Saturday, November 24, 2012

How iPad Helped Me Become Paperless in College

This article is about how my trusty iPad replaced the need for paper in my life completely since I came to college. Here, I describe my workflow involving the iPad, and the article is meant to give you some inspiration for how to stop relying on the outdated pieces-of-dead-trees technology and move towards a more consolidated and efficient digital life.

You don’t have to be in college to go paperless. Use this post to get ideas on how you can use your tablet to replace the need for paper in your life. You can be using an Android or Windows tablet. But throughout this post, I mostly refer to apps available on iOS (specifically the iPad).

Why in college?

The “college” bit in the title is an important qualifier. In high school classes were smaller, and we were more dependent on teachers. Hence, we had less choice and most often got paper handouts from teachers who refused to go digital. I found going paperless a lot easier in the independent world of higher education.

I always wanted to become digital and stop using paper. So often, I would be rummaging about for a paper form that someone had handed out to me in class and I had to fill it out and submit it the next day. Of course, it was nowhere to be found. Had it been digital - a couple keystrokes here, and a couple taps there - it would be so easy to find.

Having a folder of all school documents, indexed for searching (and synced across all my devices), was what I always wanted to do. But in high school, there were always printed handouts - with no digital version on a class website.

In college, every course I am taking has a website. Professors and TAs maintain the website and make available all the essential documents, syllabi and assignments online. Printing off hundreds of copies for the whole class is a waste, considering that in this age, half the class will forget about a paper document anyway.

My gear

The only device I need to carry everywhere - from lectures to discussions and labs - is my iPad 2 with maybe one of my styluses. I usually carry no textbooks at all. In fact, I can honestly say that I haven’t purchased a single notebook since I started college as a freshman this quarter.

Besides that, I carry my iPhone, and sometimes, my Kindle. Very occasionally, when I am down at the library and don’t have to walk around with a backpack the whole time, I carry my MacBook and get some work done (such as writing this article). But this is not a necessity.

Anyways, my iPad is really the center of all this action.

Paperless workflow

When I think about it, my iPad is used for four main purposes: Notes, homework, personal stuff (non-college notes, reminders) and web/entertainment.

The biggest use is notes. Or maybe, the specialized purpose that my iPad serves for me is notes. And it does it well. The other purposes are minor ones, since my iPhone and MacBook also do the other things, those purposes are diffused throughout. For instance, the Netflix movies I watch on iPad continue progress on both the other devices. Reminders are available on other devices as well.

The iPad is terrific for notes, if you are willing get over the small transition curve it has for those who are not in the habit of taking digital notes.

Styluses of choice

For various reasons, I have unintentionally ended up with several different kinds of styluses lately. My advice can’t be very good because I haven’t experienced a wide variety of styluses. However, I can describe what experiences I have had.I used the Adonit Jot Mini for a while and even reviewed it here. It was the most precise stylus I have tried out. The plastic disc makes Adonit products feel like a pointed pen. However, it makes clacking noises when you tap it on the screen when writing. It can also scratch up your screen if you don’t use a screen protector and you don’t keep your screen dust-free (see my review for details). This one is best for tiny writing and technical drawings, diagrams and labeling.
  1. I used the Adonit Jot Mini for a while and reviewed it here. It was the most precise stylus I have tried out. The plastic disc makes Adonit products feel like a pointed pen. However, it makes clacking noises when you tap it on the screen when writing. It can also scratch up your screen if you don’t use a screen protector and you don’t keep your screen dust-free (see my review for details). This one is best for tiny writing and technical drawings, diagrams and labeling.
  2. The W.A. Stark Touch Stylus (reviewed here) is not the best out of the bunch, but I like it. The handcrafted design is great and the soft tip is just as firm as I would like it to be. I had a bad experience with one of the units, but because W.A. Stark is a small company, they promptly sent me a replacement for free.
  3. The Targus "Stylus for iPad" (reviewed here) is also fun to use. The tip is very squishy. I didn’t like it at first. It obscures a lot of the screen when you write (complete opposite of Adonit products). However, this one results in the best handwriting I get for some reason, and I like it. At $15, it’s an okay deal.
  4. Lastly, I used the AmazonBasics stylus (reviewed here). This one is my favorite right now as I said before. It’s extremely cheap for one, but it can only be shipped within the US from Amazon. This one is not as long as the Targus stylus, but it looks similar. The tip is even more perfect compared to the W.A. Stark stylus, and this is perfect. You get a solid build  quality for a low price. I get very good handwriting as well.
Last three of these styluses have soft tips. Hence, they are not as good for handwritten notes as Adonit products, but they are just fine. They make really good drawing instruments, though.


I use Penultimate for lecture notes or the occasional brainstorming. It is a handwritten note-taking app that works beautifully with a stylus. There are a few reasons for using Penultimate:
  1. It costs $0.99 and replaces all the need for all paper notebooks that may cost me $4 every now and then. Plus, I never run out of pens. Spend $15-$20 on a decent stylus once and take good care of it. It will last you years (before you eventually break/lose it). The AmazonBasics stylus is one of my favorites and it costs only $9 (US only).
  2. The features are spectacular: Beautiful inking with simulated ‘pressure sensitivity’ looks like you are using real paper. Wrist protection ignores touches from the rest of your hand, so you can naturally rest it on the screen; it works well and it works for all writing styles (and for both lefties and righties). You can create virtually unlimited notebooks with various paper styles if you want.
  3. It exports to Evernote and backs up to Dropbox. Evernote acquired the creators of Penultimate and they still haven’t included any kind of deep integration like syncing features, but what is there works for me. More on the Evernote bit and why you should export to Evernote in the next section.


For a long time, I have not been able to appreciate the usefulness of Evernote while everyone seems to swear by it. I still don’t for the most part, because putting all my thoughts in one place seems to make things even more cluttered.

However, I get a special perk for using Evernote with Penultimate. It’s what I always wanted - all my handwritten notes are accessible everywhere... and they are searchable.

I would prefer Pentultimate's function of sending notebooks as individual notebooks to Evernote (which I can organize in a "College" stack), IF it also allowed me to write regular Evernote notes in those notebooks. However, any notes created this way get deleted when the Penultimate notebook is re-sent. I currently send the notebooks as "notes" to a Penultimate notebook in Evernote and keep separate Evernote notebooks for each class for the occasional something I need to write.

One of Evernote’s best features is handwriting recognition and OCR in images that you put into it. When I export my handwritten notes from Penultimate, they go as images. They are already viewable on my laptop. Evernote’s servers index all the handwritten notes and when I search for a bit of text, it turns up those handwritten notes as well; feels like the future. Of course, this may not be a 100% accurate and having good handwriting helps me with this part.

Another way this can help you is that you can use any Evernote-compatible phone you have to snap photos of your paper notebook, labels on food cans or business cards to store them in your now-expanded Evernote brain and the service makes everything searchable.

Evernote has a lot of other uses as well and it works across all the most used platforms. I use Apple’s Notes app to complement Evernote. I use it for temporary notes that I want synced across all my devices which I will delete in a couple of days.

Being paperless all-round

Apart from notes, I have transitioned completely into reading e-books. Since I got a Kindle Keyboard in early 2011, I stopped buying paper novels. And I am an avid reader. I sort of get the people who “like the feel of books” but not really. Personally, I only care about the text inside a book and not the smell of dead trees that contains them. It’s just my preference. I have got to a point where (not kidding!) I get distracted when reading books on paper. I can genuinely concentrate better on an electronic device.

The Kindle Keyboard (and now the Paperwhite) has been my best reading buddy through the transition and present. However, I am also a heavy user of the Kindle apps for mobile devices. I read on my iPhone and (sometimes) on my iPad. I love how progress syncs.

Paperless books have the added convenience of being super compact and lightweight and I totally prefer that over paper ones.

I am not saying that everyone will find it easy to go paperless for novels. But if you want to, the iPad can make a really good reader with iBooks or another platform. However, reading for long times on the LCD is a pain and distracting features are all over the place. If you cannot deal with it, get an e-reader. I love the Paperwhite, Amazon’s ecosystem and their customer service and therefore highly recommend the Kindle platform to transition into paperless reading.

What I still use paper for

All this said, there are some minuscule things I still have to use paper for. My precalculus course requires me to submit homework on paper. I could use Penultimate to do it, but I would have to print it anyway.

I also use paper textbooks. Flipping through a paper textbook is easy. But of course searching through an electronic one is easy. It all depends on your books. I could have purchased two of my textbooks on the Kindle platform, but I got a good deal on a rental website, so I borrowed paper books (that will be reused).

I would prefer to go completely paperless, but I technically can’t. Nevertheless, I am pretty close.

Tell me your going-paperless stories in the comments below.