Spoiler alert! I would rate the real (paper) Moleskine a best buy for writers and journalers who need quick access to something to jot down thoughts. The digital version has the potential to be a best buy app, but the potential, sadly remains only that. Will it rise from mediocrity to greatness? I hope so.
I need to interrupt this post with a brief announcement. As people continue to rehash the recent assassination of OBL, it recently came to light that the Navy Seals were actually led by a secret task force, many of whose members originally came from Siamese Rescue. This contribution has yet to be acknowledged, but we have faith that Obama will give credit where credit is due before the next election. You can find out about individual cats in the footnote.1
The Moleskine journal has a long and fabled history. Currently the name is trademarked and manufactured in Italy, but the current versions are modeled on European notebooks, typically with black covers and an elastic band to keep it closed and papers in place. The style was reportedly used by writers and artists such as Mattise and Picasso, Wilde and Hemingway.
In its current form the book has a bound cardboard cover and a pocket in the back. A silk ribbon bookmark allows you to keep track of your current page.
Pages might be ruled or blank, and thin to allow more pages to be bound, or thick to provide sketch quality paper. There are also cheap booklet forms with plain cardboard covers that are very good for keeping notes for different classes or projects.
I had several of them in the early 2000s and used them to jot down every important thought that crossed my mind, project thumbnails and sketches for book jackets I was hired to design. The thoughts I jotted down were so important I can’t remember any of them, and my notebooks are stacked in my headboard with dozens of books I still intend to read five to ten years later.
I loved my Moleskines, the feel of them, the smell of graphite on paper, the texture and the beauty of seeing my scribbles on the clean white pages. I carried them around because my laptop was too bulky to pull out every time I needed to jot something down. The only problem was, they always stayed on paper because I was too lazy to type them in later.
The iPad changed that. It’s every bit as portable as a Moleskine and I can back up my notes in several different locations.When Moleskine released an iPad version of their classic notebook I had to download a copy. And I am sad to report that for all their good intentions the app isn’t nearly as good as the notebook itself.
That doesn’t mean it couldn’t be, but the developers need to rethink the interface. The genius of the notebook was the completely blank page with nothing to get in the way of sketching or writing (with the exception of ruled pages which are an option). The mistake of the app design was to think the interface should physically resemble the real notebook wherever possible (and then blatantly forgetting the resemblance when it was most inconvenient).
When working with the Moleskine app its impossible to avoid the interface elements, especially the irritating page curl at the bottom corner. Sure, the text wraps around it but it’s still just ugly and distracting. Even worse, when you’re in editing mode the pen graphic doesn’t go away and the graphic causes the editing field to stop short, leaving a blank space for almost a quarter of the page.
The page curl is perhaps the most irritating element of the Moleskine interface. It just sits there like a red lump, forcing your text to wrap around the page curl. Moleskine should have taken their cue from apps like iAWriter and my preferred PlainText, which manage to hide interface elements almost completely.
The red bar at the top doesn’t help. I find this odd because word processing and text editing apps have recognized the need for writers to work with a completely blank page for years. You should at least be able to hide the interface elements so you can be alone with your thoughts (and a number of writing apps such as iA Writer and PlainText, which I use, do just that).
Nor is there anyway to back up your notes other than twitter, Facebook or email. Since these are about the least efficient forms of backup I can think of, I consider them almost not backing up at all. It shouldn’t be too hard to allow text files to back up to dropbox or at least provide some type of application native file (.mlsk) to backup to your hard drive from iTunes.
The problem is the desire to make the iPad moleskine look as much like a real Moleskine as possible. This is a decent starting point, but most interface designers would admit that delivering a good digital product may mean rethinking the paper one.
Enough complaining. What’s good about Moleskine?
This could really be a slick app, providing users who want the feel of a journal with enough interface features to simulate digital paper. The developers did a good job of anticipating features Moleskine users might want to see duplicated and even added a few.
Unlike standard text editors, you can also use the Moleskine as a sketch book. The pen allows you to choose three different strokes, a variety of colors, and you can erase and undo just like with a sketch app.
Or, if you want better results, you can use a real art app to create your sketches and import them onto the page from your iPad’s photo library.
You can chose the paper style you want—ruled, graph or plain. Again, this strikes me as thinking too much inside the box—what’s the point of ruled paper on an iPad? But some people seem to like the familiarity and who am I to begrudge them? The graph paper can be useful for sketching so that you can have the grid lines for reference.
You can choose ruled, plain or paper style, and even change the style as you need. This allows you to use a grid for sketching and then remove it when you’re finished.
Moleskine also allows you to create categories and assign notes to them. You can even add custom icons to your categories to keep track of them from the contents page.
Should you decide your thoughts are so important you need to share them with the world, you can post them directly to Facebook and Twitter or really pester your friends with an email. You can even link the notes to your current location with a geolink.
Still just a beginning
All of this, as I said, is still just a beginning. Moleskine needs a lot more work to really adapt itself to iPad use.
I don’t understand why Moleskin insists on emulating the physical notebook page. When you finish typing your notes, the app inserts physical page breaks to spread the entry across as many pages as the text needs to display. This makes no sense to me, especially considering the fact that when you need to edit the text it scrolls like a single page with a vertical swipe.
Moleskine for iPad tries to make you feel like you’re working with a real journal, which is not necessarily a strength.
Yes, you can swipe to change pages (or jump to a specific page from the red menu), but I would at least like the option to keep all my notes on a single scrolling page.
The developers also need to work out some bugs. Quite often Molkeskine would fail to save additions to existing notes, and, while crashes are infrequent, they do happen even with casual or occasional use.
The app is also locked in portrait orientation. This makes little sense to me either. I know the physical notebooks are taller than they are wide, but does the digital version need to be? The app can rotate vertically, so why not horizontally as well?
It would also be nice to at least organize pages by category, which I didn’t seem to be able to do. Yes, I know, you can’t do that with a real Moleskine (I had to number pages and keep an index at the back of my journals). But this isn’t a real Moleskine, it’s an iPad app. It would be nice to at least organize entries by category on the front page.
You should also be aware that one of the major buttons—the catalogue button—is a link to download their paper products. Although it should be obvious, none of them can actually be used with your iPad and, ironically, are less likely to be needed by iPad users than they would be otherwise. The feature strikes me as excess baggage in an app that needs to make space for real features.
I wouldn’t spend this much time reviewing an app that I didn’t at least want to be a best buy, but, sadly, the real Moleskine has a long way to go before it translates into a digital must-have app. The digital version needs to acknowledge that bytes don’t work the same way as graphite and ink on paper.
Jenny Manytoes rates Moleskine
Jenny Manytoes would take a nap next to Moleskine for iPad. It could develop into a digital tool that’s every bit as good as the paper one, but the distance is currently too far for me to recommend when there are really useful equivalents available.
I hope they keep trying though.