I have spent more trying out note taking apps that I would like to admit. You could say I’m picky. Through all the trialing and testing, one app stands out for combining almost everything I want in a note taking app with a number of features I hadn’t even thought of. That app is Notebooks. The more I use it, the more I am convinced Notebooks is the best note taking app for study, research and academic work.
My enthusiasm for Notebooks is its own reward, so it’s a huge bonus to have that enthusiasm met with generosity. The developer of Notebooks, Alfons Schmid, is kindly offering readers of The Appademic the chance to pick up one of ten free copies of Notebooks for iOS.
Aside from being an excellent general purpose notebook, Notebooks has a host of features uniquely suited to academic work and study — or any kind of research for that matter. I recently highlighted the way I use Notebooks’ task management, and URL scheme features to collect material, and organise reading lists. I have a more detailed review on the way, which will include more worklows that make use of Notebooks' unique features. In the meantime, if you are unfamiliar with the app here are some of the highlights.
Deep URL scheme automation
Internal linking for wiki notes or zettelkasten
Support for almost any document type you can think of
Private Wifi syncing, WebDAV or Dropbox
Future proofed by plain text and html
Document processor, ebook compiler and PDF converter
Task Management, including GTD contexts
Integration with OmniFocus, Things 3, Todoist, 2Do and more
Customisable style sheets
PDF annotation and sketching
Win a Free Copy of Notebooks for iOS
Notebooks is a powerful tool with a clean, and slick interface. It is easily one of my favourite apps on the iPad. It is the best note taking app I have found for my own purposes. If you want a chance to pick up a copy, signup for the Appademic Mailing list below. If you are already a subscriber, you’re in the draw already. The draw will close on Friday 24th of August, and winners notified via email. There are 10 copies to be won.
If Notebooks isn’t best note taking app for iPad, it is definitely the most underrated. If you're looking for a markdown notes app, a writing app, or a document storage container with a few unique tricks, you won’t find many better. Part notebook, part storage locker, and part GTD task management system. That might sound like a janky combination, but not only does it work well, it looks pretty too. It has been around for a while, so in lieu of a comprehensive review, I want to highlight a particular feature I haven’t seen anywhere else. The ability to turn notes into tasks.
If you have a lot of reading to keep up with from a variety of sources, this is very handy. For planning and tracking big reading projects I still use TaskPaper on macOS, with its counterpart TaskMator on iOS. That system works well, with the outliner style lists making it easy to break up books, journals and so on with due dates. Using Notebooks has a distant advantage over that system, as it can collect the reading material itself. Web pages, notes, PDF documents, Word files, you can read them all directly in Notebooks. It will even let you index epub files to open in a third-party reader, like Marvin. Remember, at its core this is note taking app, while reading you can highlight text, make annotations, take clippings, and more. You can also take notes.
Notebooks Reading List Workflow
This is a simple idea that in practice will help keep track of reading lists, note revisions, or really anything text based. It’s true you can fashion a similar system by chaining apps like DEVONthink and Things 3 together. To my mind this is more elegant, or at least less confusing.
It works like this. As I collect reading material, I drop it into a Notebook that has been setup as a task list. When I’m on the clock I can setup due dates, reminders and so on. More importantly, I can tick items off as I go, meaning a quick visual guide is available to measure progress. It’s easy enough to use Notebooks’ share extension for this — or bookmarklets on the Mac — but there are two alternative methods I prefer. First, Notebooks has a very hand URL scheme which is clever about capturing all kinds of data, which makes setting up a custom action extension for Workflow trivial.
The Workflow action above is especially handy on the iPhone, but the iPad has another option that is easier still. Notebooks has excellent support for the drag and drop feature of iOS 11. So if you don’t fancy using Workflow, you can use multitasking to simply drag links and files directly into a reading list. Or, you can use something like the excellent shelf app Gladys to hold the material you collect before dropping it into Notebooks later. Gladys now has a Mac version too, which adds some continuity to the workflow.
Among the Best Note Taking Apps
If you follow this site, you probably know by now that all my data ends up in DEVONthink, one way, or another. Whatever passes through Notebooks still ends up there, but DEVONthink’s super power is search. It has passable editing and annotation tools, but I prefer doing the interactive work before it ends up in what is essentially a personal research database. For a lot of users Notebooks might even be enough. While the task management features were no doubt conceived for GTD nerds, they end up making Notebooks among the best note taking apps for college, or university users. The caveat being it's not a handwriting app. In fact if anything holds it back, that would be it. I would get around that by using Nebo as a capture tool myself, they complement each other well.
If DEVONthink’s not your jam, or you’re looking to replace Evernote with something private and local, Notebooks is a handsome and feature rich app. It has relative feature parity across macOS, and iOS, and a lot of unexpected touches. GTD purists could configure tickler files, and contexts until their head is sufficiently empty of all that arduous, excess thought. 1. It can even run its own local WebDAV server for private local sync. It sounds strange, but it’s really not.
Not too long ago, I wrote about handwritten note taking on the iPad. At the time I hadn’t yet spent much time with Myscript Nebo, but having since addressed that I feel it is appropriate to update the ledger. One of the caveats I put in front of that previous effort was the ability to take long form notes without the need of an Apple Pencil, so if you are looking at options for taking notes on the standard iPad, or you simply want to avoid the further cost of the Pencil, then what I the previous post still holds. For handwriting without the Apple Pencil, to my mind the best two options are still GoodNotes and Notability, and I have briefly covered the various tradeoffs users face with both apps. Both of those apps also have excellent Apple Pencil support, but having played with Nebo some more, to my mind there is no contest when it comes to handwriting recognition.
The Future of Handwriting
People like to talk about killer apps, personally I don’t much like the phrase, but where Nebo is concerned, it really does seem like a killer for the competition. Apps like Notes Plus have been available in the App Store for some time, but while that might have led to advancements in the inking engines and textual recognition, those improvements are more often than not accompanied by either feature bloat, user interface baggage, or both. This is one of the areas that Nebo excels, the interface is minimalist without being too sparse, and rather than holding to the now dated skeuomorphic design philosophy that once ruled the iOS-sphere, Myscript have managed to tastefully incorporate hybrid analogue elements that remain necessary for a successful handwriting workflow. Writing between the lines is as helpful to your wonky adult scribbles as it was to your long-forgetten spelling homework.
It is not only the user interface that benefits from such careful balance, but the user experience is characterised by clever gestures that complement a natural writing workflow. With Pencil gestures a user can delete a word by scribbling it out, insert line breaks, join and seperate words with simple upward and downward strokes. Framing words, highlighting, underlining and a variety of bullets enable simple but effective formatting that not only stops short of overkill, but is simple to learn. The most impressive aspect of these formatting gestures is the resulting seamless workflow that avoids interrupting one’s note-taking on input.
The one area that the Pencil-centric interface can get a little tricky is in editing text after capture. Nebo’s handwriting recognition works in real-time, so if necessary you can make corrections on the fly . If you happen to overlook a mistake until you have confirmed the conversion from handwriting into text, editing is still managed with the Apple Pencil. This is a reversal of the analogue to digital workflow, so while it is not difficult as such, I have to admit it takes a little getting used to. Regardless, Nebo still manages to capture the fine balance between a digital tool and an analogue workflow, something I feel other apps have come close to doing without quite getting there.
Nothing is Perfect
At the risk of being hypocritical, there are things that Nebo cannot do that I like to have in a notes app. I confess to hypocrisy for a couple of reasons, for one I have something of an old-skool reverence for what is known as the Unix philosophy, which simply stated is ‘do one thing and do it well’. It seems to me that – whether intentional or not – by design, iOS is almost the ideal realisation of this modular approach. Nebo is exactly this kind of app, it does one thing, and it does it exceptionally well. However, defining the boundaries of that one thing is what developers have to contend with in balancing the features they include, and support in their apps. The decision that I find most confounding in Nebo is the inability to annotate PDF documents, which I feel is made more conspicuous in its absence by the fact that you can import images for markup, and you can export text as PDF. This is no more than a minor quibble, and as I say, a somewhat hypocritical one at that.
The Little Things
To be honest, I often force myself to handwrite, knowing full well the proven benefits. Fortunately, Nebo has some tricks that take advantage of the relative speed of analogue input, making it a more obvious choice for certain tasks. For example, the ability to export text to HTML means a quick and dirty blog post is only a few scribbles away. Dedicated math objects can perform solvable operations – and the resultant text can be converted for further editing in any LaTeX editor . I would ordinarily open up Soulver for simple calculations, but that is not always necessary now. Nebo will also turn your ropey diagrams into congruent shapes for flow charts and mind maps. And, of course, optical character recognition means all of your text is searchable.
Nebo is not perfect, but there is no doubt that Myscript have pushed the envelope with handwriting recognition. If you have an iPad Pro, I would almost go as far to say that Nebo is enough to make picking up an Apple Pencil worth your while.
Again, the handwriting recognition is remarkable, so you hardly ever need to do this ↩
Whink Notes is a relatively new app —at least compared with similar, more well known apps — that I haven't had the chance to dive into properly yet. For a cursory introduction I would call it direct competition for Notability, as it has almost the exact same feature set, right down to the the inclusion of audio recording — albeit for some subte differences. Like Notability, the most glaring ommision to my mind is OCR for searchable handwriting. From the brief play around I have had with the app so far I can say it is a very tidy app with everything you would expect from a modern, mobile notes app, making it a viable alternative to the more well known apps in the handwritten notes category, such as Notability, GoodNotes and Notes Plus. The current discount is available until the 13th of September
If you happened to have read any of the posts I have made about note-taking, you might think I have a problem. The real problem is not so much being torn between numerous different tools, but being torn between waiting on an old favourite to be reincarnated, so to speak, and moving on to something new. There are trade offs no matter which way you look at it. Apple Notes, for example, has some hard to overlook advantages – native integration means an unparalleled user experience when it comes to sharing material with the system-wide share extension on both the macOS and iOS. The Apple Notes share extension captures URLs in a form it calls rich links, which includes a thumbnail and text snippet to make captured links that much easier to recall. This rich text approach is both the major strength and weakness of Apple Notes, at least now that iCloud syncing has become so reliable and fast. Rich text relies on a proprietary database, meaning portability and future-proofing are open questions for notes kept in a system that relies on them. For that reason, I find myself only using Apple Notes as a kind of place holder for links I will use immediately, or when very basic collaboration is in order.
When it comes to capturing text as quickly as possible on the Mac, I have a hotkey set for nvALT, so it has become so ingrained that it just happens. You might wonder why I would recommend an app kept in the barest of maintenance cycles while the developer openly builds its replacement. To which I would suggest that first, I can’t imagine Bitwriter will depart from the nvALT workflow much at all  – the user base for Bitwriter are nvALT users, so moving to the new app will be trivial when it happens. Second, even if there were significant changes, this is the beauty of plain text, moving to another app will not break your system. Having said all that, I have recently been made aware of another Notational Velocity  clone out there that is in active development. So if you are looking for an a lightweight plain text, open source, note-taking app, then FSNotes is worth a peek.
I should probably add that nvALT can also handle rich text, but I believe most people use it to work with plain text ↩
Although I do hope there is a native iOS app too ↩
There is still a lot to say for keeping it old school with note-taking. Handwriting after all is a key tool for comprehension and retention. Although, judging by the wall of glowing Apples one sees in lecture halls these days, that does not appear particularly persuasive with regard to note-taking. Still, this intersection between technological trend and learning technique is, I believe, just one among many things that make the iPad such an excellent device for study. While you can get pretty serious about handwriting on glass with an iPad pro and Apple Pencil, even with the standard model you can benefit from some of the great handwriting apps on iOS.
It is true that there are clear advantages to maintaining typewritten notes. Combining lecture notes, PDF annotations and other general research materials into a searchable database is hugely advantageous for both writing and revision. Luckily, none of this necessarily means handwriting should be excluded from a note-taking workflow. The only question is how integrated you want it to be. As ever, there are options.
For a lot of people, Goodnotes is the standout app for handwriting on the iPad, and with good reason. Although, it still holds to somewhat dated skeuomorphic design elements, that is a bit of a double-edged sword, as much of the app’s appeal lies with the convincing replication of an analogue writing workflow. Its real killer feature though, is handwriting recognition and text conversion. This means you have the choice between searchable handwritten notes, or converting your handwritten notes to text for use in the app itself, or for export if you keep your notes elsewhere. Possibly the most underrated aspect of Goodnotes is its PDF annotation, which I find to be smoother and more intuitive than any of the myriad specialty PDF apps I have owned and used. If handwritten notes and document markup are the extent of your workflow, then Goodnotes may even be all you need; especially now that it has a solid macOS companion app.
Notability is another sound writing app, although one that comes as something of a tradeoff. Notability does not have handwriting recognition, so handwritten notes can neither be searched, nor converted to text. Nonetheless, it does have its own marque feature with its ability to capture audio. The appealing simplicity of recording a lecture and taking notes in the same app can account for much of Notability’s popularity among students. Furthermore, Notability is a nicely designed software, and many will find its interface to be much more appealing than other similar apps. Moreover, its palm rejection is frankly much better than Goodnotes, the PDF markup tools are again very good, and its own macOS app is more fully featured and polished. The lack of handwriting recognition is a little disappointing, but you don’t have to go far to find people, students especially, who see audio recording as a more significant feature. Again, there is enough in this app that it may even be the one to rule them all for you.
The MyScript Handwriting Keyboard makes long-form note-taking an option in almost any text editor
Finally, if you want the cognitive benefits of deliberate long form note-taking, but you don’t care for the end result, there is something of a hack you might like to try. The MyScript Stylus Handwriting Keyboard allows direct, handwritten input into any app that you can use with a third-party keyboard. It hasn’t had any updates for a little while now, but it still works well. In fact, the handwriting recognition is impressive. You can use it as an input device with any text-editor or notes app that allows a third-party keyboard.
Notes Plus is very similar to Goodnotes, with even more features. It even has audio recording. I find the interface to be a little too cluttered for my liking, and the user experience can be awkward at times. I suspect these relatively small quirks are what keeps it lagging a little behind Goodnotes in the popularity stakes, as the handwriting recognition engine is excellent.
Nebo is renown for handwriting recognition excellence. Underwritten by the my MyScript Ink engine, it has been winning awards and slowly gaining acclaim. The only problem is it requires an Apple Pencil to work, unless you are working on a Surface device that is, then your active pen will do fine.
Handwriting Without Apple Pencil
The 2018 iPad is a big deal for bringing Apple Pencil support to the cheaper model. There remain a lot of reasons to upgrade to one of the iPad Pro models, but Apple Pencil support is no longer one of them. However, if you're still rocking an iPad Air, or iPad Mini, you don't have to give up on handwriting altogether. A good old dumb, capacitive stylus can still work better than you might expect.
In my experience, the results from a capacitive stylus are just as good as any of the so-called Apple Pencil alternatives. When I was using the iPad Mini 4 as my main capture device for notes, I would come across all manner of claims around magic smart, bluetooth styli that make them Apple Pencil competitors. The truth is, they pretty much never work as advertised. None that I have tried work any better than a plain, dumb capacitive stylus. Why? Well, the Apple Pencil is not a third-party hardware device, it is an integrated input interface designed as part of the iPad itself. It is part of a system that works together. That said, there is good news, all modern iPads are fast enough now that, where handwriting is concerned, a capacitive stylus will give you a convincing writing experience. I have two that I particularly like, both from Adonit
This is an ongoing battle, but for some there is a strange kind of jouissance in fiddling with one’s note-taking system. To state the obvious, note-taking is one of the more crucial academic skills. So it would seem there is a certain amount of justification in trying out different solutions to see what might stick. Whether this is new territory or not, there is always the question of where to begin. To drastically oversimplify the matter, the essence of note-taking is twofold: capture and retrieval. Naturally, there is a lot more to doing it well, but if you are just looking to get started then having these two things in mind can only help.
Typewritten Notes and Markdown
If you prefer to type your notes, then there is one simple piece of advice I would happily give anyone. If you don’t already know how, spend the brief amount of time needed to learn how to write in Markdown. Markdown will allow you to embrace plain text, which will not only future proof your work but it will make it as portable as possible and give you a uniquely focused medium for all your writing . In turn you will be free to try different solutions while keeping your work intact, and this barely scratches the surface of Markdown’s usefulness.
I am yet to find a satisfactory source that makes a clear and concise account of the benefits in using Markdown for academic work. That is not to say there is nothing written, rather there is nothing I have found that doesn’t either run full geek into the weeds to soon, or treat the reader like an idiot. So here I will be brief. In fact, this is it. If you are willing to take 5–10 minutes and learn how to use a couple of basic tricks , you can free yourself from the clutches of bloated, archaic word processors and proprietary systems – and who knows, you might even start to enjoy writing. If that sounds appealing, have a look at this short tutorial.
Armed with Markdown, you can make an informed decision about your note-taking, and even how you approach writing in general.
Yes, there are well-known names in this category. But, there is more than enough written about the likes of Evernote, OneNote, and even Apple Notes. Each of them are useful in their own right, but to my mind there are more interesting apps available.
One of my favourite apps at the moment is Notebooks. I’m not always a big fan of software that tries to be more than one thing, and to be fair I only use Notebooks in a very specific way for one particular thing, but if I were a smarter, more efficient user I could just cut the tape here. Notebooks is an onion of an app, there are layers upon layers of functionality across macOS and iOS – it is a media rich repository for collecting, organising, searching and syncing any kind of research material you can throw at it. The markdown support is excellent and it even has task management support, which if setup properly for research and document review is kind of ingenious. The iOS version has PDF annotation tools, audio recording and handwriting/sketch support. Give it some thought and you will realise that Notebooks could handle a great many of your study and research needs, no matter what level your are working at. While it is certainly not perfect it is definitely going to be enough for a lot of people. If you are looking for a well-deigned, self-contained solution for note-taking and organising your research, or if you are looking to replace that gaudy green elephant, Notebooks is worth more than a cursory look.
It is hard to go past Ulysses as a writing app. Whether you want to use it for note taking, essays, long-form writing, or really any kind of writing you can think of. It is another app that benefits from going all in, the more you add, the more you start to realise its potential. Where Ulysses shines is its ability to organise text, for my own purposes that makes it particularly useful for longer form writing. While I am using Scrivener to write my thesis, Ulysses would be more than up to the job for a text based thesis, such as my own. But, in keeping with the note-taking theme here, Ulysses is an excellent candidate. Admittedly, it doesn’t quite have the feature-set of Notebooks, but its careful and intuitive design on both iOS and macOS will appeal to purists. Ulysses also has hooks in automation, particularly with regards to its Workflow integration on iOS, which opens up all kinds of possibilities for note-taking on iOS.
Bear is an intriguing markdown based, notes app. Attractively designed, with a unique tagging system and cross-note linking for database referencing, and feature parity on macOS. It still lacks features ideal for academic use, but it is still new, and in very active development. It has gained a loyal user base quickly, so worth keeping an eye on at least.
Not to mention, it will give you something to talk about with other nerds ↩