Some Brief Thoughts on Things 3 vs Todoist

Things 3 better than Todoist

Everybody’s talking about Things 3. Now that I’m on the bandwagon, here is my take on what makes it presently the best task manager for macOS and iOS — for me at least. Inevitably this mean comparison with what I turned over along the way. Running pathological optimism means I’ve tried them all, but Todoist got left behind this time round. I’m not here to run that app down, it remains excellent for many reasons — maybe even better in ways that don’t matter to my workflow. But, should you be wondering, is Things 3 better than Todoist, perhaps this will be useful.

Todoist or not Todoist

I‘ve only been using Things 3 for a few months. In truth, I’m generally suspicious of trends, so I tried to avoid it while I still had good reason to. Even if I’m only making excuses, I need more than new and shiny. Thankfully, a genuine reason presented itself when my Todoist subscription was up for renewal. The cost of renewing that sub wasn’t much less than buying the Things 3 suite outright. Between the annually recurrent cost, and various Todoist annoyances, it was worth kicking the tyres. As it turned out, a trial on macOS convinced me to jump.

Initially there were two features I missed from Todoist. I’m over them both already. First, the API allowed me to use Zapier, and/or IFTTT for various automations. Second is the natural language parsing for task entry. At least I missed that until I realised it’s either a bonhomie for laziness, or an easy way to fill up a task list with lots of nonsense you’ll never do. Never mind that with a keyboard the difference in keystrokes is minimal. I’m not saying I wouldn’t like to see better natural language support added to Things 3 — it does include some basic date parsing abilities — but it doesn’t come close to being the show stopper I thought it might. If anything, the relative slowdown — minimal as it is — helps add a little more deliberation into the process.


best task manager for macOS and iOS
Things 3 includes very basic natural language parsing for dates

To the first point, with native automation Cultured Code has made significant inroads to mitigate some of the abilities lost by not having an API. By all accounts, the recent addition of a deep, and flexible URL scheme is just the beginning, with other innovations on the way.I would argue that inter-app automation is not just as useful, but in some ways more relevant. The automation I used most would automatically copy editorial tasks to Trello. I was able to create an analogue of that on iOS, using Workflow.  Anyone who complains about the ‘extra step’ of pushing a button could look out the window once in a while.

Native inter-app automation breaks dependence on the web. In the process it cuts back the surface area of data-sharing with third-parties. More than that, there is an immediacy to working locally that allows for sharing rich data. Being able to delineate notes, mind maps, or outlines into actions opens up all kinds of possibility for continuity.  Particularly for a writing workflow. This makes a lot of sense for academic work, research, and writing. Or for any other kind of work that includes creative planning.

It’s true the barrier to entry for URL based automation is a little higher than web automation. It’s not that it’s difficult to grasp, more that building the links themselves can be tedious. Cultured Code appear wise to this, having created a link building tool on their website. With nothing left to miss, one can enjoy all the benefits delivered by clever design choices, and opinionated simplicity. Ironically, my biggest concern over both those features was the possibility for double handling and time wasting. And yet, Things 3 is both an app I would rather spend time using, and one I don’t have to.


Things 3 better than Todoist
Subtle design elements make Things 3 a pleasure to use

While these new automation features are getting all the attention right now, it’s a couple of subtle, but significant design choices that make Things 3 so effective. I found the flexibility of Todoist equal parts powerful and beguiling. Getting the most from it requires one to configure projects, labels, and priorities to facilitate query filters built around those different pieces of metadata. If you get it right you can contextualise your workload with extremely specific queries. This is a major strength if you need that kind of detail, however, with so much configuring, and fiddling to get it right, it can also be a headache. I never felt like I had it configured very well, so the temptation to reconfigure always hovered.

Things 3 is completely different. I'm not going to run through all of its features, there are better places for that. For my money, what makes Things 3 worth recommending is a couple of subtleties that mean I spend less time managing my task list.

The first touch is indicative of the user experience in general. The way Things 3 handles the inbox. Processing is simple, a task only requires one touch for removal from view. If all you ever want to do is put due dates on your tasks, Things 3 will consider them processed and essentially remove them from view, until the day they require actioning. If you’re wired to slowly disintegrate when faced with growing clutter, this is priceless. Most task mangers have some kind of filtered view to show you only the tasks you need to see, but they all require a lot more interaction. Things 3 is designed to cut back on over-processing by making it extremely simple to get a hold on what needs doing. In that way it’s the opposite of Todoist, but that doesn’t mean it is without flexibility.

The emphasis in the Things 3 user experience is on aesthetics. As a method for task management, it leans on visual organisation. Elements like headings, tags, and manual ordering, can be employed in the myriad ways. They can even constitute productivity systems favoured by nerds. On the flipside, Things offers enough customisation to avoid forcing users into an inflexible, or totalising system. Configuration requires little fuss if simplicity is your thing.  Or, the various organisational delimiters apply to whatever bespoke version of getting things done you run with.

Data Security

With this app being written about so much, I might surprised to have hardly seen security mentioned, if it weren’t for the fact this is an area that very little light is shined on in general with task managers. Given I was using Todoist, it would be a little rich to take Things 3 to task over security holes. I would argue that Todoist does the minimum required for data security; they could do more. While the mechanics are similar, it's a fact that  Things 3 is better than Todoist on security. Cultured Code use better encryption, and provide better insight into what they are doing. Nonetheless, the proprietary syncing would be dramatically improved with client side encryption.

From a personal point of view — and this was the same stance I had with Todoist — should anyone hack them, my own task list would not be the most exciting or revelatory reading. Unfortunately, in taking this stance I’m part of the problem, as it overlooks the importance of data security in general. Users so commonly make these kinds of compromises, we excuse developers from making improvements. Who can blame them for focusing on the squeeky door? A little more noise would go a long way to ensuring security standards are improved more generally.

Cultured Code suggests they may add client side encryption ‘at a later time’, I would add that it is on users to ensure they do that by making clear it is necessary. This remains an opportunity for them, especially considering the OmniGroup are setting the standard for end-to-end encryption in their software. Which means, if you cannot afford to compromise on security at all, I would recommend using OmniFocus. With all the changes coming this year, OmniFocus is worth keeping an eye on. Should they drastically improve the user experience, the security factor will have me sorely tempted to jump again. In the meantime, if you’re using Things 3, know that your data is pretty secure, but not that secure.

Is Things the best Task Manager for macOS and iOS?

That seems to be the question everyone wants answered, but changing your task manager for the sake of it is madness. Unless it’s your hobby, in which case I can’t help you. 1 If you have something that is working well for you nEverybody’s talking about Things 3. Now that I’m on the bandwagon, here is my take on what makes it presently the best task manager for macOS and iOSow, I’m an advocate for the ‘ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ adage. On the other hand, if you’re struggling with an unnecessarily complex setup, or software that ends up being another thing to manage, you could do a lot worse than give Things 3 a look. It is being talked about with good reason. 2 If you have never used a task manager before, choosing the right one can be confusing, but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this to new users.

For my own purposes, right now Things 3 is the best task manager for macOS and iOS. While not perfect by any means, it manages to walk the fine line between simplicity, and customisation. Again, my aim is not to deride Todoist, nothing has stopped it bearing the standard for cross platform support, collaboration, and web automation. But, if you’re already half way out the door, in many ways I have found Things 3 better than Todoist.

For macOS users, a free trial for Things 3 is available, or you can pick it up on the Mac App Store. Unfortunately, the iOS app is not universal, so you do have to buy seperate apps for iPhone and iPad. Although, that does mean if you want to try it out on iOS without going all in, you can purchase the cheaper iPhone version to get started.

  1. Unless I can recommend a good book
  2. For one thing, it is the first task manager that hasn’t found a way to truly annoy me.

iPad Diaries: Working with Drag and Drop – Bear and Gladys – MacStories

Another link from MacStories. Now that the dust has settled on their annual iOS review, it is good to see a return to this more detailed, useful content.

If you haven’t come across this regular series, iPad Diaries. Go back through some of the old posts, there are some great tips for working exclusively on the iPad. Some of them will be a little dated since iOS 11. But with all the little automations and workarounds to sift through, you are bound to find some good ideas for working smarter on that slab of glass.

Be warned though, you might end up cycling through a lot of different apps. Students with a penchant for procrastination are particularly vulnerable.

Setapp Adds Premium Task Management App 2Do

I have already written about the value of subscribing to Setapp, but the service just keeps getting better. The utility of this service for academic work should be hard to ignore for a lot of people, especially for students, considering the potential savings on apps you might only need for the duration of your studies. They recently added education pricing, and now they have added one of the very best task managers available to their impressive inventory. I have been a user of 2Do in the past, and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone. It is easily the most flexible, and customisable task manager available, and has picked up something of a cult following in the past few years.

2Do is on of the most powerful task management apps available today. It is an ideal app for keeping the demands of study and research in order. 2Do is on of the most powerful task management apps available today. It is an ideal app for keeping the demands of study and research in order.

The Necessity of using a Password Manager

Not so long ago one of my favourite podcasts, Reply All, had one of the most accessible pieces I have come across to present the case for using a password manager. I highly recommend listening to it here. That episode drew my attention to a service called Have I Been Pwned, which keeps a record of known data breaches that users can search to see if their credentials have ever been fleeced. A couple of searches and I quickly started finding the email addresses of friends, family and colleagues on the site.

It is all well and good for nerds like me to throw obscure acronyms around and pull out scary statistics. But despite the fact that a good password manager is easy to use – and given five minutes of attention, extremely simple to learn – most people, no matter how smart, will at best smile and nod. Or worse, simply tune out altogether. My sense is that most people either don’t realise how insecure their recycled credentials are, or they think ‘that will never happen to me, I have nothing worth stealing’. I can only hope that wouldn’t apply to experienced researchers and academics, but students too need to be aware of how vulnerable university networks are. There are numerous reasons for hackers to target universities, gaining access to thousands of usernames and passwords chief among them. Because of all this, I believe it is critical for anyone working within the walls of a university – virtual or otherwise – to have a secure means for managing their credentials. To my mind, a password manager is the best solution – it is certainly the easiest.

Which Password Manager?

As for which password manager, for sheer user-friendliness, ease of use, and excellent design, I still feel that 1Password is the best choice for most people. You might be aware that a lot of words have been spilled lately about changes coming from the makers of 1Password, Agile Bits. This provided part of the motivation to write this post. The concern from security experts has to do with the company’s move to a subscription service, and in turn the service itself being moved to a priority cloud based architecture. The concerns are not around the business model, but with certain technical decisions; specifically with the status of where the default user vaults are stored – i.e on the Agile Bits encrypted servers. It should go without saying that the vaults are mega-encrypted, so worthless to anyone without the user’s key, but to end the debate there drastically oversimplifies the matter.

I’m not going to dive any further into the debate itself, as I believe a lot of what is doing the rounds is either based on a combination of misunderstanding, miscommunication, and the wants and needs of edge-case users who aren’t representative of most people. Moreover, some people seem to be conflating the Mac and Windows versions, and the functionality under debate remains very much a part of 1Password. I would argue that regardless of the validity to concerns around cloud-storage, 1Password is still the best password manager for most people. In fact, some of the features that make it so are only available because of the cloud-based architecture. My take is this:

  • The vast majority of people are ludicrously vulnerable at the moment, simply because they have next to nothing in place to manage their online security. For most people, not only are obscure security threats not a huge concern, but there is much more to be gained by using a password manager than maintaining the status quo.
  • In the absence of a clever password scheme – which, let’s face it, most people will never use – even if you do generate strong passwords, you still need an absolutely unique one for every site and service you use. Most people who have taken this half measure are using paper notebooks, or some for of plain text or spreadsheet to store the credentials. Ironically, this is a half measure that will make you doubly vulnerable
  • A Password manager does all the work once you get used to using it. Not only have I found 1Password to have the best user experience in this regard, anybody I have ever got to use it in earnest has taken to it immediately. The browser extension on the Mac, and iOS Safari automatically generates and stores credentials for new registrations, and automatically populates forms and logins. It can also populate payment forms with one click, making it even more useful than Safari’s own Auto-Fill features.
  • Take travelling researchers, with the new 1Password travel mode one can remove the entire app from a device and then reinstate it once any overly officious border police have done with their perusal of any given device.
  • There are further benefits to having secure information in such a vault if you were to ever to lose your mobile device and other valuables. I use 1Password to store my bank cards and encrypted copies of documents.
  • 1Password’s subscription model is one of the more advantageous memberships of its kind. The Families plan gives you 5 licenses for US$5 a month. You can manage vaults for your less technically inclined, younger or older family members. It also means shared vaults for credentials you all need access to, Netflix anybody?
  • The concerns around the cloud-storage model are moot for anyone wanting to sync a password vault and doing it via Dropbox.
  • I could go on, but I fear I have lost enough of you already.
Best Password Manager for iPad, iPhone and Mac
1Password is the most user-friendly of any password manager I have ever used. Not only is the interface well designed, but the user experience is excellent on both Mac and your iOS devices


iPassword best password manager for iPhone, iPad and Mac
1Password for iPhone and iPad has an excellent user extension which makes it one of the most useful Apps on iOS

Perhaps Agile Bits could have handled this situation better than they have, but to be clear, they are keeping intact the functionality that security boffins most value, i.e local vaults. Unfortunately, it seems people will seize upon anything to reinforce their own reluctance to address their security issues. So controversy like this tends to feed the fear and doubt. My concern is that people use something other than recycling passwords, becoming so blasé about resetting them that they become easy targets for phishing attacks. Attacks that nowadays can easily include the capture of two-factor authentication. A password manager mitigates most of the risks. And without labouring the point, using one will provide a huge improvement to most people’s security.

Other Options

Lastpass – I have been a user of Lastpass in the past. I have never found it to be as user-friendly as 1Password, but it has a lot of fans. The biggest selling point is its free tier, which is a good start for anyone balking at paying for security – and the upgrade price is only US$12 a year. You will need to upgrade to use things like two-factor authentication and device syncing.

Dashlane – I prefer the user interface of Dashlane to Lastpass. It has a similar ‘freemuim’ model, with similar limitations before upgrading.

Setapp: Accessing the Apps Necessary for Study and Research

Talk to anyone who knows anything about the software economy and you will soon find out this is a strange time. Developers are trying to find ways to stay afloat, while coping with a user base conditioned by the so-called freemuim model. I know a lot of normally rational and generous people who balk at paying for software. I have been there myself. There are some legitimate historical reasons for that, it would be easy to implicate some of the biggest software names in the stratification between obscene rents for virtual necessities, and the meagre sums people will pay for the lesser known. These days I feel I have a better grip on the cognitive dissonance between stumping a fiver for a coffee and paying a fairer price for apps. For example, making music on the iPad allows me to purchase incredibly powerful apps that cost a fraction of the price demanded by their desktop counterparts, let alone purchasing the equivalent hardware. And yet, I still know folks who will wince at paying $10 for an app that took a developer years to make, despite this massive difference in cost versus utility from desktop to mobile devices. I can’t imagine how disheartening this must be for the people who make such apps.

While I am primarily referring to iPhone and iPad apps, if you will excuse the pun, these developments have had a tangible impact on the Mac App situation too. Apple hasn’t done much at all to mitigate the difficulties facing developers – something all but the most benighted of Apple fans have started to acknowledge – especially given the 30% tax they claim for access to their walled garden. For independent developers, the situation can be pretty dire. Which is why, along with some of the reasons above, and more besides, I feel relatively positive about the service offered by Settapp. To my mind, the collective nature of it makes sense – just as the single license model of old is unsustainable, so tool is the idea of having an individual subscription to every single app you use.

macOS Study Research Apps
Setapp already has some of the best apps available on Mac, including numerous education and research focused tools.

I have already mentioned a number of the apps available on Settapp. Many of them are available for purchase individually on the App Store, and for a lot of people that may well remain the best option if you only need the likes of Marked, Uylsses or Taskpaper. On the other hand, a Settapp subscription will give you all of these apps, and a whole lot more for ten US dollars per month. It will also mean you never have to worry about purchasing new versions, or dealing with in-ap purchases for monetised features.

As far as students, academics, and other researchers are concerned, Setapp is ideally stocked with a number of apps I would recommend outright. To mention just a few, it includes one of my very favourite writing apps, Uylsses [1]. Both iThoughts and XMind are excellent mind mapping tools. Then there is the Findings research notebook, the Studies flash card app, a unique and really promising academic writing app called Manuscripts. Timelines, outliners, task management tools; the list goes on. They are adding to the collection all the time, and better still the service is not loaded with junk. It is an invite only, curated collection; they are banking their reputation on some of the best software available on the Mac.

If you are looking to graduate from piracy, or this appeals to you for any other reason, you can check it out and signup for a free month at Setapp

  1. Which is technically a Markdown editor, but to call it that simply doesn’t do it justice  ↩

Automating Academic Workflows on a Mac – Part I


If ever I find myself in one of those tedious Mac versus Windows conversations I need only point to one thing that tips the balance toward the Apple machine, and that is automation. While it is true that automation software is not the exclusive domain of the Mac, Apple’s historical commitment to it has not only lowered the bar for entry to native automation, but has fostered a platform which has seen a slew of wonderful third-party tools that will allow anyone with a little time and determination to dip their toes in the automation waters. Honestly, it is embarrassing to admit the amount of time I might have saved had I have embraced some of these technologies early than I did. Admittedly, with services like IFTTT and Zapier, automation is becoming less and less platform dependant, but whether you want to go full nerd, or simply save yourself and your fingers from repetitive typing tasks, there is nothing like the Mac for getting started.

This will be another post in parts, there are far too many options for Mac automation to throw them all on a page and hope for that to be useful. The intention is to give you some ideas for getting started with this automation racket.

Text Expander

Perhaps the easiest area to begin is with text expansion. Limited support for text replacement is available natively in macOS, or you go further with apps like Typinator or aText. My favourite app for the job, and probably the most powerful of the lot, is Text Expander . Start with simple things, like commonly used email addresses, your own personal details [2], signatures or often repeated phrases.

  1. Smile took some justified heat over the introduction of a subscription model with a wildly over inflated pricing model in 2016. The subscription price has come down, but students in particular may still feel inclined to either try one of the alternatives, or use the previous version, which you can buy outright  ↩

  2. Honestly, who wouldn’t want to have forms filled in for them?  ↩

Automating Academic Workflows Macos 4
One of its many tricks, Text Expander has built in macros for automatically formatting dates

Something I have found particularly useful is converting clumsy English spelling of non-English words and names. For example, my thesis contains a number of Māori words that have macrons for long vowels, Text Expander makes sure I neither forget nor mess up the spellings of those words. Likewise for accented European names like Zupancic to Zupančič. The more you use text expansion, the more you will start to notice commonly used text you can automate, and this is to barely scratch the surface of what a tool like Text Expander can do for you.

Smile’s Text Expander Blog is full of examples of how to use snippets in your workflow. One specifically research based use case is to setup snippets for common web searches. For more ideas on how to get started, Zapier have a nice write up on their blog you might like to check out.


Automator can seem a little daunting at first, and to be fair the user interface is not all that enticing. But, don’t let that stop you from messing around with it. Just as there are many text based tasks that you might not know you can automate, there are many more fiddly and tedious jobs littered throughout most people’s workflows. Academic workflows, in particular, are usually littered with tasks ripe for automation, and this is in no way limited to university work itself. If you are a blogger, an artist, or even a social-media junkie, chances are there is something you do regularly that you can reclaim significant time from. Having said that, like anything the problem is knowing where to start. There are a number of good Automator resources available, but you will never go wrong by starting with Sal Soghoian – the undisputed Jedi Master of Mac automation – at his Mac OS X Automation site.

In the meantime, here are a couple of basic examples to get you started. One of the most commonly cited examples of a basic Automator workflow combines selected PDF files into one document, like so:

Automating Academic Workflows Macos
Automator workflows can be setup as services to manage repetitive actions with a right-click

Another quick and dirty example of an Automator workflow is the one I use to resize images for blog posts. I have it setup as a service, so when I right click on an image and select the service, it simply scales the image, converts it, and renames the file. It looks like this:

Automating Academic Workflows Macos 2
Automator Workflows don't need to be complex, all this does is resize images, and rename the files. You can download a copy of this workflow below

You can even setup Automator do some of your research for you by setting up a feed with keywords and collecting the URLs for the articles it returns. This article has an example of one such workflow, along with a means for downloading images and video, and setting up a native, standalone web application for sites you have to keep open.


Something all students and academics have to deal with a constant influx of digital documents. Whether they be absurdly arcane forms, journal articles, ebooks, expense claims, or whatever, they never stop piling up. Enter Hazel, put a little time into this thing and you can wipe your hands of repetitive file management and processing tasks. And, it’s not just the mundane and simple jobs either, Hazel can encode media, manage your photo library, add music to iTunes, use pattern matching to rename and file documents based upon their contents, run scripts, take care of your desktop, trash and downloads – in fact, like most good automation, it is more limited by a user’s ability to think of how to use it than by its own features. A little imagination and you can chain all kinds of services together, for example, there are party people who like to trigger their own welcome home soundtracks by using Hazel with Dropbox and IFTTT.

There is nothing overly difficult about setting up Hazel, start out simple and go from there. If you have ever setup a smart folder on iTunes, or in the Finder, then you will already have a sense of how to put an action together. If you haven’t, it looks like this:

Automating Academic Workflows Macos 3
Trigger Hazel actions by setting up conditions as you would in a Smart Folder

The Noodlesoft forum is among the most active developer forums I have come across, and the Hazel user base is full of helpful and proactive people willing to chip in if you get stuck. The forum is also full of inventive Hazel actions that other users willingly share with newbies. Finally, if you are getting stuck and you are the kind of person who likes a visual guide, you can either checkout the innumerable videos on Youtube or David Sparks has a detailed [3] Video Field Guide available.

  1. Smile took some justified heat over the introduction of a subscription model with a wildly over inflated pricing model in 2016. The subscription price has come down, but students in particular may still feel inclined to either try one of the alternatives, or use the previous version, which you can buy outright  ↩

  2. Honestly, who wouldn’t want to have forms filled in for them?  ↩

  3. And epically long!  ↩


Scale Images Automator Service

Combine PDF Images Automnator Workflow

Review of the New iPads Pro

John Gruber has a nice, concise review of the new iPad pro. Ordinarily I would put this on the links page, but I have been looking for something succinct that might be helpful for anyone weighing up a purchase after last week’s WWDC. For a long time the iPad has been a decent ancillary device for academic work, but my sense is the new form factor and the forthcoming evolution in functionality with iOS 11 will start to make this a serious option as a primary work machine. There is still a way to go with certain apps [1] , but the iPad has already become an outstanding writing tool, and with this latest iteration it can be considered a serious alternative to a laptop for focused work.

  1. most notably in the area of citation management  ↩

Starting with Text Expansion

One of my as yet unstated goals with this blog is to hopefully lower the barrier for entry to some of the wonderful, simple automation tools available on the Mac. [1] For anyone dipping their toes in the automation water for the first time, I will often suggest text-expansion as an ideal place to start. There are numerous utilities available for this, from apps like QuickKey, TypeIt4Me and Typinator to what is considered the gold standard in TextExpander.[2] This little gem from Brett Terpstra illustrates just one of the ways text expansion can be used.

  1. And iOS, for that matter  ↩

  2. Leaving aside arguments around the efficacy the app’s subscription model  ↩

Note-taking Part II: Handwritten Notes

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.


Goodnotes iOS
Goodnotes is considered the go-to app for handwriting recognition


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’s audio capture feature makes it an ideal choice for lecture notes
Notability’s audio capture feature makes it an ideal choice for lecture notes

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.

Handwriting Hacks

If you're an EverNote  user, then Penultimate is a free app that will integrate your written notes with the rest of your Evernote database, including search-ability. I’m not a big fan of the app, but it works as advertised, so if you are deep in the Evernote ecosystem then you will no doubt get at least some of the requisite mileage from Penultimate. There was a time I was all in with Evernote. A combination of becoming wise to the problematic nature of proprietary databases, and my increasing discomfort with their privacy policy fumbles has driven me away. In saying all that, I’m not churlish enough for absolute dismissal of its utility. Ease of use, and impressive integration with practically everything remain its strengths. One example of its enduring usefulness is a hybrid workflow using Carbo for digitising paper notes. And, while we are on this track, both Evernote and One Note allow you to scan handwritten notes directly into the app for searchable text with OCR.

MyScript Handwriting Keyboard
The MyScript Handwriting Keyboard makes long-form note-taking an option in almost any text editor

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.

Honourable Mentions

  • 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

For writing, the Adonit Jot Pro


And for marking up PDFs, or drawing the Adonit Mark.

If you only want one, get the Jot Pro



Note-taking Part I: Typewritten Notes

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 [1]. 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 [2], 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.

Notes Apps

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.


macOS Plain Text Notes App

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.


Ulysses Macos Plain Text Notes App
Note-taking is just one of many use cases for Ulysses

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.

Honourable Mentions

  • 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.
  • 1Writer is an iOS only app, but as if to prove a point, being plain text based you can use DropBox to sync it with any text editor you should choose on macOS. In fact, it is the preferred iOS companion app for old-schoolers still rolling with Brett Terpstra’s nvALT, which is still a useful app in itself. [3] What makes 1Writer truly unique is its Javascript automation engine . If you have a look through the Action Directory on the app’s website, you will see already includes some researched focused workflows. If you have a little scripting ability, then you can just about fill your boots.


  1. Not to mention, it will give you something to talk about with other nerds  ↩

  2. Yes, it’s called syntax  ↩

  3. Brett Terpstra is promising a commercial replacement to nvALT, with an app called BitWriter that is close to beta release  ↩