The state of note taking apps on the iPad

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Being a student who’s decided to go completely paper free, there is one type of app that is the bread and butter of what I use a tablet for: note taking apps. More specifically, note taking apps that allow you to import documents and annotate them. It’s the app type I use the most of all the apps I have on my iPad, and it’s the most essential piece of software there is for my use. It’s also why I have never considered Android as a serious tablet platform for my own use, as there simple isn’t anything as advanced as what I need on Android – not that I’ve found anyways, and I regularly look to see if that has changed. And no, this doesn’t count.

While Android is still trying to get into that type of apps at all, the iPad has been there for a year and a half. More and more apps have been released that have these features, any of which would be usable if it was the only one available. It isn’t, though. There are so many apps out there now that I can’t even keep track of them all. I started out using smartNote back when I went paper free last year, and then switched to Underscore Notify later on. Despite some instability and extremely few updates (11 months or so between the last two, though he says a new one is coming very soon), it had – and still has – the most features of any app I’ve tried. Features such as free hand selection of web page content to import, and the ability to expand the document area and basically create as big of a single page as you want.

Most of the time though, Notify’s bugs and somewhat industrial look and feel prove more of an annoyance than the extensive feature set can make up for. I tried Note Taker HD, which is created by a person who advertises himself as a veteran in the software industry. Unfortunately the app that resulted from that “experience” doesn’t look or feel anything like an iPad app, and in turn is very unnatural to use. I also tried Notability, which is both cheap and packed with intelligently chosen features. Unfortunately, it has one issue in particular that makes it unusable for me; its document rendering engine is utter garbage. It’s the same sort of issue I reported with the iriver Story HD – it doesn’t smooth documents when they’re displayed on a lower resolution that they should, so it all look very pixelated and “chopped up”. The same document that is perfectly readable in other apps are completely unreadable in Notability.

That leads me to the app I use the most these days; Goodnotes. This app was suggested to my by one of my lecturers, and I like it a lot. In terms of features it’s by far one of the poorest apps out there, lacking such essential features as text input or image import onto an existing page (it can only add them as new pages). What makes it good however is how well the handwriting part works; you can easily switch between reading mode and editing mode, the magnified writing mode (which lets you write in box that shows a section of the screen magnified, hence letting you write big and have it shrunk down on the actual page) works well, and finally it lets you zoom out beyond the edges of the page. That last feature might seem like such a small insignificant feature, but it makes a world of difference in my opinion. Being able to see the entire document when you’re working in magnified mode makes it much easier to jump around than if you have to scroll and pan all the time. The screenshots below illustrate what happens in Notability when you zoom out as far as possible – it snaps to the width of the document and hence won’t show the entire page (left). Goodnotes however lets me zoom out beyond that, and lets me decide how much of the document I want to see regardless or whether that means it’s essentially just a thumbnail.

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Obviously there’s no right or wrong answer to which app is the best, as it all comes down to personal preference. I haven’t even mentioned all the apps I have tried here, and there are sure to be more I haven’t tried too (feel free to mention any you know of in the comments – especially if anyone has an Android app that I’ve missed, as I have an Android tablet on the way). I also haven’t mentioned the ones that come with built in wireless features to connect to a screen, of which there are plenty as well. Finding the app that fits you best is all about trying them out, and maybe you’ll even end up alternating between them for different tasks. I still use Notify every now and then when I need more powerful edition tools than what Goodnotes can provide, and I can point out features in every single app that I like. You might wonder why there are so many apps that essentially do the same out there, but I think the answer to that is quite simple; they all have a different view of what is best, and make an app out of it. I wouldn’t mind putting together an app myself (if I only knew how) with what I find essential, so I understand why there are so many. I do wish some of the less successful ones would move to Android instead though, as that’s an untouched platform and not riddled with competition for this type of app (but probably not for long).

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Andreas Ødegård

Andreas Ødegård is more interested in aftermarket (and user created) software and hardware than chasing the latest gadgets. His day job as a teacher keeps him interested in education tech and takes up most of his time.

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