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.

Why Handwriting on the iPad? (Or why the loss of Penultimate bugged me.)

2015/01/img_2529.pngI’ve mentioned that I have had several handwriting apps on the iPad, but not how I use them, or perhaps more importantly, why.

Firstly, paper is my nemesis. It absorbs everything I want to keep track of into a formless mess, and then taunts me with the knowledge that what I want is in there, somewhere. My response has been to move to digital records as fast as my personal technology has permitted. I became accustomed to stylus input during several years when I used Palm OS devices. Handwritten documents just stick in my brain better than typed ones do. After I switched to an iPad, the lack of handwritten or drawn input was painful. I once sketched on my Palm, and used it for quick hand input when I wanted to take notes now and worry about accurate typing later. So, one of the first things I did after getting my iPad was to find some handwriting and sketching apps for the iPad and buy a cheap stylus.

The quick input function was taken care of nicely by MyScript Memo. I still use this free app from MyScript Labs for taking down contact info quickly. If I’m lucky I can even export my recognized scribbling as text. If not, then I can export as an image and type the information later. It launches fast and gets me writing (without having to watch what I’m doing) as quickly as finding a notepad and pen. But as a sketching app, it stinks. It doesn’t sample your strokes very often, so my drawing comes out jerky and angular (as does my handwriting.)

I’m not very demanding of digital sketching. Think sketchnoting–doodles and illustrations during meetings to augment written notes. If I want to do serious digital artwork, I go to my Mac and use GIMP. So while I’ve acquired iPad sketch apps such as Sketchbook Pro and the Adobe free apps, truthfully my handwritten note apps serve that purpose better for me.

In fact, with Evernote I don’t need much handwriting translated to typed characters. As long as I can get my scribbling into Evernote, it’s searchable, and for a lot of things that’s all I need. For these reasons, I had moved both my notetaking and my journal to Evernote’s Penultimate. Hence, the panic when Penultimate was trashed. I was looking at going back to paper journaling and paper notes to be photographed into Evernote; now, with Noteshelf, I can avoid that. It doesn’t matter how poor my writing is–Evernote will be able to recognize something, and I’ll be able to search. I can take the scribbled, illustrated, largely illegible to anyone but me, notes I prefer electronically and avoid paper altogether.

Handwriting recognition–using handwriting instead of typing, either on-screen or using a Bluetooth keyboard, has until now been a pipe dream for me. Apple was and remains opposed to pen input for iOS on principle, and did not support third-party on-screen keyboards until iOS 8. Even back in the “good old days” of Palm OS, my experience of handwriting recognition was negative. I had to learn a new handwritten alphabet, and even then the recognition process was far too error-prone. It was frustrating–I gave up and went back to typing. As far as recognition on my iPad went, the recognizing apps (other than the limited MyScript Memo) just didn’t fit my workflow.

Now with the advent of third-party on-screen keyboards for iOS, I can use handwriting anywhere, and with much better recognition than I ever got from Palm OS. My preference is WritePad for iPad, for its multi-word recognition and input. (I started out using PhatWare’s Penquills iPhone utility, but a very patient tech support person pointed out that on iPad, that third-party keyboard capability is available in WritePad. NOT WritePad Pro–and in plain WritePad, I must say it’s well-hidden.) I seldom need to hand-correct as usually the phrase I mean is one of the alternatives that WritePad offers. My writing is so horrid if I rush it, though, that I am more often erasing strokes because even I can’t read them. Or the words are as badly misspelled handwritten as typewritten. This causes amusing results when recognition tries to figure out what I just wrote (but hey, autocorrection for typing is just as amusing…)

So yes, I may end up returning to typing for long sessions of word production. It will likely be faster, simply because my net typing speed exceeds my net longhand speed even on paper, and recognition and its associated errors must slow handwriting down. But a stylus is much more portable than a Bluetooth keyboard, and can be used in situations where typing on the iPad screen with both hands isn’t practical (like in the driver’s seat of my car while I’m waiting for a customer.) And my longhand speed exceeds my one-finger typing speed under all circumstances.

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?