes with a pen and paper; it just feels better and easier than typing them with a laptop. Not only can you write however you like, highlight, underline, or emphasize words as needed, and jump around the page in a way that can’t be replicated with an app, but you can also sketch pictures, diagrams, and mind maps, add notes to the margin, and otherwise do whatever you like with your blank canvas. There’s no need to learn off reams of keyboard shortcuts: it all just works.

And analog note-taking isn’t just superior to every app ever made from a UX perspective, it’s also a more efficient way to work. Researchers have found that students who handwrite their notes remember more than students who type them up. The digital dunces were more likely to write more and type things out verbatim, while the longhand writers were forced to process the information they were presented with and reframe it in their own words. They were more involved and so remembered more.

But digital note-taking does have a few things going for it: All your notes are saved in a secure, easily backed up, place; you can search, tag, and sort things more easily; you can embed multimedia like photos, videos, and audio; and, of course, you can easily edit your notes later on.

It can be hard to choose between digital and analog options—they both have pretty compelling advantages. As nice as pen and paper are, the digital backup means you can’t lose a notebook to a spilled coffee. Thankfully, there are a few devices, apps, and ideas that attempt to combine the best of both ways.

The Full-Digital Analog Hybrids

The ReMarkable 2 tablet is the big name in digital-analog hybrid tablets, though there are a few others out there like the BOOX Note Air.

The idea is simple: the ReMarkable 2 is a digital tablet that strives to emulate the feel of taking notes with a pen and paper. There’s no keyboard, just a stylus/pen. It uses e-ink instead of an LCD screen. ReMarkable has even tried to recreate the feel and sound of a pen moving across the page.

The digital angle is that all your notes can get synced to a smartphone app or cloud storage account. There, you can edit them, share them, and otherwise incorporate them into your digital workflow.

Reviews for these kinds of devices are somewhat mixed and seem to depend on how much the reviewer loves taking analog notes versus how much hassle they’re prepared to put up with to emulate the experience with a tablet. Tom’s Guide loved the ReMarkable 2; Wired wasn’t as pushed.

It doesn’t help that they cost upwards of $300.

Analog, Then Digital

There are a couple of different ways you can take pen-and-paper notes—and then transfer them to your digital devices or notes apps.

The notebook company Moleskine has been making big moves in this area. The $129 Smart Pen enables you to use Moleskine’s $29.95 Paper Tablets (yes, really) or $34.95 Smart Planner Pro. It works using an infrared camera and a dot-system on each page so the pen can track what you do. You can then transfer the notes to the Moleskine smartphone app, and keep your Paper Tablets on your shelf with your other journals.

Moleskine also has dedicated Dropbox ($29.95) and Adobe Creative Cloud ($32.95) notebooks. Instead of using an infrared-powered pen, you upload your notes or drawings to the matching service by scanning them with a dedicated app.

The app scanner idea is also how Rocketbook’s line of notebooks works (from $16). By using a Pilot Frixion pen, you’re able to wipe away your notes and reuse the notebook when it’s full and you’ve scanned all your notes to your cloud platform of choice.

Faking It With an iPad

There are also a few ways to fake the analog note-taking experience. How well it works for you really depends on what it is you crave about paper.

The iPad in all its variations is a fantastic tablet. Throw in an Apple Pencil and an app like GoodNotes 5 and you have most of the hallmarks of an analog note-taking setup. You can write how you like, jump around the page, and sketch whatever you want. Plus, you get the huge digital advantage of working on one just one device. You don’t have to use an app to scan things or otherwise transfer your notes to some cloud storage. They’re just there.

What the iPad, unfortunately, lacks is the look and feel of paper. Not much can be done about the look, but there is a way to fix the feel: get a paper-emulating screen protector. For $40, the Paperlike screen protector adds a paper-like texture to your iPad screen. It adds just enough friction that it feels like writing on a page, not using a stylus on a glass tablet.

Tradeoffs, Tradeoffs, Tradeoffs

As I’ve said before, there’s really no perfect note-taking option. All the digital-analog hybrid methods fall short in some way. Either they're not paper-like enough, the digital process is janky, or both. With these sorts of things you just have to go with the option that has the tradeoffs you can tolerate the most.

For what it’s worth, for me it’s faking it with an iPad and using a real notebook whenever I know I don’t need the data saving.

Photo by Alejandro Escamilla on Unsplash.

capital-plan-'s avatar
@capital-plan- (replying to HarryGuinness )
a year ago

To me, the big one missing from this list is ShareTheBoard:

We're big fans. Started using it to share whiteboards but the fact is that it works for any surface. Indeed, many of us just point a camera at the desk and share a piece of paper. The content is digitized in real time, without doing anything. So that's... analog AND digital.

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