Scribe Handwritten Notes with PenJournal

In theory, I love the idea of being able to easily take handwritten notes and have them stored on my computer. I’m going back to school and taking a bunch of math classes, so it would be nice to be able to handwrite equations and insert them in my notes, rather than using a dedicated equation editor. I could try to do the handwritten style notes on my iPad and take regular notes on my computer, merging them after class, but that seems unnecessarily difficult. Unfortunately, I kind of need something that doesn’t seem to exist quite yet, so in the meantime I’ve been exploring various apps to take handwritten notes directly on my computer.

PenJournal was my latest trial – it’s a simple program made to take handwritten notes, primarily using a graphics tablet. You can take notes, draw simple images, import/annotate PDFs and much more. Obviously, using a graphics tablet is not ideal for taking notes in class (my desk in class isn’t big enough for all that), but it’s still a program worth taking a look at. Stick with me after the jump to learn more about the features of PenJournal and how it stacks up to its pricier competitors, and how it works both with and without a tablet.

Basic Features

When you open up PenJournal for the first time, take a moment to examine the various tools in the toolbar at the top of the screen – you’ll see drawing tools, shapes and some unfamiliar elements (don’t worry, we’ll talk about those later). First, take note of the pen tool. It’s obviously going to be your most used tool (it is in the name, after all). You can select it and adjust the width using the slider for easy drawing and writing. You can also use the dash tool if you need a different line type.

The pen and dash drawing tools – freestyle!

Next to the pen and dash tools is the eraser – your second most used tool. It’s not exactly the easiest to understand, at first. Basically you just draw a line with the eraser tool over any elements you want to erase. Easy enough if you use a lot of large lines – significantly more difficult when you’re trying to erase a multitude of small lines. The eraser has caused me a lot of difficulty, but you’ll get the hang of it with time.

Shapes are the next option. You can easily add rectangles, circles and straight lines in varying widths and colors. The shapes are easy to use and help add some variety to any notes you might take. It can be quite frustrating to utilize PenJournal and see how well developed some tools are, while others (e.g. the eraser) are insanely difficult to use.

Experimenting with shapes and straight lines.

You can also insert images into your notes – another handy feature, especially when you’re doing any sort of annotation. You can drag and drop in images, or insert a background image. Once they’re in, just click on the image and use the slider to easily scale the image to the necessary size.

Inserting and resizing an image is a piece of cake.

Last but not least, an important basic feature to note is the ability to change the background style. Under the format menu you can find the option to choose a plain background (the default option), a ruled background or even a grid. I love this feature, as it makes it significantly easier to take neat notes.

Changing up the background style.

Advanced Usage and Annotation

So the features above allow you to make anything you want from the initial blank note you’re given – of course, that’s not all you can do in PenJournal. One task that the program is really made for is PDF annotation. To get started with an existing PDF, just use the import option under the file menu. Then you can use any of the basic tools listed above to help annotate the PDF as needed.

Annotating PDFs is what the program is best for.

In addition to working with the pages contained in the existing PDF, you can also insert additional pages into the document. Note that this applies to all creations in PenJournal, not just annotating existing PDFs. Use the insert, add and delete tools to add and take away pages as needed, both at the current location or at the very end of the PDF.

I’ve added a blank page into an existing PDF so I can take notes of my own without covering up all the content of the PDF.

A small feature worth mentioning is the ability to bookmark pages within your document for easier searching and to make certain pages stand out if you export as a PDF. Speaking of, after you finish up the PDF annotation, exporting is a simple process – just use the export option under the file menu.

Lastly, it’s worth noting that you can easily customize the toolbar. Simply use the customize toolbar menu to add/delete tools, rearrange as needed or reset your toolbar back to the default layout and contents. It’s quite nice to be able to easily drag and drop the tools I use the most into the most convenient spaces, a feature you don’t always find.

Customizing the toolbar is a piece of cake.

Tablet vs. Trackpad

PenJournal very specifically markets itself as an app made to utilize a graphics tablet and stylus when taking notes. It says this very specifically in the app description, however the program doesn’t seem to work as well with the graphics tablet as it should. I tried writing first with my tablet … It was fine, don’t get me wrong, but it just didn’t seem as fluid as it should in a program made for a tablet. The writing was laggy and hard to produce at times.

Additionally, none of the features of my tablet work well with PenJournal. I have a pretty new (and popular) Wacom tablet. Given the popularity of the tablet type, I just assumed that I would be able to use the tools on my tablet, e.g. the ability to adjust the width of the pen tool using the tablet. Unfortunately, this was not the case and utilizing PenJournal with a tablet quickly became rather cumbersome as I constantly switched between the trackpad and the tablet.

Granted, the trackpad isn’t any better (as you might have guessed). Using a trackpad to try and write handwritten notes is nearly impossible, and anything you make will likely be a mess. The tablet is the clear way to go, I just wish it were better incorporated into the program.

Final Thoughts

To be perfectly blunt, PenJournal will not continue to reside on my computer after this review is complete. There are definitely better programs out there, programs that work better for many tasks. PenJournal is frustrating to use – it doesn’t play well with my tablet, the eraser never seems to work and it could stand to include a few more tools (perhaps the ability to also type notes, rather than just handwriting?).

There is some good to the program – it’s pretty convenient for drawing on documents you need to annotate. It’s got a nice setup to add your own notes to PDFs you are working on, and I appreciate the ability to add additional images to annotate. Unfortunately, these features definitely don’t make up for the shoddy features found elsewhere in PenJournal. This is not the app to get for handwriting notes on your computer.

To help me in my search, what programs would you recommend as a better alternative? Or do you actually like using PenJournal and have some good words to say about it? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


Take handwritten notes and annotate PDFs with PenJournal, an app which allows you to write notes with a graphics tablet and stylus.