i(Pad)OS Handwriting Update: Apple Scribble #amwriting

Illustration of using Apple Scribble
Apple Scribble works on iPads compatible with Apple Pencil

It’s been a while since I reviewed the state of i(Pad)OS handwriting. Part of the reason for my recent purchase of an Adonit Note+ was just so as I could check out Apple’s new iPad handwriting input, Scribble.

Apple Scribble

I’m a big handwriting input fan. I wanted to like Scribble. I really, really did. I tested it with Scrivener and Ulysses, as well as Bear, Pages, Word, Notes, and Google Docs.

Folks, it is not ready for prime time.

Scribble’s fine for short text messages, data entry fields, and the like—text fields that don’t wrap. At least it’s no worse than hasty keyboarding. I’ve seen posts on the Scrivener forum that suggest it’s useful in pure editing mode. People find its ability to select by circling text a big help, and if you’re only substituting one word for another its quirks aren’t as challenging. But attempting to write a paragraph longer than one line drove me to screaming frustration, then back to WritePad in short order.

Scribble recognises handwriting well. It also recognises fast—too fast, and I can’t slow it down. So then I have a stray mark that may or may not be a letter, and may or may not be the beginning of a word I was trying to write. Convincing Scribble to erase any stray mark I accidentally make is an exercise in futility. I can’t erase a single letter, only an entire word. Undo in that case undoes too much—all the text I’d written since I started Scribbling. I can pop up the Scribble keyboard, but I find that I need it so often I just need to leave it open. If I’m going to do that why not just use a handwriting keyboard to begin with?

In order to use Scribble inside text that wraps, you need to have really tiny handwriting that will fit inside a normal line of text. If you stray, your writing will “scratch” over text you’ve already written in the previous line or the next, erasing it. I used the Undo button so much just trying it that I did more undoing than writing. Other possible solutions are zooming (not possible in Ulysses), enlarging the text, or triple-spacing lines, but the last two I’d need to revert later when I switched back to typing.

I could restrict myself to only adding text to the end of a document—but even that didn’t work for me. There was never enough space at the bottom for me to write without deleting, not even in Scrivener or Ulysses with typewriter mode turned on. (Yes, I have big handwriting. I don’t know how other people write so small as to be able to fit their signatures on the tiny spaces available on most forms.)

Recommendations:

While Scribble is fine for short text messages and data entry in online forms, I still recommend handwriting keyboard apps for significant text entry in editing and word processing apps. The keyboards avoid the space available problem simply by providing a dedicated data entry area. An added benefit is that they’re also usable on iPhone.

If you’re one of the folks who prefers to use a note-taking app, then copy-and-paste large batches of recognised handwriting, you can give Scribble a try, but I suspect you’ll prefer your current method of working.

My recommended handwriting keyboards, in order of my personal preference:

  1. WritePad I (iPad) / Penquills (iPhone): Each takes time to set up to recognise your handwriting well, but I find the ability to remove mis-recognitions and typos before committing text to document to be a plus. (I prefer the “continuous handwriting” setup, in which I write over my previously recognised text to commit it to the document and start a new recognition, to the “recognition delay” setup, which is more like Scribble: The text is recognised and committed automatically after a configurable delay.)
  2. Selvy PenScript: The current handwriting keyboard most like the late lamented “MyScript Stylus”. It’s my favourite of the “automatic entry” handwriting keyboards (i.e., your handwriting is recognised and automatically committed to the document after a brief delay, like Scribble, WritePad/Penquills with recognition delay enabled, and MyScript Stylus). The recognition delay is configurable (I prefer a slightly longer delay) and alternate recognitions are provided so you can correct mis-recognitions immediately with a single tap.
  3. Mazec: It recognises English handwriting. However, it neither automatically commits your handwriting after delay (Scribble, Selvy PenScript) nor does it permit continuous writing by writing over the previously recognised text (WritePad, Penquills). No, you have to tap Enter after every recognition. It also recognises far fewer languages than either of the other two options. I suggest trying it only if neither of the first two options suits.

iOS Scrivener Two and a Half Years On #amwriting

The truth: I hardly use iOS Scrivener any more.

It’s just too limited compared to Mac Scrivener (or even Windows Scrivener). I can never see the aspects of my project that I really want to see. There’s no Scrivenings mode. There are no collections. The Corkboard only ever shows one level of one folder. Keywords and custom metadata are missing.

It goes on. I self-publish, and the facilities to produce a manuscript that’s ready to upload to Amazon and Smashwords just aren’t there. The iOS Scrivener compiler has few features compared to Mac or Windows.

As for research, I don’t use Scrivener at all for that. I use Evernote instead. It’s much easier to find what I need there, and I can display Evernote on a second screen on Mac. On the rare occasions when I use iOS Scrivener these days, I can split the screen between Scrivener and Evernote. I really don’t like my research crammed into the same app as my manuscript. (N.B.: This is Scrivener heresy. One of its heavy selling points is keeping research and manuscript together. I’ve tried it. Every third project, it seems, I try it again just to see if it works better than Evernote. The answer has always been no so far.)

So iOS Scrivener doesn’t work well for me for either planning or publishing. Its lack of easily configurable overview makes it less than ideal for drafting. The only time I find myself using it is when I want to jump start my actual word production for the day by using handwriting recognition. But since I found a workaround to use handwriting recognition with my Mac, I don’t even use iOS Scrivener for that any more.

It’s not a bad app, iOS Scrivener. I like it. If Mac Scrivener didn’t exist, or if I had only an iPad, it would be my writing app. But as I have a lovely tiny Macbook Air 11, I just don’t use it.

Bummer.

Handwriting Input for Mac Scrivener—the Hard Way; AirDisplay v. YAM Air Review #amwriting

The most productive way for me to write fiction is handwriting, slow though it is. But I find the necessary transcription to digital form painful. Don’t even talk about typing from paper copy—repeating the stuff I’ve already written is like fingernails on a chalkboard. Even using a notetaking app that will convert a page of handwriting to digital text for pasting elsewhere requires a cleanup effort that drives me loopy. No, the way I’ve found that works for me is using a handwriting-recognition keyboard on iOS Scrivener. Do the cleanup as I write, that’s the ticket.

YAM Air lets me use my iOS handwriting keyboards to input directly to Mac Scrivener

Camp NaNoWriMo, though, meant I needed to keep track of my writing minutes. That’s hard for me to do on iOS. I have to start timers, turn off timers, restart timers… not to mention recording my results. It’s an error-prone process. So I stuck to the Mac most of July, where RescueTime tracked my app usage. But MacOS has deprecated its old Ink handwriting interface, so even if I had a graphics tablet it was typing for me on my Mac, until…

I noticed that one of the apps I use to make my iPad serve as a second monitor, AirDisplay, let me pull up the iOS on-screen keyboard. Yes, that let me use my iOS handwriting keyboards to input directly to my Mac!

All was not smooth with AirDisplay, though, and I can’t recommend it for this purpose. It was challenging to get Scrivener to stay visible—I found it almost impossible to keep menu bar menus accessible, let alone keep my insertion point visible so I could see my typing. The final deal-breaker was a bug in AirDisplay that means the Delete button on my iOS keyboards won’t work.

Maybe you can write without ever needing to delete a letter, but I can’t.

Disappointed, I wandered around the App Store and discovered the YAM (Yet Another Monitor) family of apps. YAM Air turned out to be the iPad-as-a-second-monitor app of my dreams.

When I bring up the iOS keyboard, the Mac screen stays stable behind it, so that it’s easy to access Mac menus. The stable screen position also lets me take advantage of typewriter scrolling in Mac Scrivener to keep my insertion point in view. Yes, if I need to access something at the bottom of the screen I must put away the keyboard, but if I need to do that I’ve stopped writing anyway.

Now, AirDisplay does a fine job as a second display app. Its iOS keyboard interface is buggy, though, and managing the display behind the keyboard is awkward. But YAM Air’s iOS keyboard interface is stable, and the display behind the keyboard is straightforward.

Also, YAM Air offers drag-and-drop between iOS and Mac. How cool is that? And all for $3.99 USD.

It’s YAM Air and handwriting on my Mac for me! Yay!

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.

My New Favorite Input Method–Nintype

I have a new love in the list of input methods for my iPad. It’s a third-party installable keyboard called Nintype.

I’ve tried other swiping style keyboards. Nintype stands out due to its flexibility (none of the others permits switching between typing and swiping at will.) No other keyboard permits dual swiping. None of the others puts almost all the punctuation into main screen shortcuts so that I need not switch to the number keyboard just to get a hashtag or semicolon.

And yet… It’s one of these annoying programs that’s so customizable that you could spend a year fiddling with all its variations. Right out of the box I had to turn off animations. Not only do they run down the battery, but they also drive me crazy. Some people love them, though.

For me, with proper customization, it’s become an instant shorthand pad. It works with a stylus just fine, and after I shrank the keyboard on my iPad, I could get 20+ WPM without a lot of practice, as such things go. (That’s using my personal testing protocol as described in Text Input Methods.)

Don’t expect such efficiency immediately, though. Nintype has a built-in tutorial that it pays to run through more than once. After I decided that I was highly unlikely to use it as anything but a shorthand pad, I practiced up with the tutorial to work up some speed. 

It’s an amazing keyboard. It’s the only third-party installable keyboard in the App Store that rates higher than four stars. All third-party keyboards suffer in the ratings due to a combination of restrictions that Apple still puts on them (no access to the dictation button, for example) and bugs in iOS itself (several of the Apple-provided apps work poorly with third-party keyboards, including the app store app.) If you’re interested in such a keyboard, and spend a little time reading ratings, you’ll see the same problems reported over and over in all the different keyboards–those are Apple’s problem, not the fault of the keyboard developers.

In conclusion, if you like swiping-style keyboards or are interested in a way to input text to an iOS device in what is effectively shorthand, Nintype is worth a look.

iPad Handwriting Nirvana Arrives!

2015/01/img_2526.pngYes, you’re seeing that image correctly. That’s a handwriting input line in an ordinary iPad app–my favorite, Index Card.

The miraculous utility that makes this possible is called Penquills, and is a new product from a long-time player in iPad handwriting recognition, PhatWare. I’ve had their top-of- the-line handwriting-driven word processor, WritePad Pro, for years, but I haven’t used it much. That’s because it outputs files in HTML format only–not much use to someone using Scrivener.

But at last, I can use handwriting as input to any app. To prove it, I’m writing this blog post on my iPad using Penquills.

It’s not perfect. Yet, it’s already better than Graffiti was on my old Palm LifeDrive. It’s learning fast, too. So, I will be able to handwrite my novels in Index Card or Editorial. Who needs to type?