Notability vs Apple Notes (2021 Update)

Notability vs Apple Notes in iPadOS 14

We have ranked Notability an 8.5/10 versus 8/10 for Apple Notes.
Find out why you should choose Apple Notes over Notability.
Find out why you should choose Notability over Apple Notes.

Price

Notability costs $8.99, a universal purchase for the versions of the app. It also has in-app purchases for handwriting recognition and math conversion, amongst other items in its Notability shop. Handwriting recognition is a must-have in 2021, therefore, it’s a compulsory purchase. It brings the total cost for Notability to $11.98. To date, we have paid for the math conversion update. We can assume Notability will be releasing more paid updates in the future.

Apple Notes, on the other hand, 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 for the iPadOS, iOS & macOS
In-app purchases in Notability shop.
Free
Size241.1 MB17.7 MB
DeveloperGinger LabsApple
Type of appHandwriting note-taking Handwriting note-taking
Supported OSiPadOS, iOS, macOSiPadOS, iOS, macOS,
web app

Creating digital notes

On your iPad home screen, you can start a new notebook with a new note, checklist, photo or scan in Apple Notes. Notability on the other hand lets you start from any of the four most recently opened notes from Files and two from Notability itself. You can also create a new note/photo. Not only can you create notes faster in Notability, but you can also continue from already existing notes.

Both apps create new notebooks with a single tap. You can then change your paper template. Notability only the A4 paper size on four paper templates: plain, lined, squared and dotted. Each has 4 line spacing and 15 paper colour options. Notability has the worst paper customisation of all the third-party note-taking apps on the market. But Apple Notes’ options are worse.

Apple Notes has three paper templates: plain, lined and squared with 3 line spacing options. A narrower line spacing option would be greatly appreciated. Apple Notes has no page colour or size options. Its pages are vertically infinite with fixed widths. They continue extending downwards if you keep writing. Notability gives a similar impression with its seamless scrolling. However, unlike in Apple Notes, with Notability, you can see where pages end and new ones begin. Though you can still overlap your handwriting across pages, Notability is better for exporting your notes. It doesn’t cut your notes unexpectedly because you can prevent that while taking 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). It creates unique titles that are relevant to the information in your notes, which you can edit if you’re not happy with it.

In Notability, you can set a default title for all new notebooks. So, they all have the same name. The date and time on each make every new note unique. You can edit the title, of course. For both apps:

  • All your pages are in portrait mode, with no option to rotate them.
  • Your whole notebook has the same page template (down to the colour).
  • You can’t select multiple pages for editing.
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

Toolbar

The toolbar in Apple Notes is mobile. You can move it around the page or minimise it to get it out of the way. Notability’s toolbar is fixed at the top (right-handed) or bottom (left-handed). You also get a favourites toolbar to save your favourite pens, highlighter, eraser and lasso tool. You can toggle it away and put it on any side of your screen. A favourites toolbar saves you the time you’d waste customising your tools when you want to use them.

Pen tool

Notability has four pen tools (ballpoint, fountain, dashed and dotted pens). Each has 12 fixed pen sizes, 32 default colours and 32 custom colours on your colour palette. You can save your favourite pens to the favourites toolbar.

Apple Notes has a pen and pencil tool. The pen tool has a ballpoint feel to it. Both writing tools have an opacity range from 0 to 100 and 5 fixed thicknesses. Apple Notes measures opacity in percentages that show on the tools. Each writing tool has five default colours at the end of the toolbar. You add as many custom colours as you need, to a secondary colour palette. Notability does not have a pencil tool, and you can’t adjust the opacity of your writing tools.

Notability uses vector ink that does not pixelate as you zoom in. Apple Notes uses raster ink, which loses its resolution on zooming in. The handwriting experience in either app comes down to your personal preference. Both apps have accurate handwriting representation and no lag. Writing in both apps feels natural.

Writing ToolsNotabilityApple Notes
Pen toolBallpoint, fountain, dashed & dottedBallpoint
Pencil tool
Writing tool sizes12, fixed5, fixed
Ink typeVectorRaster
Adjust opacity
Save favourite tools

Zoom Tool

A zoom tool lets you add more information in tiny spaces on pages with little space left. In Notability, your zoom window has writing tools on the left and navigation tools on the right. Auto-advance automatically moves the zoom window to the next section on the page, if you write on the blue section. You can also zoom on the pages without using the zoom tool, it effectively produces the same result.

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. But it also means you won’t be bothered by the raster ink if you don’t zoom in on pages.

Zoom Tool NotabilityApple Notes
Pen tools on the toolbar
Auto-advance
Margin tool
Navigation tools
Zoom on pages

Text Tool

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 it with handwriting. Your text boxes can either be on Paper textures or plain Colours. Text boxes don’t have borders, so they are more stickers than actual text boxes. They let you mix handwritten and typed notes. 

In Apple Notes, text and handwriting do not mix (they are separate blocks that don’t interact in any way). 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.

Notability creates more sophisticated notes than Apple Notes, which has one font for your text. You get presets for your titles, headings, subheadings, body and monospace, but you can’t customise them. You can’t even change the colour of your text in Apple Notes.

Notability supports custom fonts, in addition to the plenty it already has. You can save three favourite text formats, which preset your font, style (bold, italic or underline), size and text colour (you can change them any time). Both apps can make your text bold, italic and underline. Apple Notes can strike out your text too; a feature you don’t have in Notability. In both apps, you can create: 

  • Interactive checklists 
  • Unnumbered lists 
  • Numbered lists

Notability creates one of the best interactive checklists for a note-taking app. It checks off, dims and strikes out completed tasks; making it easier to differentiate them from incomplete ones. Apple Notes moves completed tasks to the bottom of the list to organise your list. Strikeout is still a better way to mark completed tasks.

Notability has three types of bullet points, Apple Notes has four. The dashed bullets are ideal for taking notes and these don’t change when you indent your text. That said, both apps can create up to three distinct bullet point levels in your lists. Numbered lists in Apple Notes only have one numbering type, those in Notability have three

Notability now has text alignment options for text boxes, Apple Notes still doesn’t have text boxes. Your text goes directly on the page, in Apple Notes and it does not mix with handwriting. In Notability, text added on the page overlaps with handwriting. Both setups are unusable.

You can customise the tools on your keyboard toolbar in Notability. Both apps now support Scribble for text input

Text toolNotabilityApple Notes
Text input options– Directly on the page,
(overlaps with handwriting)
– Text boxes
– Directly on the page
(does not overlap with
handwriting)
– No text boxes
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
Scribble

Highlighter 

The highlighters in both apps go behind your ink. Notability has the option to bring it to the front if you prefer that. The highlighter has the same size and colour options as your pen tools, in both apps. Notability has more highlighter options than Apple Notes.

The highlighter in Apple Notes looks like 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. 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’ eraser varies in size depending on how you hold your Apple Pencil. It does not selectively erase the highlighter. 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 fixedVariable
Erase highlighter Only
Auto-deselect 

Lasso Tool

The lasso tool in both apps only picks up 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. The app mixes handwriting, photos and text; we should be able to pick all of them together. 

Notability has a free hand and rectangular/rigid lasso tool. The freehand lasso tool moves items on the page. It can resize and rotate your selection simultaneously, using the two-finger gesture. The rectangular lasso tool does one of the two at a time. You can change the pen thickness and colour of your notes. You can also duplicate them. In Notability, you can now group your handwritten notes.

You can’t resize or rotate sections of your notes in Apple Notes. Such a limitation is unacceptable in digital note-taking. You also can’t change the thickness of your written notes. You can, however, move your handwritten sections to other handwritten blocks. In iPadOS 14, Apple Notes introduced Smart Selection. A technology that selects handwriting as though it were text. It is faster than the lasso tool. Even better would be the ability to select both handwriting and text simultaneously, like we do in Nebo.

Apple Notes can create space between sections of your notes, it is one of the app’s trump cards. For digital note-taking, it is an excellent feature to have. Notability should consider adding it to their app. If any app can add this, it will be Notability.

Lasso ToolNotabilityApple Notes
Cut, copy, delete, change colour, duplicate
Resize and rotate
Change the thickness of the ink
Change the colour of the ink
Select handwriting only
Select text onlyPick up without lasso tool
Select images onlyPick up without lasso toolPick up without lasso tool
Select everything
Insert space between notes
Drag & drop
Move selection across pages in the same notebook
Smart selection in iPadOS 14

Items You Can Add To Your Notes

What you can add to your notesNotabilityApple Notes
Photos
Scans
Weblinks
Audio recording
GIFsAdd audios
Sticky notes
Stickers
Web clips
Import documentsLinks with thumbnails
Videos
Tables
Attach PDFs

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 and will save storage space on your iPad.

For both apps, you can adjust how your scan looks: coloured, grayscale, black & white or you can leave the photo as it is. For Apple Notes, you can do this after you have saved the scan. In Notability – only when taking photos for your scan. You can rotate and export your scans in Apple Notes, which you can’t in Notability.

ScanningNotabilityApple Notes
Save as PDF
Save as image
Search scanHighlights resultsDoesn’t highlight results
Rotate
CropBefore adding to notesBefore & after adding to notes
Export scan alone

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. Notability uses closed arrowheads, while Apple Notes has open ones.

In Apple Notes, once you’ve drawn your shape, you can’t rotate, modify or resize it. All things you can do in Notability. You can also auto-fill your shapes. A 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 its opacity.

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 lines on your native 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 irregular shapes. It is a painful experience though.

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

Photos & videos

Notability supports PNG photos (photos without a background). Apple Notes now adds a grey background to PNG photos that mix with handwriting. You can drag & drop images into both apps. In Notability your images can mix with handwriting and text. You can easily put your images anywhere you like. In both apps, you can Cut, Copy or Delete your images. In Apple Notes you can also Duplicate them or Insert Space Above to create extra space if you need it. Notability also lets you:

  • Crop
  • Rotate and resize 
  • Add captions
  • Wrap text
  • Make Rounded Corners for your images  

Photos still don’t mix with the text in Apple Notes, they still remain in a block of their own. You can make the images display as Small Images or Large Images. You still have to annotate these images in a separate window. While in this window, you can navigate through all your images & videos in your notes.

You can add videos to your notes in Apple Notes. At the moment, you can only add them from the Photos Library. You get to choose a Playback Speed: 2.0x, 1.5x, 1.25x, 1.0x, 0.5x.

Photos & videosNotabilityApple Notes
PNG
Crop
Duplicate
Freehand cropping
Resize & Rotate
Drag & drop
Add captions
Wrap text
Add videos

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 but 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

Both apps support multiple instances; you can open them twice side by side. Each instance is a fully functional app allowing you to open the same notebook twice. You can access all the documents in the app from either instance. Slide over can open more notebooks. Notability also has an in-app split view with the Note Switcher. Now, Notability can open more notebooks than Apple Notes. However, such a setup is not very practical, even in landscape mode.

Multi-taskingNotabilityApple Notes
TypeMultiple instances, Note-switcherMultiple instances
Maximum number of notes open at onceMore than 2More than 2
Open same note twice
Number of active windows per sessionBoth instancesBoth instances
Access to other notebooksAll notebooks in the app from one instanceAll notebooks in the app from one instance
Slide over windows
Multiple tabs

PDF Reading

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

Apple Notes attaches PDFs to your notes, then creates thumbnails from their first pages. They can either be large or small. Notability, on the other hand, opens PDFs as documents (like it does with notebooks). The PDF does not open in a separate window as it does in Apple Notes. When added to a notebook, a PDF is part of that notebook in Notability.  

Hyperlinks ease navigation through PDFs. Both apps can recognise them and automatically deactivate them when using your Apple Pencil. In Notability you can also: 

  • Bookmark pages  
  • See only your annotated pages 
  • Export password-protected PDFs 
PDF ReadingNotabilityApple Notes
Recognise hyperlinks
Deactivate hyperlinks when using the Apple Pencil
Create outlines
Bookmarks
Tags
View annotated pages only
Password-protect exports

OCR 

Optical Character Recognition (OCR) in these two note-taking apps has two parts. It has handwriting recognition & conversion and also text character recognition. You can search through your handwriting in both apps, but only Notability highlights your search results.

Notability supports 23 languages for handwriting conversion; Apple Notes supports your iPad’s language. In Notability, you convert your handwriting to text in one tap. Apple Notes doesn’t convert your handwriting at all. It lets you Copy as Text to paste the text. That makes handwriting conversion a two-step process in Apple Notes.

The other aspect of OCR for these note-taking apps is searching through scanned documents. Notability searches through the documents any scan, even those scanned outside the app. It searches scans saved as both PDFs and photos. Apple Notes does search through your scans, but it’s difficult to find what you are looking for because the app does not highlight the searched terms.

Apple Notes can create titles from your handwritten notes or text from scans. It uses data detection to recognise handwritten addresses, phone numbers, emails and dates. You add a number to your contacts from Apple Notes, for example. This feature allows Apple Notes to interact with Reminders, Calendar, Contacts, Mail, Maps, Messages and Facetime.

OCRNotabilityApple Notes
Convert handwriting to text★★★★★★★★
Supported languages23System language
Data detection
Search through handwriting
Search through imported scans
Search text on imagesOnly scanned ones
Organisation of search results

Dark Mode

Notability has false dark mode, which only converts the user interface of the app. For a true dark mode experience, you must use dark paper and white ink. These do not switch when you go back to light mode. Apple Notes supports true dark mode that automatically switches all your colours. In some cases, it helps prevent eyestrain. Dark mode in Apple Notes does not work on PDFs and photos though.

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
  • Attach audio recordings
  • Password-protect your PDF
  • Add a margin for extra space around your notes.
  • Preview the notes

Both apps don’t zip the images you export. Exporting out of Apple Notes is a bad idea. You have no control over the format you export out the app. You can’t keep the paper template of your notes. The app exports your attachments as individual files, it feels disjointed. Notes created in Apple Notes are best left in Apple Notes.

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 active hyperlinks
Zip images
Individual images

Collaboration

To collaborate in Apple Notes, you can invite people via email or Copy Link to share with them. Under Share Options, you can control the permissions for people you’re collaborating with. You can allow them to make changes or view only. You can also allow Anyone to add people

Notes you’re collaborating on are easy to spot on the homepage. You can swipe to the right to see who’s made what changes. Mentions use the @ sign to tag your collaborators to draw their attention. You can choose to see updates that have been made to the document or Show All Activity. You can skip through to specific changes and the app keeps a record of when they were made.

Manage Shared Note lets you Add People to collaborate with. You can also control the permissions of each person you’re collaborating with or remove them from the document. You can turn on the option to Highlight All Changes or Hide Alerts. All these changes work better for text than handwritten notes though.

Notability doesn’t really have a collaboration feature. You have to create a Notability account to share a maximum of ten documents (that are each less than 100 MB) through a link the app creates. No one can make changes to the document, except you. Others only have an option to download the .note or .pdf version of the document. We’re still waiting to see what Notability is planning to do with this.

CollaborationNotabilityApple Notes
Create an account
Invitations viaLinkLink & email
Maximum documents shared10Unlimited
Maximum size of documents100MBUnlimited
Permissions– View only
– Download .note or .pdf
– View only
– Make changes
– Add other people
Track changes
Highlight changes
Mention collaborators
Receive alerts
Collaborate on folders

User Interface

Though they come as an in-app purchase, the themes in Notability customise your user interface. They are beautiful. Apple Notes has a more minimalist user interface that makes Notability look chunky and cluttered. The mobile toolbar also adds some flexibility to how you work in Apple Notes. Notability’s favourites toolbar is also mobile, perhaps our developers can consider giving us fullscreen mode now.

App Size 

Apple Notes is a much smaller app, 18 times smaller than Notability. However, it creates bigger files/notebooks than Notability. Most of the notes in Apple Notes are text, they should be smaller. Notability creates impressively small files, as long as you keep them in that app of course.

App size NotabilityApple Notes
App size240.2 MB12.9 MB
Number of notebooks4587
Documents & data37 MB276 MB

Organisation

Apple Notes has more organisational levels than Notability. You can have up to 5 levels of folder-within-folders in Apple Notes. Notability has a two-level folder system (dividers and subjects). In iPadOS 15, they added universal tags for more organisation options in Apple Notes. You can type or handwrite them anywhere in your notes. For your handwritten tags, you have to Convert to tag. Tags let you navigate your notes faster. These tags work across notebooks, they are not limited like the ones in Noteshelf.

You can view all the attachments in the app, navigate through them quickly and open the notebooks they are in. For your notebooks, you can:

  • Open in New Window
  • Pin Note for easier access to the notebooks you’re currently working on.
  • Lock Note
  • Share note to collaborate on it
  • Send a Copy to export it
  • Move to another folder
  • Delete

Notability has 2 levels of organisation; Dividers (folders that can contain folders) and Subjects (folders that contain notebooks). You can only lock folders in Notability, but not notebooks. You can do the following with a notebook:

  • Share
  • Duplicate
  • iCloud Version History
  • Show in Note List
  • Move to Trash
OrganisationNotabilityApple Notes
Organisation levels25
Bookmark documents & folders
Filter bookmarks
Pin documents
LockFoldersNotebooks

Universal search

In both apps, you can search all your documents (including handwritten notes) on the homepage. You can even search specific folders. In Apple Notes your search can focus 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 them into top hits, notes and attachments. You can search the contents of both apps from the home screen. Your iPad displays your Apple Notes results first, and you have to scroll a bit more to get Notability results. It’s an awesome feature to have for both apps, especially when looking for notes you can’t remember the app you wrote them in.

Universal SearchNotabilityApple Notes
Search through handwritingHighlights resultsDoesn’t highlight results
Organise search resultsTitle & content matchesTop hits, notes, attachments
Search specific folders★★★★★★★★
Home screen search

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. Apple Notes doesn’t back up anything, it only syncs your notes across devices. A good note-taking app must have both sync and backup.

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

Both apps can:

  • Sync via iCloud
  • Set default paper templates for new notebooks.
  • Keep your deleted notebooks for 30 days before completely deleting them.

Apple Notes has come a long way, to become the great note-taking app it is today. For some workflows, it can now replace third-party apps. It still remains the best app for quick rough notes on the iPad, but the more updates we get, the better it gets. If exporting notes is not a big part of your workflow, you must give Apple Notes a try.

Comments · 4

  1. Hello! Very well done on this article and website as a whole. I thought I’d also mention one advantage that SOLD me on Apple Notes when compared to other note taking apps (I found this while researching Bear App). I once in a great while run into sync issues using other note taking apps (GoodNotes 5, Bear, Evernote to name a few personal experiences). However, Apple Notes circumvents this (the same way Google Docs does) by using Conflict-Free Replicated Data Types. This Wikipedia post describes it better than I can. The end results is that even if the same note in Apple Notes is edited on two or ten different devices, the note will always reconcile the differences and will always contain all the data entered in regardless of order (even deletions are reconciled). I hope this information is beneficial!

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conflict-free_replicated_data_type

    1. That is a very good point!!! Conflicting documents are a very painful thing to deal with! Scrivener has that issue and it makes life very unpleasant. Yes, Apple Notes definitely shines in that area. I hadn’t noticed that in handwriting note-taking apps though. But I can understand why in GoodNotes you might bump into that problem, the apps takes some time to sync changes across devices. And thank you for the link, we will pay attention to that in the future.

  2. Superb comparison. Just an eensy bit out of date by now (May 27 2021). I’m using iOS/iPadOS 14.6 and I’m on the Notability beta. But I truly appreciate your comparison and have considered appropriate action. (Another app for some of my simple-minded notes is ByWord.)

    1. We update this every year once we have new features for Apple Notes from an iPadOS update. We’re now updating it… We’ll check out ByWord.

Any thoughts? Do tell, do tell!