Noteworthy Note Takers for PDAs

PhatPad and BugMe add pizzazz and pictures to handheld memos.

I generally don’t use my PDA for taking notes, much less for drawing. But maybe that’s because I’ve never had the tools to make the effort worthwhile. I’ve recently been playing with two note-taking apps–PhatPad on Hewlett-Packard’s Pocket PC Phone Edition-based IPaq H6315, and BugMe on my PalmOne Treo 600–and I’m impressed by how much they expand the capabilities of these handhelds.

Both PhatWare’s PhatPad 1.3 and Electric Pocket’s BugMe let you scribble or draw with your stylus in colors and stroke widths you select. Both also let you attach alarms to those notes–hence the name of Electric Pocket’s app, I imagine. And both include tools for sharing those notes by turning them into image files and saving them to a memory card or e-mailing them from a connected handheld. The two apps do have a few differentiating features, however.

Pocket Phat
Click here to view full-size image.The $20 PhatPad requires Windows CE 3.0 or later. Basically, this means the app can run only on Pocket PCs of vintage 2000 or later. When you launch PhatPad you get a list of notes you’ve previously saved; you can either work on one of those, or start a new note.

By default, new notes start on a background that looks like a sheet of lined notebook paper. But you can change the background color by tapping on Options in the Tools menu and choosing from among five options. You can also either eliminate the lines (by unchecking Horizontal Grid in the View menu) or add vertical ones to make the sheet look like graph paper (by checking Vertical Grid in the View menu). I couldn’t see a way to change the grid size, however.

A zoom tool in the View menu lets you see the whole note, but everything gets very small. The default is a partial view of the sheet with scroll bars on the bottom and the right side to navigate to off-screen areas.

Colors and Shapes
PhatPad is reasonably generous in its ink palette, letting you choose from 39 colors. A handy button alongside the palette icon brings up your stroke width options: from skinny (1 point) to thick (9 points), with every point size between.

Need some help refining your doodles? Click Correct Shapes in the Tools menu and it tidies up your circles, squares, and triangles–at least, some of them. It ignored some of my larger circles, but did fine with the smaller ones.

Another nifty feature: You can select part of your note or drawing using a selection tool, then switch to a move tool and drag the selected material around the screen. A Text Note option in PhatPad’s View menu divides the screen in two, so you can enter text in the upper half using your preferred Pocket PC text input method. The lower part of the screen remains available for drawing. And even without using Text Note, if you also purchase PhatPad’s Calligrapher handwriting recognition software for Pocket PCs, you can turn handwritten notes on PhatPad into editable text: You jot down a note, select your handwriting, click Recognize in the Tools menu, and Calligrapher turns the handwriting into text that you can edit or copy-and-paste into another program. Bought separately, Calligrapher costs $30. But through the end of August, PhatWare is offering Calligrapher and PhatPad as a bundle for $45, a $5 savings. I didn’t have Calligrapher, so I can’t vouch for its efficacy.

My biggest hassle with PhatPad had to do with the way the application interacted with the text input tools in Windows Mobile 2003 for Pocket PC Phone Edition (the latest version of Microsoft’s Pocket PC software). Basically, I had difficulty making the OS’s tools go away so that the PhatPad screen wasn’t diminished by a text input area or software keyboard when I was just trying to draw a diagram with a few jotted notations. Somehow the app didn’t seem to realize that the Windows Mobile text input area wasn’t needed. The Transcriber (which does handwriting recognition on the fly for most apps) has the smallest screen footprint–but when I turned it on, it tried to recognize my scribbles and, when it couldn’t, made them disappear.

The problem is, PhatPad won’t let Transcriber or any other text input tool work in a regular drawing: They will work only in a Text Note area, if you choose to create one. I finally figured out how to get rid of Transcriber (tap on the X at the right side of the toolbar) so I could get back to working on my diagram.

Overall, I’d say PhatPad dovetails nicely with the Pocket PC’s general corporate orientation by providing the tools to create simple diagrams and sketches with editable text annotations.

Annotations, Anyone?
Electric Pocket makes versions of BugMe for several smart phones and PDAs. I tried out the $20 Palm OS 5 version, and found it to be a bit more ambitious than PhatPad, especially in terms of its graphics tools. (There’s a separate version for handhelds based on earlier versions of the Palm OS.)

The extras start with a selection of graphics tools reminiscent of those in Microsoft Windows’ venerable Paint utility. In addition to a pen for freehand drawing, there are tools for drawing straight lines, squares, and circles; creating filled circles and squares; and filling any enclosed area with color.

BugMe clip art
Unlike PhatPad, BugMe comes with a selection of clip art–arrows, balloons and the like–that you can use in your drawings. A panning tool lets you move these elements around; it also works with text that you can add anywhere on your note by choosing a text tool. But you can’t select and move your own drawings the way you can with PhatPad. If you choose the panning tool and place the stylus on anything but a text block or clip art, it moves the entire note instead.

BugMe tools
But what I really like about BugMe is that you can use it with something other than a blank screen–a photo or a map, for example. I was able to select one of the images I’d captured with my Treo 600’s camera and annotate it using the entire range of BugMe tools, even adding text using the Treo’s keyboard.

However the Treo’s lack of native support for Graffiti meant I couldn’t try out another BugMe feature: It can create screen shots of any Palm app. To do this you use Graffiti’s command stroke (a diagonal sweep from lower left to upper right) on the screen you want, then launch BugMe and tap an icon that completes the screen capture. You can then annotate the image the same way you can annotate photos.

BugMe dialer
Another neat feature: If you type a phone number, e-mail address, or URL from your contact list into your note, BugMe recognizes it and creates a link. Tap that link and it either dials the number, initiates a blank e-mail message, or activates the browser to view the Web site on a connected PDA. You can also e-mail notes within BugMe from a list of saved notes.

BugMe’s 24-color palette is slightly less extensive than PhatPad’s, and it has fewer stroke options (six, varying in shape as well as size). There’s no handwriting recognition option, either. Still, I’m finding it a fun addition to my Treo: If nothing else, I’ll be sending some interesting digital postcards when I travel.