Microsoft’s Journal App Offers Elegant Simplicity

Handwrite your thoughts in Windows

Key Takeaways

  • Microsoft’s new Journal app is a great note-taking tool. 
  • One key difference with Journal compared to other note apps is that it’s focused on pages. 
  • I was able to easily find past ink notes that I had created in Journal.
An Acer Windows tablet with the Microsoft Journal app displayed on it.
Place.to / Mockup Photos

Microsoft quietly has launched one of the most delightful apps I’ve used in a long time with its Journal for Windows 10 notetaking app. 

I’m a scribbler by nature and a fan of paper notebooks, but inked missives seem always to get lost. Moleskins get misplaced, and I’m usually at my computer, so I am still looking for an excellent digital replacement.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Journal is that it’s a product of Microsoft. The software giant is known for bloated applications, puzzling interfaces, and more features than are useful for users. By contrast, Journal is a simple, graceful application that’s a pleasure to use.

"My only worry about Journal is that Microsoft will change it or add too many features. Some things are best left simple."

A Simple Problem Rarely Solved

The problem Microsoft set out to resolve seems simple, but is rarely solved. How do you take handwritten notes, store them, and organize them on a computer? I’ve tried dozens of apps in this category, and most of them have clunky interfaces and other limitations that make me give up and go back to paper. 

By contrast, Journal is a revelation of clean design. I tried it out using a low-end Surface Pro 7 tablet and pen. There were no issues with speed, and even though it’s labeled a Garage project, I didn’t encounter any bugs. Journal was easy to use, although it comes with useful animated tutorials. 

Part of the joy of using Journal is the things it doesn’t have. For example, the Journal app doesn't have modes, so I didn't have to switch between inking and erasing. 

One key difference with Journal compared to other apps is that it’s focused on pages. Many similar inking apps use an infinite canvas approach. The obvious benefit of the canvas is that you’ll never run out of digital paper. 

On the other hand, having an infinite amount of space has always seemed strange to me since it has no correlation to the real world. The Journal approach, in which you click for more pages if you need more space, was instantly understandable and made for more efficient note-taking.

Index Cards Rule

The best way to browse the items you have created is through a type of index card layout. The cards are a visual to browse search results. They made it easy to skim the results, as well as a table of contents view for headings that I created.

The gestures within Journal are simple and intuitive. If you make a spelling mistake, for example, you can just scratch it out. You can select content by circling it or tapping with your finger. 

Microsoft says the app uses artificial intelligence (AI) to determine which mode it should be in. The app could see if I was scratching out a word or shading in a drawing, even though they use similar gestures. The app’s ability to tell which mode I was in worked remarkably well in practice. 

"Journal is a simple, graceful application that’s a pleasure to use."

Journal can detect everyday writing like headings, items you starred, drawings, and, of course, keywords. The app’s recognition also unlocks some capabilities. For certain recognized ink, like drawings or headings, there’s a small cue on the side of the page. You can tap it to quickly select the associated content, then take actions like Move or Copy. 

AI also powers search in Journal to great effect. I was able to easily find past ink notes that I had created. The search function also provides filters, so I was able to find things like lists or a note I made on a specific date.

For Microsoft 365 work and school subscribers, there is Calendar integration allowing you to do things like take personal meeting notes and add them to events. There’s also a very cool @ mention digital shorthand feature to privately refer to people.

Journal has quickly become my favorite note-taking app. My only worry about Journal is that Microsoft will change it or add too many features. Some things are best left simple.

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