Digital notebooking

For my job, I have to read and type a lot during the day. Note-taking is an essential part of what I do; I’m always, in a way or another, jotting down notes and drawing sketches and outlines. What are the best tools for that?

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27 Jul, 2010

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The Newton can still be the best tool

For my job, I have to read and type a lot during the day. I also do a fair amount of writing. You know, that thing you do with pen and paper which is more and more considered a quaint, old-school activity in this digital age? Note-taking is an essential part of what I do; I’m always, in a way or another, jotting down notes and drawing sketches and outlines. What are the best tools for that? In my experience I can say that nothing so far has managed to surpass the good old pen and paper — and its true digital counterpart, the Apple Newton.

Let me explain by first talking more about how I do my note-taking and quick writing, and in what ways this activity fits in my workflow.

On my work desk there’s an archipelago of objects: a small plate with a few pipes, an ashtray, a lighter, a coffee mug/tea cup area (never empty), my pencil case, the mini-tower of devices (two external hard drives and an external DVD burner), a USB hub, and the mouse laguna (between the Apple Wireless Keyboard and the MacBook Pro stand) with its single inhabitant, the Magic Mouse. Last but not least, there’s always a place for paper — be it a jotter, some blank sheets, a memo pad, a Moleskine — and for my Newton MessagePad (sometimes on a stand, most often not). My desk isn’t as messy as this enumeration of things may suggest. The point is: all these are essential items and each one of them is always within reach. While translating, I read the original text, type the translation in a text editor (a tool that I hugely prefer to any word processor), and generally consult a variety of dictionaries and glossaries, online and not. There’s usually a lot of annotating done during this process. Some notes are best taken with my Mac: this is the case, for example, of whole blocks of text which I may re-use because there are repeating sections in the content I’m translating. Same goes for useful URLs: I copy and paste them, I bookmark them. This kind of annotating is best accomplished with the keyboard and on the Mac.

However, there are also notes I like to have always close at hand. For example, when I translate technical articles for a magazine, I usually receive instructions on how to translate the titles and subtitles of certain sections and columns; or I’m given a set of conventions on how to localise elements of an interface or application. I could copy these and paste them in a new text document or inside Notational Velocity (the one and only note-taking app for the Mac, in my opinion), and then I could keep them in another open window on my Mac’s desktop. But somehow I don’t find it that practical. When I write and translate, I want my workspace on the Mac as uncluttered as possible. It’s how I work.

So I get them on paper, or equally often on my Newton MessagePad. And I keep that close — it’s my sidearm. It’s digital notebooking. More than just note-taking.

There was a time, back when I bought my first MessagePad 2000, when I used to install and try a lot of different apps and games on the Newton. I quickly filled its meager memory to the brim, it was the usual phase when you get a new device or gadget and you’re driven by enthusiasm, you want to try everything that’s available. Then comes (for me, at least) a more focussed, ‘low tide’ phase, and you start taking things out of it, until only the essentials remain. I soon realised that the Newton MessagePad’s strongest point was note-taking (and drawing and sketching). And it still is. So 90% of the time I use my Newton for writing. Handwriting. By now it is well trained to recognise my handwriting, and I take notes on it as quickly as writing on paper. With the added benefit that things get permanently stored on it. So I build glossaries, I aggregate different notes of a translation project and make references and connections. It’s all rather quick and I just need a passing glance at the Newton’s screen to retrieve what I need.

Pen computing and handwriting recognition seem to have lost the war against touch-based interfaces. I contend that in this very instance they are still far superior than any touch technology. Because, as cool as the iPhone and the iPad are, neither could replace my Newton for this type of activity. Because of their size — the iPhone screen would be too small, the iPad is too bulky and couldn’t comfortably sit in my desk setup, while the Newton is a good sweet spot between the two. And because with the iPhone or iPad I would be forced to type my notes, not just write them. I would need to hold them somehow to type more comfortably, while with the Newton I just leave it flat on the desk, take the stylus and write. It’s faster and, believe it or not, I make fewer mistakes and typos. And furthermore it doesn’t distract me: it’s there to assist me, Personal Digital Assistant that it is.

Usually the information I write on the Newton stays in the Newton; it’s meant to be separate and local (no fancy Cloud Computing needed here, thanks) — but if I want to send the occasional note or text file to the Mac or across my home network, I can, rather effortlessly, via serial, Bluetooth or Ethernet connection. If I want to revise my notes later, or expand them, or link some of them together, I can attach a keyboard to the MessagePad, put it on a stand, and carry out that task more comfortably. Or even beam them to the eMate 300 (which has the backups and more) and keep working there: for typing the eMate is even better.

The Newton’s little universe is just too fascinating for me to abandon it. It’s the closest digital equivalent of pen and paper. After some training, taking notes comes just as natural. And when some device achieves this kind of goal, how can it become obsolete?

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