libraries.

Notability vs Apple Notes in iPadOS 14

iPadOS 14 has added more features to Apple Notes. Can this app ever replace third-party note-taking apps?

Price

Notability is a paid app. It costs $8.99 for the iPadOS/iOS version. The macOS version is a separate purchase for $4.99. Notability also sells the handwriting recognition feature for $2.99 in their Notability shop. This feature is essential for searching through your handwriting in the app. Handwriting recognition is a must-have in 2020, you will need to purchase this feature. It brings the total cost for Notability to $11.98. This is a one-time purchase, you get to use the app for a lifetime. Both the iPadOS and macOS versions are currently on sale at the moment. You can also buy themes in Notability but those are optional. Updates for Notability are free.

Notability’s iPadOS version is currently on 25% off sale and the macOS version is on 80% off sale.

Apple Notes is free. It comes preinstalled on all your Apple devices. It also has a web-based version that works on any operating system, as long as you have an Apple ID. 

FeatureNotability Apple Notes
Price$8.99 on iPadOS & iOS
$4.99 macOS
In-app purchases in Notability shop.
Free
Size272.5 MB21.8 MB
DeveloperGinger LabsApple
Type of appHandwriting note-taking Handwriting note-taking
Supported OSiPadOS, iOS, macOSiPadOS, iOS, macOS,
web app
Comparing Notability and Apple Notes.

Creating digital notes

Both Notability and Apple Notes create new notebooks in a single tap. Notability supports one paper size: A4. It supports only four paper templates: plain, squared, lined and dotted; each with four line-spacing options where relevant. Notability supports a lot of paper colours though (15).

Compared to Apple Notes, Notability’s paper customisation options are great. Which says a lot about the options you get in Apple Notes. Notability has the worst paper template options in any third-party note-taking app. Adding custom paper templates to the app’s library is difficult, but at least we can.

Apple Notes has three paper templates: plain, grids and lines and three line-spacing options. An additional, narrower line-spacing option would be greatly appreciated. Apple Notes has no colour options for your pages. 

The pages in Apple Notes are vertically infinite but have fixed widths. The page continues extending downwards for as long as you keep writing. Notability gives you the impression of a vertically infinite page even though it has fixed page sizes. Which is better for exporting your notes. 

See: How to add custom pages to Notability.

Apple Notes automatically generates a title for your notebook from the first words in your notes (handwritten or typed). You can edit the title if you’re not happy with it. In Notability, you can set a default title for your notebooks. All the notebooks you create will be named the same (with the option to include date and time) unless you edit them. Apple Notes creates unique titles for your new notebooks that are relevant to the information in your notes. That is surely a better approach to naming your notebooks. 

For both apps:

  • All your pages are in portrait mode. 
  • You can’t rotate your pages.
  • Your whole notebook has the same page template (down to the colour).
  • Don’t have multiple page selection.
Page customisationNotabilityApple Notes
Different page sizes
Different page orientations
Number of page templates43
Page colours151
Add custom paper templates to the app’s library★★
Multiple page selection 
Different page templates in one notebook
Page rotation 
Automatic creation of notebook titles
Comparing page customisation in Notability and Apple Notes.

The toolbar

The toolbar in Apple Notes is mobile. You can move it around the page or minimise it, depending on what you are doing. Notability’s toolbar is fixed at the top or bottom of the app, depending on whether you are right-handed or left-handed. Notability 10.0 added a mobile favourites toolbar.

Writing tools

Pen tools

Notability has two pen tools (ballpoint and fountain pens). It has 12 fixed pen sizes, 32 default colours and you can add 32 more custom colours to your colour palette. They also added dashed and dotted brushes to their Notability 10.0 version.

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 add custom colours to a secondary colour palette. You can add as many colours as you need. Notability does not have a pencil tool, and you can’t adjust the opacity of your writing tools.

While Notability uses vector ink, Apple Notes uses raster ink. In Apple Notes, your ink loses its resolution as your zoom in (it doesn’t in Notability).

The handwriting experience in either app comes down to your personal preference. Both apps have accurate handwriting representation and no lag. It feels natural writing in Notability and Apple Notes.

Writing toolsNotabilityApple Notes
Pen toolBallpoint, fountain, dashed & dottedBallpoint
Pencil tool
Writing tool sizes12 fixed5 fixed
Ink typeVectorRaster
Adjust opacity
Comparing the writing tools in Notability and Apple Notes.

Zoom tool

The zoom tool in Notability is very basic. It has your writing tools on the left side of its toolbar and navigation tools on the right side. You can avoid using auto advance by minimising this blue section and not writing on it.

 Apple Notes doesn’t have a zoom tool, neither can you zoom in and out of pages. This is a massive limitation for digital note-taking. 

Zoom tool NotabilityApple Notes
Pen tools on toolbar
Auto advance
Margin tool
Navigation tools
Comparing the zoom tool in Notability and Apple Notes.

Text tools

In Notability, you can type directly on the page or use text boxes. We do not recommend adding text directly onto the page in Notability when mixing handwritten and typed notes. Your text boxes, can be on paper textures or have plain colours. The colours options you get are the same for the pen tool. Your text boxes don’t have borders, though, so they feel a bit incomplete. But at least you can add text boxes in Notability, allowing you to mix your handwritten and typed notes. 

In Apple Notes, text and handwriting do not mix (they are separate independent blocks). You can’t write comments, with your Apple Pencil, next to any text (paragraph or table). It limits the kind of notes you can create in Apple Notes. You have to choose to create typed or handwritten notes, for each notebook you create in the app. Notability creates cooler notes.

Apple Notes has one font for your text. You have presets for your titles, headings, subheadings, body and monospace. You can’t change them, they are set. You can’t even change the colour of your text in Apple Notes. Notability does that without breaking a sweat.

Notability supports custom fonts, in addition to the plenty it already has. You can save three favourite text templates. These preset your font, style (bold, italic or underline), size and colour for your text. Which you can change any time you want. Your presets could be for your headings, paragraphs and emphasis. Tap on your favourite to change the text format immediately. 

For both apps, you can edit your text to make it bold, italic and underline. Apple Notes can strikeout your text, Notability does not. In both apps, you can create: 

  • interactive checklists 
  • unnumbered lists 
  • numbered lists

The interactive checklist feature in Notability is one of the best on the market. It checks off, dims and strikes out completed tasks. It makes it easier to differentiate them from tasks you’ve not done yet. Apple Notes can move your completed tasks to the bottom of your list as you complete them. This helps organise your tasks, but, a strikeout is better. It gives you a sense of accomplishment. 

Notability has three types of bullet points, Apple Notes has four. Different bullet points are essential for creating hierarchies in your notes. The numbered lists in Apple Notes only has one numbering type. Notability has three

Both apps have an indentation tool but no text alignment options. You can customise the tools on your keyboard toolbar, in Notability. Apple Notes supports Scribble for text input in iPadOS14, Notability does not. 

You can access notes to your currently opened folder within Notability’s  workspace when using the text tool. Ever wanted to go back to another notebook to add a quick note or check some information? You can do that in Notability.

FeatureNotabilityApple Notes
Text input optionsDirectly on the page,
Text boxes
Directly on the page,
independent blocks
Text box customisation
Text box rotation
Support for custom fonts
Saved favourite text formats 
Interactive lists★★★★★★★★★
Lists (numbered & unnumbered)3 bullet point types
3 numbering types
4 bullet point types
1 numbering type
Indentation tool
Text alignment
Support for Scribble in iPadOS 14
Comparing the text tool in Notability and Apple Notes.

Highlighter 

Both apps’ highlighters go behind your ink. Notability has the option to bring the highlighter to the front, for users that prefer that. The highlighter has the same size and colour options as your pen tool. In version 10, your highlights can be dashed or dotted.

The highlighter in Apple Notes looks a paintbrush. Even at 100% opacity, it doesn’t dim your notes. You can decide how intense you want your highlighters to be in Apple Notes, that is applaudable. Like, in Notability, it has the same size and colour options as the writing tools in the app. 

In Notability, you can highlight your text as well, which you can’t do in Apple Notes. You can highlight it using the text tool or the highlighter. Both apps can highlight in straight lines.  

Eraser

The eraser in both apps can erase per stroke and pixel. Notability has 12 fixed sizes and it can selectively erase the highlighter only. Apple Notes does not selectively erase the highlighter only. Both apps don’t have the auto-deselection feature that automatically switches back to the tool you were using before the eraser (when you lift your Apple Pencil off your iPad screen).

EraserNotabilityApple Notes
Per pixel & stroke
Eraser sizes12 fixedUnknown
Erase highlighter Only
Auto-deselect 
Comparing the eraser in Notability and Apple Notes.

Lasso tool

The Lasso tool in both apps only selects your handwritten notes only. Your notes in Apple Notes are already disjoined anyway, so this is not surprising at all. For Notability, however, this is a bit unpleasant. Sometimes you want to select everything on the page to move it all at once. Which is not too much to ask for, considering how the app allows you to mix your handwritten notes, photos and text. 

Notability has two types of lasso tools; a freehand and rectangular one. The freehand lasso tool lets you move items on the page. You can resize and rotate your selection simultaneously, using the two-finger gesture. With the rectangular lasso tool, you can resize and rotate your notes independently. You can do one at a time. The lasso tool in Notability lets you change the thickness of your notes and duplicate them. You don’t need the lasso tool to select text boxes and images; just tap on them. Unfortunately, you can’t select everything on your page.

You can’t resize or rotate sections of your notes in Apple Notes. This limitation is unacceptable in digital note-taking. Digital notes allow us to do the impossible. Resizing and rotating your notes is one of those things that make you look cool in front of your friends that are still stuck in the Stone Age. Your lasso tool also can’t change the thickness of your already notes. 

You can move your handwritten sections to other handwritten blocks when using Apple Notes. In iPadOS 14, Apple Notes has upgraded from the lasso tool to smart selection. It lets us select handwriting as though it were text, it is better than the lasso tool. It would be awesome if we could select both handwriting and text together like we do in Nebo.

Apple Notes allows you to create space between sections of your notes. This is an awesome feature to have in a digital note-taking app. Notability should consider adding it to their app.

Lasso toolNotabilityApple Notes
Cut, copy, delete, change colour, duplicate
Resize and rotate
Change the thickness of the ink
Select handwriting only
Select text only
Select images only
Select everything
Insert space between notes
Drag & drop
Move selection across pages in the same notebook
Smart selection in iPadOS 14
Comparing the lasso tool to Notability and Apple Notes.

Things you can add to your notes

What you can add to your notesNotabilityApple Notes
Photos
Scans
Weblinks
Audio recording
GIFs✔ & ✘
Sticky notes
Stickers
Web clips
Import documents
Videos
Tables
Attach PDFs
Comparing the things you can add in Notability and Apple Notes

Scanning documents

Both apps use the iPadOS scanner for your documents. When you scan a document in Notability you can insert it as a scan or image. Images are smaller files than PDFs. They will save storage space on your iPad.

For both apps, you can adjust how your scan looks; coloured, grayscale, black & white or you just leave the photo as it is. For Apple Notes, you can do this after you have saved the scan. In Notability, only when you are taking the photos for your scan. You can rotate and export your scans, in Apple Notes.

ScanningNotabilityApple Notes
Save as PDF
Save as image
Search scanSearches termsSearches titles
Rotate
CropBefore adding to notesBefore and after adding to notes
Export scan
Comparing the scanning feature in Notability and Apple Notes

Shapes tool

Notability can draw regular, irregular shapes, arrows and curved lines. Apple Notes supports some regular shapes, arrows and curved lines. Both apps don’t have a dedicated shapes tool. They straighten out your shapes when you draw and long-press on the screen. Their dedication to minimalism is admirable.

In Apple Notes, once you’ve drawn your shape, there’s not much you can do with them. You can’t rotate, modify or resize them. Notability can auto-fill your shapes. Your shape’s border colour can differ from its fill. The autofill is opaque (unless you use the highlighter tool to draw your shape). You can’t adjust the opacity of your auto-fill. You can change the thickness of your shape’s border and its shape (if irregular) after you’ve already drawn it.

Both apps support the snap to other strokes function that automatically snaps edges of your shapes and arrows together. In Notability, shapes and lines snap to the grids and line on your paper templates. It makes for a pleasant shape drawing experience. Since Apple Notes doesn’t support all shapes yet, the ruler tool can be useful to draw those shapes that you can’t draw with your shapes tool.

ShapesNotabilityApple Notes
Regular shapesSome
Irregular shapes
Arrows
Curved lines
Auto-fill similar to border colour
Auto-fill different from border colour
Adjust shape after drawing
Duplicate shapes
Snap to other strokes
Snap to page lines & grid
Adjust border thickness
Comparing the shapes tool in Notability and Apple Notes

Photos

Both apps support PNG photos (photos without a background). You can drag & drop them into the apps or add them via the photos icon. 

In Apple Notes, you can add your images as big or small thumbnails. Photos in the app are also in a block of their own, away from handwriting. We could understand the inability to mix text and handwriting. But photos? What is the point of adding photos if we can’t write around them? You can do the following to your images in Notability: 

  • Crop
  • Rotate and resize 
  • Add captions and wrap text  

All that, you can’t do in Apple Notes.  You can only annotate your images in a separate window in the app. While in this window, you can navigate through all your images in your notes. It saves you time wasted going back and forth.

PhotosNotabilityApple Notes
PNGUnknown
Freehand cropping
Resize & Rotate
Drag & drop
Add captions
Wrap text around photos
Comparing photos in Notability and Apple Notes.

Scrolling

Notability has vertical and horizontal scrolling. Vertical scrolling in both apps is seamless. In Notability, pages are like one continuous canvas, separated by a thin horizontal line. Your handwriting can overlap across pages; giving you a ‘continuous’ canvas to write on. Apple Notes also has seamless vertical scrolling of its infinite canvas. It doesn’t have a horizontal line separating your pages. It would be useful to at least show us where pages end and new ones start. Horizontal scrolling in Notability displays one page at a time. Apple Notes does not support horizontal scrolling. 

Multi-tasking

Notability has in-app split view for opening two different notebooks, side by side, using the Note Switcher. Both notebooks share the same workspace. Your tools, thus, can only work in one view at a time (the active window). You can activate a window by tapping it, before writing. Notability’s note switcher only shows the ten most recently opened notebooks in your app. In-app split view was awesome before iPadOS 13

Apple Notes supports multiple instances. You can open the app twice, side by side. Each instance is a fully functional app; you can open the same notebook twice. Both windows are always active. You can access all the documents in the app from only one instance, though (the main window). You can also open more notebooks in slide over. At any given time, Apple Notes can open more documents than Notability.

Multi-taskingNotabilityApple Notes
TypeNote-switcherMultiple instances
Maximum number of notes open at once2More than 2
Open same note twice
Number of active windows per sessionOneBoth instances
Access to other notebooks10 most recently openedAll notebooks in the app from one instance
Slide over windows
Multiple tabs
Comparing multi-tasking in Notability and Apple Notes

PDF reading

Most note-taking apps can annotate your PDFs because they have the tools for great PDF-reading (pens, highlighters and text boxes). That alone, however, is not enough to make for a good PDF reader. Of the two apps, Notability is the better PDF annotating app. 

Apple Notes creates a thumbnail from the first page of your PDF when you add one to your notes. It can either be large or small. Apple Notes only attaches your PDFs, it does not embed them in the app as Notability does. The PDF opens in a separate window like your photos do.  

Hyperlinks ease your navigation through PDFs. Both Apple Notes and Notability can recognise hyperlinks and automatically deactivate them when you’re using your Apple Pencil. In Notability you can: 

  • Bookmark pages in your PDFs.  
  • See only your annotated pages. 
  • Export password-protected PDFs. 
Neither app is great with PDF-reading.
PDF readingNotabilityApple Notes
Recognise hyperlinks
Deactivate hyperlinks when using the Apple Pencil
Create outlines
Bookmarks
Tags
View annotated pages only
Password-protect exports
Comparing PDF reading in Notability and Apple Notes.

OCR 

Optical Character Recognition, OCR, in these two note-taking apps has two parts. It has handwriting recognition and conversion and also text character recognition. You can search through your handwriting in both apps. 

Notability supports 23 languages for OCR, Apple Notes support your iPad’s language. In Notability, you convert your handwriting to text in one tap. Apple Notes doesn’t convert your handwriting to text. You can search through your handwriting in both apps. They highlight the search results in your document, making them easy to find.

The other aspect of OCR for these note-taking apps is searching through scanned documents. Notability searches through the documents you scan directly into the app and scans you import from other apps. Apple Notes doesn’t search through your scans. Notability used to search through text in images, but it’s been failing to do that lately.

Apple Notes converts your handwriting to create headings for your notes. It also converts text from scans to create document titles. It copies your handwriting as text to paste in other apps and it supports data detection. On-device intelligence, in iPadOS14, recognises handwritten addresses, phone numbers, emails and dates so you can take actions on them.

OCRNotabilityApple Notes
Convert handwriting to text
Supported languages23System language
Data detection
Search through handwriting
Search through imported scans
Search text on images
Organisation of search results
Comparing OCR in Notability and Apple Notes.

Dark mode

Notability has false dark mode. It only converts the user interface and not the pages or ink in the app. For a true dark mode experience, you have to rely on dark paper templates and white ink. Apple Notes supports true dark mode which will help you prevent eyestrain. The app automatically switches colours of your paper templates and ink in. Dark mode in Apple Notes doesn’t work with PDFs, though.

Special features 

Special features make an app stand out amongst others in the same category. These are unique features that, in most cases, define an app.

  • The audio recording tool remains Notability’s trump card. It is an excellent feature for note-taking. Notability has just revamped the audio recording tool, giving us some cool editing features within the application.
  • Presentation mode lets you present your notes without the distracting user interface of the app. You have a laser pointer for pointing at what you are talking about. 
  • Notability has pink guidelines when moving images and shapes, even when you are drawing or resizing them. These are helpful. 
  • Apple Notes can add tables to your notes. Not many note-taking apps have this feature. It is a good reason to consider using Apple Notes.
  • You can add videos to your notes. The app supports videos from the Photo library. Let’s hope in the future we’ll be able to add videos from other apps.
  • Data detection allows you to create reminders from in Apple Notes.  It is a good option for basic planning. 

Exporting options

Notability exports four formats: PDF, Note, Images (Jpeg or PNG) and RTF. PDF is the best way to share read-only notes out of any note-taking app. You can:

  • Choose the pages you want to export.
  • Keep the paper template on your notes.
  • Attach audio recordings to your PDFs. 
  • Password-protect your PDF.
  • Add a margin around your PDF. 
  • Preview the PDF you want to export.

A margin around your PDF gives you extra space around your notes, more room for annotating notes later. Both apps don’t zip images you export. 

Exporting the out of Apple Notes is a bad idea. You have no control on the format you export out the app. You can’t keep the template of your paper template. Even though you can add different attachments to your notes, the app exports them as individual files. Notes created in Apple Notes, are best left in Apple Notes.

You can collaborate on your notes in Apple Notes, with anyone who has an Apple ID. Collaboration is a must-have feature in 2020. Let’s hope Notability can add it to the app soon.  

Exporting optionsNotabilityApple Notes
FormatsPDF, Images (jpeg/png), Note, RTFPDF, PNG 
Select specific pages
Page background
Attach audio recordings
Password protect PDF
Add margin around PDF
Exclude annotations
Export hyperlinks
Zip images
Individual images
Collaborations
Comparing exporting options in Notability and Apple Notes.

User interface

Even though they come as an in-app purchase, the themes in Notability offer you options to customise your user interface. The themes are beautiful. Apple Notes has a more minimalist user interface. It makes Notability look chunky and cluttered. The mobile toolbar also adds some flexibility to how you work in Apple Notes.

App size 

Apple Notes is a much smaller app. It is about seventeen times smaller than Notability. However, it creates bigger files/notebooks. Most of my notes in Apple Notes are text. Text files are tiny documents. I have more photos and PDFs in Notability than I have in Apple Notes, yet, Notability’s documents are taking up lesser storage. Notability is impressive with its compact files.

App size NotabilityApple Notes
App size205.9 MB12.8 MB
Number of notebooks38139
Documents & data109.6 MB257.7 MB
Comparing the size of files created in Notability and Apple Notes.

Organisation

Apple Notes has more organisational levels than Notability. You can have up to 5 levels of organisation, folder-within-folders in Apple Notes on the iPad. Notability has a two-level folder system (dividers and subjects).  

You can view all the attachments in the app. This would be more useful if the attachments opened the notebooks that contain them, instead of opening that attachment in the annotating window. You can pin your notebooks to the top of your folders, for easier access to notebooks you’re working on.

OrganisationNotabilityApple Notes
Organisation levels25
Bookmark documents & folders
Filter bookmarks
Pin documents
Comparing organisation options in Notability and Apple Notes.

Universal search

Both apps support universal search. You can search all your documents (including handwritten notes) on the homepage. Notability can search through specific folders, which Apple Notes can also do. However, Apple Notes goes an extra mile to focus your search on: 

  • Shared notes 
  • Locked notes
  • Notes with checklists, drawings, scanned documents and attachments.

Notability organises your search results into title and content matches only. Apple Notes organises your search results into top hits, notes and attachments

Universal searchNotabilityApple Notes
Search through handwriting
Organise search resultsTitle and content matchesTop hits, notes, attachments
Search specific folders★★★★★★★★
Comparing universal search in Notability and Apple Notes.

Syncing and auto backup

Notability backups up to Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive, Box and WebDAV. You can decide which subjects to backup and in what format. Note is Notability’s native format and the best way to back up your notes. Apple Notes doesn’t back up anything.

Backup and syncing are very different and they serve different purposes.

Auto backupNotabilityApple Notes
Dropbox
Google Drive
OneDrive
Box
WebDAV
Native formatNoteUnknown
PDF 
RTF
Native + PDF
Backup specific folders
Back up specific files
View backup queue
Pause/cancel backup
Comparing auto backup options in Notability and Apple Notes.

Both apps can:

  • Sync via iCloud.
  • Password-protect folders.
  • Set default paper templates for new notebooks.
  • Keep your deleted notebooks for 30 days before completely deleting them.
  • Notability has more settings to customise to enhance your user experience. 

Since iPadOS 13, Apple Notes has been worth comparing to other third-party note-taking apps. It still has a long way to go if it’s ever going to completely replace our third-party note-taking apps. In iPadOS 14, it’s giving us more features that compel us to at least try it out before rushing off to buy apps. That is a step in the right direction. Which app are you convinced to try out after this review?

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