Handwriting Recognition on iOS—Soft Keyboard Reviews #amwriting

Why Handwriting Recognition

I’m a visual and hands-on learner. I learn from reading, from diagrams, and by doing. Lectures or videos (i.e., listening)… well, just send me the notes, Professor.

Why should I be surprised that my storytelling is just as non-auditory? I don’t mentally “hear” words I’m writing. When I imagine scenes, I imagine mostly action and images—dialogue comes third. And when I need to overcome some problem when writing, I pick up a whiteboard marker and start drawing diagrams.

So, the best way for me to end-run writer’s block is to pick up a stylus and use handwriting recognition. It’s closer to drawing diagrams than is typing. Typing’s faster, but that’s ok. If I’m blocked, I need time to connect words to the diagram of the story in my head.

An iOS handwriting keyboard can add handwritten input to any app—even Scrivener

Why a Handwriting Keyboard

Many other Scrivener authors prefer handwriting. Many of those use note-taking apps to convert their handwritten copy to text. They then paste that text into iOS (or even Mac) Scrivener. I find this process cumbersome.

You see, it’s not over when I convert the text and paste it into Scrivener. I proofread for missed recognitions. I change dumb punctuation to smart punctuation. I fix fouled-up line and paragraph breaks. Finally, I add any needed rich formatting.

I grant you that Scrivener (especially desktop Scrivener) automates some of this, but still… that’s a lot of cleanup. It’s not as painful as cleaning up Siri-transcribed dictation, but it’s not fun, either.

That’s why I prefer to use an iOS third-party soft keyboard that has handwriting recognition. These add handwriting input to any iOS app that accepts text—even Scrivener. With such a keyboard, I correct or prevent missed recognitions as I go along. I add smart punctuation from Scrivener’s extended keyboard row. I ensure that line and paragraph breaks are right to begin with. I add rich formatting as I go along, just as if I were typing.

When I’ve finished writing for the day, there’s no cleanup to be done. It’s all already in Scrivener. In short, there’s much less friction between my handwritten output and Scrivener’s input.

Why Not a Handwriting Keyboard

Some folks have trouble getting decent recognition from a keyboard, no matter how much they tweak settings. For them, a note-taking app may work better.

Then there’s the iOS “full access” issue. iOS gives third-party keyboard processes only a small amount of memory and storage to use, and strictly prohibits network access. But in order to recognize characters and access their dictionaries, the keyboards need access to their standalone app—which means they need “full access”. Therefore the app—as well as the keyboard process—has access to your keystrokes. Apps are free to use network resources. An unscrupulous app developer could conceivably send your keystrokes via the internet to, well, anyone.

To be fair, 99% of iOS third-party keyboards ask for full access. The only one I’ve tried that didn’t, crashed. A lot. And of course, any ordinary iOS app could transmit your information without your knowledge.

I’ve used these keyboards since 2014 and never had a security issue. But if this bothers you, by all means avoid third-party soft keyboards.

Tips For Using Handwriting Recognition

  • Explore settings. If an app has settings such as length of pause before conversion, telling it the shape of the characters you write, and so forth—experiment with them! I’ve never had a handwriting keyboard app that I was happy with out of the box. A little time spent in customization can pay big dividends in accuracy of recognition.
  • Avoid slanting your letters. Even in cursive, you’re better off writing your letters vertically. Arrange your device so that your letters come out straight up-and-down.
  • Exaggerate word spacing. Word separation that’s perfectly fine for human reading can confuse a handwriting recognition app. You may need to increase the spacing between words if more than one word can be recognized at a time. Conversely, if you’re trying to write hyphenated or compound words that aren’t in the dictionary, you may need to crowd the letters a bit, or use single letter input.

Apps That Provide a Handwriting Keyboard Usable From Any iOS App

WritePad I Handwriting to Text (Phatware, $4.99 USD, iPad only)
Overall ****
Setup ***
Ease of use ****
Recognition ****

WritePad I has a handwriting note-taking app integrated into its main app, and that’s where you set options for the keyboard process. My review addresses only the keyboard process, not the note-taking app.

The WritePad I (WPI) keyboard has a lot to love.

  • WPI offers 15 different possible languages/dictionaries.
  • WPI offers continuous cursive input.
    • It will accept cursive input after a (selectable) recognition delay (as MyScript stylus did). If the primary recognition isn’t correct, you’ll need to select an alternate recognition before the delay expires.
    • Otherwise, you can set up what WPI calls “continuous writing”:
      • You have as long as you like to look at alternative recognitions.
      • If none suits, you can back up in your line of writing and redo some words.
      • If you’re satisfied with the first alternative, you can keep writing by overwriting the line you’ve just written. WPI will enter your overwritten line and start recognizing the new line. Otherwise, choose an alternate recognition, and that will be entered and you can start writing again. 

 This is my own preferred mode; I glance at the alternatives and if the first is OK, I keep on writing with hardly a pause.
  • WPI follows the color scheme of the app you’re using it in, light or dark.
  • You can customize each character—for example, for the letter “A” you get several choices as to how you draw a capital “A” and several for lower-case “a”. You get to mark these choices as “frequent”, “rare”, or “never use”. Do take the time to set these up.
  • It automatically adds new words to a user dictionary, which you can edit via the main app.
  • You can set up shortcuts, which you can then access with a pop-over menu while using the keyboards.
  • It offers an AI training for your handwriting.
  • Once you set it up, its recognition is very good.

On the other hand, there are a lot of fiddly settings and it’s not always clear which apply to note-taking and which to the keyboard process. Some apply to both. Best to plan on an hour or three experimenting to find what suits you best.

Penquills (Phatware, $4.99 USD, iPhone only)
Overall ***
Setup ***
Ease of use **
Recognition ****

This is the iPhone version of WritePad I, but it’s frankly not as good. It, too, has a handwriting note-taking app integrated into its main app, which is where you set options for the keyboard process. Again, I’m reviewing only the keyboard.

First, it’s no longer being actively developed, so while it’s still available on the USA App Store, I suspect it will go bye-bye at the first incompatible iOS update.

Aside from that sad news, in portrait mode it only recognizes single characters. (If you remember Palm Graffiti, it’s like that.) Landscape mode, though, has the continuous cursive capability of WritePad I.

It’s easier to describe what Penquills doesn’t have, compared to WritePad I:

  • It offers 8 languages/dictionaries instead of WritePad I’s 15.
  • It has no AI handwriting training.

Other than that, it’s identical to WritePad I’s keyboard. I do use it on my iPhone, but only in Scrivener. In any app that’s forced to portrait, its one letter at a time pace is too painfully slow. (NOTE: Scrivener will only work in landscape mode on an iPhone with an iPhone 6 size screen or larger. iPhone 4/4s/5/5c/5s/SE screens are too small.)

Mazec EN (MetaMoji, $12.99 USD)
Overall ***
Setup ****
Ease of use **
Recognition *****

I admit I don’t like Mazec EN. It has the superb recognition that MyScript Stylus boasted, but that’s as far as it goes.

It’s comparatively expensive. It’s always in light mode—it doesn’t match dark background apps. Most annoyingly, I always have to tap “enter” in order to enter text—it doesn’t have recognition after delay (as MyScript Stylus did and WritePad I does) or semi-automatic entry (as WritePad I does.)

And as the name implies, it only recognizes English, and that with only one dictionary. If you can’t get decent recognition with WritePad I or Penquills, and you always write in American English, it’s worth a try, I suppose. But personally, I’d rather use the Phatware products.

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