Katherine Boehret

Pen and Paper Find a Place in the Digital World

As the saying goes, the pen is mightier than the sword. But I’d also venture that the pen can be mightier than the keyboard. After spending hours each day typing out emails, text messages, tweets, Facebook comments and instant messages using similarly dull fonts, the sight of anything written in another person’s handwriting can be quaintly touching.


The Targus iNotebook consists of a notebook case, a customized pen and a paper notebook. A sensor bar above the pad receives signals from the pen as it is used and can wirelessly beam what is written to the iPad.

For the past week, I’ve tried using a tool from Targus that breathes digital life into good old handwriting. It’s the iNotebook, a $180 gadget that digitizes and saves words written on regular paper to the iPad.

Using a free, iPad-only app called iNotebook, people can sort their handwritten notes into various notebooks, tabs and pages. They can enhance their notes with cool background images, highlighted text, stamps and different text colors. Audio recordings can be added to notes, and notes can be saved to Dropbox or emailed to friends.

While the iNotebook is definitely a niche product, it’s fun to use and more satisfying than writing on a glass tablet surface using a stylus. People who primarily rely on handwritten notes — whether because they can write faster or because they like making quick annotations or drawings with their notes — will want to consider this device.

But its $180 price tag, which is over half the cost of the iPad Mini, will scare buyers off. And in a few instances, the iNotebook pen was a little flaky.

The iNotebook consists of a handsome notebook case, which is available in all black or white canvas with black accents. Inside, a customized pen and a 100-page notebook with lined pages and a black cover slide into the case. (Targus’s notebook refills cost $5, but other similarly sized notebooks would also fit.) A special sensor bar runs horizontally above the notebook; it receives signals from the pen as it writes, and communicates wirelessly with the iPad when it’s connected via Bluetooth.

Targus isn’t the first company to try moving handwriting into the land of digital. Back in 1998, IBM attempted to bridge the gap between PC and paper with its CrossPad, which used a pen with a radio frequency transmitter and required a serial cable to connect to a PC. Microsoft incorporated handwriting recognition software into its tablet PCs in the early 2000s. And Livescribe has tried since 2007 to popularize its technology, which uses a pen with a tiny, built-in camera and special paper to record and wirelessly transmit text as you write.

The iNotebook sensor and pen both run on rechargeable batteries that can be charged by plugging into a USB port, and an included split USB cord simultaneously charges the pen and sensor. Both last, fully charged, for 60 days on standby, according to Targus. The sensor automatically turns off after an hour if it hasn’t been used for writing. In use, the sensor is estimated to last 15 hours while not paired via Bluetooth to the iPad, or six hours when it is paired. The pen lasts for 10 hours of writing.

The pen comes with three standard D1 ink refills. A refill pack of 10 from Targus costs $8. The cap of this pen doubles as a stylus tip, giving users the option to write with ink on paper in the iNotebook device and then quickly switch over to writing with a stylus in the app.

Any paper can be used with the iNotebook — even a cocktail napkin — so long as the iNotebook pen is used for writing and the paper (or napkin) is placed on the iNotebook. Choosing one’s own paper will be a boon for those who love their Moleskine notebooks and personalized journals because anything they write there can be sent back to the iNotebook iPad app. Indeed, I made a reminder note to myself on a Post-it Note stuck to a page in the iNotebook, and its text was saved in the iPad app.

The way the iNotebook works is a little complicated. Its special pen and sensor work together using infrared and ultrasonic signals that capture text as it’s written; they don’t use handwriting recognition. The pen works as a transmitter: When you press down to write, a switch inside the pen turns it on. The pen transmits the text data to the iNotebook sensor. This text can be instantly displayed on the iPad screen as you’re writing, which feels kind of magical.

If the iPad isn’t nearby or isn’t connected via Bluetooth, up to 100 pages of writing can be stored on the sensor by pressing a small button on the sensor. When the iPad is nearby and/or Bluetooth is on, saved pages are imported from the sensor to the iPad app by tapping an option in the app.

I liked the free iNotebook iPad app, finding it simple to use and self-explanatory. I created five different notebooks, which were each automatically given a different color cover and placed on virtual shelves, the same way magazines and newspapers appear in Apple’s Newsstand app. In the app, I added pages to a notebook by tapping the “+” icon in the bottom right of the app; on the iNotebook, I turned the page in my physical paper notebook or tapped a Next Page button on the sensor to flip to a fresh virtual page.

The iNotebook requires paper to be positioned just below its sensor. At times, when I wrote too close to the left side of my notebook page, the handwriting didn’t come through or appeared as haphazard lines that didn’t make sense. When I adjusted the notebook and moved it farther over into its elastic strap holders, my handwriting was accurately captured.

Targus’s iNotebook isn’t for everyone and its cost will keep away many curious consumers. But it’s simple to use, once you get the hang of it, and its iPad app eases the process of organizing handwritten notes.

Write to Katie at katie.boehret@wsj.com.

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