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.

Text Input Methods: Comparison

Image courtesy of Ambro at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Ambro at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
One thing I was taught at dear old Mother Technology [mumble] decades ago: Always take measurements.

Handwriting recognition feels faster to me. Dictation (speech recognition) feels incredibly slow. On-screen keyboard typing feels awkward, and I find my tendency to reverse letters on output frustrating when I use a Bluetooth keyboard. But that’s just subjective impressions — Real Engineers get Facts.

I’ve therefore run a one-woman experiment: What is the best way for me to get words out of my head and onto, well, some medium readable by someone else? When evaluating these results, please keep in mind:

  • I’ve had a typing course and lots of practice, but I’m no speed demon. In a formal typing test I run about 30-50 words per minute.
  • I spent decades Before Word Processors, writing important correspondence longhand either for transcription by a secretary or as a direct communication.
  • These tests were conducted as free-writing: I was “keeping the pen moving” (or keyboard or whatever) — not pausing to think about what I was writing, but also not working from a copy. My intention was to determine the upper speed limit of getting thoughts, however disorganized, from my brain into an externally legible form. Actual writing of a story will go slower than this, as I pause to actually think about what I want to write.
  • Test conditions: For each method, I set a timer for 25 minutes, about as long as I can stand to write in an uninterrupted block. Results displayed are average words per minute. I correct spelling and punctuation as I go from long habit; therefore, speeds reported for handwriting recognition and speech recognition are net of error correction afterwards.
  • YMMV — depending on your handwriting, your typing speed, and your ability to enunciate clearly, you may get different results.

THE RESULTS:

Longhand
15.5 WPM
Shorthand
19.4 WPM
Handwriting Recognition (WritePad 3rd party keyboard in Index Card app)
9.1 WPM
Handwriting Recognition (Smart Notes app by MyScript)
Abandoned after correcting for 6 minutes with much less than half the writing corrected.
Dictation (iOS Speech Recognition in Index Card app)
18.7 WPM
Typing (Bluetooth keyboard in Index Card app)
27.4 WPM
Typing (onscreen iOS keyboard in Index Card app)
16.5 WPM

CONCLUSIONS:
As you can see, handwriting recognition stinks as long-form input for me. It can never be faster than my longhand speed, and in fact typing on a keyboard, typing on-screen, and (surprise!) dictation are much more efficient; typing on a keyboard more so than even training a human to read my home-grown shorthand and paying said human to transcribe it.

Despite my love for it, I would be wise to limit my use of handwriting recognition to short texts or emails. If for some reason I want to write and don’t have my Bluetooth keyboard with me, I should either dictate or type on the screen.

And yet, and yet — I still love handwriting recognition.

DEFINITIONS:

Longhand
Actual English cursive writing, good enough to be puzzled through by another human.
Shorthand
Not real Gregg shorthand, but the abbreviated cursive by which I take notes in meetings or classes. I can read it, if I remember what I was writing about (this is why block letter titles and scrawled illustrations exist in my actual notes.) No one else can (which is why I got Ds on handed-in notes.)
Typing
On an iPad, either via Bluetooth keyboard or by the built-in onscreen keyboard.
Dictation
Speech recognition on an iPad, using the Apple built-in dictation capability.
Handwriting Recognition
By one of the two handwriting recognition apps on the iPad which I own. I use my cursive longhand for this.

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.