CollaNote: New kid on the block

CollaNote: the new kid on the block

PROS

  • Free
  • Many paper templates and some very cute ones
  • Real-time collaboration
  • Uses Files to organise your notes
  • Audio recording synced to your notes
  • Supports true dark mode

CONS

  • No auto backup
  • No zoom tool
  • No search tool
  • No handwriting conversion
  • Uses raster ink
  • Very buggy
  • Terrible PDF annotation
  • Confusing lasso tool
  • Terrible text tool

6/10

Rating: 6 out of 10.

CollaNote, the new kid on the block, is a 6-month-old note-taking app by Qouc Huy Nguyen (a Vietnamese student studying software-system development in Germany). With more than 30 updates so far, CollaNote is already turning heads. It is a free note-taking app, one of the few free ‘functional’ note-taking apps for the iPad.

Creating Notes

Creating a new notebook is very simple (tap the page icon on the top right corner of the homepage). You can name your new notebook and choose a page template from 38 options. If you’re feeling fancy, you can use the Template instead. It is a collection of cute designs for monthly and weekly printables, to-do lists and goals. The colours are cheerfully bright and will you smile.

CollaNote doesn’t have page size options for your paper templates, though. Its pages, when fit to the 12 inch iPad Pro screen, feel slightly bigger than A4 paper. It’s better when we know the sizes of our paper templates, so we look forward to having that. 

An app with page templates that have margins is a rare find. Most developers seem to have decided digital paper doesn’t need margins. Your new notebook has two pages when it opens. CollaNote automatically adds new pages to your notebooks when you use the last one. Manually adding pages can be a daunting task when you’re taking a lot of notes. The user interface is simple, with one toolbar and few icons, which is great. 

Pen Tool

CollaNote has one pen tool – a ballpoint pen. Though it doesn’t look like it, it is the same one we have in Apple Notes. Writing feels good and it is without lag. However, the pen uses raster ink that pixelates as you zoom in. You won’t have much trouble with that though, in CollaNote, because of its limited zooming capabilities. Vector ink is better than raster ink; digital ink should never lose its resolution.

The pen tool has twenty fixed sizes, most of them look similar though. Fewer options could help us appreciate changing sizes. You can adjust the opacity of your pen tool and the app has a lot of default colours. You can customise the colour palette by either removing or adding colours. CollaNote has several ways to pick colours for your palette. It uses a colour picker, Grid, Spectrum and Sliders (with the option to enter a hex/RGB code). You can also adjust your colour’s opacity. 

The default colours are a lot, and unless you are drawing some fancy art, they are overkill. I wish I could clear the whole palette to add a few colours. About ten colours would cover most of my note-taking needs. 

You can Add to favourites your most used pens for easier access, which is awesome. The app then adds them to the right side of your screen, as individual tools (not a favourites toolbar). Your favourite tools don’t take up space on your screen. They are tucked neatly away but remain visible and accessible; a good balance.

In CollaNote, you can save favourites for individual notebooks. Each notebook in the app can have favourite tools specific to it. You can also save favourite tools for all notebooks if you turn on that option. That way, the tools you save are accessible across different notebooks. It’s an excellent setup. You can also choose to Draw with finger to use your finger or passive stylus in the app. 

Pencil Tool

The Apple PencilKit comes with a pencil tool and it is my personal favourite writing tool in note-taking apps that have it. It has the same colours, sizes and opacity options as the pen tool. Who else loves a pencil tool in a note-taking app? 

Highlighter

Even at 100% opacity, the highlighter does not dim your notes. It goes behind your ink and makes your notes pop out. The texture of the highlighter is beautiful, it is unique to the Apple PencilKit. It would be lovely if we could adjust its opacity to turn it into a pen tool instead. That is something, I would love to have.

The handwriting experience in CollaNote is good. There is no lag and palm rejection is excellent. The Apple PencilKit has a brilliant set of tools that are great for taking notes on the iPad, so the app captures your handwriting accurately. Especially if you like using the pencil tool. The lack of variety in writing tools is not a problem, because the option available works.

Eraser

The erase can erase per stroke (Whole) or per pixel (Partial). You can also turn on auto deselect to automatically switch back to the last tool you were using before the eraser. The app does not erase the highlighter only, though. We look forward to having that feature.

CollaNote also supports the scribbling gesture for quickly erasing your notes. Gestures are always a faster way to work than selecting and deselecting tools. The scribbling gesture though is not the best erasing gesture, even Nebo can’t get it right. The strikethrough gesture is better for erasing so let’s hope our developer can look into that. For now, it’s a hit-and-miss.

For highlighted notes, the gesture only erases the notes. Chances are, you will still need the eraser tool to remove the highlighter that is left behind. Unless you really just want to change your notes while keeping the highlighter.

Text Tool

CollaNote supports Scribble, in iPadOS 14. Your handwritten notes are converted to text immediately. We are trying to warm up to the idea of taking typed notes away from the rest of our notes. This is certainly not the most ideal way to add typed notes. It might work for short titles, but… paragraphs? 

You can change the colour and font for everything on the screen. Not a few selected words but everything. That is pretty much all there is to the text tool. The app doesn’t support custom fonts yet, but it has a lot of font options to choose from. When you tap Done, CollaNote adds your text to the page for resizing or copying. It’d be lovely to have rotation for our text boxes.

Resizing and moving the text boxes on the page is very easy. But creating a text box on the page where you want it is much faster and more convenient. Your text box disappears when you stop editing it. 

Questions for our developer

Is this unique text tool part of a bigger vision that is yet to materialise? As in, perhaps there are some cool features that need us to add our text away from the rest of our notes? We certainly hope so, if not, it’ll be better to create our typed notes on our pages while we are seeing the rest of our notes. The text tool in CollaNote still needs a bit of work, but for a handwriting note-taking app, text is only secondary.

To edit the text in your text boxes, you must turn on Box editing mode or tap the image icon on the toolbar or simply double-tap it. CollaNote activates editing for all the text boxes, images and stickers in your notebook.  Let’s hope in the future we’ll be able to activate just the one items we want to change.

We found ourselves accidentally activating the text tool multiple times. A single tap on the text tool icon takes you to the text popup window. It is annoying that the app doesn’t have a cancel icon. Adding text is as easy as tapping the text tool, so it should have a cancelling option if you accidentally tap it. For now, you have to tap Done then delete it from the page. An option to simply cancel or exit without adding text will be better. A lot is still missing for this text tool to be fully functional.

Lasso Tool

CollaNote has a Rectangular and Freeform lasso tool. The rectangular one allows for resizing your selection. Your lasso tool only picks up your handwritten notes, not your text or images. It’s better when a lasso tool can pick up everything, or at least when we have more control over what it can select. 

Once you have selected your notes, you can cut, copy, delete or duplicate them. You can copy an image of your handwriting to the clipboard. Images have rotation capabilities, so if you want to rotate some notes, copy them as an image first. You can also copy everything as an image, to take a screenshot of the selection. 

You can change your strokes to different tools. If you wrote your notes with a Pen tool, you can change it to a Pencil or Marker tool. You can even change the Hue and Width of your strokes, their colours too. This ability to change everything about your strokes is amazing!

The lasso tool icons in CollaNote are not intuitive. It’s better to write out the actions so users don’t think too much when using it: Copy, Cut, etc. Not everyone understands icons, especially people starting out on their digital note-taking journeys. We have reason to believe those are the people most likely to try out CollaNote. Seasoned note-takers are not leaving their note-taking apps for CollaNote just yet.

Adding Items To Your Notes

Shapes Tool 

CollaNote’s shapes tool only recognises regular shapes (triangles, squares, circles, stars, hearts & hexagons) and curves for now. We were unable to convert irregular shapes or arrows and we’re looking forward to having those in the app.

The app also supports curves, their most recent update. CollaNote is the most updated note-taking app on the market at the moment. Quoc Huy Nguyen introduces new features almost on a weekly basis. The app’s curve tool is the best we have seen in any note-taking app. You can style it by choosing the:

  • Writing tool (pen, pencil or highlighter)
  • Size 
  • Opacity 
  • Curviness

You can preview how your options look in the customisation window. This curved line feature is great for drawing graphs especially. Most apps just support curves with one curvature but Collanote supports multiple, which is awesome. 

The autofill feature is the best we have encountered in any note-taking app so far. Your autofill comes in two versions, plain and motley. For both, you can adjust the opacity on a range from zero to 100. The preview on the side helps you determine the look you want. 

Your motley style can have multiple colours when you Add this colour, creating awesome fills for your shapes. When you’re happy with your creation, tap Done and tap inside your shape to fill it. To change your fill, you must first erase the one that’s there. Then you tap the empty shape to add the new fill.
Tapping a filled shape only adds more fill to it. It would have been easier to replace an existing fill with a tap, but, layering fills also has its place. Working with autofill in CollaNote is fun.

We look forward to using irregular shapes and arrows. The app had a ruler tool, for now, that will draw irregular shapes if you ever needed them. It’s a painful experience, but it’s better than nothing. Drawing straight lines, without the ruler tool is easier though.

Once you’ve drawn your regular shape, you can’t select it for resizing or rotating. You have to rely on the lasso tool to convert it to an image first before you can work with it. We hope we’ll be able to do more with our shapes in the future.

Photos

You can add photos (one at a time) to your notes from the Photos library or iPad camera (recent update). You also can’t drag & drop images into the app. In CollaNote, you can resize and rotate your images simultaneously. You can also flip your images but can’t crop them. 

The best way to crop an image in the app is using the lasso tool to select a part of the image. You must then copy it to the clipboard > Plus icon > Paste Image from Clipboard then delete the bigger image. That is just too many steps to crop an image and it loses some of its resolution when you crop it this way.

Stickers

CollaNote has a collection of stickers (most of them are emojis really) that you can add to your notes. They are very cute and for a free app, CollaNote has a lot to offer. Your notes, however, don’t stick, so if you move a sticker your handwritten notes remain where they are.

Audio Recording

Audio recording syncs to your handwritten notes only, not your text. The sync is not animated, but we appreciate the link. Audio recording without syncing to notes is not very useful in a note-taking app. To start recording, tap the microphone icon on your toolbar. The app only records when your notebook is open and your screen is awake. If you close the notebook or your iPad sleeps, your recording stops. Sometimes, during a lecture/meeting, you might need to check something in a different app. It helps if the recording continues so you don’t miss out on anything.

CollaNote doesn’t break up your audio. The longest audio we managed to record was more than an hour long. We’re still to determine if these audio files are big and how much space they take on your device. 

The playback button overlaps with your first favourite writing tool. Icons/buttons must never overlap, that requires some attention. During playback, you can skip through the audio using the arrows or on the timeline itself. Tapping on your synced handwritten notes does not skip through the audio. It’s easier to skip through the audio using the notes than the timeline. Your notes give you an idea of the section you’re looking for in your audio. Let’s hope we’ll be able to do that in the future. 

You can’t speed up the audio playback speed, though. There is only 1x speed, which we feel is an indication there will be more options in the future. You can also view all the recordings in your note. They each have details about when you recorded them (date & time). To delete an audio, swipe to the left.

PDF Annotation

CollaNote can’t open big PDFs yet. We failed to import a 17MB PDF with 319 pages. First, we tried to understand what CollaNote considers a big PDF. Is it the size of the document or the number of its pages? Perhaps even both. We then imported another document, this time bigger (19MB) but with only 14 pages. We were successful, leading us to conclude that the app can’t handle PDFs with a lot of pages. It makes us wonder how it would perform with a lot of notes. 

The app can’t recognise hyperlinks or outlines, which is not surprising at all. For now, CollaNote will only work with lecture slides and a few pages of PDFs. You can add pages to your PDF, which is a feature most users love. The app can’t convert your word/ppt documents to PDF, you have to make sure you convert them before you import them into the app. PDF annotation is very simple and limited to taking notes around your PDF. We look forward to seeing more capabilities for PDF reading in CollaNote. 

Pages Customisation

CollaNote supports vertical scrolling, the best kind of scrolling for digital notes. Your pages are joined together, but your writing does not overflow between them. The app automatically adds page numbers at the bottom of your pages.

Each notebook has one type of page template. When you change a template, it changes the whole notebook. Let’s hope in the future, we can have more flexibility on that. Your pages are in portrait mode and there is no way to rotate them to landscape mode. The app also does not have any landscape templates.

You can view all the pages in your document. It would be useful if we could move pages around. An attempt to do so shows a popup window with options to:

  • Insert Page below the one you have selected.
  • Duplicate Page to make a copy of everything on a page.
  • Delete Page 
  • Add more pages

Page customisation in the app still needs a bit of work. This feature either breaks or builds a note-taking app, especially a new app that is looking to compete with bigger note-taking apps like Notability, GoodNotes and Noteshelf.

Laser Pointer

CollaNote has 15 laser pointer options. There is no indication that the app has presentation mode yet. Our favourite ones are the ones that spin, which is most of them. Your laser pointer can either be Small, Medium or Big. We certainly look forward to having the presentation mode in this app! 

Support for iPadOS 14

Multiple Instances

Though it supports split-view with other apps, CollaNote does not support multiple instances. Seeing that it has limited PDF capabilities, multitasking in the app might not be that important yet. But, it’s certainly something we will need, eventually. 

Dark Mode

Not many note-taking apps support true dark mode. CollaNote has both false and true dark mode. You can choose to only change your user interface (false dark mode) or your pages too. Isn’t that awesome?! We absolutely love this about the application.
It seems apps that use the Apple PencilKit have an easier time implementing true dark mode in their app.

Sharing Your Notes

Real-time Collaboration 

CollaNote supports real-time collaboration. You have an account to use this feature. Creating an account is very simple, on the homepage, tap the human icon if you don’t already have one. You can create an account with your Apple ID, Facebook or Google account. You can then pick a nickname that people can invite you with.

To share a note, type a person’s nickname or email address. You can start collaborating when they Accept your invitation. The app displays the number of people online and notifications at the top of the app when someone is making changes to the document (and what page they are on). This is a very fun collaboration feature.

Rooms

You can Join Rooms, these are notebooks with public collaboration that come with the app. We were excited about this feature thinking we could create our own rooms. It seems at the moment we can only join existing ones.

Exporting Notes

You can export your notes as a native format that only opens in CollaNote, the .collanote format. The app also exports to PDF. It exports all the pages in your notes, you can’t select specific pages. 

Homepage

You can create folders within folders in CollaNote. We created up to 10 levels of organisation. What are the chances you will need more than that? You sort your documents (under the three-dots icon) according to Name, Created Date or Last Edited. This is not an ideal location for this setting, this ought to be above your documents, easily accessible. 

Your documents can only be these big thumbnails. An option to make them smaller or change them to lists could help us fit more documents on the screen. 
CollaNote stores your notes in the Files app, either on your device or in iCloud Drive. This is the first note-taking app to do this. We love it! You can open Files to organise your notes. 

Long-pressing on a document activates editing for documents. You can activate this mode under the three-dots icon > Organising Mode. We hope in the future CollaNote can work on activating one item at a time. Tapping on a blank space should deactivate this, but we have to go the three-dots icon to deactivate Organising Mode

Usually, developers add premium features to prompt us to pay for them. It’s very annoying, but worse than that are prompts to become a beta tester. The option to join beta testing for an app must be tucked away in the app’s settings for users that are interested. Let’s hope our developer can remove the ‘Style’ feature for folders if it is not yet available for the general public.

You can move your folder/notebook to a different folder and once you’re here, you can’t cancel if you change your mind. This home icon takes you back to the first folder level in the app, not the homepage. To ‘cancel’ you have to Select current folder.
This window has a Files app feel to it. You can move your folder to local or iCloud folders. You can even create a new folder, which are all great organisation options for moving folders. 

CollaNote lets you Rename both your folders and notebooks. It’s fascinating how the app captures and displays real-time changes to your collaboration notebook on the thumbnail. That is, of course, if someone writes on the first page. Lastly, you can Duplicate a notebook. 

You can save your notes in iCloud Drive. You just have to turn on the option then go to Files to move the notes from your local to iCloud folders. 

Conclusion

Overall, it is very impressive at first glance. It is exciting with some exceptionally cool features. However, at the moment, the app is very buggy. Perhaps we have just been unlucky. Almost every feature we tried was not working properly at some point, we’ve had to be exceptionally patient. 

The Apple PencilKit gives us an app that could be a better replacement for Apple Notes in some areas but not enough to consider for any serious note-taking, at least not yet anyway. Besides, some important features are still missing: 

  1. Zoom tool: most of us love writing our notes zoomed in to make them beautiful or add more information on a page. 
  2. Handwriting recognition technology to search through our handwritten notes. 
  3. Search tool to search through our folders. 
  4. Auto backup is not the same as syncing, a note-taking app needs both. 

It’s expected though, CollaNote is a very young app so most of it needs some attention. It’s free and fun to play with and we hope it can be the second free note-taking app (after OneNote) that is usable for serious note-taking. It has certainly laid the right foundation but we’d give it a couple of months before we can ditch other apps for it. The developer is clearly dedicated to making this app work and is constantly updating it, so let’s hope it will soon be worth comparing to bigger players on the market.

Any thoughts? Do tell, do tell!