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This article is about something which has actually been around for quite a while, but only in the last few years has been improved and perfected to the point that it is now a viable and very nice product for pretty much anybody to have and use – the Digital Notepad, also known as a Digital Notebook or Smart Writing Pad.
Basically, this is a device which will capture anything and everything you write, scribble, doodle or draw and turn it into a digital file, which can be saved onboard and is also easily transferred to a cloud or another device, like a PC, notebook, smart phone or tablet, using Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or cables.
There are two basic types of Digital Notepads available:
Either way you go, the best Digital Notebooks available in 2021 are brilliant devices, which actually transcend their cool gadget status and end up being highly valuable and regularly used creative tools.
Almost everybody I know has some sort of smart device on them all the time, and can take notes, make lists, hand-write messages and even draw basic pictures with the tip of their finger. Some even have tablets, phablets or notepad type smartphones with a nifty stylus to make this even easier.
So why do I keep hearing, over and over again, that people miss the old days, when they used a pen and paper and wrote things out the old-fashioned way?
Why do people so often claim that they just don’t use their tablet for taking notes or doodling like they thought they would?
Why do I see so many people also carrying nice little old-school notebooks, and why are the sales of fine writing pens so strong these days?
People love writing on paper with a pen or a pencil – it’s as simple as that.
Many of my family members, friends, students and associates mention that they can’t really get used to writing on a screen.
And even though it seems that most artists are quite happy with their tablet, and use it all the time, they don’t use it to take notes or write out lists or ideas; many still have a paper pad and pen for that.
And lots of artists draw little “seed” ideas on paper all the time – a tiny, basic doodle which will be a kind of reminder and inspiration leading to a larger, more fully realized art piece, or a quick sketch to capture something in front of them or in their mind’s eye.
Or they used to do this, at least, but since having a tablet, which they love to use for serious work, many have stopped this fun and productive quick-sketch practice, and really seem to miss it.
Still, people don’t miss all the folded, crumpled, faded or ripped bits of paper in their pockets, or in a thousand pieces in the clothes dryer, and they don’t miss losing a nice image, good idea or important telephone number when that tiny scrap accidentally gets thrown away.
And that’s where paper-based Digital Notebooks come in, offering the best of both worlds.
They allow you to go back to your comforting and productive process of writing or drawing with pen and paper, and then transfer what you’ve penned right into the 21st century, as a text file, a graphics file or a PDF, among others. Absolute Genius!
On the other hand, some people aren’t necessarily so paper-attached, but simply want to jot down something instantly and get on with things.
The idea of taking out their phone or tablet, turning it on, often wading through notifications, alerts and ads, finding the right app, opening it, maybe opening a new document, well, you get the idea – what was it I was going to write down? Where did that pretty butterfly go, and what did it look like? Maybe I’ll just Crush some Candy instead…
But a screen-based Digital Notebook is different, and at least seems like a wonderful idea.
Rather than a full-featured Android or Apple phone or tablet, with all its inherent distractions, you have a focused electronic notepad of the super-simple open-and-write variety. You can turn it on and start writing or drawing straight away, and that’s it. Sounds like a traditional notebook more than like a phone or tablet, doesn’t it? So, who’s the Smart one now?
And yet screen-based digital notebooks have never really taken off for some reason, and paper-based smart tablets are by far the more popular of the two types.
In fact, over the last few years it seems that so many newly developed and interesting screen-based digital tablets – like the reMarkable tablet that was making such a buzz not that long ago, or the apparently revolutionary Sony Digital Paper – have all but disappeared from the market. Some have simply vanished and many others don’t seem to be really available anywhere, and lots of the seemingly finest (and definitely most expensive) screen-based systems have gotten absolutely abysmal reviews from users.
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ADVANCED DIGITAL NOTEPAD
NOTEPAD & DRAWING TABLET
So this buyer’s guide will really focus mostly on the best paper-based digital notepads on the market today, and will look at five amazing (even magical) products, some more suited to writers, some better for artists and some offering an ideal balance, but all great tools for any creative person, student or professional.
I will also include two absolutely fantastic choices for screen-based digital notepads, which are both well suited for artists and writers alike.
All of these Digital Tablets come with everything you need to get going, they all will work well with any system or gadgets you may already have, and their files can be transferred to Android, Windows or any Apple operating system, and most cloud services, easily (even automatically).
So, once you find the best Digital Notepad for you from the recommendations below – one that suits your tastes, needs and budget – you can go ahead and order it with confidence, knowing that these are all the best of the best, offering great quality, functionality and value.
Then, when you just have to get that idea or image down on paper, you can do so instantly and easily, without having to first see the calls you missed or the dozen updates your apps so desperately need.
The iskn The Slate 2+ is a great paper-based digital notepad for very little money.
The Slate 2+ allows you to use any normal A5 sized paper and any pen or pencil – just slip the cool sensor ring onto your favorite writing instrument and The Slate will follow your motions and record everything.
While not as precise as some of the more expensive digital notepads on our buyer’s guide, the Slate 2+ works great, and is a pleasure to use. It automatically stores your files using several different cloud services, and saves your work internally if you aren’t online or paired.
The Slate 2+ also can serve as a graphics tablet, and allows you to see what you’re doing in real time on your computer monitor as well as on paper.
The iskn The Slate 2+ does not have onboard handwriting recognition, but it exports everything – handwriting or drawings – on one of several different graphics file formats, so you could use any handwriting recognition software on your phone or computer. The free iskn Repaper App gives you a good range of graphics tools to revise and finish your creations, and is compatible with Windows, Apple MacOS, Android and Apple mobile iOS.
For a real paper-based digital notepad, the iskn The Slate 2+ is a nifty, useful device. Yes, it is the least expensive digital notebook on our list, and yet it works remarkably well, and I suspect that it would become a trusted companion and useful tool in no time.
A remarkable unit to use, the Royole RoWrite is essentially a high quality and luxurious feeling notebook with A5 sized paper, which transfers everything you write or draw on that paper into a digital file. It will save to PDF, text and several different graphics formats.
The RoWrite Digital Notepad transforms your handwriting into text, and will also dynamically capture not just drawings, but differences in line thickness and pen pressure with remarkable accuracy. It requires a special pressure-sensitive pen to take advantage of all of this, but you can use a regular pen as well, and any normal A5 paper (our Amazon link is for a specially priced bundle including the pressure sensitive pen and extra paper).
The free RoWrite App is compatible with Apple and Windows PCs, Android and Apple phones, and the notepad will automatically transfer your files or save them internally if you are not paired with a device. The bundle features the Smart Handwriting Pad, pressure sensitive pen, ink refill, 2 A5 paper notebooks, cable, pen battery (AAAA) and user’s manual – everything you need.
A premium product and a great performer, the Royole RoWrite is one of the very best digital notepads on the market today despite its low price. It makes a great productivity tool and a brilliant gift, and is the best value overall on our list of best digital notepads for 2021.
From the manufacturer of the Slate 2+ smart writing tablet reviewed just above, the iskn Repaper is a more advanced and accurate digital notepad for just a little more money.
Functionally, the main difference – and to many of us it’s an important one – is that the iskn Repaper registers not just pen or pencil movement, but pressure as well – 8,192 levels of pressure, which is as much as fine professional art tablets.
Like the Slate, the Repaper will work with any pen, pencil or paper, exports files in various graphics file formats, and includes a free app for Apple, PC or Android. The iskn Repaper can also be used as an accurate pen tablet input device for any Mac or Windows art or graphics software and can show your work in real time on the computer screen. It also has onboard storage but, unlike its less expensive sibling, the Repaper includes a micro SD slot for up to 32 GB of additional storage.
A very useful and clever device, the iskn Repaper will definitely fill that need to quickly take notes or draw sketches on the go, and does so easily, reliably, and with surprising accuracy. It is, in fact, the ideal balance between a simple portable note-taking smartpad and a sophisticated art tablet, for an almost absurdly low price.
Please note that our Amazon link leads to a special iskn / Faber-Castell Limited Edition package, which includes a fine quality Faber-Castell pencil and is 50 dollars off the normal price.
The Moleskine Ellipse Smart Writing Set is designed specifically for writing and converting that writing into editable computer text files to be saved to the cloud or any paired devices. The Ellipse can record drawings and doodles with great accuracy, but is not maybe the first choice for an artist looking for a paper-based drawing tablet. But for taking notes, creative writing or business writing it is an amazingly well engineered and effective digital notebook.
With handwriting recognition in 15 different languages, audio and writing synchronization, advanced organizing, tagging and sharing functions, this is the finest paper-based digital notepad I’ve ever used for note-taking and writing. And being Moleskine products, the smart pen and smart notebook are both beautifully made, with first-rate material quality, fit and finish.
My number one recommendation, then, for a paper-based digital notepad for writing, the Moleskine Smart Writing Set Ellipse digital notepad is the perfect choice for any writer, businessperson, student or anybody who wants to take notes, organize their thoughts or capture momentary ideas and inspirations anywhere and at any time. And it is a beautiful kit overall, far nicer than one might imagine for the modest price!
It should come as no surprise that the finest paper-based digital drawing tablet for artists, and our top recommendation for a paper-based smart tablet, comes from Wacom – the leader in graphics tablets for artists since, well, since there were graphics tablets for artists. Wacom is known for superb performance, material quality and reliability, for well-engineered products and thoughtful designs, and for extreme accuracy and control, and the Wacom Intuos Pro Paper Edition is no exception.
What is exceptional about the Wacom Intuos Pro Paper Edition is that it uses paper, capturing your pen-to-paper creations in perfect detail and saving or transferring them as digital files. Other than that it is essentially the same as any Intuos Pro graphics pen tablet, with the incredibly sensitivity, accuracy and precision you can only get from Wacom, a great artist-centered design (including programmable function keys) and a truly professional level of fit, finish and reliability.
That said, this is not the best choice for somebody who just wants a cool and useful little digital notebook to carry around and both take notes or make drawings on. But if you’re an artist who wants not only one of the very finest graphics pen tablets to attach to your computer, but also a paper-based system that allows you to create directly on any paper – in the studio or on a park bench – and still have the same 8,192 levels of pressure sensitivity, tilt recognition and astounding accuracy, the Wacom Intuos Slate is as good as it gets, and is very highly recommended.
The simplicity, effectiveness and usability of the Likebook Ares-Note is exactly what I have in mind when thinking about the perfect portable screen-based digital notebook.
A nice e-book reader with a built in warm/cool reading lamp, the Likebook also allows you to write or draw on its nice, remarkably sensitive screen with the included Wacom stylus.
Artwork can be rendered in great detail, the interface registers a full 4,096 levels of pen pressure, and the built in OCR software will convert your handwriting to editable computer text. Capable of exporting several file formats, the Likebook Ares-Note can interface with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or direct cabling to any other device, and has 32 GB of built in storage and a micro SD slot to add an additional 128 GB.
Although the Likebook Ares-Note uses Android operating system, this is not a tablet or smart phone. It is an elegant, focused device for reading, writing, taking notes and drawing beautiful pictures. It is a solid, reliable and well designed smart writing and drawing pad for a moderate price, and is perfect for any writer, visual artist, student or professional.
The Boox Note Air is a bit of a different animal – an Android device offering much greater versatility and functionality than other screen-based Digital Notepads on the market today. And yet it is still focused on reading, writing and drawing, and retains that simple, open-and-go philosophy which characterizes the best digital notepads.
The Boox Note Air is an extremely high quality unit, with a solid feel and beautiful appearance, and it is incredibly thin and light.
And while it will run other Android DRM apps, like those available at the Google Play store, it is primarily designed to be a smart reading and drawing pad, and is a greatly effective one and a pleasure to use. It is also an exceptional ebook reader and annotator.
Excellent onboard writing and drawing software make both creating and editing text and graphics easy, the pen and interface are pressure sensitive and highly accurate, and the wonderful front light makes working at any time possible.
You can also get an optional keyboard which the Note Air slips neatly into, and have an even more powerful writing tool. Bluetooth and wireless connectivity and 32 GB of internal storage work with at least 16 different file formats.
The Boox Note Air is not an inexpensive digital notebook, but it is an exceptional one – remarkably advanced, useful and versatile, and so thoughtfully designed, the Note Air can do much more than other screen-based digital pads, and yet retains the simple user interface that really sets this type of product apart.
A perfect tool for a writer, and equally good for visual artists, not to mention businesspeople and students, the Note Air is highly useful and highly recommended!
I think that a lot of people have considered buying some kind of electronic notepad for writing and/or drawing for a long time, but have been put off by the bad reviews, reports of poor performance and poor reliability, and the often shockingly high prices.
But I have to say that, while clearly some products are still not what they should be, and some are still ridiculously priced, the best digital smart writing pads or drawing pads in 2021 are fully developed products – effective and useful, reliable and affordable. And very, very cool.
If you are the type of person who likes to capture ideas, visions or other inspirations on the go, without any fuss or distraction, a digital notepad will let you do just that – quickly and simply – and then you can see those ideas in the digital realm and take them wherever they need to go. A perfect synergy of old-school and high-tech, and an idea which has finally come of age.
Thanks so much for reading my latest article – Best Digital Notepads for 2021 Compared and Rated – and I encourage you to visit my blog – Art Side of Life – for other buyer’s guides, online courses, articles and lots of other resources.
Looking to buy the best backpack for artists, designers, art and designer students? Check out our in-depth review of the best artist backpacks in 2021!
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