When Is an iPad Enough For Notes?

September 15, 2011 by Gabe | [mmd] |

My wife recently started on her 3rd degree. She has B.S. in Biochemistry and Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry. She is now starting Law School. She is obviously a great student but things have changed in the, uh-hum, several years since she was in a classroom. She begrudgingly[1] asked me for advice on note-taking options for law school. It took me about three seconds to recommend OmniOutliner in both of it’s incarnations, Mac and iPad. In those three seconds I had a number of things to consider.

  1. My wife, like me, works on a windows machine during the daylight hours. File export will be important.
  2. She already has to lug a considerable load around to and from class
  3. She is not very fond of I.T. [2]
  4. She will need to convert her notes into more elaborate documents at some point in the future

While Scrivener may be an overall better tool for notes, OmniOutliner has a much more shallow learning curve. That’s important for someone that barely has time to eat dinner, let alone learn a note-taking system. Additionally, some people just think in outline format and sometimes content fits better in an outline. Why make it fit into some less compelling style?

My wife insisted on using her iPad (first gen) for course notes. That’s no problem since OmniOutliner works great on the iPad and it’s my personal favorite for taking notes while at meetings. Of course it was a smash success. She immediately began to make very detailed and organized notes on her iPad in OmniOutliner. The outlines were not all that pretty. There’s really no time to fiddle on the iPad with trying to make Omni outlines look nice. It’s too many taps while you’re trying to take notes.

The setup was essentially an iPad 1 with an Apple Bluetooth keyboard and an Origami stand. It worked great. She could (and did) sit for hours typing away into OmniOutliner on her iPad. The notes really did look good and she had become proficient at using the tool. Reaching up and tapping while typing on the keyboard did not bother her. It bothered me to watch though.

The deal breaker (mostly for me) was when she needed to convert her notes into a short paper. Switching apps and typing was not very efficient. Typing long passages on such a small screen was also a pain point. I knew there was a better alternative. So off to Apple we went…

…we arrived home with a new 13“ Macbook Air (maxed out of course). That’s when my expectations and reality had a parting of the ways. She actually had a harder time using OmniOutliner on the Mac than on the iPad. It was less intuitive and there was just more ”stuff" surrounding her notes. Maybe it’s obvious in hindsight, but I thought it would launch her into OmniOutliner stardom. It’s been a bit of a struggle adapting. There are smudges all over the MBA screen where she tried to tap a row in her outline. She also had to start thinking about where her files were stored. On the iPad, the application dissapeared and the device became her notes. On the Air, the application window is where she types. The inspector is where she formats. The menu is where she chooses actions.

It’s been a week with the Macbook Air and she is almost as effective now as she was on that little iPad. I still think the Air is the right choice for longform writting but an iPad can be an extremely potent notepad. Even for a non-nerd.


  1. I say “begrudgingly” not because she doesn’t think my input would be well-considered, but because she knows it will be over-thought. She’s marginally aware of my opinnions about note-taking software.

  2. That’s to say she is not “in-to” Technology. She enjoys an iPhone and an AppleTV as much as anyone. My wife falls into the reasonable category of people that thinks technology should fit the human condition. We should not need to learn how to use it. It should adapt to our needs.

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