Here at ProfHacker, we’re not afraid to embrace the latest technologies. But we’re also not afraid to resort to an analog tool if it’s what will help us get our work done faster. But if you can combine something new and shiny that looks old and retro, well, then you’ve definitely got (some of) us hooked. So a few weeks ago when I read that notebook maker Moleskine had released an app for iOS devices, I quickly staked my territory:
I’ve used Moleskine notebooks for a number of years while taking notes in the various talks that one attends around the university. I’ve appreciated the quality of the bindings and the elastic band that holds the book shut and compact within my bag. I’ve not gone the full route of the hipster PDA (don’t miss our podcast interview with Merlin Mann), but my notebooks are always there when I need them. Could the Moleskine app and my iPad help me lose one more item from my bag? In short, no.
The Moleskine app is beautifully designed. It looks like the cover of the classic notebook upon launching, and you have your choice of the three classic Moleskine paper patterns for writing on: ruled, squared / grid, and blank. But in many ways, the app is over-designed. When first launching the app, you are faced with two pages of graphical instructions which is hard to digest when you haven’t even seen the app yet.
It’s not hard to get back to these instructions (just click on the lightbulb at the top right of the screen), but the presentation of the instructions is confusing. The fact that the “help” button is a lightbulb rather than a question mark is perhaps emblematic here. It’s not totally unintuitive to use a lightbulb, I suppose. But why ignore standard iconography and potentially confuse users who are looking for help? With repeated use, you’d get used to the app’s icons, but it’s not welcoming in the slightest.
When creating a new “note,” you’re also faced with some strange choices. After creating a name for the note, you are presented with an inscrutable screen that asks you to assign it to a category. While I’m glad that I have the option to add a note to a category, I dislike being forced to do it. And again, the iconography is confusing.
You’d think you could click on that “down” arrow under “new” to do something, right? Well, you’d be wrong. Only after typing in a category name are you forcibly advanced to choose a color for that category and an icon. The icon and color make your notes of a particular category easy to see in a glance when looking at all of them at once, but I resent being thrown into a scheme of organization that feels so unnatural.
Writing on the app isn’t much better. One is presented with a blank page at first with no keyboard...and no instructions. It didn’t take me that long to figure out that I have to double-tap to get the virtual keyboard to appear, but by this point I wasn’t feeling at all charitable about the app. It is possible to either type or sketch freehand, but switching between the two input modes requires a series of—you guessed it—unitintuive menu surfing. The freehand mode is particularly frustrating. It responds slowly and seems to pick up my wrist much more easily than either my finger or stylus. Erasures are painfully difficult. If you want to write by hand, you should check out Penultimate, which Ethan covered last summer in the 5 iPad Applications He Can’t Live Without.
When you get away from actual, y’know, note taking, the app gets better. It is quite easy to add images to your notes from your photo gallery. And once you divine that the icon that looks like a clipboard is a menu rather than...I don’t know what...it’s easy to share your note by email or on Facebook or Twitter. As someone who is fascinated by location-based technologies, I love the fact that you can have your iOS device add your current location to the note you are working on. Multiple locations can be added to each note; so if you’re the new Hemingway, writing as you flit from one Starbucks to the next, you could see at a glance all the places where a particular note was worked on.
I don’t know what you do with that information, but it’s a nice feature to see your peripatetic writing. Finally, it must be said that the font for the app is one of the nicest that I have seen. But if you don’t like it, too bad; there’s no option to change it.
So while the Moleskine app is beautiful, it’s not something that will be taking the place of my trusty analog. In fact, it’s been quite some time since I’ve been so disappointed by an app. (Of course, if you want to just make your iPad look like a Moleskine, you should look into DODOcase.) Do you have a favorite app for taking notes—typed or hand-written—or do you prefer good ol’ pen and paper? Let us know in the comments.