Paper, Tablet, and Tablet PC: Comparing tools for sketchnoting

Update 2014-02-22: Updated to reflect current ScanSnap workflow and link to resources for sketchnoting with Autodesk Sketchbook Pro.

tl;dr summary: I use Autodesk Sketchbook Pro on a Lenovo X220 tablet PC running Windows 8 to do my sketchnotes. I also scan in sketches that I do on paper.

Here’s a quick comparison of how and what I draw on paper, tablet, and my Lenovo X220 tablet PC, and what works out better when.

Paper

Lightweight, large-scale, and no worries about battery life or device drivers – hard to argue with paper’s advantages. I don’t have to worry about digitization errors when I’m writing small text, and I don’t have to swipe or scroll in order to see the rest of my drawing. I can see everything in context.

On paper, though, I can’t erase ink or move images around as quickly as I can on the tablet or tablet PC. Since I don’t have layers, I can’t change my mind about colours. I often end up smearing ink, too. I have a hard time finding pens that will give me a consistent fine line.

Scanning introduces several additional steps. I’ve had the best experience with 8.5×11” loose sheets of paper in a stiff folder (or on top of another firm surface), because they’re easy to draw on and scan. I carefully tear the pages out so that I can pass them through my ScanSnap sheet-fed scanner.

Ballpoint pens are too rough and uneven. I prefer 0.4mm technical pens or gel pens like the Pilot Hi-Tec C4. I’d love to find a super-fine inexpensive fountain pen. For colour, the markers I have are a bit dark. Coloured technical pens are fun. Highlighting can be iffy, so I usually do that on the computer instead.

With gel pens

2014-02-09 How do I want to manage my learn-share pipeline

2014-02-09 How do I want to manage my learn-share pipeline

With coloured markers

http://sachachua.com/blog/p/23368

With a ballpoint pen

http://sachachua.com/blog/p/23429

Tablet PC (Lenovo X220 tablet)

I like drawing on my tablet screen with a stylus. It’s quick, it’s responsive, and it lets me erase, colour, or move things until I’m happy with how the drawing looks. I can work with as many layers as I want, and I can hide or reorder them easily. I can add background grids or reference images, then make them disappear when I’m ready to publish. Posting the sketchnotes to my blog is easy, too. I export the files to my Dropbox folders, then I use Windows Live Writer to put the blog post together.

Zooming takes a little more work than on my tablet because I have to use the little widget to zoom. I spend most of my time zoomed in about halfway, which gives me some context, but still not as much context as I get on paper. I don’t have to zoom in as much as I do on my tablet, because I have more control on the tablet PC when it comes to drawing small text. Erasing is much easier than on the tablet PC, too – I simply flip the stylus around and use the eraser end. Scrolling is okay if I remember to use the right-click panning motion, but I often forget and use the widget as well. Scrolling takes more clicks, too. It imposes a little friction in terms of working with an entire page.

Minor quirks: The digitizer misbehaves near the edges, so I have to avoid them.

I draw most of my tablet PC sketchnotes with the desktop version of Autodesk Sketchbook Pro. It has the best pen-friendly interface of all the drawing programs I’ve tried, although Artrage Studio Pro is pretty cool too.

Autodesk Sketchbook Pro

I used to use Microsoft OneNote 2010 for drawing sketchnotes, but after several annoying incidents where it messed up my drawing by moving brushstrokes around, I gave up on it. Also, the infinitely scrolling page was great for input but not so much for output – hard to include in blog posts or print out in a coherent way.

See these resources for sketchnoting with Autodesk Sketchnote Pro

Microsoft OneNote 2010

http://sachachua.com/blog/p/21883

Next steps

I’m working on getting better at drawing sketchnotes by:

  • reviewing sketchnotearmy.com and other sites for inspiration, and practising the techniques I like
  • drawing notes for the meetups that I go to and some of the books I want to remember
  • sketching my plans and ideas
  • building a collection of grids and templates
  • experimenting with more colours, lettering styles, and layouts

Hope these notes are useful, and that you’ll also have fun drawing!

Tablet (Asus Infinity TF700, Autodesk Sketchbook Pro for Android)
In terms of portability, the tablet is a good compromise between paper and the tablet PC. It’s lighter and has more battery life than my tablet PC, while still giving me the digital advantages of drawing in pixels. The TF700 has more screen resolution than my laptop, even, and it’s handy for reviewing and searching my sketchnotes using Evernote as well as drawing them with Autodesk Sketchbook Pro.

I’ve tried several drawing apps, but only Autodesk Sketchbook Pro seems up to the challenge of handling several layers on a high-resolution display. Even with that, though, I think I can only add five layers before things get wonky. I’ve mysteriously lost parts of drawings because of partial autosave recoveries, which is a pain, and the app doesn’t have a Lasso tool for moving parts of a layer around. I really should invest some time into making custom grids that exactly fit my resolution, too. Certainly more innovation needed in this area.

The Nomad Brush stylus seems to make my drawing applications lag quite a bit, so I’ve found myself doing most of my drawing with my finger. It’s easier to do other gestures as well, such as swiping to scroll or pinching to zoom in. Drawing on the tablet is more tiring than drawing on my tablet PC because I have to make sure my palm doesn’t touch the device and because I’m using an imprecise pointer with more friction, but it’s okay for an hour or so of recording. I spend much of my drawing time zoomed in so that I can draw text, so I don’t have the whole-drawing context that I get with paper. It’s much easier to zoom and pan with the tablet than with the tablet PC, though. Not having a lasso or cropping tool, I sometimes end up with too little or too much whitespace. I could edit the images on my laptop afterwards, but I rarely get around to it.

I’m still getting the hang of the workflow. Twitpic appears to be the best way to post sketchnotes to Twitter because it will keep the full-resolution image. I’ve set up Postie for WordPress so that I can e-mail the PNG to my blog and have it posted as a thumbnail that links to the full-resolution image, although I haven’t fully automated it yet. I still prefer Windows Live Writer on the tablet PC for writing blog posts that combine images, text, and links, but Postie will do in a pinch. Evernote is fantastic for searching and looking up sketchnotes. It doesn’t have a slideshow view, though, so I also save the files in Dropbox and use either Perfect Viewer or Gallery to flip through my sketches in quick succession.

I take my tablet instead of my tablet PC to meetups now. The tablet is easier to slip into my bike bag, and I can use it to support conversation. The tablet PC is heftier and much harder to use while mingling.

Autodesk Sketchbook Pro for Android

http://sachachua.com/blog/p/23594

I think my handwriting’s a little looser and coarser on the Android. Less control, less familiarity… Still, it’s legible, and that’s mainly what I’m going for.

Thanks to Noorul for the nudge to write about this.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/raymondzeitler Raymond Zeitler

    Thanks for posting this!

    Paper: Maybe the issue you’re having with consistency of fine lines is due not to the pen but to the paper. The texture of sketchbook paper is nice for charcoal and graphite. But it can deflect a fine point pen and cause ink to bleed. And, as you point out, the default 9″ x 12″ is a “beach” to scan — I’ve had to photograph some of my daughter’s sketches because she goes all the way to the edges.

  • Josh

    I don’t know if these have fine enough nibs for you, but the Lamy Safari fountain pens have been touted as being high quality and reasonably priced (for fountain pens).

    If you’re looking for a terrific ballpoint pen, I highly recommend making the investment in a Mont Blanc (or a fake one simply to hold the ink refills…or hack something together to hold the ink refills). While I originally got one as a gift from a manager for (over)achievement at work, the action on the ballpoint is like nothing I’ve ever written with, so I have invested in new ones; it seriously frustrates me to attempt to write with anything else nowadays. The only caveat is that they might not make a ballpoint tip fine enough for your needs (I use the medium point, and it’s slightly finer than a standard PaperMate).

  • http://sachachua.com Sacha Chua

    Raymond: I think it’s more of a pen thing because some of my pens make me happy and some don’t. I usually don’t get any bleeding or feathering with my pen, although I do get a tiny bit of smearing if I work too quickly. 8.5×11 is probably going to be my default size for ease of scanning, as it takes work to light things up neatly and evenly for pictures. My pocket-sized notebook is handy for quick notes, but I haven’t been using it for sketchnotes recently. (I should try that again, though!)

    Josh: I have a few fountain pens, and may add an extra-fine nib if I can find one (particularly if it’s hooded, which is nice). I prefer inexpensive ones because I worry about leaving or dropping nicer ones, which I’ve done on a few occasions! There’s a pen shop I sometimes buy ink from, so I can check out their Lamy Safaris to see if I like the line. Thanks!

  • HN

    Have you tried Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1? It comes with a very precise stylus and is very responsive. I draw and write lot of my notes using Note 10.1. Check it out.

  • http://tagstore.org novoid

    Is there some offline-OCR tool out there which is able to process hand written notes and add e.g. a text-PDF-layer?

    I do not want to upload all of my notes to some server/service …

    • http://sachachua.com sachac

      Not that I know of, but you might be able to solve that with some people and/or elbow grease.

  • Android Tablet PC

    Great post…!!!! Good tools for tablet PC..

  • Alex

    Would be great to read your opinion on sketchnote solutions for iPad and Mac sometime :)

    • http://sachachua.com sachac

      Oddly enough, we don’t have a single Apple product in the house. =) But if someone wants to share their thoughts, I’d be happy to link or let them guest post!