Digital note-taking has evolved tremendously in the past couple of years. This list has 10 traditional note-taking apps. These are primarily designed for handwriting note-taking. Then I mention 5 other note-taking apps that are not primarily designed for note-taking, but can do a great job (given the right circumstances).
10. Apple Notes: 2019’s most improved app
I compared this app to Notability a few weeks back. Apple Notes has improved dramatically, in iPadOS 13. It now has some very impressive features that include:
- Collaborations on notes and folders
- Video support (adding videos from your photos)
- Inserting tables
With all those features, however, Notes is still not ready for any serious note-taking. I am using it for rough notes.
9. ZoomNotes: the most advanced note-taking app
If you can think it, ZoomNotes probably does it. That’s not necessarily a good thing. Which is why the app is number nine on my list. ZoomNotes has features that some apps can only dream of.
- Subpages: a page, in ZoomNotes, can have subpages.
- Creating outlines for your notes
- Layers on pages
- Creating hyperlinks
As amazing as this app is, it requires time to master. Which honestly, not many people are that patient. ZoomNotes also has a very ugly and old fashioned user interface. It’s unpleasant to look at which just adds to its negatives.
8. Note Always: the most expensive app on this list
It costs $14.99 on Appstore. It is also the simplest app on this list.
Note Always is the only app on this list that hasn’t bothered to update for iPadOS. The developers mostly maintain the app to fix bugs. Unacceptable, considering how much they are charging for it.
The app works though. It has a simple user interface that is easy to understand; no settings to customise it (user interface). Its tools are mobile, you can place them anywhere on the screen (literally).
When zooming in onto a page, your handwriting becomes blurry. The app definitely needs to improve its inking tools. In 2019, this shouldn’t be something users need to complain about. It is the main reason I dislike the app.
It has neither automatic backup nor syncing capabilities. Its horizontal scrolling is bizarre. It is more of page flipping than actual scrolling. Since I prefer vertical scrolling, I really don’t like scrolling in this app
Note Always is the only strictly note-taking app on this list. You can’t import anything into the app. Limiting; if you want to add some old notes to the app.
7. Notes Plus: the app that has lost its glory
Though this is still a great note-taking application, most of its unique features have become basic. Other apps have caught up, and in most cases overtaken this once amazing application.
After ZoomNotes, Notes Plus is the second most advanced note-taking app on this list. It is more intuitive than ZoomNotes, though. With much less effort, it is easier to understand.
One striking feature remaining in the app: it supports Arabic handwriting recognitions. Notes Plus supports a total of 55 languages for OCR. It is now the 3rd best handwriting recognition app on this list. It used to be first.
The app shows the zoom percentage of pages when zooming in and out of pages in the app. I love that. Notability did that once, then they removed the feature.
The app can export to Evernote. Not unique, but most people like this feature.
The handwriting experience continues to improve. It seems to have less resistance, and I am loving the way my handwriting is looking now.
Notes Plus was an amazing app. But its developers haven’t released any major updates for the app. A year ago, maybe two, it had amazing features which have since become basic for note-taking apps. So it’s not really an app with anything outstanding anymore.
6. Pen & Paper
This is a great note-taking app with a very unique feature: you can create PDF lecture slides from your powerpoint presentations. This is for those with a lot of lectures slides and want to take notes on them during lectures. Keynote does this for free though. I have done a video on that.
The ink in the app looks the most realistic. It even gives the impression that it will smudge on the page if you rest your palm on it. The app also supports adding your own fonts. Most note-taking apps don’t even support all the fonts on the iPad. Pen & Paper supports them and more. This is also the only app to with animated page scrolling. If you miss flipping through physical books, you will like this app.
Pen & Paper still needs to improve its shapes tool. It’s unnatural and difficult to use.
This app is like Notability’s younger brother. It reminds me so much of Notability even though it is clearly a different app.
uPad allows you to add tables. Tables for a note-taking app are a must have. Yet, only three apps on this list support them (uPad, Notes, ZoomNotes). This app has, by far, the easiest tables tool to use. It is intuitive, letting you create tables very quickly. Which is very handy when taking quick notes.
uPad also has a great handwriting experience, closely replicating the one you get in Notability. This is why it reminds me so much of Notability.
It has a very customisable shapes tool. But the app limits you to the fixed shapes offered in the app. To draw any other shape, other than the ones offered, you will need to use the straight line tool. It’s not the most comfortable tool to use.
For your password protected notes, this is the only app that has a way to recover your password if you forgot it. The app only has vertical scrolling, no horizontal scrolling.
This app, Note Always as well, doesn’t have handwriting recognition technology. That’s almost unforgivable in 2019.
4. OneNote: a free note-taking app that’s actually usable for serious note-taking.
The app supports true dark mode! This is the first third-party app I’ve seen that automatically converts your ink when you switch to and from dark mode. Of course, we expect nothing less from Microsoft.
You can insert space between sections of your notes in OneNote. This is a great feature if you don’t intend to share your notes with anyone (because you are just a selfish human like that). Not such a great idea if you want intend to export your notes.
It’s free so you can try it out before purchasing a note-taking app.
OneNote is available on all devices. It syncs well via your microsoft account. You can invite people to your note books for collaborations. You can even give them permissions to edit your notes.
The app comes with 5GB free storage. When it runs out, you’ll need to pay for storage on a monthly basis if you want your notes synced across your devices. Students with a .edu email can get more storage for free through Microsoft Office365. Microsoft Office365 is also free on tablets that are less than 10.1 inch.
Recent graduates also have an opportunity to get Microsoft Office365 for a really good price $12/year.
3. Noteshelf: the most underrated note-taking app on this list and also the best handwriting experience on the iPad.
I just recently compared Noteshelf to GoodNotes 5 and it did a pretty good job. I was impressed. Some of you guys were impressed.
Noteshelf has a lot of impressive features that include:
- Publishing to Evernote
- Handwriting recognition for 65 languages
- An awesome text tool
- A lot of useful paper templates
However, if you like the way your handwriting looks, meaning you don’t want it altered, Noteshelf is not the app you want to go for.
The app also has an underlying bug that creates a visible lag when handwriting notes. This is very distracting. The app hasn’t really been lagging for me since they released an update targeting that bug a few years back. I haven’t had a problem with the bug since then. However, the bug keeps popping up for different users. Clearly the developers haven’t completely dealt with it yet.
2. GoodNotes 5: the most complete handwriting note-taking app.
GoodNotes has just the right amount of tools and offers just the right amount of customisation.
Unique to GoodNotes 5 is the laser pointer tool. One of the their latest and coolest update. This update emphasises on presentations from within the app. Definitely a must have for most professions.
You also get an improved handwriting experience. GoodNotes 5 brought in a different inking experience to the app when it got released in January this year. The developers have continued to improve handwriting in iPadOS.
The ability to create outlines in GoodNotes 5 makes it an excellent note-taking app.
However with all these awesome features,
GoodNotes 5 is still missing autoback up. Autoback up is extremely important. The GN5 team knows this, and they are working on it. They finally added the feature, a year after GoodNotes 5’s release.
Notability really has an annoying limitation on page customisation. It has one of the worst organisation options (though I have made it work for me, personally). Now, it’s not even supporting multiple instances in iPadOS.
Despite all that; Notability is the most functional note-taking app on Appstore. It just is. It is the most stable and the most reliable note-taking app there is. When you want to know how great a note-taking app is, you compare it to Notability. Always.
Even if you don’t really like their audio recording tool. Which I for one, absolutely love… Notability just works the best, at all times. But that’s not to say it’s perfect for everyone either.
Now let’s talk about the unorthodox note-taking apps. These are apps that are not primarily designed for handwriting note-taking. However, when put up to the challenge, they do a smashing job!
The first three apps on this list are primarily PDF readers.
5. PDF Expert 7
The feature to create a new PDF in PDF Expert 7 means you can create notes from scratch. You can choose a paper template from eight available options (blank, lined, grid, music, dotted 5mm, dotted 1mm, graph and isometric). You can pick the paper colour your want from the three offered, name your file and choose location. This makes for a decent note-taking app.
PDF Expert 7 lets you save your documents directly to Files. You can easily access your notes from there as well.
The inking tools in the app are very basic. Nothing too complicated. To get more out of the app you need to upgrade to the full pro version of the app. That will cost you $12 per month. An absolute no from me. No, can do!
4. MarginNote 3
The app recently added the ability to add and remove pages in PDFs. Coupled with its great inking tools, MarginNote 3 can be manoeuvred to create decent notes.
However, the ability to add pages to PDFs only can be limiting. Not impossible to work around though. MarginNote 3 is not the cheapest app on the market. It makes you think twice about buying the app for note-taking.
This is the PDF annotating app that first gave me the idea of using PDF annotating apps for note-taking, when it improved its inking tool. Writing in the app feels better than writing in Notability. However, you need to really understand the exporting options in the app to fully utilise it as a note-taking app. It’s a bit of a steep learning curve.
I have put this app on this list because Nebo is not a handwriting note-taking app. It converts everything to text when you export it. A lot of people get confused with that. Though it lets you create your notes by handwriting them, you can’t really export them handwritten.
1. Procreate: the most popular drawing app on Appstore.
Yes, if an artist can use it, so can you. You just won’t create amazing art, but you can create great notes.
Procreate supports different page sizes and has a lot of writing tools. You are bound to find something that works for you in the app. The app has the potential to make amazing notes, if you bother to learn how.