The right app always depends on a number of factors. No review can give adequate time to the factors you care about it but I hope this review will give adequate space to enough of those factors to help inform your decision.
I’ve been using GoodNotes and Notability for more than a year with Notability being my primary app for most of that time. I’ve also evaluated OneNote and Apple Notes and will reference my experiences there throughout this post.
I believe that both GoodNotes and Notability blow the existing Notes app from Apple out of the water. Apple Notes is certainly well integrated with the devices Apple sells, but is lacking some basics.
- Unable to zoom
- Can’t place and image and text next to one another
- Can’t place handwriting and typing next to one another
If those things don’t matter to you, than sticking with the basic Apple Notes app might be your best choice. If any of those features above sound like something you may want to leverage then you’ll have to do a bit of shopping.
Consider Your Devices
Whatever note taking experience you want will depend on the devices and routine that you have as part of your workflow. Notability and GoodNotes are both first class apps on the Apple ecosystem. They are not available for the PC or Android. If your work routine involves a PC or Android then I recommend using OneNote. While its UX design didn’t match my workflow it is entirely functional and is available across platforms.
In my case I’m heavily into the Apple ecosystem. My tablet is a 12.9” 2020 iPad Pro. My phone is an iPhone 11. My laptop is an M1 enabled MacBook Air. Oh, and if you’re doing the quick math, yes, I’m aware of how much buying into that ecosystem cost and I recognize it’s not for everyone. But for my anxiety/PTSD issues Apple’s near seamless workflow design at the OS level reduces my stress and helps me be a more functional human being.
Yes, you can justify spending more money on devices for health reasons.
The iPad Pro may have some significant software limitations, but it’s still an absolutely killer device. I’ve written, produced and edited entire videos on it while enjoying its gorgeous screen and all-day battery life. I’m grateful a device like this one exists and that I own one.
There are lots of other really good solutions out there for note taking. I prefer writing my notes and so a good stylus enabled touch interface is really helpful. I have a friend who loves her convertible Chromebook and pen. I have another who prefers to type everything. If you’re note taking is only text, then you’re in a different category for devices. This post is based on the idea that you’re going to be handwriting at least some of the thoughts you want to preserve.
Consider the Workflow
I usually use a note taking app for a few key activities.
- Work—This is where I take notes in either physical or digital meetings.
- Journaling—I prefer a hand-written journal.
- Reading—Because these note taking apps are so functional I use them over the Kindle app. Whenever I can get a PDF copy of a book I add it to my note taking app so I can take notes in the margins as I read. Kindle is now secondary.
The killer feature in both apps (in Notability this is an additional expense) is that they do handwriting recognition without converting the handwritten text into type. This means that when I’m reading a book I can use #quote in my own handwriting and search for it later to see the quotes from the book.
It’s wonderful to have a fully searchable journal for when you want to go back and remember things.
The same is true for work. While a typeface-only note app would allow for search it doesn’t trigger the memory aspects of the brain like ones own handwriting.
The user experience for each app is good. Both are well thought out and enable the intended workflow. So really, knowing your workflow is going to be a key factor in making your decision.
My brain thinks in hierarchies. Notability makes it super easy to get at and organize some notes but doesn’t let the user organize a true folder structure for their notes. If your brain thinks in a hierarchy of sub folders then GoodNotes will be the app you want to use here.
My goodness these apps are elegant!
In Notability you get to have a dock of your favorite pens ready and available on the screen. In both apps if you draw a circle, square, or triangle and hold down the pen the app will recognize the shape and clean it up. It does the same thing with straight lines while using the highlighter. This makes highlighting my books super easy.
Where Notability distinguishes itself is the ability it has the ability to record audio and playback your note writing in conjunction with the audio playback. If you’re finding yourself in a class setting where you can take notes along with the lecture then this is a killer feature you’re going to want to test out.
GoodNotes doesn’t have the audio recording feature, but it does have more options when it comes to pen control. You can dial in sharpness and sensitivity on your pens. For those who treat their notes as un-layered art boards this can be a big advantage.
Another great feature of both apps is the way they operate on different devices. For me the more similar the better. Switching from the MacBook to the iPad and back again feels like each instance of the app isn’t missing any features. While the iPad is likely the primary device for the developers to focus on, they didn’t cut corners when it comes to the desktop or phone versions.
Both note taking apps will let you adjust the paper you use for your notes—this is where OneNote started to fall down for me. OneNote doesn’t allow the user the ability to make a global change to the paper without using a Windows machine. It’s pen input was adequate, but not excellent. The lack of cohesive features between devices was also a non-starter for me. I didn’t want to have to switch to a Windows machine to set up a new notebook. 🤦♂️, Microsoft.
Notability does not allow multiple instances running. On the 12.9” iPad that means I can’t split the screen and reference notes side by side. If you ever want to reference more than one note at a time, you’ll need to use GoodNotes.
Backup, Storage, & Exporting
Both apps back up to your iCloud and take up surprisingly little space depending on the complexity of the document. You can fit a great deal of handwriting into a very small file size.
Both apps make it easy to export the notes as PDFs making them super consumable and shareable with others.
Both apps are for sale for under $10. Notability includes the ability to purchase more features while GoodNotes bundles all of its features—for all devices—into a single purchase.
And that comes after using Notability for more than a year. Why did I switch? I found that my note taking/organization could use some improvement and when I went to go do something about it I tried to use the split screen view to be able to reconcile things between notes only to find that split screen wasn’t supported on Notability. Had I not been such a slob with my notes, Notability would have been fine. Had I been in more in-person situations where recording audio was a needed feature it would have made sense to stay. But the lack of split screen was an issue.
Thankfully it was supported on GoodNotes. So last night I started migrating things over. I exported my existing notes as PDFs (which is fine because I don’t need to erase my existing notes) and imported them into GoodNotes where they remain fully searchable.
The right choice for you should depend on your hardware, expectations, and workflow. I hope that you can see from the hardware I’ve chosen, the expectations I set, and the workflow I have why I chose my solution. I have no negative judgement for anyone who chooses a different application—in fact, I’d like to hear about your choice in the comments below.
What’s your note taking app and why?