- Uses raster ink
- No distinct page sizes
- Limited text formatting options
- Text and handwriting don’t mix
- No handwriting conversion
- Poor exporting options
- No backup
Creating a new note is simple, tap the pen icon at the top right corner of the screen. The three dots icon next to it lets you choose a paper template (grids or lines). Apple Notes has three line spacing options, which for me, are all too wide. A narrower option would be great and more page templates are always welcome. The app automatically generates a title for your notebook from the first words you write (handwritten or typed). You can Edit it, if you’re not happy with it.
The toolbar in Apple Notes is mobile. You can move it around the page or minimise it depending on what you are doing. Turning on Auto-minimise will minimise your toolbar once you’ve selected your writing tool. It helps get it out of the way. You can also turn on the option to Draw with Finger and go to Pencil Settings for your Apple Pencil settings.
Apple Notes has one pen and one pencil tool. The pen tool has a ballpoint feel to it. Generally, fountain pens seem to work better in note-taking apps. It makes us wonder how one would feel in Apple Notes. The ballpoint pen in the app is functional, though, I wouldn’t use it for any serious note-taking. For both writing tools, you can adjust their opacity and thickness. They both have five fixed sizes and their opacity measures from 0-100. The percentage opacity of each tool shows on it as a number on the toolbar.
Each tool has five default colours on the toolbar. You can’t change them but you can add custom colours to a secondary colour palette (using the Grid, Spectrum, Sliders or colour picker). Sliders use the sRGB or Hex code. We need a simpler way to access custom colours in Apple Notes or to at least be able to change the five default ones on the toolbar.
The handwriting experience in Apple Notes is amazing. The app has an accurate representation of handwriting and has no lag. Writing feels natural, though the lack of the zoom feature is a bit of a pain (for digital note-taking). Split view can sometimes help with that, but it’s not the same as zooming on pages.
Apple Notes uses raster ink, instead of vector ink (which is what most note-taking apps use). While in the app, this might not be a problem because the app doesn’t allow you to zoom in on your notes. However, if you export the notes into apps that can zoom in, you’ll notice that your ink loses its resolution when you zoom in. For digital note-taking, this is not good. Vector ink is better and we hope Apple can give us that in Apple Notes.
The highlighter in Apple Notes is very unique. It doesn’t have the traditional highlighter stroke appearance. Instead, it looks more like a paintbrush, which we love! It goes behind your ink. Even at 100% opacity, it does not dim your notes, neither does layering it. It has five sizes and the same colour options as the pen tool. Given smaller thickness options and more opaque opacities, the highlighter tool can make a decent pen tool.
Pages in Apple Notes
The pages in Apple Notes are vertically infinite with fixed widths. Pages continue extending downwards as you write. This is great if you intend to keep your notes in the app (which we highly recommend). But if you ever found yourself tempted to export your notes out of the app, it will be a painful experience.
In Apple Notes, you can type your notes or Scribble them. Scribble replaces the colour palette on your toolbar with text tools. Apple Notes has fixed preset text formats (that you can’t adjust) for Title, Heading, Subheading, Body and Monospace. On iOS and iPadOS, Apple Notes supports one font only. You can’t change the colour of your text either. You can:
- Make your text bold, italic, underline or strikeout.
- Add to-do lists; numbered and unnumbered. Apple Notes has four bullet point types. Two of them appear under Format (Bullets and Dashes). The other two only appear as you create hierarchies in your bulleted list, your dashed lists don’t change with hierachies. Numbered lists have one numbering type, which makes them boring to use. An effective list should have varying bullets and numbering as you create levels in your lists. It makes your levels easier to understand and follow.
- Create interactive checklists: As you check off completed tasks, they move to the bottom of the list. Strikeout for lists, in a note-taking app, is better for spotting completed tasks. Your completed tasks in Apple Notes have a tick on them, but the ones in Apple Reminders don’t. Just something we noticed, which perhaps, Apple can do something about.
- Create tables in Apple Notes. Not many note-taking apps have this feature and it is an excellent reason to use Notes. You can:
- Add Column/Row: We were hoping in iPadOS 15, Apple would simplify that for us. Adding one row or column at a time is alright when you’re creating small tables. But when you need twenty rows and five columns, for example. It becomes too much work, doesn’t it. A simpler way to drag and add would simplify our lives.
- Delete Column/Row
- Rearrange the rows and columns.
- Copy Table to paste it in apps that can’t create tables but can paste from other app. GoodNotes works, which can be a smart workaround if you want tables in the app.
- Share Table: not many note-taking apps support this either.
- Convert to Text: Apple Notes can convert text to tables and vice versa.
- Delete Table
In iPadOS 15, we still can’t mix our text and handwriting. You can’t handwrite comments, with your Apple Pencil, next to any text (paragraph or table). Let’s hope Apple can remove this limitation from Apple Notes. It’s important to be flexible on how we take our digital notes.
The lasso tool in Apple Notes only picks up handwritten sections only and can move them around the page. It can also add space between sections of our notes, a feature many of us has grown to love. With the lasso tool, you can:
- Change the colour of your selection
Apple Notes can copy your handwriting as text to paste in other note-taking apps. The app doesn’t have the option to convert your handwriting to text. How you feel about this feature depends on your workflow. If handwriting conversion is a big part of your work, Nebo would be a better app to go for.
Smart selection, from iPadOS 14, made the lasso tool obsolete. It is faster to use the selection gestures for your handwriting. Smart selection has the same options as the lasso tool. You can now Translate your handwriting to any of the languages supported by the feature. You can then:
- Play the translation
- Copy Translation
- Change Language
- Add to Favourites
- Open in Translate
The lasso tool still can’t rotate or resize your selection. This is a very simple feature that Apple Notes should have by now. Apple Notes has some amazing features that are very impressive. But when it lacks such simple features that are necessary for everyday use, it makes it difficult to use the app for serious note-taking.
Apple Notes supports a total of nine regular shapes (circles, ellipses, squares, rectangles, triangles, stars, hearts, pentagons and speech bubbles). It sounds like a lot but it really isn’t. They do have the most basic shapes covered, though. Chances are, you won’t feel like you’re missing out on anything. The app also supports arrows and curved lines.
However, Apple Notes does not support irregular shapes. Most note-taking apps in 2021 support irregular shapes. The ruler tool might be able to help with that. Only it will be too manual for a digital workflow. That’s the best shot you get at drawing irregular shapes in the app.
Once you’ve drawn your shapes there’s not much you can do with them. You can’t rotate, modify or resize them. It’d be great if we could auto-fill our shapes in the app. Working with shapes in Apple Notes still needs some work.
Adding Things To Your Notes
Photos & Videos
You can either take a photo with your iPad camera or add one from your library. Your images can be big or small (it is more microscopic than small). Both image sizes in Apple Notes are unusable.
We can finally mix our photos with handwriting! Finally, we can now annotate our images in Apple Notes. You can simply drag & drop an image to your handwriting section. The image goes behind your ink. You can resize the image and we look forward to having rotation capabilities. The app doesn’t support PNG images though, it adds a grey background to all images that don’t have a background. If they must add a background, one that looks like the pages in the app would have been better.
When your image mixes with your handwriting, selecting it gives you the same options you get for your handwritten text: Cut, Copy, Select All, Delete, Duplicate and Insert Space Above. It feels as though the app stops recognising it as an image.
For those that preferred the blocked images, you can still section your images in the app. When you add an image to a page that has no handwriting, it automatically becomes blocked. You can’t add your handwriting around it after that. You also won’t be able to resize or wrap text around it. Let’s hope Apple can remove these limitations in the future.
Your sectioned images still preview in a separate window, away from your notes. You can then Markup the image or export it. In iPadOS 15, live text lets you interact with the text in your images. You can Copy, Select All, Look Up, Translate and Share.
Up until now, photos and videos have behaved the same, in Apple Notes. In iPadOS15, your text still goes below your videos, but you now have Playback Speed options now 2.0x, 1.5x, 1.25x, 1.0x, 0.5x.
You can scan documents into Apple Notes. You can crop the edges of your scan and adjust how it looks; Colour, Greyscale, Black & White or Photo. You can rotate your scans and even export them. Live text works on scans for both text and handwritten notes. You can add more pages to your scan and delete the pages you don’t like.
You can type or handwrite tags in your notes. You must Convert to tag all your handwritten tags, using data detection. Tags are a new way to organise our notes. Tags in Apple Notes are universal they work throughout your notes and are not limited to specific folders or notebooks. To delete your tags, simply erase or delete them from your notes.
Apple Notes has a unique approach to handwriting recognition. It
- Searches through your handwriting.
- Create titles from handwritten notes and scans.
- Copies handwritten notes to paste as text in other apps.
- Searches through the text in your images.
But it does not convert your handwriting to text. This is not the OCR we are used to seeing in note-taking apps. Live text lets us interact with text and handwritten notes on images and scans. We look forward to seeing this in third party apps.
Data Detection in Apple Notes
On-device intelligence recognises addresses, phone numbers, dates and emails so you can take action on them. In iPadOS 13, we had this for our text only, but in iPadOS 14 it extended to handwriting. iPadOS 15 added it to photos too.
With emails you can:
- New Mail Message
- Send Message
- Facetime audio
- Add to Contacts
- Copy Email
With any numbers you can:
- Send message
- Add to Contacts
For dates you can:
- Create Event
- Create Reminder
- Show in Calendar
- Copy Event
For addresses you can:
- Get directions
- Open in Maps
- Add to contacts
- Copy address
Apple Notes supports true dark mode and multiple instances, features introduced with iPadOS 13. Multiple instances allow you to multi-task. In iPadOS 15, you’re no longer limited to the apps on your dock only. Dark mode prevents eyestrain. The app automatically switches the colours in your notes, except for PDFs and images.
Apple Notes searches through your handwriting and text. The app highlights your searched terms for text, making navigation through them pretty simple. However, it does not highlight your handwritten notes or text found in scans. We hope in the future Apple Notes can highlight all search terms.
You can open a Quick Note from anywhere on your iPad. You could be in another app other, on the homepage and even in Safari. When you have to quickly jot down something, Apple Notes is just a swipe away.
You can Add Link to bookmark websites and even extract information to add to your quick note. The trouble arises when you open the quick note in Apple Notes. Your handwriting is too big because this feature doesn’t have a zoom feature. For now, quick notes make great rough/scrap paper for Apple Notes.
You can move the Quick Note to any of the four corners of your screen and hide it when you don’t need it. You can also resize the Quick Note, but zooming in and out of the page would be better. Besides writing quick notes you want to delete later, you can’t start writing notes to continue them later in Apple Notes (unless you type them).
Everything in Apple Notes is simple, including PDF reading. The app creates a thumbnail (large or small) from the first page of your PDF when you add it to your notes. PDFs in Apple Notes are attachments that open in a separate window like your photos do. The annotation tools you get for your photos and PDFs are the same.
For such a simple PDF reader, it’s surprising the app can recognise and open hyperlinks. You just have to know where they are to get the most out of them. They ease navigation through your PDFs. The app doesn’t recognise outlines in your documents. Page thumbnails can help you navigate your PDFs quicker.
You can annotate your PDFs using the tools you use for writing notes. You can also:
- Add text to your PDFs. In this window you can:
- Customise your font from three options
- Change the size of your text and its alignment.
- Change the colour of your text. All these are options you don’t have for your text notes in the app. The inconsistency in Apple Notes is annoying!
- Add your signature to your PDFs.
- Use the magnifier to enlarge the text in your PDF.
- Zoom in your documents.
- Add arrows and shapes. The app has two types of arrows with three thickness options. You can autofill the shapes you draw with the shapes tool. You can still draw freehand shapes in this window but you can’t autofill them.
This PDF reader is very basic, not useful for any serious PDF reading. Attaching PDFs to notes is not the same as opening up a PDF. The markup tools for annotating PDFs in Apple Notes are available in most apps on the iPad. If you have found Markup useful for PDF reading, then you’ll appreciate this one.
The best way to share your notes with others, in Apple Notes, is to collaborate on them. Everyone you share with must be signed in to iCloud to edit the note. Share Options has permissions you can control to decide if others Can make changes or View only. You can also turn on Anyone can add people.
Swiping to the right shows who’s made what changes to your shared notes. Mentions use the @ sign to tag your collaborators to draw their attention to parts of your notes. You can view all the Activity on your document and skip to where you are mentioned. Even while collaborating, you still have Share Options to change the permissions on your document.
Exporting Your Notes
Exporting out of Apple Notes is not a good idea for several reasons:
- The app does not export PDFs, only images. PDF is the golden standard for exporting digital notes.
- Apple Notes uses raster ink. It looks blurry on your PDFs when you export using the Markup option.
- Apple Notes’ vertically infinite canvas makes it difficult to know where your pages start or end. Your notes cut off at the most inconvenient places when trying to export them out of the app.
Apple Notes is so minimalist that everything in the app happens on one screen. The homepage of the app is also its workspace, which is most typical for GTD apps. This allows you to see your folders and all your notes at once. It makes switching between your notes very easy and quick. You can toggle sidebars when you don’t need them. Of course, you’ll get the most of this when using the 12.9 inch iPad Pros.
Apple Notes saves your notes in iCloud or locally on your device. The iCloud folder contains notes that sync across your devices. You can start working on a document on your iPad, then move to make more changes on the Mac and review it (on the go) with your iPhone. If you don’t want to sync, you can create your notes On My iPad. Those documents will not be available on other devices.
Apple Notes supports folders-within-folders for up to five levels. You can view the notes in your folder as lists or as thumbnails. You can adjust the size of your thumbnail and also:
- Share Folder to collaborate on it.
- Select Notes to select multiple notes to Move, Tag or Delete them.
- Sort Notes by
- Default (Date Edited)
- Date Edited
- Date Created: Newest to Oldest or Oldest to Newest
- Title: A to Z or Z to A
- Add Folder
- Move This Folder
- View Attachments to see all the attachments in the app:
- Photos and Videos
- Documents: When you open one attachment, you can Show in Note to open the notes that contain the attachment. You can also navigate through similar attachments, incase you can chosen the wrong photo. It helps to not go back to the all the attachments. You can also export the attachment.
- Convert to Smart Folder
Smart Folders & Tags
In iPadOS15, you can create a New Smart Folder using tags. Unless we have more filters for our smart folders, it’s pointless creating these. Apple Notes already lists your tags on the sidebar, which you can select individual or multiple tags to filter your notes. Smart folders are just a useless extra step.
You can add widgets to your home screen to display notes in a specific folder. The widget comes in three sizes. You can also get quick access to a specific note. For folders and notes you’re constantly working on, this can be handy.
Apple Notes keeps your notes for 30 days before permanently deleting them.
Universal search searches through all your folders in the app. You can search All Accounts or just the Current Account. You can choose to look through:
- Shared Notes
- Locked Notes
- Notes with Checklists, Drawings, Scanned Documents or Attachments.
Your search results are organised into Top Hits, Notes and Attachments. Long pressing on a document gives you options to:
- Pin Note for easier access.
- Lock Note if it contains some sensitive information. You can lock a notebook using your Apple ID password if it contains photos only. If your notes that have videos, audio, PDF or other file attachments, you can’t lock them. We should be able to lock all our notebooks, regardless of what they contain..
- Share note to collaborate on it.
- Send a Copy to export out of the app.
- Move to another folder.
You can allow Siri & Search and turn on options for Siri to:
- Learn from this App
- Show Suggestions From App
- Suggest App
- Show In Search
- Show Content in Search
- Show Suggestions From App
Turning on these options will make it easier for you to find your notes when you search for them on the homepage. You can choose your preferred defaults for:
- Language from 40 options
- Default Account: iCloud or On My iPad
- Password to set a password for your locked notes for the different accounts in your app
- Turn on ‘On My iPad’ Account and Mention Notifications.
- Sort Note By
- New Notes Start With
- Sort Ticked Items: Manually & Automatically
- Lines & Grids
- Resume Last Quick Note
- Auto Convert to Tag
- Save to Photos
- Access Notes from Lock Screen
Apple Notes is a minimalist app for anyone who wants a free, easy to use note-taking app that integrates with other Apple apps (Apple Calendar and Apple Reminders). While it has some groundbreaking features unique to it, its lack of important basic features makes it difficult to rely on for serious note-taking. It’s great that we can add tables and create space between our notes. However, simple capabilities like rotating selections of our notes and fixed page sizes are needed on a daily basis. We hope Apple can work on these features for us.