iPad diagramming

I often need to diagram things at work. It’s usually something like a system block diagram, a gnarly code problem, or client-server interactions. Sometimes it’s just a list of things I’m comparing.

Whatever the diagram is, I need to the keep it around for a while. And refer to it, scribble on it, and update it. And sometimes share it.

Since “back in the day,” I’ve used a whiteboard for this. Or sometimes pages from a pad of graph paper. I’ll noodle around, sketch things out, and leave it up.

For sharing, I’ve resorted to snapping a photograph of the whiteboard with my iPhone. (Or a couple of photographs, which I then stitch together with AutoStitch.) If the photo’s not adequately square, I straighten it out with Genius Scan. And then e-mail it. The mail message can get pretty large, so this can be a nuisance.

Eventually the whiteboard needs to be erased, or is accidentally erased. Or I lose the graphing paper doodles, or decide to throw out the diagrams.

In December, I received an iPad 2 as a gift. And I’ve gotten around to thinking, why not step up my game and use the iPad for this? (Yeah, I’m being dramatic and rhetorical. Sorry. I’ll re-phrase: “I’ve decided to use the iPad for diagrams and simple drawings.”)

I haven’t completely figured out how I’ll do this. I’ll write about my experience here as I go down the learning curve, mistakes and all.


I knew that I needed two tools to make this work. (This was my first mistake! I didn’t know it at first, but I needed three tools, as I’ll explain later.)

  1. I need to draw and write freehand on the iPad.
  2. I need to share my drawings, and sync them with my other devices. (MacBook Pro laptops, and my iPhone too.)

The second choice was the easier one. I’ve been using Evernote and Together for my information collections. I started using Together, and liked its UX metaphor. Then Evernote surpassed it in syncing and sharing documents, and it has iPhone and iPad apps. So I started also using Evernote. I’ll eventually have a date with destiny and make myself stop using one of them, and on that day, I’ll move all the clippings from one into the other. But not today.

I selected Evernote as my syncing and sharing vehicle. I sprung $45 for a year’s subscription to Evernote Premium, because I wanted the note history (to recover from big mistakes), offline notebooks, and no more advertisements in my face.

Then I looked for good drawings apps. Based on online reviews and some friends’ recommendations, I quickly narrowed down my choices to two apps: Penultimate and Noteshelf. While I played around with them, I realized that I also needed to buy a really good stylus. More on that below.

Penultimate has a Zen-like simplicity and elegance. The user documentation is just a few pages. (Penultimate pages — see the screenshots here.) Within a few minutes, I was zipping around and doodling with ease. It’s easy to know your way all around an app when there aren’t that many options to remember. It took a few tries before I got the hang of how it handled notebooks (collections of drawings), but it wasn’t all that hard. And it’s only 99¢.

Penultimate’s simplicity is its greatest strength and weakness. There’s no keyboard text input, and no zooming. Unless you’re very good at writing very, very small, you’ll very quickly fill up a page. Even if I used a stylus, Penultimate’s page size is too small.

Noteshelf for iPad costs $5.00, which is pricey for an app but not pricey in the grand scheme of things. My time’s worth more than $5/hour, that’s for sure.

It’s got oodles of features. More than I can fully digest at one sitting. It’s got zooming, which is critical for my needs. It’s got tags. It’s got text input. (You have font choices, up comes the keyboard, you type text in a text box, etc.) It’s got Holy Crap bucket loads of features.

On the minus side, it’s got Holy Crap bucket loads of features. I mean, nowhere near as many features as some other tools I use. (Like Emacs, the One True Sacred Editor.) But it’ll take time to learn my way around the app. Then again, I need to learn only the features I’ll use.

I’m leaning toward Noteshelf. But I’m not deleting Penultimate from my iPad just yet. I might, conceivably, prefer it for some kinds of sketching.

I’d like to buy a stylus, please

I quickly discovered that drawing with your fingertip is fun for about 30 seconds. Then reality sets in. One’s index finger (even one’s pinky finger, if you’re flexible) is far too large and blunt a tool for good precision drawing and freehand writing. I tried drawing a box and writing simple text (“apache server”) within it, and the results were not pretty.

Off I went in search of a good stylus for the iPad. I relied heavily on a MacWorld review of iPad styli. You can quickly narrow down a stylus choice by considering what you’ll use it for: Navigation (tapping the screen with it instead of your finger), artistic drawing, or writing. I couldn’t care less how my stylus performs as a navigation or artist’s tool, so I was able to quickly narrow down my choice.

I decided to buy a Wacom Bamboo Stylus, which cost me $35.00 from Buy.com. It’ll arrive this week.

Next steps

I’ll learn my way around Noteshelf, and await the stylus’ delivery. Then I’ll teach myself this new way of working. I’ll report back on how I do.

4 thoughts on “iPad diagramming

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