As you may remember from previous posts, I discovered after buying my iPad about 6 months ago that one of the my favorite uses for it was... handwriting! Which was pretty unexpected, but it turns out that taking handwritten notes helps me to organize and fix my thoughts, plus it's quicker and easier than typing on the virtual keyboard. So I went on a search for handwritten notes apps. I won't pretend I tried them all, there are dozens of them, but I did try a few, and I'll try to give a summary of my experience here.
Obviously, these opinions are very subjective and subject to change at any time. They are also slanted toward the uses I have made of these apps, so maybe I should say a few words about that first, to alert you about my biases and blind spots.
I use these apps for two things: the first is taking notes as I would on a paper notebook. Things to remember, books I have heard of, to-do lists (though I tend to use dedicated apps for this), ideas and questions, plans for the far or near future... The second use is planning my exhibitions as an artist, which involves a lot of the above, plus using photos of my paintings and moving them around to decide on how to hang them and what to call them, or prepare the price list with the relevant info (title, dimensions, price). So basically I do two things: unstructured handwritten text that doesn't get edited much, and structured lists with images and text that can get edited and moved around.
OK, now on to my three favorite apps of the moment.
Although very limited functionally, I love its simple and elegant interface, and it's very stable. Plus, it was the first app I tried, and I remain, maybe foolishly, attached to it.
Handwriting: very smooth, in fact the smoothing might be a tad too much, but it remains readable and is always very nice-looking.
The latest update added typed text, which is nice. Text remains editable and movable.
You can also add images from the library or the iPad's camera. Unfortunately they are not selectable or modifiable in any way after you place them. You do get to resize them and move them when you paste them, but after you confirm the placement that's that, you can only draw on them or erase them (anything written on them is erased also).
You can't add geometric shapes, but there is a cute collection of smileys, which I never use.
Editing: very poor functionalities here. You can select a rectangular area to move, delete or copy it. No lasso selection. The eraser is an ordinary round eraser, not very practical when you want to remove one word in a text without touching the others. As mentioned, you cannot move or resize an image after confirming its placement.
Design: as I said, I like the look and feel of the app. You can choose between different cover designs for your note books, all very good looking. Plus, the fact that my handwriting always looks good with this app is probably a part of its appeal.
The interface is simple and easy to figure out, even my mother managed it (well, with some help from me at the start).
Stability: perfect. I don't remember ever having any problem with unexpected behavior, much less a crash.
I discovered this only recently, and am currently using the free version, but I'll probably upgrade to the paid one soon. It's the current challenger trying to take Noteshelf's place as my main note taking app.
Handwriting: not as smooth as Noteshelf, which is not good for my vanity. My handwriting doesn't look as elegant, but maybe closer to what it is IRL. Readability is very good.
Other elements: you can add typed text and images, and they remain editable. You can also add geometric shapes (line, circle, rectangle) but you need two hands to do it, and they are not editable afterward.
Editing: as mentioned, you can resize and move photos at any time. Same for text. Handwriting / freehand drawing cannot be selected to move or delete it, which is a shame. You can write on pictures, but since handwriting, images and type are managed on different layers, if you move your image, whatever you wrote on it will not be moved with it.
The eraser is pretty smart, basically any line you cross is deleted. I like it.
Design: not as good looking at Noteshelf, but nice to look at and to use. There are three modes: freehand, type and images, and you have to switch mode to edit each type of content. Switching is a bit slow with a big warning message appearing, but at least you always know where you are. Undo only seems to work in freehand mode.
Stability: too early to tell, but may not be as reliable as Noteshelf. Something strange happened while I was testing for this review, the text I was typing disappeared and reappeared on another page.
On paper (no pun intended), it's the best. Unfortunately, the actual experience is extremely frustrating. The app is slow, confusing and unreliable. It's still in my top three selection because some of the features are really neat, but it needs some serious work. It's getting better though, and the development team seems very dedicated and responsive from what I could gather.
Handwriting: when I bought the app, I thought there wasn't enough smoothing. Since the latest big update, there's too much of it. If I write too fast, some letters become a horizontal line. The dots on the i's and the periods disappear (or at least become near invisible) almost every time, the accents and commas about 50% of the time.
One feature that no other similar app that I've tried has is the Convert to text function, which is a paid optional extra. It works relatively well on my handwriting, but very careful re-reading is required, and the converter keeps all the line breaks instead of concatenating the text. I wish that was an option, as it is in the stand-alone app that uses the same engine (Myscript Memo). Also, converting to text deletes the original handwriting and cannot be undone.
Other elements: you can add typed text and images. You can also draw geometric shapes which will be automatically converted to lines, rectangles, triangles or circles, and can then be edited. There is also a menu to add shapes.
Editing: this is where Notes Plus shines, when it works. Everything on the page remains editable, although it is sometimes a struggle to select it. You can select a portion of handwritten text or a drawing by drawing a line around it, and then move it, copy it, or change the pen's color or width. This (selecting something by drawing around it) also works on text boxes and images. You can also delete text by drawing a line over it.
Design: awful. The interface is not particularly good looking, and utterly confusing. There are so many features that are called up by a delicate combination of a certain context and a certain type of gesture that it's almost impossible to predict what the app will do, or what you need to do to call up the function you need. I keep writing little dots or lines on the sheet where I meant to select something, or start typing a text, or scroll the page. I'm sure it gets better with practice. Lots of practice.
Stability: despite improvements brought by the January update, the app remains extremely slow and buggy. Though it's hard sometimes to distinguish between bugs and obscure features triggered by making the wrong gesture at the wrong time. Anyway, the end result is that the app is completely unpredictable. Better have some time on your hand and nerves of steel if you want to learn how to use it!
ETA: Other apps were reviewed later in this thread, below are links to some of the reviews:
(read the discussion afterward too)