Forget drawing: Want to take notes on your iPad or annotate documents with the Apple Pencil? Here's what you need.
If you're an artist looking at Apple's new tablets, an iPad Pro and a Pencil are no-brainers. But even if your idea of a good time isn't editing a photo or drawing a cartoon, the Apple Pencil can still be a brilliant tool for handwriting, annotation, and even making your own handwritten fonts.
For starting out: Whink
If you want to explore what your Apple Pencil can do on your iPad Pro when it comes to writing, shape-drawing, and annotation, Whink is a beautifully-made app for doing so. Though you can create dozens of notebooks, the app features just three modes within those digital books for your working pleasure: Write, Type, and Read.
Writing lets you sketch or take notes using Whink's .3mm, .7mm, or 1.2mm "gel pen" tool, in a number of different color palettes. You can create custom colors by double-tapping on a swatch, but as with Paper, Whink encourages using the complimentary palettes.
You can highlight or draw shapes that automatically conform to their geometric origins within Write mode. Also available are a half-page zoom feature to enlarge text, a select and move option, and an Add tool that lets you drop in new sections, pages, photos, text, tags, or audio clips.
Type lets you choose from pre-designed "Text Palettes," which collect a specific title, header, body, and subtitle font and color to properly complement the drawings on your page. As with the color palettes, you can double tap on any selection to manually choose a font and color, but Whink encourages you to avoid tinkering too much: It wants to make taking notes and creating digital notebooks as easy as possible.
The Search option will find any tags or typed text, but unlike some other apps, won't recognize handwritten words.
If you want to experiment with digital note-taking, Whink may not have every single customizeable feature, but it's perfect for taking that first step.
For all-purpose notes: Notability
When it comes to excellent multipurpose handwriting apps, you'd be hard-pressed not to find Notability at the top of most lists. It has an excellent interface full of tools for handwriting, drawing, making shapes, highlighting, moving objects around, adding audio, integrating photos and web clips, and more. You can choose from multiple colored paper styles and lined or unlined paper, share your notebooks to just about every major service and print them, and import notebooks from Dropbox, Google Drive, Box, or a WebDAV service.
Unlike Whink, Notability's toolbar is more full-featured at the start. It would be confusing if not for the app's incredibly helpful tutorial notebook bundled on launch, which guides you through almost all of Notability's tools and features.
Notability works flawlessly with the Apple Pencil — whether you're writing, sketching, or drawing shapes — and has lived on my iPad Pro's first Home screen for ages; it's an excellent, well-designed app if you want a little bit more power than what Whink provides and PDF import.
For multi-purpose writing: GoodNotes
If I were to categorize Whink as the starter app and Notability as the all-purpose workhorse of the handwriting apps, GoodNotes is the high-powered sports car: It's less intuitive than either of the other apps, but stuffed full of some highly-valuable pro features. I'd never heard of the app until developer Chris Liscio pointed it out, and I'm so happy he did.
For starters, GoodNotes offers not only ruled, squared, or plain paper in its digital notebooks — you can get lined music notation, as well. And you can get all these paper styles in landscape mode, too, if you prefer to work wide on your iPad Pro. Outside the Essentials paper pack, you can choose from a variety of logarithmic graphing papers, differently-spaced writing papers with multiple columns, and specific paper sizes (if you're working for print). GoodNotes also offers a ton of different cover styles and choices, all of which can be written upon.
Like the other apps in this roundup,GoodNotes supports writing and drawing with the Apple Pencil — along with a number of third-party stylus options — using either a digital fountain or ball pen in a preset or custom color spectrum. But GoodNotes stands apart with its built-in handwriting search recognition: Though the app won't automatically convert your handwriting to text, you can search through any of your notes with remarkable accuracy. (Though, as friend-of-iMore Jason Snell has pointed out, apps like GoodNotes do this largely by guessing your words: You might get a hit for "app" after writing the word, but searching for "ape" might bring you to the same page.)
It's also a fantastic app for PDF annotation — I use it to manage my D&D character on Total Party Kill, and have used it to take notes atop scripts and other writing implements.
If you're looking for a more extensive option than Notability, GoodNotes is a lovely app with a ton of features.
For Evernote fans: Penultimate
If you're tied in to the Evernote sync system and mainly want a note-taking app to, well, take notes, it's hard not to like Penultimate: The app lets you create notebooks and write in them, then syncs with your Evernote database, where you can search your handwritten text.
Penultimate's downsides are largely in feature-parity: While you can create a truly staggering number of note styles, rivaling even GoodNotes, what you can do with those notes is much more limited. For one, if you want to create multiple notebooks, you're locked in to the Evernote system. Additionally, you can only place photos inside a page, and there's no real tool for creating pre-made shapes or adding other multimedia options.
Writing itself also has much more lag than any of the other note-taking options; while it's not enough to ruin working with the Pencil or make your handwriting look wrong, it's a sub-par experience when compared with Whink, Notability, or GoodNotes.
Evernote users have a huge reason to use Penultimate, but if you're not hooked in to the service, there are better apps at your disposal.
For PDF markup: PDF Expert
If it's not so much straight handwriting you're looking to do with iPad Pro and Pencil as PDF annotation and form-filling, you're going to want a dedicated app to help you out. There are lots of great ones out there, but PDF Expert's iCloud syncing and advanced markup features make it fly to the top of my list: You can open up PDFs from iCloud or pretty much any other online service, fill out forms, and sign documents; in addition, you can work with items with a digital pen, shape tool, underline, strike-thru, or highlighter option, as well as create "stamps" for often-used wording. All of this is note only fully editable in PDF Expert, but also in apps like Adobe Acrobat and Preview — so you can move from Mac to PC and back again with your iPad.
PDF Expert also lets you edit the structure of PDFs themselves: You can rearrange pages, delete sections, extract parts of the PDF, and even add new blank pages to your documents. Once you're finished with a PDF document, you can even zip it (or multiple documents) with PDF Expert's built-in compressor, and password-protect crucial documents.
For handwriting recognition: SmartNote or Notes Plus
Forget mere note-taking: If you want your handwriting converted to text, you're going to need an app that supports writing recognition. We've come a long way from the Newton and egg freckles, but the apps available for such things are still few and far between. There are the programs like GoodNotes, which convert your text for search purposes, but don't offer outright handwriting recognition; then there are apps like MyScript Smart Note and Notes Plus, which offer both search and outright conversion.
These both come with a fairly major caveat: Neither officially support the Apple Pencil nor iPad Pro. You can run them on an iPad, of course, and the Apple Pencil will still work as an input device, but there's currently no app I've found that natively supports Apple's latest technology and handwriting recognition.
As for which is the better buy, I tend to lean toward Smart Note, which uses MyScript's established recognition technology and hooks in the company's other apps, including a handwriting recognition keyboard.
Notes Plus is made by an independent developer and I personally don't enjoy working with its pen tool, but it's about as good as recognizing handwriting as MyScript, and offers a slightly different experience, depending on your needs.
For making your own handwriting: iFontMaker
This isn't technically handwriting, but it's not quite drawing, either — it's somewhere in the middle. If you've ever looked at your handwriting (or someone else's) and thought "That would make an awesome computer font," you're in luck: iFontMaker lets you create gorgeous hand-built fonts and install them on either your iPad or on a Mac or Windows PC of your choice.
All the tools you might be used to in a desktop typography program are there, including free-hand drawing, vector curves, and support for pretty much every character available to type online — including glyphs for several Asian languages.
iFontMaker doesn't officially support the Apple Pencil, but I found no hindrance toward using it with the accessory; on the contrary, even without pressure sensitivity, it's an incredible tool.
If you've ever dreamed of creating your own font, give iFontMaker a go: I built my own font in a few hours. I bet you can, too.
These might be my top apps for handwriting, but I bet you have your own picks, iMore readers. What should I try? What's worth our time? Let us know below in the comments.