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.

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.

Mazec Handwriting Input Keyboard for iOS Review #amwriting

Fashions in apps change. When Apple introduced third-party on-screen keyboard apps back in iOS 8, they were mostly productivity enhancements. Hopeful developers put tons of swiping keyboards, fast thumb-typing keyboards, and handwriting recognition keyboards on the App Store. I bought a lot of them. What I wanted was—and is—a way to use handwriting as input for iOS Scrivener.

Using Mazec for handwriting input in iOS Scrivener

Now almost all the keyboards I can find on the App Store are for putting little pictures in your texts. The developers have taken almost all the productivity keyboards I’ve bought and/or reviewed off the App Store. But here’s one that’s survived, that I bought recently:

Mazec English Keyboard, $9.99 USD on the App Store

My summary:

Overall ****
Recognition *****
Punctuation ***
Setup ****
Ease of Use ***

First, please understand that all third-party soft keyboards labour under multiple handicaps, since Apple does not permit them to access dictation or some other Apple-provided keyboard features. Further, in order to access their own internal preferences and build custom dictionaries, these keyboards must request full security access. If this freaks you out, these keyboards aren’t for you.

In addition, handwriting recognition as an input method for English has problems. It’s not as fast as hardware typing by a factor of at least two. By using a swiping keyboard (SwiftKey is still available and maintained, if you’re interested) you can get much faster on-screen input as well. I consider handwriting input as special-purpose only. I use it for getting myself started when I’m fighting “writer’s block.” As soon as words are flowing, I switch to something faster.

Now, on to my review.

Recognition

Recognition of my crummy cursive handwriting is the best of any these keyboards I’ve tried, including the late and much-lamented MyScript Stylus. I could get decent recognition from the PhatWare products (Penquills and Write Pad for iPad) by carefully informing the apps of which strokes I used to form each letter—but with Mazec this is unnecessary.

On the other hand, Mazec is difficult about non-dictionary words. It just doesn’t seem to add new words without a lot of repetitions in block letters. There’s no way to manually add new dictionary words, either. But after a while it does seem to learn.

Punctuation

Punctuation is a problem with these keyboards, and Mazec is no exception. Hashtags, quotes, bullets, underscores—expect to go back through and correct punctuation with the default Apple keyboard or a hardware keyboard.

Setup

Setup is minimal. There are no themes and few options. Fortunately it works well as installed. But if you insist on dark mode, it doesn’t exist.

Ease of Use

All the other handwriting keyboards I’ve used have some means to allow continuous writing. Either they automatically insert after a short delay, or you can insert the recognition buffer by going back and writing over its start.

Not so with Mazec. You must tap the insert button occasionally. It’s a mild irritation for me and an impediment to my workflow, but not so very bad as handwriting input is slow anyway.

Editing is not as nice as MyScript Stylus. There are no editing gestures. The delete button will let you erase the last gesture, the last word or the whole recognition buffer. One thing that is nice is the built-in cursor move arrows—which make editing practical, if not fun. Mazec is about equal to the PhatWare products in ease of editing.

Conclusions

If I had to start with a handwriting input keyboard now, Mazec is perfectly serviceable. But I’m going to keep using MyScript Stylus and the PhatWare keyboards as long as they still work.