Take Better Notes With the iPad

Multicolored sticky notes on whiteboard
Evgeny Tchebotarev / Getty Images
PRODUCT DISCLOSURE $

Who needs paper and pencil when you have an iPad? One reason why an iPad makes a great companion to a classroom or to a meeting is the versatility of typing in a quick note, jotting down a handwritten note, adding a photo or sketching your own image. This versatility makes it a great note-taking tool no matter if you are writing down equations on a chalkboard or simply creating a list of to-do items for a project. But if you are going to get serious about note taking, you are going to need some apps.

Notetaking Apps

Notes

The Notes app that comes with the iPad is easy to overlook, but if you need a basic note-taking application that includes the ability to sketch your own notes, add images and perform basic formatting such as bolded text or bulleted lists, it may very well do the trick. The biggest benefit of Notes is that it links notes across devices using iCloud. You can even view your Notes at iCloud.com, which means you can pull up your notes on your Windows-based PC. 

Notes can also be password locked, and if you are using an iPad that supports Touch ID, you can unlock the note with your fingerprint. And one of the coolest reasons to use Notes is the ability to use Siri. Simply tell Siri to "Take a Note" and she'll ask you what you want to say. 

OneNote

Microsoft OneNote earns lavish praise for its powerful but easy-to-use interface. OneNote syncs with your Microsoft Account or with an Office365 account, so your notes travel with you by means of your OneDrive storage.

With support for complex notes, images, pencil drawings, and even an Apple Watch app, OneNote's versatility is unmatched. Plus, it's free to use without limit.

Evernote

Evernote is a cloud-based note-taking app that has a similar easy-to-use feel as the Notes app but with some cool features added on top of it. Evernote includes all of the basic formatting options you would expect. It also includes tools to sketch out a note or attach a photo. 

Capture documents by scanning forms or handwritten notes. Similar to apps that act as a scanner, Evernote will automatically focus, snap the photo and crop the picture so that only the document is showing. Evernote also supports voice memos.

Access all of your documents from any device that can connect to the web. Evernote can attach to your calendar so that you can link a meeting with the notes you look at it. You can also use Evernote to leave yourself more advanced reminders than the Reminders app that comes with the iPad is capable of creating. 

Penultimate

What if you need to go heavy on the handwritten notes? Penultimate may be the ultimate handwriting app on the iPad. It is made by Evernote, which means the notes you write with Penultimate will sync to your account and show up in the Evernote app. It also has a ton of formats, including graph paper, dotted paper, preformatted to-do lists and shopping lists, and even a hangman game. Penultimate can also search through your handwritten notes and recognize words, which is really cool. Unfortunately, it won't convert that handwriting to text.

Paper

If you don't use Evernote, Paper combines some of the basic features of Evernote with a world-class sketching tool. Paper is at its best when you combine drawings with your handwritten notes, and it really goes hand-in-hand with Apple's Pencil stylus. Paper supports typed notes and performs basic formatting, but this side of the app offers fewer features than even the built-in Notes app. If you don't need all of the advanced features of Evernote and primarily need to sketch out your notes, Paper may be the way to go.

Notability

Notability may be the best pure note-taking app on the App Store. It doesn't have some of the task-related features of Evernote such as tying into your calendar, but if your killer feature is advanced note-taking, Notability is your top choice. 

Notability supports the precise annotation of pictures, shapes, or web clips with handwritten notes. A magnifying feature lets you write something in an expanded view and have it show up in a smaller area on the note, which is great if you are using your index finger instead of a stylus. 

Save your notes to most popular cloud services like Dropbox or Google Drive, or let iCloud sync your notes across your devices. 

Notes Plus

One thing we haven't covered is converting your handwritten notes into digital text. Skip Evernote and Notability and shoot for Notes Plus if you value this transcription.

Notes Plus is a very good note-taking tool even if you don't take into account the handwriting-to-text capabilities. It offers a built-in browser that allows you to search Google for images and then drag-and-drop them into your note, backup of your notes to a cloud-based service like Dropbox and export for your notes to PDF or various other formats. 

If you don't need the handwriting-to-text feature, you may be better off with one of the free alternatives, but if you don't mind spending a little bit of money and you think you might want the ability to turn your scribbles into legible text, Notes Plus is a good choice.

To Keyboard or Not to Keyboard

Pairing an iPad with a keyboard can be like turning it into a laptop. Using a keyboard is a personal decision and will depend on how fast you can type using the on-screen keyboard, but if you do go with a keyboard, you may want to go with Apple's Magic Keyboard, or if you have an iPad Pro, one of the new Smart Keyboards, because these keyboards support many of the special shortcut keys that include command-c to copy and command-v paste. When combined with the virtual touchpad, it really is like turning the iPad into a laptop. If you do end up with a non-Apple keyboard, make sure it supports those special shortcut keys. 

Don't Forget About Voice Dictation

The iPad is capable of performing voice dictation almost anywhere that the on-screen keyboard appears. A microphone button on the keyboard turns on voice dictation mode, which means you can use your voice to take notes in almost any app, including most apps on this list. This tool is different from a voice memo, which actually leaves a sound file with your voice note in it. Voice dictation takes the words you speak and turns them into digital text.