Making note-taking less of a chore with your iPad

Just when you thought you were ready for college

The academic year just started and I bet some of those 84 million iPads sold to date will make it to the classrooms around the world. Despite all the improvements in iOS and the amount of apps available for the device, I would still think twice about taking mine to a lecture. Why? There's some basic document management, sharing and tools that are so much easier with a traditional laptop. My list of essential college apps can make your life a bit easier though.

At this point most students have to choose a method to capture and store their notes. Sure you can type and edit your assignments on plain text editors to later jazz them up on Pages, for example, but you first need to get all those key ideas from classroom. You want to have a tool that allows you to jot down some sentences quickly and store it properly for later reference.

Andy Yip from Snazzy Apps has probably faced the same frustration before and has put together an app to help you taking notes more accurately and avoid missing those key details. Note Talker for iPad is a notepad app with some extra features that allows users to remember the important bits from a lecture, conversation or a meeting as well as recording the background audio while you jot down their comments.

Let's imagine you're in the classroom ready to take notes from the lecture of this very important guest speaker. One part of you is telling you should pay attention, while the other probably fears you'll miss some important ideas while writing on a piece of paper. You can solve this bringing a dictaphone with you or using more fancy solutions like the pricy Livescribe pens but fortunately your iPad can do this for you within a single app.

Never miss anything

To begin taking notes, simply tap on the red recording button an start typing on the paper-like area. Every time you hit return the app will split the audio recording so it's much easier for you to track the topic discussed at that time. A prominent timer on the top os the app keeps track of this as well. These audio markers will be really useful later on when you revise your notes as you can transcribe everything said later on at home or the study room.

Once the session is over the app will save all the materials together for you to open them in the same app. The beauty of it compared with recording the audio with your iPhone, for instance, is that all the audio clips are split as you type your notes, saving you some precious time skimming forward and backwards, not really sure what you listen matches your notes. The app takes care that everything is perfectly in sync so you can focus in what's being said rather than getting your gadgets to work together.

Note Taker also understands that you might want to multitask checking your email, launching another app so it doesn't disrupt the recording. As some additional extras, the app also gives you quick access to your Camera to take pictures of the slides being commented. Clever, isn't it?

As you use the app you might starting to lose track of all the sessions you might have attended during the day, week, seminar, conference,… To avoid a filing mess you can add some useful title and tags in case you want to find it quickly. You can export it via email as well if you prefer. The important thing here is to tap the save button for the app to convert the audio to a different format — not really sure why — but you get prompted with the dialog upon completion.

That strange look and feel

While all this makes it sound like a great tool you want to be using, there are some caveats you should be aware of. My preferred iPad orientation is landscape, as you're presented with a wider, more comfortable layout. Note taker unfortunately only supports portrait mode. Even if you are using an external Bluetooth keyboard, which would be the ideal setup for me for a note taking session, the app just won't rotate to landscape. Some cases, including Apple's own iPad Smart Covers don't make very comfortable to type in portrait orientation.

Despite its very useful nature, the lack of polish in the visual department doesn't invite you to use Note Taker as your everyday solution. It's missing that level of credibility.

There aren't many configuration options when it comes to the text area. The default font used is rather small and you'll have to stick with that. I would like to see some way to change the presentation of the text, specially at the review stage, the same way you can change theme and fonts in iBooks, just to name a popular app with this option.

The interface itself is very basic, poorly executed, showing clear signs of amateurism. The look and feel doesn't do any justice to the actual functionality, where interface elements have been put together without much harmony, thought and attention to detail. Most graphic resources aren't just Retina display ready, but are terrible jagged and pixelated unnecessarily. This makes me doubt about the work done testing the app on actual devices. Perhaps the developer should have used Apple's own GUI elements, which are least are pixel perfect.

The taste for Apple design is, however, taken copying some app icons instead of using the more familiar glyphs used in iOS for sharing or using the camera. I just find this very disappointing as well as unnecessary. It gives the feeling you have a prototype piece of software with some placeholders rather than an actual app.

Need to wait and see

Other than the realisation that Note Taker needs the some direction from an actual designer, the concept isn't flawed. I can see how useful this can be and the proposition of having all these tools together in one single app can be very compelling for students and professionals alike.

While Microsoft's OneNote is flawed in its execution, iOS boasts some good alternatives including the likes of Evernote, Note Taker HD and Notability — this is a crowded category in the Education section on the App Store. I'd like to see more of Note Taker because I like the idea of splitting the audio in chunks that match your paragraphs. This being said, the app doesn't feel like it's ready to be trusted with your precious notes and appearance might have a lot to do with it.