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Microsoft's Plumbago app promises to make your chickenscratch legible

Mark Hachman | Feb. 22, 2016
But for now, the handwriting feature seems to be broken.

plumbago snip
A screenshot of the Microsoft Plumbago app. Credit: Mark Hachman

In concept, it sounds useful: a Microsoft Garage app that promises to smooth, or “beautify,” your handwriting when you take notes on a Windows 8.1 or Windows 10 tablet, such as the Microsoft Surface. Unfortunately, Plumbago’s smoothing feature doesn’t seem to work, yet.

Think of Plumbago as a stripped-down version of OneNote, with an emphasis on easy doodling and adding art. (Mary Jo Foley made the analogy that Plumbago is to OneNote as Sway is to Word, which isn’t far off.) 

In execution, Plumbago is pretty simple: You can configure a “notebook” of up to 25 pages, with custom backgrounds for each page. One of these happens to be a “lined paper” background, which should take men and women of a certain age back to their grammar school days. 

The lined paper background and a “handwriting smoothing” scrollbar—basically the only setting available—inidcate that Plumbago is for people who prefer to take handwritten notes on a tablet. On the Surface, that role is filled by OneNote; you can press the button on the Surface stylus to launch the app, even from sleep. But as simple as OneNote is, there’s an apparent risk of getting lost in its interface, with notebooks and other embeddable objects crowding the view.

Plumbago’s radial menu is very, very intuitive. Credit: Mark Hachman

Plumbago keeps it simple: The radial menu makes selecting a virtual pen or pencil extremely easy, and the “ink” acts like real ink or graphite on real paper. You can import images into the notebook, but only from files stored on your computer. (Sway, by contrast, brings an image discovery tool right inside the app.)

As an experimental Microsoft Garage project, Plumbago is expected to have some quirks. And yes, that's indeed the case.

One issue I found was the inability for the ink to recognize portrait mode, the most natural way (for me) to take notes on a tablet. While the page covered the length of the my Surface Book’s screen, the ink stopped being recognized midway down.

plumbago index view 
Plumbago’s index view should show all of your pages at once, but it appears to have a glitch or two. Credit: Mark Hachman

More troubling, the handwriting smoothing feature—Plumbago's primary selling point—did nothing for me at all. I tried out Plumbago on a Surface Book in tablet mode as well as a Surface Pro 4; adjusting the handwriting smoothing slider bar up or down made no noticeable difference, even after saving and reopening the notebook. I’m not sure if I was simply using it incorrectly, or if the feature is actually broken. Needless to say, it was very disappointing.


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