Hack your tablet: Notetaking apps

When my boss told me that one of our vendors was giving each of us in the office an iPad (let’s just breeze over the issues this introduces into the procurement process), I was most excited about taking notes! By hand! On a tablet! My favorite use of the iPad currently is for a stupid game (no need to identify which stupid game), with class reading as a close second, but notetaking is still pretty high up there.

child writing in a notebook

CC2.0 by Flickr user Caitlin Regan

I’ve tried a bunch of apps over the last year and a half, and I’m here to share my thoughts on them. Disclaimers: 1. You might come to different conclusions than I do about each of these. 2. I have an iPad, not an Android tablet, so my reviews are limited to the iPad apps. 3. You might prefer good ol’ pen and paper.

Let’s start with the features that might be important to you:

  1. Stylus responsivity.
  2. Ability to annotate PDFs.
  3. Ability to record audio while taking notes.
  4. Handwriting and typing functions.
  5. A variety of “paper” backgrounds.
  6. A zoom function (not sure what to call this: this is where you can handwrite but the app then shrinks it for you so that your handwriting doesn’t take up as much space on the “page”).
  7. Tags.
  8. Integration with a notebook app.
  9. Integration with cloud storage.
  10. Pen options.
  11. Offline access.

And now the apps I’ve tried:

  1. Notes (native iPad app)
  2. Skitch (no longer worth reviewing since functionality included in Evernote)
  3. Evernote
  4. Penultimate
  5. Noteshelf
  6. Notes Mobile
  7. Educreations (a whiteboard app)

Let’s start with Evernote, because it’s free, well known, easy to use, and basically just shy of perfect. No one paid me to say that.


I use Evernote for nearly everything. I use the Web Clipper to save my readings for class, useful links I happen across, conference information… I use Evernote with IFTTT to save my twitter favorites, which are generally things to follow up on later. I use Evernote reminders, synced with Sunrise calendar, to visualize deadlines.* For a while I was using Evernote for my daily to-do lists; that worked really well until I decided I wanted to be able to visualize on a calendar, and that didn’t work so well. (I’d end up with an item on my Sunrise calendar with a title of…the date. Not helpful.) Now that Evernote includes PDF annotating, I use it for reading for class. You can record (in a note, click on the paperclip to add an attachment, and that’s where the microphone icon is) but I haven’t tried it, so can’t speak to the quality of the recording. Evernote is flexible for notebooks, tags, and searching. I pay for a premium account, which allows me offline access to my notes. Evernote has its own presentation platform–that is, you can present directly from a note. Evernote is available online, has a windows app, an android app, and an iOS app. It’s about as ubiquitous as they come. (Note that not all of the platforms have the same features, though.)

Evernote’s ONLY weakness, I think, is that the iPad app doesn’t include a handwriting function. (Android does. My phone is an Android, and I’ve tried the handwriting function, but…it’s a phone. The screen is small. I tried it once and decided it wasn’t worth it. I don’t know how it works for someone using a tablet. I also don’t know why the iPad app doesn’t include handwriting, since in my decidedly non-tech-knowledgeable mind, it would require the same technology as PDF annotating, which it does include.) Also it’s much more text-based rather than page/design-based. That is, you can’t move things around on the page they way you can with some of the other apps. If you’re a very visual learner, this might be a drawback.

But if you’ll recall from above, it was the handwritten notes functionality that I was most looking forward to when I got the iPad. So that’s a pretty big weakness of Evernote.


I started out using Penultimate because of its seamless integration with Evernote, You’d never guess, if you look at my notes in Penultimate, that I actually have legible handwriting. The  stylus receptivity isn’t fantastic; then again, I’ve only used cheap styluses. But while Penultimate doesn’t have a fine tip sensitivity and I have to sincerely doubt the authenticity of the sample notes on the Penultimate website, it’s completely adequate. In Evernote, the handwriting in Penultimate is searchable. Penultimate notebooks show up in Evernote as single notes in an Evernote notebook called “Penultimate.” (Does that make sense? I hope so.) This is mildly annoying, but the notes can be moved to your preferred notebooks, and they still appear in your Penultimate app. Penultimate lets you include images, has different “ink” colors and 3 pen tips, and a variety of “paper.” It doesn’t have highlighting or any way to combine handwriting and typing. It also doesn’t have an audio recorder.


Noteshelf is not free. And it’s only available for the iPad. But it is particularly attuned to stylus use, with special settings for some of the schmancier styluses. It also has a choice of 6 different how-do-you-hold-your-hand-when-you-write positions. No more smudged ink on the lefty’s hand!

screenshot of writing style options

You can type and handwrite on the same page in Noteshelf, and can place either wherever you want on the “page.” It has cute stickers that are adorable but I haven’t figured out any practical purpose for them. If you want to use an app for a baseball scorecard, Noteshelf is for you.

screenshot of baseball scorecard

But Noteshelf doesn’t have an audio recorder, and doesn’t sync with Evernote unless you have a premium Noteshelf account.

Notes Mobile

Looking back at the contents of my Notes Mobile app I am reminded of the reaction I had to it: “Can I get my money back?” The app isn’t free, and I found it to have terrible stylus sensitivity. BUT it’s relatively good for PDF annotating (though each PDF is its own notebook, which I don’t like). Notes Mobile doesn’t even have stickers. (Pout.)


Educreations isn’t a notetaking app. It’s a whiteboard app, but that means that you can record and take notes at the same time. It stops recording when you type, but if you’re handwriting, that’s not a factor. If you type, you can move the text anywhere on the page. There are ten ink colors, you can add photos, and the stylus sensitivity is adequate. Noteshelf and Notes Mobile both have a zoom feature that allows you to handwrite and then it gets shrunk on the page; Educreations doesn’t have this so you need more “pages.” Also, since it’s a whiteboard and not a notebook, it only has a landscape orientation.

In summary

For me, Evernote is the way to go.

*I should have written that sentence in past tense; I cycle through productivity and calendar tools/apps like they were water, and am currently infatuated with Asana, which has a calendar view that I prefer. Asana does have an integration with Evernote, but it requires the use also of Zapier or CloudWork, and I haven’t explored those yet.

What is your favorite app for taking notes?

Categories: Technology

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