Taking Notes on an iPad: A Look at 20 Apps

I purchased my iPad in part to take notes at business meetings – at least that’s what I told myself when I plunked down the cash. The iPad comes with a note taking app (Notes) which like it’s cousin on the iPhone is woefully limited. Luckily there are many alternatives in the App Store (many many alternatives). A new one seems to pop out every week! Not only that, but they’re constantly in flux with bug fixes and feature enhancements.

Depending on the situation (taking personal notes, meeting minutes, lecture notes, etc.) and your preferred method of note taking, your choice of an app may differ, because there is a wide variation in the approach and functionality available. If you haven’t looked closely at the options, you may be pleasantly surprised at what’s available!

Typing on an iPad is much easier and productive than on an iPhone, in fact one can create a long note without too much trouble. Taking notes effectively with an iPad in meetings or situations traditionally the mainstay of pencil & paper, however, requires a good app and some well-practiced skills:

  • Position the iPad on a surface where you can use both hands to type freely without making too many errors.
  • Become proficient with the cut/copy/paste and select/replace functionality built into the iPad operating system (iOS).
  • Finally, find a good note taking app that you can trust and be willing to put some time into learning its features and idiosyncrasies.
  • Ideally a good app should require limited attention so you can still participate in the meeting/classroom dialogue if desired.

Primary considerations

  • Text Entry & Editing
    Entering text quickly in the manner you want it will often be the deciding factor on whether to use the iPad or a laptop. Notetaking apps are not word processors and should not be expected to take on that role. One text font, size and style per note are likely the most you’ll find and if your app happens to support bullets and auto-indent functionality then you should be in good shape for most notetaking situations. Making quick corrections and additions to notes should also be natural and not involve undue poking and prodding.
  • Organization
    The true test for those taking dozens or hundreds of notes over a long period of time is finding information when it’s needed later. Creating separate notebooks by subject is a good first step and organizing notes within a notebook via dates and titles is also helpful. In practice, however, this isn’t enough. Managing too many notebooks or notes constrained in length (rather than multi-paged or unlimited length notes) will become burdensome as the numbers of them increase.
  • Backup and Recovery
    Systems crash, apps occasionally have bad updates and users make catastrophic errors… you need to back up your data! And if it isn’t easy, if you’re like most of us, it won’t happen very often. Auto-sync to cloud is ideal, manual in-app backup/recovery is OK, and iTunes manual file copy or export to pdf is better than nothing.

Secondary considerations (which may be essential for some users)

  • Sketching and drawing tools
  • Audio recording and playback
  • Bullets and indentation formatting
  • Graphics/photo pasting and import
  • pdf annotation
  • Hyperlink and web browser integration
  • Password protection
  • Sharing notes with others
  • To-do lists

Matrix PDF file

To help break things down, I’ve divided the notetaking apps reviewed here into 4 categories based on typical usage plus a 5th category for specialized apps. And for your reference, I’ve also created a custom matrix to help breakdown all the main features for each app mentioned in this article. To download the PDF file, click HERE.

Basic Notetaking Apps

These apps, like Apple’s Notes, offer limited functionality but are easy to pick up and use.

Notes v3.2.2 - Price: Free
Apple’s Notes provides a notebook with separate pages of unlimited length. Notes can be e-mailed and synced with Mail or Outlook through the standard iTunes sync.
Pros: All notes are timestamped. Phone numbers, e-mail addresses, street addresses and URLs are recognized as such by the app.
Cons: Only one text font and size. Very limited note organization.
iDo-Notepad v1.4.1 - Price: Free
Easy to master task-oriented app with calendar and priorities. Notes can be tagged with one of 4 categories and searched by category. A nice app for managing sets of simple note-oriented tasks. This app is a free and less functional version of Neil Notepad.
Pros: Notes can be assigned a priority and protected with a global password. Includes a keyboard “TAB” button for indents.
Cons: Limited note organization plus no good means for backup and recovery. Can only export a note via e-mail.
Paperdesk for iPad v1.5 - Price: $1.99, Free
One of the first popular notetaking apps for the iPad that hosts additional functionality beyond text input, including sketching/drawing tools, audio recording and VGA output.
Pros: Separate notebooks with bookmarks for pages. Export notes as pdf to free cloud service. A free LITE version exists.
Cons: Only one font/size for text. Very limited note organization. No text search or recovery options.

Text Writing Apps

For notetakers primarily focused on text entry from one or more devices. Several of these apps allow pictures and audio to be included, but the focus is on text entry. Most of these apps sync their contents to the cloud, thus providing complete security for backup and recovery.

3banana Notes v3.6 - Price: Free
Impressive casual notetaker and universal app. Easy to jot notes and combine them with pictures. Full backup/recovery and note sharing through Snaptic. Includes geo tagging, maps and text tags to group notes. Great free replacement for Apple’s Notes.
Pros: Free cloud syncing between multiple devices. Universal app. Phone numbers, e-mail addresses, street addresses and URLs are recognized as such by the app.
Cons: One font/size for text. Limited ability to organize notes other than tagging.
Elements – Dropbox Powered Text Editor v1.0.2 - Price: $4.99
No frills text-only universal app with auto-sync through Dropbox. Allows editing same notes on iPad, iPhone and Mac/PC. This is a fairly new app with a motivated developer that should add features over time. Good choice for text-only needs.
Pros: TextExpander support. Scratchpad for jotting down ideas on the fly. Universal app allows multi-device use through Dropbox plus backup and recovery.
Cons: No way to organize notes, all notes share the same font/size, no timestamps on notes and no ability to search text.
Evernote v3.3.2 - Price: Free
The main premise of Evernote is to throw all your ideas, notes, graphics, and even audio into the cloud, tag them and then mine the collection for information and sharing later. Evernote is a mature universal app that has a large following. A more secure and high storage/bandwidth premium service is available.
Pros: Text, web clips, photos, video and audio can all be marked with custom tags and geo-tagged for organization plus everything can be saved and recovered from the cloud on multiple devices.
Cons: No text formatting options.
myMemoir v3.0 - Price: $1.99
Very attractive app designed for journaling. Entries (pages) have unlimited length and are dated. Can manage multiple journals with different page styles and text fonts/sizes. Journals can also be useful as individual project or meeting notebooks. Up to 3 pictures from your photo album can be attached to individual entries (pages). Export is available to pdf, ePub or e-mail.
Pros: Optional password protection by journal. Other text documents can be imported through iTunes file copy.
Cons: No sync service – backup and recovery is possible, but manual and awkward.
Simplenote v3.0.3 - Price: Free
This is a basic (and popular) text notetaking app with a simple interface. As a universal app, it shines in its multi-device syncing ability and a unique slider that displays the version history of text changes. Tags can be assigned to notes to group them into folders. Recognizes web & e-mail links. A premium subscription service is available with additional capabilities and services.
Pros: Custom tags allow notes to be grouped together in multiple ways. As a universal app it provides multi-device sync through cloud. TextExpander is supported.
Cons: Text only.

Full Flexibility Notepad Apps

Pencil and paper replacements allowing the most flexibility in notetaking with text and graphics placed anywhere on a page. All these apps allow sketching, audio recording, pdf annotation and provide password protection. All have fixed page lengths which can be awkward when a page gets full. They have the most features but require some patience to learn.

Noterize v3.02 - Price: $2.99
Good implementation with and good in-app manual. This app has two text functions. The first is background text similar to a straight text writing app, the second allows text boxes to be created, rotated, formatted and placed anywhere on the page as notes or stickies. Includes bookmarks to help organize notes. Also supports Powerpoint annotation.
Pros: Includes VGA out. Can export pages directly to other apps on the iPad as pdf. Interfaces with many externals services.
Cons: No formatting available for background text. No way to backup and recover notes. Primary export is pdf.
smartNote v1.42 - Price: $2.99, Free
This app hosts a large number of features. Can import and export notebooks to Mac/PC for backup & recovery. Includes handwriting recognition (beta). Can sync notebooks to other iPads with free smartSync cloud service. Download the User Guide and import as pdf. Each page element (other than sketching) must be selected from a menu for placement which can be awkward to use without some serious practice. A fully functional free version exists with ads and watermarked pdfs and images.
Pros: Dozens of widgets for various business/scientific/fun/etc. use. Multipage notes, bookmarks and tagging make help organize notes.
Cons: Can’t move text once it’s placed on the page. Limited text formatting.
Sundry Notes Pro v1.9 - Price: $2.99, Free
This app has one of the richest feature set of apps discussed in this article. If your need is to create notes ready for distribution containing pictures, bulleted text, drawings, and lots more, this may be your app. A fully functional free version is also available which watermarks pdfs and images upon export. Syncs with a custom cloud service accessible on-line so you won’t lose your work.
Pros: Many sync and import/export options. Includes bulleted text & indentation. Notes are easily organized through separate notebooks with multi-paged text and bookmarks. VGA output.
Cons: Features can be awkward to manage without practice. Text to be placed in separate boxes.
WhiteNote v2.2 - Price: $3.99
Best user interface of these full flexibility apps. Great in-app user guide. Text/sketches can be easily entered and moved anywhere on the page at anytime. Text entry supports bullets and indentation.
Pros: Straightforward text and sketching. Peer to peer note sharing. Access to your contacts, tImestamps and a special handwriting box.
Cons: Backup & recovery only through iTunes manual file copy. Large numbers of notes are difficult to organize.

Audio Text

Several apps have been designed for specific notetaking functions such as syncing audio to text entry, journalling, classroom work and task planning/organization. Here are a few good ones. For example, one of the really cool tools to hit the market a few years ago was LiveScribe, a pen that both records audio and syncs it in time to handwritten notes on special paper. Just tap the pen on a word, and the point in the recording where the word was written is instantly recalled for playback. AudioNote, SoundNote, and Class Organizer provide similar functionality with just the iPad.

AudioNote – Notepad and Voice Recorder v1.16 - Price: $4.99, Free
AudioNote is a very capable universal app that marks text entries with timestamps in the margins. Sketching is possible in b&w and audio is also synced to the pen strokes. Words and pen strokes are highlighted during playback (very cool) corresponding to the point during the audio when they were written and can be entered anywhere on the page. A great app to take to lectures.
Pros: Universal app with free Lite version available. Backup & recovery of text, sketches and audio notes are possible through manual iTunes file copy. Can export to pdf.
Cons: Text is limited to one font/size. Notes are all separate with no organization.
Audiotorium Notes v1.7 - Price: $5.99
Audio focused app with good text support and audio bookmarks to identify key points in recordings. Nice layout with separate categories and individual notes marked by date/time and audio recording (if one exists) with unlimited page length. Text can optionally be auto-synced and edited on Dropbox. Supports TextExpander (available separately) for text shortcuts. Audio backup can be done via iTunes or WiFi.
Pros: Good text formatting and TextExpander support. Backup and recovery of text through Dropbox sync.
Cons: Can’t add titles to bookmark and there is no easy way to associate specific text with a point in a recording.
Moe’s Notepad v1.1 - Price: $4.99
A fascinating app with lots of knobs and sliders to integrate text, audio, and pictures in 3 separate panes. Notes can be tagged, geo-tagged and emailed within the app and filtered by date, location, or tag. It also hosts tools to remove silence and resize/crop images. This would be a great app for capturing the audio, visual (if the iPad had a camera) and textual mood or experience of an event. It has a complex user interface, but provides plenty of help with just a press of a button.
Pros: Clearly separates different media within a note (text, pictures, audio). Extensive filtering can organize notes. Password protection.
Cons: No backup & recovery. Export only via e-mail.
SoundNote (formerly SoundPaper) v1.6 - Price: $4.99
SoundNote syncs text entry and sketching with audio as it’s being recorded. Sketching is in b&w with audio synced to the pen strokes. Can export via e-mail and store audio on DropBox. Text and graphics can be entered anywhere on the page. This is a good choice for notetaking during lectures.
Pros: Text and graphics sync. Can export notes as pdf and store audio on Dropbox.
Cons: Text entry is limited to a single font and size. Notes can’t be organized. No means to recover from backups.

Specialized Apps

Several apps have been designed for specific notetaking functions such a classroom work and task planning/organization and even Wikis. Here are a few good ones.

Complete Class Organizer v1.1.3 - Price: $4.99
This is an impressive school class organizer, assignment tracker, calendar and note taker. It supports audio recording, sketching, tasks (to-do) and separate sessions per class. Notes are organized by class and session (date). It even has a grade calculator! This app is closely tied to school work though it could be creatively adapted for use in some regular business meeting too.
Pros: Audio sync to text entry. Can save sketches to photo library. Contains Google search, dictionary (Wordnik) and wikipedia popup reference windows.
Cons: No backup & restore (coming in next version). Missing text search.
CourseNotes v2.0.1 - Price: $4.99
A schoolwork organizer that collects individual notes, sketches, and to-dos  by subject and session (date). A good layout and easy to use note taker that can be easiy adapted to non-classroom related notetaking. Contains a user-defined list of terms by subject with Wikipedia lookup. Notes can be shared with other Coursenotes users.
Pros: Backup & recovery through iTunes.  Regular backup reminders. Can import and markup photos. Bullets and ident/outdent available for text entry.
Cons: Unlike other apps designed for schoolwork, this lacks audio recording capability and pdf import.
Notes n More v1.5 - Price: $0.99
This is a task-based universal app with a focus on attaching notes to dates. Notes, sketches, web clips, photos and audio recordings are separate entries in collections. A sync service (paid) through AT&T Synaptic Storage is available for backup and sharing.
Pros: Backup & recovery through sync service. Universal app.
Cons: Limited note organizational ability. Text font/size/color can only be changed globally in iPad settings. Can’t undo mistakes when sketching.
Trunk Notes v2.3.54 - Price: $3.99
Very powerful text formatting and information linking app based on John Gruber’s Markdown text to html syntax. It allows notes to be taken and efficiently formatted using its simple syntax. In addition it allows pages to be linked into a personal Wiki. Text formats can be created by defining style sheets.
Pros: Great formatting (including style sheets). Backup & recovery through WiFi. Universal app that works like a personal Wiki. Tags and Geo-tags
Cons: To get the benefit of this app, you must learn Markdown and understand the concept of a Wiki.

In summary there are a wealth of note taking apps in the app store. Those listed comprise only a sample of what is available. Your notetaking needs my not be handled by a single app and I recommend finding one or two that do most of what you want and see if the developers are open to adding the features you need. I use WhiteNote for taking notes at business meetings, AudioNote during lectures, myMemoir for personal journalling, and I’m seriously looking at Trunk Notes for organizing my information. Your needs of course will be different so I put together the aforementioned Feature Matrix [PDF File] based on my evaluation of these apps. Warning: lots of features often mean a complex user interface that you’ll have to learn and remember. Sometimes simple is best.

If you have a favorite note taking app I didn’t mention, please leave a comment.

Ray Gans works as a Community Manager for an open source software vendor in the SF Bay Area and loves apps, wine & cheese and boardgames. He bought his first Mac in 1984 and has been one of the Apple faithful ever since. You can catch him on the TMA forums as Aeaea.

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