We are finally at the end of my 8-week digital notebook experiment, and it has been eye-opening in so many ways.
I’ll keep my conclusions short: I won’t be using a digital notebook anytime soon.
Not that it was a terrible experience. If I’m honest, there were elements I enjoyed, and I learned a lot about how I like to take notes. I guess I just hoped I would find it more useful than I did. The convenience was there, but it came with its own assortment of drawbacks. Some of them were Android-related issues. Some were with the app. Some were with the hardware itself.
I haven’t written anything in the last two weeks because I didn’t want to deal with my digital notebook anymore, and not being able to use an actual notebook has been its own unique kind of torture. I’ve taken to vast quantities of post-its and index cards instead. Last week I ordered my new Moleskine, it finally arrived yesterday, and I cannot tell you how thrilled I am to be back in a paper notebook. For now, paper is where it’s at.
The Limitations of Technology
In the end, this is why the experiment didn’t convert me. In terms of actual writing experience, it was almost flawless, and the digital notebook I purchased from Dash Planner on Etsy looks and functions beautifully. But there are some technological hurdles that really make it a lot more troublesome than it’s worth
When you have a busy weekend, and you come back to your tablet hoping to do a bit of planning, and the battery is almost dead? It’s not a fun time. Of course, one of the stipulations of my doing this experiment was that I couldn’t use a regular notebook, so technically someone could just whip one out and start writing. Still, if it was considered your ‘main’ notebook, it’s troublesome that it isn’t perpetually available. At some point, it’ll have to charge. You could make the argument that it was my own fault for forgetting to charge it beforehand, but it’s also not something I normally have to worry about.
One of the pros of using a digital notebook that really got me excited was the idea of using digital images and stickers. Instead of hand-drawing headers and things, I could premake some beautiful images in photoshop and save myself the trouble later. I could also reuse them and they would look perfect and flawless every time.
Except, for whatever reason, PNG files do not display very well in the gallery. I kept the backgrounds transparent so they would be easy to integrate into my spreads, but that meant that when I went to retrieve them from the gallery, they appeared as a bunch of black squares
Not exactly useful like this, huh?
The Vanishing Text
Remember how I said the writing experience was almost flawless? At the beginning it was, but the more I wrote, and the larger the file grew, the more lag I experienced, and the less flawless it became.
There are times when my strokes wouldn’t register, so that sentence I wrote didn’t appear. Or it almost lags and then appears after I’ve already started writing again. It’s an issue with the app itself, of course, but if it happened to me often enough in only 8 weeks of using a digital notebook, I don’t see it being practical. I like to use my notebooks for a long time. I live in them for a long time and I like it that way. I suppose I could use mini-notebooks for a month at a time, but that seems like a bit of an inconvenience. And the whole point of going digital was to try and improve on the paper experience – to make it more convenient. Not less so.
Size and Weight
For this experiment, I used a 10-inch tablet because that’s what I had available, and I like a lot of space to work with. But that also means it’s very large and very heavy. The penless version is slimmer and lighter, but that would defeat the purpose for which I bought it. The battery inside it is a big one, and that has the unfortunate side effect of making it weigh more. It weighs more than my netbook and my new expanded edition Moleskine (That’s a 400-page notebook, in case you were curious). It’s too heavy to carry around comfortably, especially if I’m not sure I’ll need to use it. So I almost never did. Which meant I would have to wait until I got home to use my notebook. Which, again, was not very convenient.
I realize that the app I was using was probably not optimized for what I intended to use it for, but it had functionality that I really wanted. Unfortunately, that itself came with its own set of issues. Finding an app that suited my needs was just as troublesome, and something to take into account before you decide you want to keep a digital notebook.
Before I started this experiment, one of the notebooks I ran tests with became corrupted and I could never figure out why. That meant I could no longer use it to write. I could view my work, but I couldn’t make any changes. Thankfully that didn’t happen when I properly ran the experiment, but it was always a fear in the back of my mind.
I could have used a different app, but it was impossible to find one that had everything I was looking for. I hoped to use Evernote, but its handwriting functionality is lacking and incredibly laggy. I also considered using the Squid app, which was amazing, but it wasn’t cloud-based, which meant I couldn’t access it from another device. I had used Xodo before for PDF annotation, and it allowed me to open files and resave them to my dropbox. It was the closest I could get, and thus, the one I chose.
I’m not sure if its an issue strictly with the app I chose to use, but after many edits and additions, I couldn’t separate large chunks of text. One of the features that I liked – being able to select and move portions of text was no longer feasible on pages I used frequently – like my month-at-a-glance. It meant I had to spend time erasing and rewriting things I once moved. And it makes sense why – the volume that I was writing would have been difficult for the app to separate, but it was one of the advantages I was most excited about, and in practice…well.
There was a reason why I wanted to try this experiment. I wanted to see what it was like to actually use a tablet as a notebook for an extended period of time, as that would reveal issues and hurdles I wouldn’t normally anticipate. As stressful as it got towards the end, I’m glad I did it.
What I Learned
Free For All
I don’t like sections. I don’t like tabs or moving around pages. Even though I could freely do that, by the end of this experiment, I removed the tabs from my notebook and gathered all the pages together. If I need to, I can use an index to locate things quickly, but I’m not opposed to just flipping through all of them. The notebook doesn’t need to be organized. It just needs to be available for me to start dumping my thoughts and ideas. When I archive it on Evernote? That’s when I can organize it.
Changes are Necessary
I really liked being able to erase things and move them around. I found that the only way I use a planner efficiently is when I’m able to erase and change things. Right now my life and my schedule are constantly in flux, and writing it in pen is not an option. It feels too permanent, and it makes me feel guilty when I fail to get everything done in time. What I needed was to shift things around to compensate for interruptions in my life. So I picked up a couple of Pilot frixion erasable pens. That ought to do the trick.
The Right Tool for the Purpose
If you read my post about Evernote, you’ll know that I use it for pretty much everything. It almost works like a digital notebook, in a way, just not one that I physically write in. And that’s the way I like it. One notebook that I write in by hand when I’m struggling to get my thoughts out by typing, and one to capture my stream-of-consciousness style info-dump when I can’t write fast enough to keep up with the ideas. I was hoping to form some sort of merger between the two, ’cause you know I’m always trying to work more efficiently. But it turns out they work just fine separated. So that’s the way they’re going to stay. For now, at least.
It’s fun to see technology progress, and I know more and more students are going digital because it makes for easier notetaking, whether that’s on a tablet or with a traditional laptop. While I complained about the weight, compared to a bunch of binders and textbooks, a single tablet is nothing.
I recognize that it might be a good fit for specific situations – like work or school. But as an everyday notebook? I admit I may have got ahead of myself. The technology is just not there to do it comfortably. At least not in my opinion. That being said, I don’t own an Apple iPad, so maybe Apple users feel a little differently.
I’ll be interested to try this experiment again in the future to see what has changed, maybe with a different system entirely – something like the Remarkable tablet perhaps?
What do you think about keeping a digital notebook? Is it something you’d like to try? Do you have any suggestions to help me improve the next time I attempt this experiment? Any apps that would make a better fit than the ones I listed above? Let me know in the comments below!