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Take Note (with an iPad)

1340440_40396464As I prepared for a recent conference I decided it was time to find out if my iPad could really handle note taking.

What I Needed

I love outlines and it is how I organize thoughts and take notes. For 10 years I’ve used a laptop at conferences to take notes at 73 wpm but I’m painfully slow typing on the iPad. I can handle slow paced meetings typing in Evernote but I can’t keep up with a fast paced talk. The goal is simplicity in what I need to carry with me so I’m not interested in getting a keyboard for the iPad and honestly that would be awkward in some situations.

I had to find an app that would allow handwritten note taking.

The App Review

I’ve spent about $15 on 3 different apps and I’m happy to report I found a clear winner. I could spend about an hour comparing the 3 but I’ll keep this brief.

As a preface, all these apps do a great job of import/export and integrate with Dropbox. Also I need to explain the “Zoom Writing Box”  feature found in all these apps. It allows you to zoom into and write in a smaller area with great clarity and speed. So my writing maybe 1.5” in height but the app is fitting that into a single line that may be only 0.5”.


NoteShelf – $5.99 – This beautiful app was suggested by @thatguyKC. It’s a very polished and thoughtful app. I really thought there would be no need to look further.

  1. Pros:
    • Note library is well organized
    • The feel of writing in this app is very fluid and the ink rendering is probably the best of the 3
  2. Cons:
    • It’s zoom writing box is sub-par. They do add some composition tools to the top of the zoom box which is nice but the sizing and movement of the box is clunky and overly complex. (I don’t need to be fussing with the app when I’m trying to taking notes.)


GoodNotes – $3.99 – My good friend @kenosando showed me this app at the conference. While it wasn’t as visually pleasing I found it much easier to use. After a few weeks of use I assumed my search was over.

  1. Pros:
    • Best text insert feature of the 3. Allows you to set the size and placement of the text box.
    • Zoom Writing Box was very intuitive and allows for much quicker note taking.
  2. Cons:
    • No photo or graphic import options
    • The Composition menu could use some tweaking.

Finally I discovered…


Notability – $0.99 (currently discounted)1stplace

Let me just say this app is really head and shoulders above the rest.

  1. Pros:
    • Best Zoom writing box feature of the 3. Customizable, simple, and intuitive.
    • The typing/text box has an outline feature!! Yay!
    • Add photos, web clips, and even a graphics (think chart) composer that isn’t even considered in other apps.
    • Library of Notes is much more flexible and customized.  – [May I add a note on app design? Too often apps try to replicate things like notes and calendars into apps instead of understanding the potential and redesigning them to work on mobile devices. IMHO Noteshelf went the wrong direction and Notability nailed this UI]
    • Even their eraser is a joy to use. The good folks at @gingerlabs just did so many little things very very well.
    • Page Navigation scrolls up and down instead of the flipstyle.
  2. Cons (I had to stretch to find any)
    • The ink rendering isn’t quite as smooth as the other apps.
    • The text editing box is full width and doesn’t resize

Photo Mar 17, 12 17 05 PM

All 3 are great apps and I don’t claim to be an expert user of any but I highly recommend Notability. It’s amazing.

Now go get a good stylus and take some notes.

  • Did you ever try Penultimate? 

  • I have previously. I didn’t this round but I should have mentioned it in the blog post. Penultimate is a great app. But the lack of any text functions or zoom boxes really restricts the amount of info I can put on a single page. If I was a better sketchnoter it would be something I’d consider. As is, it just doesn’t offer enough features for me.

    I’m really glad you brought it up though and thank you for taking the time to comment. I appreciate it.

  • I was advised to get a good stylus and got the exact same one  (for others looking here is a link to the Wacom Bamboo http://netkno.ws/stylus ). I haven’t had my tip get sticky yet but I can definitely see how that can happen. I like the feel and weight of that stylus but at some point I’ll probably be looking for replacement tips.

  • Great review, Keith. Thank you for the shout out. I’m gonna checkout Notability to see if it can replace NoteShelf for me.

  • It wasn’t as good as your review and it could have been more in-depth but wanted to get some of the info out there. Look forward to hearing your thoughts on the app.

  • You are too modest. The review is just what people who are looking for a note-taking app will need.