With the rise of the tablet, a special type of note-taking app has come along: those that emulate pencil and paper. When the iPad was first announced, its notebook-like shape (and name) seemed to make this type of use inevitable, but it’s only been in recent years with the release of the Apple Pencil that handwriting on the platform has been allowed to shine.
A good app for handwriting has an entirely different place in the iOS ecosystem compared to a traditional note-taking app (like Bear, our favorite app in that category). With handwriting being the focus instead of keyboard-based text entry, drawings and doodles can take shape, margins can be utilized, and the tools as a whole are completely different. These apps can come especially in handy for certain use cases such as students taking lecture notes, those committed to keeping a journal, and anyone who appreciates the art of putting pen to paper.
We believe that the best handwritten note-taking app is one that provides a wide variety of options and a full set of features. Notability offers both of these things, and its long tenure in the App Store convinces us that it’s here to stay.
Editor’s Note (Jan 17, 2019): An updated version of GoodNotes shipped recently, with the most notable new features including an overall cleaner and refreshed UI, improved handwriting recognition and search, and improvements to the document manager. We’ll be updating this article to reflect the latest changes in GoodNotes.
Customers who purchased GoodNotes 4 can upgrade to version 5 for free through this GoodNotes 5 Upgrade Bundle.
How We Chose
Finding a note-taking app that works well for handwriting is trickier than it sounds. Here’s what we looked for in the handwriting apps we compared:
Apple Pencil Support — Supporting the Pencil is, of course, a must. The Pencil’s first-party status means that palm rejection is almost perfect, the granular level of control is higher than any other stylus, and for those with the newest version of the Pencil, double-tapping the device can switch back and forth between tools like the pen and eraser.
Natural Ink Feel — The ink that a note-taking app chooses is also at the top of the list. Some full-featured apps sadly lack the feel of writing with an actual pen, leave behind awkward looking pen strokes that are too narrow or angular, or simply have too few options when it comes to selection a writing tool. A good note-taking app should take this into account.
Paper Options — Hot on the heels of the ink feel is also the types of paper options available. A wide variety of choices allow the app to fit in more people’s mental models of note-taking, and templates for calendars, to-do lists, or other unusual note-taking scenarios are also great to see.
Search — Hand-written notes prove to be tricker to index than a traditional notes app, but search is nonetheless a must-have feature when it comes to this category. With the ability to peer into the notes even more difficult than usual, being able to quickly search for a keyword can prove incredibly handy once the library of notes begins to grow.
Sync — Sync is also a desired feature, as losing all of your hand-written missives is an undesirable fate. Many apps feature iCloud sync, which is even nicer when paired with the ability to sync with an iPhone or Mac app.
New Device Support — Another must-have is proper support for the latest and greatest tablets. Who wants to spend the entire time note-taking with unsightly black margins on each side of the page? We consider quick updates to support new screen sizes essential; after all, if you’ve gone out of your way to take notes using the Apple Pencil, you’re most likely the type who’s also an early adopter.
Using Hand-Writing Apps for School
A quick excerpt from Josh Ginter, Editor-in-Chief of The Sweet Setup, and current student.
There’s an inherent connection between handwritten note-taking apps and learning. It’s been well-documented: handwriting greatly improves the learning process and it’s easier to commit things to memory if you write them down.
The original iPad debuted right around the time I started post-secondary school in 2009. That first year, I trudged textbooks, a 15-inch MacBook Pro, notebooks, and my lunch each day to and from class. When the iPad debuted in 2010, it promised to eliminate the need to carry textbooks and notebooks, and seemed like an easy fit to take the place of the 15-inch MacBook Pro (at least for study purposes).
However, the handwriting component of learning was lost, as the original iPad only really had external keyboard support as its primary input method. I eventually returned to handwritten notes in a spiral-bound notebook for the remainder of my first degree.
I’ve been going to school ever since, and I took handwritten notes right up until the first iPad Pro with Apple Pencil.
Everything changed with the Apple Pencil.
iOS Safari has improved over the years as well, increasingly supporting more and more types of webinar delivery methods and online student portals. The majority of my textbooks today are delivered in the form of a gigantic PDF, easily annotated within any app on the iPad and easily searched through with a swift keystroke.
With Split View and Picture-in-Picture video overlays, the newest iPad Pro along with the newest version of iOS is the device I imagined back in 2010. On the left, a textbook, quickly searched and easily annotated, and on the right, a digital piece of paper ready for all sorts of pens, highlighters, shapes, and jotting. Hovering anywhere on the screen is the picture-in-picture video webinar, streamed right from the student portal.
I have a particular love for handwritten note-taking apps. Young students today, who began their high school careers in the iPad era, will simply never understand the very real annoyance of buying real textbooks for hundreds of dollars, having to search through a glossary or index in the back of the textbook, having to read those textbooks at the latest hours of the night with poor light, and somehow having to pass an exam the next morning.
The iPad has fixed every one of these annoyances, and the single biggest learning hurdle — that of writing with an actual pencil and experiencing the feedback a handwritten gesture gives to your brain — has been cleared with the Apple Pencil and any of these note-taking apps.
Simply put, if you’re a student today, either of our top two handwriting note-taking apps are must-have purchases from the day you unbox your new iPad. I implore you to look at an iPad and consider its strengths as a learning device — there is no greater device for learning than the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil.
Notability is the Best Hand-Writing App
Open up Notability and you’ll find a user-interface not unlike a standard writing app. There’s a column on the left for folder navigation, and a list on the right of all of the documents you’ve been working on. Tap on the top right corner of the app to create a new note, and instead of seeing a blinking cursor, you’ll see the paper of your choice, ready to be written on with the Pencil.
The main user interface of Notability is easy to understand, and looks very similar to a standard, modern note-taking app on iOS.
Each note can be given a name (typed in the top left corner) and automatically extends page after page as long as you continue to fill them up.
The paper choices are nicely varied. Clicking on the wrench icon allows you to select from a variety of colors (many of which may be too bold for most use-cases, but the option to pick black instead of white is nice for those who enjoy dark modes, and it pairs nicely with the optional dark UI theme) and a list of line and grid options.
Notability’s selection of paper types is extremely useful, though some of the color choices are a bit over-the-top.
The tools in Notability are excellent: the pen and highlighter both have 12 sizes, two types of strokes, and accept custom colors. A lasso-style cut tool allows you to easily move your words around if they need rearranging, and a type tool not only allows for all the system fonts, but supports saving multiple favorites for future use.
For the creative note-takers, you can add photos and gifs to each document, as well as web clips, stickies, and custom shapes or figures. Shapes can also be drawn alternatively by simply creating a line or circle and holding the Pencil firm, which creates a perfect straight line or circle. These can be changed in length, direction, or size, which makes creating shapes easier. Finally, a microphone icon allows you to record audio simultaneously, a particularly helpful tool for anyone in a lecture hoping to keep tabs on both what the speaker is saying in its entirety and writing down exactly what’s important.
The variety of options the Pen and Highlighter tools have, in particular, will likely be more than sufficient for most users.
Each document can be quickly moved through by using the right-hand document viewer, and a note switcher on the left-hand side automatically pulls up a list of recent notes and a search function, making moving from document to document incredibly easy.
The Note Switcher is a very convenient feature that can come in handy when trying to quickly parse multiple documents.
Features in Notability
Each note can be searched via OCR, and when a word is selected, it is highlighted in yellow for visibility. The search button is tucked away in a submenu in the top right corner, and searching for any word shows how many entries there are within the document as well as a list of pages in which the word appears. For those using a keyboard,
Command+F will also pull the search menu up immediately.
Though the search feature can sometimes miss words, the indexing is near-instantaneous and all entries are highlighted throughout the document at once.
The OCR-driven search is remarkably fast, and can work even with unusual handwriting.
All notes in Notability can sync via iCloud, Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive, or a variety of other services. Curiously, auto-backup is initially turned off, and even iCloud sync requires a trip to settings to activate. Once switched on, sync is extremely quick, with hundreds of notes syncing in a matter of seconds.
The ability to see notes regardless of the device you’re using makes the iPhone and Mac versions of Notability that much more attractive. Though taking handwritten notes on an iPhone or Mac is less than appealing, being able to quickly pull up any entry is a wonderful option, and fast zooming means that even the smallest of handwriting is easily legible on smaller iPhones.
PDFs are fully importable, meaning that it’s possible to mark up any document with ease. This is handy for a variety of reasons: taking notes on top of a class’s lecture outline, using a digital yearly planner, creating your own custom paper template, the list goes on and on.
The availability of OCR search means that any text within these texts is just as searchable as your own notes, making this an extremely convenient method of both storing documents and taking notes on top of them.
Notability’s apps uses a flat one-time fee structure, with both the iOS and Mac versions of the app costing $9.99. This may be representative of the app’s age: this payment structure was set up before the subscription model began to take root in most iOS apps. That being said, there are no premium subscription-only features, and a freemium version of the app doesn’t seem to be in the near future.
A Great Alternative: GoodNotes
Compared to Notability, GoodNotes takes a completely different approach to its user interface and embraces the concept of a notebook. Opening up the app presents you with a gallery of notebooks, which can be divided into categories and given specific handwritten names on each cover. Instead of jumping into a document to start writing, you create (or open) a notebook, and assign that notebook a cover (with a wide variety of options) and a paper. Each notebook starts with a single sheet, and swiping left adds the next.
The paper templates consider some unconventional use cases (guitar tablature, log-log graphs, and more) which may appeal to certain users. These papers are split up in sizes (A3, A4, A5, US Letter, etc.) and it can sometimes be challenging to determine which sheets are the best fit for the device you’re working on. Unfortunately, all templates are a shade of white or cream, meaning that those looking to write in a dark-mode are out of luck.
For those who really want to ensure that the paper templates are custom-catered to their preferences, Goodnotes actually allows for importing template paper and cover types. Any PDF or image can be opened not only as a document to edit, but as a template to add to the list of Goodnotes paper and cover options. This level of customization is welcome but also fairly complex, and we imagine that the majority of users will stick to the pre-made options within any app.
The pen, highlighter, eraser, and lasso tool are all very comparable to Notability’s offerings. While initially it seems as if the pen and highlighter have less options than Notability (four sizes for the pen and three for the highlighter), a custom tab reveals a sliding scale for tool size and the ability to enter any hexadecimal color code of your liking.
An add button allows you to add an image, text box, or additional page to the notebook, though the options for text are limited with a dozen font choices and most features hidden away in sub-menus. As opposed to the swiping gesture, adding a new page from this menu opens up the paper template menu, allowing each notebook to have a variety of paper types within.
A welcome feature is the smart shape tool, which allows you to draw a circle, rectangle, or triangle and have the shape auto-complete itself with clear lines. This is much quicker to use than Notability’s figures or automatic straight lines, and if your notes require you to create shapes often, might be enough to warrant looking into GoodNotes.
For those who prefer a more skeuomorphic experience while taking notes, GoodNotes is an excellent competitor to Notability, and offers many of the same features in an different package.
Notes — Apple’s own notes app recently added full-fledged handwriting support. Tapping the pencil icon at the bottom of any note allows for the full set of markup tools to be available within any sheet, and each note even has line or grid style paper options. Notes also receives a first-party perk on iPads: Tapping the lock screen with a Pencil automatically opens a new sheet. That being said, limited options, spotty search, and a lack of additional features makes Notes a subpar experience when committing to the experience of handwriting.
Penultimate — This app first hit the App Store 8 years ago, and its acquisition by Evernote means that it is still around today. Evernote sync may be handy for some, but a limited set of features and inconsistent updates (the last one being over a full year ago) means that this app has seen better days.
Myscript Nebo — This app has a completely different goal than most other handwriting apps, and is extremely intriguing for that alone: Nebo is less of a handwriting app, and more like a handwriting converting app that turns entries into text. Double-tapping on any handwriting can automatically convert it to text, and a variety of tools are focused on correcting the hand-written text to be more easily parsed (scribbling out letters erases them, lines between letters joins them or moves them further apart). Though this is a very interesting premise, the conversion doesn’t always work flawlessly, and the extremely specific use-case is too narrow to call it the best app in the category.
Paper by WeTransfer — The app formerly known as Paper by FiftyThree is another longtime App Store offering. Though possible to use as a handwriting app, Paper works better as a sketching tool, and thus didn’t make the cut.
Whink — Offering a refreshingly modern UI, this app may look the most pleasing out of all the contenders. But the lack of search, a limited amount of tools, and a focus on annotating PDFs means that this app stays in the runner up category.
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It’s clear that with the right combination of app and Pencil, the iPad is now an exceptional note-taking tool for those who prefer to write by hand. There are several apps that are more than up to the task, but we think Notability is the best possible app for most people and their workflows.