There’s nothing new about entering text on iPad by hand, with varying degrees of success. Things got a little better with the first Bluetooth styluses, but it still depends on the app used. But the Apple Pencil for iPad Pro – and possibly a new “compact” model announced in late March – offers a rich new opportunity for real improvements.
■ Jenny Lemessager
Although Apple has long had its own similar technology, with their experience from the MessagePad and Newton OS, it has not yet done anything in this field – despite frequent rumors that Apple has no set policy in the matter. For now, the company MyScript (headquartered in Nantes, France, with offices in the United States, Japan, and Korea) has been the one to offer a genuine handwriting recognition technology on iPad as well as OS X. MyScript has developed many iOS apps. Behind the scenes, many other companies and publishers use its technology. For example, the recognition feature of the Bamboo Spark, recently presented in VVMac magazine, is based on MyScript. MyScript has several native apps for iOS, as well as two alternative “keyboards.” All of them are free. MyScript uses these apps to demonstrate its proficiency, and sells its technology to third parties.
MyScript Smart Note (1) offers handwriting recognition, both locally (directly on the iPad device) and various export functions, particularly Latex conversion (in-app purchase). MyScript Memo is a stripped-down version of MyScript Smart Note, but only handles one notebook, and converting the notes, which is done on remote servers, takes an Internet connection. The export is limited to being shared (copy, email, or SMS), but it gives a rough idea of the quality of the recognition. The recognition concept is the same on both apps. First you write, then you use the Lasso tool to surround the area to be “translated” before asking to export. Once the language has been defined, the text is recognized and ready to be used. The software also supports drawing charts (with the pencil tool) and allows for several enhancements (importing images and sounds and recognizing equations).
The publisher also offers two math-oriented apps: MyScript Calculator and MyScript MathPad (2). These allow the user to hand-enter calculations and equations which are automatically digitized – with the calculations solved to boot! The second app is more equation-oriented and allows exports in Latex or MathML to make them easier to reuse in other programs. These apps are also free of charge, with some in-app purchases to access an “advanced” export function.
None of the MyScript apps have yet been specifically updated for iPad Pro, but the pencil’s precise line-drawing and the palm rejection feature make them easy to use.
If you don’t want to use an app, but rather handwriting as an input system, you can use the MyScript Stylus and MyScript Stack “keyboards.” These alternative “keyboards” can therefore be used from iOS 8. They replace the touch keyboard with a writing surface on which letters or words can be drawn. MyScript Stack is more suited to the iPhone: The user draws letters in it one at a time; they are directly recognized and inserted into the open app.
This system is reminiscent of entering text on old Palm devices, for those who had one. MyScript Stylus (3) is a genuine “handwriting” keyboard that includes all the strengths of the apps, with commands to insert line breaks and spaces, or to join or separate words, using special gestures that really work. iPad Pro is not yet supported, so the drawing area is a bit off, but this is not really bothersome. The characters are recognized on-the-fly, with suggestions being offered as on the Apple keyboard, and words inserted as you go. Corrections can be made at any time; a two-finger gesture brings up digitized characters that had previously been recognized, which can be rewritten, inserted, erased, or changed – even if they had not been entered using the handwriting keyboard. MyScript Stylus is a very powerful tool, compatible with absolutely all iOS applications.
Texting with one hand using Pencil, or any stylus for that matter, is child’s play. It’s perfectly feasible to enter a long text – in fact, that’s how I wrote this article on my own iPad Pro! The only criticism I might have is about the current position of the erase key, which is right under your hand and could be activated by mistake.
MyScript Stylus supports fourteen languages (including English) that do not require giving full access to the keyboard, and thirty-nine other languages that do.
SOME ALTERNATIVE TOOLS
Besides the MyScript tools, another app deserves mentioning: WritePad (4) which is available for iPhone or iPad ($5). It’s an app as well as a keyboard. It too has not yet been updated for iPad Pro. In the app, you can either write wherever you like, or use a special text input area; the word suggestions appear above the input area, allowing you to select one to insert. There are no command gestures, and the display is worse overall than with MyScript apps. The same problem appears in the keyboard feature, which is not well-designed and departs from current standards. The keyboard-changing button is also located a totally unusual place. However, that keyboard does have a few shortcuts to add the date, delete text, or insert special characters, and supports digit entry. Unlike MyScript keyboards, confirming the text to send it to the application must be done manually, making it slower to use.
The last keyboard I chose, PenReader ($1, in-app purchase for English), is published by Paragon, which also specializes in handwriting recognition – it had sold an alternative system for Apple’s MessagePad. PenReader offers an input area suited to iPad Pro, but it’s very compact and loaded with options: cursive, digits, and abbreviations, which make the interface distracting. The handwriting language can be changed directly, and suggestions also appear during input. Unfortunately, unless you write in all caps, I didn’t find the technology convincing. You have to remember to insert spaces between each word by pressing a special key (otherwise the words will inevitably run together) and the suggestions are totally erratic and never seem to improve over time (no learning), whether in English or in French.
The iTunes Store also has other note-taking apps that incorporate recognition. The following two have been updated to support Pencil and have excellent palm rejection.
GoodNotes ($8) (5) is the most effective, with notepads that can accept all forms of input: drawings, diagrams, images, sounds, or PDF annotations. Handwriting can be “captured” with the lasso, then converted, and the result will be shared but not reinserted in place of the writing. This app syncs with its OS X version via various options (Dropbox in particular). As for Notes Plus ($7) (6), it doesn’t yet have a suitable interface for iPad Pro, but handles the Apple Pencil, which is automatically recognized. Its note pages also support all types of inputs, and the conversion of hand-drawn text into digital form is done on-the-fly. The app is powerful, but its interface remains a bit confusing.