Thursday, February 21, 2008

eNotes in the 21st Century

The method for which people have taken notes have not substantially changed in the past few centuries. The concept of paper and pen and any combination of the two have been the foundations of ideas, thoughts, worries, and creation for everyone in the past, and most people in the present. I realize the advantages and freedoms that something so simple can provide, but what sparks my interests is how technology has been able to solve many of the shortfalls of this ancient system and provide a new and useable solution to this everlasting activity.

Why eNotes are BAD:

Let me premise by saying that electronic solutions to note-taking are NOT perfect and NOT practical for all applications. I feel obliged to tear apart electronic media before I raise it on a glorified pedestal. Electronic solutions are currently more expensive than paper. The PDA that I will be using as my special case cost me about $500. It would take a lot of notebooks and pencils before you reach $500 worth of supplies.

Electronic solutions suck for drawing neat, fluid, and creative sketches. In the applications that I will talk about, you can’t sketch a landscape as well as you can on paper. You can’t draw the subtleties of a human face, and shade areas beneath the nose with portable electronics. (Assuming you don’t have a camera, which is integrated in many devices now anyways).

You also can’t add physical artifacts to your notes; there is no such thing as scotch-taping a leaf or bug or knick-knack into your electronic notebook. It takes an average of 2.8 seconds longer on e-paper to get to the point where you start writing down ideas than a regular notebook. (This is an average of 3 trials that I tried myself). Another practical distinction is that any non-textual characters (such as higher-level math or arrows between boxes), are more difficult to draw, require you to switch modes, and will be slightly less neat than on paper.

Finally, electronic media is slightly more complicated than paper. It takes exactly 4 button pushes on my PDA to start writing while paper takes a couple of page flips before you found the place you last left off.

Why eNotes are Good and Why I Use Them Frequently:

For the discussion that I am about to raise, I am using my Fujitsu-Siemens Loox N-560 PDA as an example of an electronic solution to Paper. I must point out that the electronic device you are using does make a significant impact on the performance. I personally spared no expense to make sure I got one of the better PDAs on the market, so this is definitely a good-case scenario.

The best scenarios to use PDAs and electronic note-taking media is whenever you need to record a though, idea, or expression that you or anyone else says that is in plain English. Luckily for me, this is a relatively large percentage of anything that goes through my ears, eyes or brain. Note that this excludes higher-level math and abstract picture things. Since the interface to my PDA is regular manuscript handwriting, I can record information just as fast as I can on paper. Furthermore, if I bust out my external keyboard, my recording speed increases by a factor of 4.

The media in which I record is a simple text application that can be enhanced as much as the application can. This means that it is trivial for me to add an infinite number of colors to my page, and change the font styles, sizes, lists, etc. On paper, I would need a lot of pens to make a lot of colors.

One of the most appealing feature to me is the fidelity of the information that is preserved with my eNotes. Every night, when my PDA synchs with my computer, it creates a backup on my computer. Then every night, my computer backs up its entire hard drive to a managed online storage solution. I would consider the integrity of this data to be far greater than a sheet of paper in a tiny notebook. There are many pieces of information that I want to jot down and remember forever. With my electronic format, I can far more easily guarantee the safety and security of my data. I realize, however, that there are hackers, and computers crash, and files corrupt. Because of these concerns, the protection of data goes far beyond my PDA and I personally go through great lengths to ensure backups.

Size is another issue that really sets PDAs apart from many other types of note taking on any media. Unlike a laptop, I can have all of the benefits of electronic media without a large barrier between me and a potential subject that I am taking notes on. Furthermore, a PDA can fit in my pocket and has 4” of useable screen resolution. One specific design consideration for my Loox N-560, was that the screen has a full 640 x 480 resolution. At that resolution, the pixel density of the screen approaches my visual perception. With this amount of detail, I abate the common issues of very little usable screen real estate. With this model, I have as much physical space as a pocket-sized notebook.

The fact that the PDA and all the information it contains fits in my pocket, is one of its most powerful features. Think about how many notebooks it would take to match the 4GB of memory that my PDA holds. Assume you have a pocket-sized notebook that’s 3” x 5” and you’re using a 0.5mm lead pencil to fill up the 15 square inches of usable space. Assuming you can fit about 100 words (600 characters) on one side of a page, you would need about 3,579,139 pages to match the 4GB that my PDA can hold. That many pages has the same surface area as 17 acres of land.

Finally, my PDA is far more than just a place to take notes. It is a notebook, and audio recorder, a video player, an mp3 player, a GPS navigation system, a calendar, a task manager, a photo album, a storage device, a calculator, a library of books, and can take the form of any application you can load onto it. That much versatility in a single device can’t be matched by any paper notebook that I know of.

When a PDA solution is executed properly, I believe that it can be an extraordinarily valuable asset that can far exceed the functionality of traditional paper under most circumstances. It is an investment that I do not regret and still use habitually today.

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