Putting stylus to screen

A while back, I blogged about how I'd made my own iPad stylus, using an old marker pen and some conductive padding for the nib. I based what I built on Dan Provost's attempt, trying to improve on Dan's original design by using a marker with a metal case rather than a plastic one. Despite the construction being a success, I didn't really use it much. Firstly, the nib just wasn't good enough for regular use - it flexed too much; and secondly, I just didn't really have much of a need for it. I never found a note taking app on the iPad that felt as useful as my trusty Moleskine notebooks.

Recently though, that latter reason changed (more on why in a moment) - I found myself wanting to doodle on my iPad once more. However, the nib issue hadn't changed, so I needed a better solution. Thankfully Dan Provost took his original concept and used it to build a custom stylus via a kickstarter project. This meant that this time, rather than trying to build something based on his improved design, I just bought what Dan and co over at Studio Neat lovingly call The Cosmonaut.

The Cosmonaut is like a giant rubber crayon for your iPad. The idea is that the iPad's screen isn't designed for a fine tipped stylus, but for your finger, so when using a stylus you need something that mimics a writing implement with a similar sffordance in the real world - such as a marker pen or a crayon. The Cosmonaut does this brilliantly - it fits in the hand well, and feels just like a chunky crayon from when you were a kid.

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Despite the chunky tip, it's fairly accurate when sketching. There's some give in the "nib", which I worried would cause the centre point to move around, but that hasn't been the case. I've been happily sketching away just the thing. The chunkiness has another useful property - it's fairly easy to fish out of my bag-o-bits when I need it, standing out amougst the random pens, video adapters, and so on that fill the bits compartment on my bag.

So, I'm please to say that I'm delighted with the Cosmonaut, and would recommend it if you want to use your iPad as a device on which to doodle and sketch effectively.


Of course, if you want to use your iPad for such things, you'll also need software, and this brings me to the reason I went looking for a stylus: the app everyone's been talking about of late, Paper, by Fifty Three.

There's been many apps out for the iPad that have attempted to replace paper notebooks over the couple of years the iPad has been with us, some even by people who make the physical objects themselves, but they've always left me cold. "What is there such an app to get wrong?" you might enquire. Well, they typically fail in two areas: how natural it feels, and you organise your notes.

Most notebook replacement apps dive headfirst into the world of skeuomorphism - that is a fancy way of saying they try to look like the real world objects when on the screen. But this leads to issues the moment you put stylus to screen, and what comes out looks nothing like what you'd generate putting pen to paper. Rather, it looks like what you'd generate using Microsoft Paint - very simple and very artificial. Now technically, if the aim of the software is just to let you capture ideas this shouldn't matter, but it does. If you thought your doodles were messy in your notebook, they generally look worse when drawn using one of these tools on an iPad. As a result, it was still more pleasing to sketch on paper.

Paper changes this, but putting a lot of effort into giving you a set of pens and pencils that look on screen like the real thing on paper. In fact, they look even better than someone with limited drawing talent like me could produce on paper at times - the watercolor brush really flatters the drawer, and lets you produce beautiful sketches quite quickly, which just wouldn't be possible as quickly on paper. Unlike other apps which tended to leave me feeling like I should have just used my real notebook, Paper's managed to make me prefer the iPad to paper for the first time for sketching.

Paper isn't perfect, at least not yet. For writing, it's definitely less good. There's a noticable lag on input at times, and this means if you write using a joined up flow quickly, it tends to miss corners out, making my already poor scrawl somewhat (ahem, more) unreadable. I've no idea if this is something that'll improve over time as they get time to optimise the software, or whether it's a hardware limitation. Either way, this means for note taking in talks, I still reach for my trusty Moleskine. It also relies on gestures for turning the page and accessing the tool palette, and these don't quite work all the time, leading you to accidentally draw all over the page when you didn't mean to. At which point you have to use the crazy undo two-finger-dial gesture, which doesn't quite work for me. I do appreciate why they've tried to use gestures so much - Paper does benefit from not having buttons all over it, but I think they need to be a bit more obvious and a bit less error prone to convince me fully.

Organisation wise, Paper wins hands down, despite not using iPads conventional UI for such things. Instead, the clever peeps over at Fifty Three let you create a series of small notebooks, which you can flick through the pages of without having to make them full screen. This makes skim reading notebooks to find the note you're interested in not just easy, but a pleasure to boot. I now feel happy generating a new small notebook for each talk, task, or idea (a bit like how people use Field Note Brand notebooks in the real world I guess) rather than having one massive virtual notebook, as finding what I want is no different from finding it in the real world.

Despite my gripes with the UI, I now use Paper and my Cosmonaut all the time, particularly for sketching out ideas for apps - UI mockups, icon designs, user flows, etc. On one hand, it seems amazing that it has taken me two years of iPad ownership to get to this position - you'd have thought this would have been cracked early on in the iPad's life. But it just shows you how hard it is to get these things right. All the things that make Paper a joy to use - the properly simulated pens and paper and the virtual notebooks that you can skim through with ease - are all hard details to get right.

Two years seems like a long time, but I think we're still only getting to grips with the UI challenges brought to us by the iPad. Paper is an amazing piece of engineering to solve what superficially seems a simple problem. Something to keep in mind when you specify your next project.