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How to choose the right iOS app for your note taking needs

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There are many different ways you can capture a thought or idea when using your iPhone or iPad. Some apps like Day One behave more like a journal, keeping things in order by date. Other apps like Appigo’s Todo allow you to track your daily tasks by checking items off a list. There are even apps that can help you organize your thoughts like MindNode.

There are so many options available that finding a simple note taking app to suits your needs can be a challenge. The following list highlights apps that distinguish themselves with a certain key feature:

Note App Feature List

Notes – The default notes app that comes standard issue on both iOS and OS X, the Notes app, relies on support from your email provider. But not all email providers support notes as a feature of their email service. Many email providers treat notes as nothing more than a dedicated folder within your mail account. This is a good place to start and likely something that most users need.

OneNote – Microsoft’s OneNote is a standalone feature app rather than an email account add-on. All it takes to use OneNote is a free Microsoft account. Behaving like a Word document editor, you can create rich notes with elements like lists, to-do items, simple tables and a wide variety of visual interactive tags that help make each note unique. With just over 40 percent of smartphone owners using an iOS device, and OS X having a little less than 8 percent market share of all desktops, syncing between iOS and Windows make OneNote a popular choice for a notes app.

Evernote – Believe it or not, there is still a basic note app associated with the name Evernote that is available on just about every platform imaginable, including a watch! However, Evernote is not just a notes app anymore. It is a cloud-based service for storing notes, all kinds of notes. There are several different note taking apps that now use Evernote. There is even a Fujitsu scanner that will scan documents, photos and receipts directly into your Evernote account. You can also use it as one of your IFTTT (if this then that) channels. Evernote is much more than just a simple note taking app, it is a premium online note syncing service for note taking apps.

Note App Screenshots

Keeping it simple

NotesTab – Offering realtime syncing across Mac, Windows 8 and iOS, NotesTab really does seem to have the fastest syncing solution between devices. This fast, cross-platform syncing is possible by creating a NotesTab account. For organization, you can pin your most important notes to the top of the list, but other than that, what you get is a simple, sleek and fast note taking app. You can configure the app on iOS to start a new note when it opens up. Another feature that helps capture notes quickly on their Mac and Windows client is a decent collection of keyboard shortcuts.

Simplenote – Other than a streamlined design that enables one to enter notes quickly, Simplenote also allows you to publish your notes online. You can invite others to review and even edit your published notes online. No need to worry about someone you are collaborating with modifying or deleting an important detail you wanted to remember, as the history of each note is recorded and stored online. You can scroll back in time and see how the note evolved. Pick a date and restore the note to its former state. Notes you take can be tagged to help keep things organized.

Handwritten scripts

Penultimate – An example of one of the many apps that can take advantage of Evernote’s online note taking service, Penultimate has become Evernote’s premier handwriting and sketching app. Partnering with adonot, Penultimate can pair with a bluetooth stylus, the Jot Script, which enhances the handwriting experience by adding pixelpoint precision with its 1.9mm tip. It also has an intuitive writing mode that can detect when your palm is resting on the screen, and avoid making unwanted marks on your note.

Goodnotes – Supporting the Jot Touch, Jot Script and the Pogo Connect bluetooth stylus, GoodNotes captures what you script and converts it into vector graphics. This makes for a much cleaner looking note when you export it. There is a script to object mode that will transform your poorly drawn circles, squares and triangles into perfectly rendered vectors. It can edit and annotate PDF documents and can be used as a digital whiteboard by hiding the user interface when connected to an external display or when using Airplay. Its ability to focus on the area you are writing on will also auto advance while paying attention to the margins of the paper.

MyScript Notes Mobile – With support for the Jot Touch, the Pogo Connect as well as the Wacom Intuos, MyScript can convert your handwritten notes into text. Capturing your notes into its script focus area will auto advance while you write. When finished, you can either export your note as an image or convert it to text. There is a desktop version for both OS X and Windows. Vision Objects, the makers of MyScript, also have a calculator and an equations app that are capable of evaluating your math expressions, converting them into either in LaTeX or MathML and even compute the correct answer.

Note App Screenshots

Recording audio and web clippings

AudioNote – Another note taking app that enables you to capture text, scripted notes and drawings is AudioNote. The unique feature of AudioNote is that it will also keep the notes you take time synced with the audio you record. Simply tap on the text and it will automatically take you to the point in the audio when you wrote it down. Supporting iCloud syncing on iOS and Mac, you can also elect to save your notes to Dropbox. Luminant Software, the makers of AudioNote, even recommend using their free client on Mac, iOS, Windows and Android as a means of reviewing notes that were taken using the full version.

Notes Plus – One of the more fully-featured note-taking apps that can record audio, Notes Plus will treat your hand drawn objects and scripted writing as vector graphics. After drawing an object or scripting some text, simply draw a circle around it to select it. This allows you to take you have scribed and resize it to fit better on the page. While an object is selected, you can detect shapes and turn your poorly drawn object into a perfect re-sizable vector. Notes Plus will even convert script to text. It can clean up your penmanship by altering the smoothness and style of what you have written. Notes Plus has an embedded web browser that allows you to select elements from web pages and add them to your notes.

NoteSuite – With the ability to take notes, track to-do items, annotate documents, record audio and capture hand scripted notes and drawings, NoteSuite seems to be everything one needs in a note taking app. Using iCloud to keep your iPad and Mac in sync, you can organize your notes by creating folders or using tags. There is even a decent search built into the app to make finding your notes, or text within a note easy. Its standout feature however is the ability to clip web pages on OS X using extensions for extensions for Safari, Chrome and Firefox. You can clip an article, the full-page, or a section of a page. NoteSuite can also start a new note by importing content from Safari, Instapaper, Pocket; opening documents from Dropbox, Google Drive or Box; and even by sending it an email message.

20 Responses to “How to choose the right iOS app for your note taking needs”

  1. Thanks for your very useful article. You have selected really good apps, there are some which I did not know about, so thanks for sharing.Taking notes with my iPad is cool, but moreover the iPad become a real tool at work, that’s why I need good productivity apps to be organize. Personnaly, I discovered few month ago on Evernote Pick the app called Beesy (I don’t know if you heard about it) and it is a really interesting one. This app offer the possibility to import/annotate docs, using actions templates, drag & drop to organize my notes, sync datas with DropBox & Evernote.. All features allow me to have a follow on my teams.

  2. Sophie

    Thanks for the info- I’m just getting into notetaking apps on my iPad, and I like the way you’ve described these. I’m using ZoomNotes now, but I intend to try a few more from your list. That said, I just have one comment to add- you’ve included “bluetooth stylus” in your table. I just got the new Lynktec Apex active stylus- it’s rechargeable and is not linked through bluetooth. I consider this a bonus- why limit yourself? The Apex works on any device. Just thinking the bluetooth part of your table bears more scrutiny- not having bluetooth isn’t necessarily a downfall. Isn’t there something to be said for universability?

  3. Hi Geoffrey,
    Thank you for your article. I’ve seen many note-taking app lists and this one might be the most useful I’ve read.

    The problem with most of the note-taking apps is that they didn’t offer much more than a text edit app+ cloud storage. It is useful but limited. For example, for professionals interested in self-productivity optimization, taking-notes is a key activity and it’s too bad that most of the apps for taking notes, even those claiming a better productivity, don’t go further a simple web based word processor…

    Actually I’m the kind of professional always searching to enhance my productivity at work.
    That’s why I always keep an eye on the apps for productivity and I tried a lot of them (taking-notes apps, calendar apps, productivity apps, to-do lists etc..). The problem again is that, like the taking-notes ones, these apps are always limited to a restrained activity and you always have to switch between apps, which makes you loose the time you gained with these…

    But I found a good all in one app on the Evernote appcenter. It’s called Beesy and they have a really interesting approach to productivity optimization.
    The entire app is based on a smart and fast note-taking feature. But unlike other note taking apps, they developed a new way to take notes based on items that suits perfectly managers like me (it is business-oriented, perfect for meetings). When you’re in a meeting, you take your notes selecting items (to-do, call, ideas, questions, clients feedback, etc…) and typing in it. You can assign deadlines, collaborators and priorities to items and then easily create in 2 clicks an instant meeting minute that you can send by email to your co-workers.
    I am also using intensively attachments and the Beesy app does it well, especially for the sound. It has a very interesting feature for audio attachments: the app is always “listening” and when you start the recording, in fact it records from 30 seconds to 2 minutes before you hit the button and ends a little time after you stop it. It might seem incongruous, but its actually very useful, because when you think to record, most of the time it’s already too late…

    Are you aware about this app? Do you know some similar concepts?
    Well, beyond the app it’s the concept they made up that is really interesting. It raises (and answer in some way) the question of how the workers productivity can benefit from the digital tools.

  4. Brian Emershaw

    I use Evernote like a fiend. It has been my ‘digital brain’ for a while now, however, I am *really* drawn to OneNote. It is so pretty, nicely defined, and the documents maintain their integrity between platforms so well, that I truly want to find a really good use for it. I love the fact that it is so well structured; however, therein lies the problem… It would be great for planning things, but I don’t like to plan, so Evernote works better in that regard. Evernote gives no thought to structure (relying on search and tags instead) unless you truly want it, and even then, it’s spotty. OneNote forces just a little structure on you, making you think about the way you want things organized for presentation, but I don’t think that way, and don’t want to spend time organizing. We are all very particular people.

  5. I love to handwrite my notes. I have tried all the above mentioned apps listed above. Without a doubt, the most feature rich iOS handwriting apps available on the market is ZoomNotes. It has smooth writing like good notes, records like notability, imports pdf’s, syncs between the iPad and iPhone. As a disclaimer, I have no affiliation with this company, I am only a very happy customer. I am also testing their beta, it is loaded with new features many of which are not available on any other app that I have seen. Here is a review on it by MacDrifter last year with v4. It is now late in v5, with v6 due out very soon. One last thing, the developer has always been in very active development with this product.

  6. Rann Xeroxx

    OneNote is a rather full featured application on Windows (if you have full Office). You can store various notebooks in places like your local drive, dropbox (via folder sync), SharePoint, OneDrive, etc.

    There are also hundreds of plugins you can install to enhance OneNote. There are also countless templates as well.

    • I do very much appreciate the attention that Microsoft is giving both the iOS and OS X platforms this year. Anytime a powerhouse software development team releases new or updated software for your device is a good thing.

      I was cautious when selecting OneNote as a notes app at all. The course that it is on seems to be one that will eventually transform OneNote into a competitor for MS Word or at the very least more of a true document creation app. I left other popular, really great document apps like ByWord, WriteRoom and iA Writer, which many also use as a note taking app, off the list.

      To see what I mean, try installing NotesTab for iOS and set it to open a new note every time the app is launched. I have yet to find a faster app for capturing a quick thought or idea. No scripting, no embedded tables, and no audio recording, just a quick and easy way to capture text. The very essence of a notepad.

      That said, with its ability to sync with Windows, and the fact that it comes for free with a Microsoft account, OneNote will remain a popular choice for note taking by many. Even if it does become more of a document creation app.

    • There are a couple of other great note taking apps that could have been mentioned. NoteLedge, ZoomNotes and NoteShelf for example. I almost mentioned 1Password for its ability to encrypt notes and keep you ideas secure.

      However, what I was looking for when it came to great note apps like Noteability, was that one standout feature that was compelling enough to consider an alternative. Transcribing script to text, support for a Bluetooth stylus, turning you handwriting into vector graphics to make it stand out, and time syncing audio with your notes were a few of the standout features I was looking for.

      It’s easy to just pick from the top ten list in productivity apps, it’s hard to find solid, high quality apps with unique features. I hope that helps, thanks for the comment.

  7. I tried several note taking apps and settled on NoteSuite. One unlisted thing I like is the ability to collect notes in nested folders. After you have more than a dozen notes organization becomes important.

  8. I use one note heavily on my win 8, It takes handwritten notes via stylus and also you can add audio and I think video as well. Please correct your table.

    • To clarify, the table was created from an iOS perspective. All capabilities are what each app can do on iOS. Some apps may have different capabilities on other platforms. The platforms list was ment to show what other platforms the notes you take on your iOS device can be accessed from, as some of the note taking apps listed are available on a limited number of platforms.