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Apple Notes

Apple Notes is a free note-taking app that comes pre-installed on all Apple devices. It is therefore available on the iPhone, iPad, Mac and there is a web version as well.

Creating notes in Notes

Creating notes is as simple as tapping the pen icon at the top, right corner of the screen. You can choose your paper template (grids or lines). Apple Notes only has three line spacing options, all are too wide. We could use more variety of paper templates. The app automatically generates a title for your notebook from the first words in your notes (handwritten or typed). You can edit it 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. Apple Notes is a minimalist note-taking app for creating simple and quick notes.

Pen tool 

Apple Notes has one pen and one pencil tool. The pen tool has a ballpoint feel to it. For both writing tools, you can adjust their opacity and thickness. They both have five fixed sizes only. Apple Notes measures opacity in percentages that show on the tools as you customise them.

Each tool has five default colours are the end of the toolbar. You can’t change them, you can only add custom colours to a secondary colour palette (from the grid, spectrum, slider or colour picker). Sliders use the RGB or Hex code. We need a simpler way to access custom colours in Apple Notes or at least be able to change the five default ones. 

The handwriting experience in Apple Notes is amazing. It is one of the best on the market. The app has accurate handwriting representation and it has no lag. Writing in Apple Notes feels natural.

The app doesn’t have a zoom tool, neither can you zoom in and out of pages. This is a massive limitation for digital note-taking. The grids are too big, and sometimes I just feel like zooming out, but I can’t do that.

Highlighter 

The highlighter in Apple Notes is very unique. It doesn’t have the traditional highlighter stroke appearance, it looks more like a paintbrush. It goes behind your ink. Even at 100% opacity, it does not dim your notes, neither does laying it. It has five sizes and the same colours we have for your pen tool. 

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 Apple Notes (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. 

Text tool

In iPadOS 14, Scribble can replace the text tool. Tapping on it replaces your colour palette with text tools. For your text, you get preset text options for titles, headings, subheadings, body and monospace. You can’t adjust them, they are fixed. Apple Notes has one font and no setting to change it. 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, even though only two appear under format. The other ones only appear as you create hierarchies in your list. Your numbered lists have one numbering type, which makes them boring to use. 
  • Create interactive checklists in Apple Notes. The app can move your completed tasks to the bottom of the list, as you complete them. Strikeout for lists is better, it makes it easier to spot completed tasks. Let’s hope they will add that in the future.
  • Create tables in Apple Notes. Not many note-taking apps have this feature. It is a good reason to consider using Notes. Adding tables is very simple, it is one step. You can then: 
    • Add more columns and rows to your table as you need. 
    • Remove them just as simply. 
    • Rearrange the rows and columns. 
    • Copy the table and paste it in apps that support the feature. We tried a couple of apps, GoodNotes is the only app that seems to support that. If you’re a GoodNotes user who’s been dying to create tables in the app, just create them in Apple Notes, copy & paste them in your Notes. 
    • Share the table. Again, not many note-taking apps support this either. 
    • Convert the table to text (and convert text to a table). 
    • Delete the table.  

In Apple Notes, your text and handwriting don’t mix. You can’t handwrite comments, with your Apple Pencil, next to any text (paragraph or table). Handwriting and text are separate, independent, alternating blocks in your notes.

Lasso tool

The lasso tool in Apple Notes is basic. It selects handwritten sections only. It can move your selections around around the page. In iPadOS 14, they have simplified how we add space between sections of our notes. A triangular icon on the left side of your selection lets you create space above it. You can also tap anywhere on the screen to insert space where you need it. 

With the lasso tool, you can: 

  • Change the colour of your selection
  • Cut 
  • Copy
  • Duplicate
  • Delete

Apple Notes can copy your handwriting as text to paste in other note-taking apps. Why not convert the handwriting to text? Most note-taking apps with OCR lose your handwritten version once converted to text. With this feature, you get to have both copies.

The lasso tool is no longer useful in Apple Notes because, in iPadOS 14, we now have smart selection. It lets us select our handwriting as though it were text. It would be awesome if we could select both handwriting and text, like in Nebo. The block system in Apple Notes prevents us from doing that. Smart selection gives us the same options we get from the lasso tool.

The lasso tool in Apple Notes doesn’t rotate or resize your notes. Such a lack of flexibility for a digital workflow is frustrating!

Shapes tool

After years of suffering, suffering and suffering; we finally have a shapes tool in Apple Notes. Apple has listed all the shapes their app supports now. It makes it feel like Apple Notes has the most amazing shapes tool, but, what matters is support for regular and irregular shapes. That’s all there is to it. We must commend them though, for supporting arrows and curved lines. Not many apps support those.

Once you’ve drawn your shapes, there’s not much you can do with them. You can’t rotate, modify or resize them. Hopefully, in the future, we will be able to do more with our shapes. It’d be great if we could auto-fill them. 

Do we still need the ruler tool? Perhaps to measure the shapes we draw with the shapes tool? The ruler tool is still cool with the degrees that appear when we rotate it. Some calibration on it would be useful for measuring items in our notes. 

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. Photos in the app are also in a block of their own, separated from handwriting. You can only annotate on them in a separate window. Ideally, combining images and handwriting, varying your image location and size lets you create beautiful notes. You can’t even crop your images in Apple Notes!

The same rules apply to videos too. You can only add text below your videos. At least the app supports videos, even if they only come from the Photo library. Let’s hope in the future we’ll be able to add videos from other apps. 

Scanning documents

You can scan documents into Apple Notes. You can select the edges of your documents when you don’t like the ones the app automatically selects for you. It does a marvellous job with this though. You can adjust how your scan looks; coloured, grayscale, black & white or you just leave the photo as it is. You can rotate your scans and even export them.

Handwriting recognition

Apple Notes has a unique approach to handwriting recognition. It 

  • Searches through your handwriting. 
  • Converts your handwriting to create headings, even from scans. 
  • Copies your handwritten notes to paste them as text in other apps. 
  • Searches through the text in your images.

But it does not: 

  • convert your handwriting to text. 
  • Search through your scans 

In a nutshell; not the OCR we are used to seeing in note-taking apps.

Data detection in Apple Notes

On-device intelligence recognises addresses, phone numbers, dates and emails so you can take actions on them. In iPadOS 13, we’ve had this for our text only. iPadOS 14 extends it to handwriting as well. 

With emails, you can: 

  • Send an email or message 
  • FaceTime 
  • Copy the email 

With any numbers, you can: 

  • FaceTime
  • Send message 
  • Skype
  • Add to Contacts
  • Copy the number

For dates you can: 

  • Create an event or reminder
  • Show date in Calendar
  • Copy event

The integration of Apple Notes with Apple Reminders is amazing. You don’t need to leave the app to create reminders and events. Apple Notes is great for basic planning. 

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. Dark mode prevents eyestrain. The app automatically switches colours of your notes in dark mode, except for PDFs. 

Searching through your notes 

Apple Notes searches through your handwriting and text. The app highlights your searched terms, making navigation through your search results pretty simple. 

PDF reading

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 it’s 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 a 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 those you still can’t autofill. 

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. 

Exporting your notes

Exporting the out of Apple Notes is not a good idea for several reasons:

  1. The app creates PDFs from handwritten notes only. If your notes have photos and text, the app exports them as PNG images. PDF is the golden standard for exporting digital notes.
  2. Apple Notes uses raster ink. It looks blurry on your PDFs and loses its resolution when you zoom in. 
  3. 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. 
  4. The blocks in your notes export as separate pages of different formats. Your text and scans export as PDF pages and your handwriting a low-resolution PNG photo. 

The best way to share your notes with other people when in Apple Notes is to collaborate on them. Everyone you share with must be signed in to iCloud to edit the note. It limits you to only collaborating with people that have an Apple ID. You can then decide the permission you give them; whether they can make any changes or just read your notes.

Conclusion: what you create in Apple Notes, stays in Apple Notes. They need to improve their export options. 

Organisation 

Apple Notes is so minimalist that everything in the app happens on one screen. The homepage of the app is also its workspace. You can toggle columns to access your folders and hide them when you’re taking your notes. The organisation in Apple Notes occurs in iCloud and locally. The iCloud folder contains notes you want to access on multiple devices. The app syncs your changes instantly. 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. 

However, if you don’t want documents syncing, you can create local copies of them under On My iPad, On My iPhone and On My Mac. Documents in these folders are not available on other devices. Apple Notes supports folders-within-folders for up to five levels on the iPad. You can view the notes in your folder as lists or as thumbnails. You can also adjust the size of your thumbnails. You can:

  • Collaborate on folders.
  • Select multiple Notes for deleting or moving across folders.
  • Sort your notes by date edited/created or title, starting from the newest to the oldest and vice versa. 
  • Move folders or rename them. 
  • View all the attachments in the app: photos & videos, scans, websites, documents.
  • View folders in the folder. Rearranging them is easy, drag & drop them. It’s a much faster way to move around your folders and documents. 

Apple Notes keeps your notes for 30 days in the recycle bin before permanently deleting them. 

Universal search

Universal search searches through all your folders in Apple Notes. 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 and attachments. 

Your search results are organised into top hits, notes and attachments containing the search term. Attachments could be scans, weblinks, PDFs or photos. Even though it searches through your different attachments, Apple Notes doesn’t highlight the searched terms. Searching without highlighting search results is pointless. You can pin a note at the top of your folder for easier access when you have too many documents in your app. 

You can lock a notebook using your Apple ID password if it contains photos only. If your notes that have videos, audio, PDFs or other file attachments, you can’t lock them. This needs some improvement, we should be able to lock all our notebooks. 

Settings

Apple Notes doesn’t have many settings to customise. You can:

  • Turn on Face/Touch ID to unlock your password-protected notes. 
  • Turn on the option to have local copies of documents that don’t sync across your devices. 
  • Choose how your notes get sorted in the app. New notes you create can start with a title, heading, subheading or just right to the body.
  • Choose how your checklists get sorted: manually or automatically
  • Select your default paper template. 
  • Save photos and videos taken in Apple Notes to the photos app. 
  • Access Apple Notes through a locked screen and you can start taking notes in one tap.

Apple Notes is a minimalist app for anyone who wants a free, easy to use note-taking app that integrates with other Apple apps (Calendar and Apple Reminders). The app will create basic notes but for anything sophisticated, you’ll need a more complex app. The app is free, try it out first before looking for paid apps. See if your note-taking is simple enough to embrace Apple Notes. 

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