People say that the best camera is the one you have with you, and we think the same thing goes for note apps. If you always have an iPhone or iPad with you, either is great for taking notes. But which app should you use?
Note-taking apps litter the App Store, and at one point it felt like we couldn’t go a day without a big new app launch. Since then many have fallen by the wayside, including some high profile apps, but what’s left is a collection of apps that range from the brilliant to the abysmal.
So which should you be using?
When choosing an iPhone or iPad app for taking notes, there are a few prerequisites at play depending on your particular use. For some, Dropbox integration is a must-have, while others are perfectly fine so long as the app supports iCloud. Some people might need support for exporting as Markdown, or perhaps they need live previews of those Markdown notes. There are so many different requirements out there that it’s impossible to consider them all here. What we can do is share what we think are the best note-taking apps for the iPhone and iPad, for most people.
With that said, let’s jump in.
The obvious place to start here is with Apple’s Notes app because it ships with every iPhone and iPad. Right out of the box those devices have one of the best note-taking apps around, but it isn’t without its flaws, and those flaws are enough to make it a second-class citizen on a lot of people’s devices.
The best thing Notes has to offer is that it syncs effortlessly between all of your Apple devices, but that also brings with it an obvious problem. Getting at your notes on an Android device or Windows PC is a case of using third-party apps that unofficially gain access or the iCloud.com website. Neither solution works well enough to be a real option as far as we’re concerned. If you’re all-in on Apple’s gear, this isn’t going to be a problem for you at all.
As for things we love about Notes, the thing that first springs to mind is the way it can accept just about anything, including URLs. When you enter URLs into a Note you’re presented with a preview of the website, and similar previews exist for things like images, too. This can be great if you’re collecting information for later use, such as when researching for a blog post or paper.
Apple Notes may not be our favorite note-taking app, but it is the first you should check out—you already have it, and it’s free!
Google Keep is another fully cross-platform option, and if you’re looking for a free solution that works everywhere, it might be the option for you. Google Keep has most of the features anyone would need from a note app, although it stops just short of the Evernote model of being a bucket for saving just about anything. You can’t save files to Google Keep, for example, but support for images and URLs is there, as is support for URL previews. You can even save voice memos to Google Keep for later playback.
Organization is a breeze thanks to support for tags—something that is table stakes at this point—and Google Keep is perhaps one of the nicest looking apps in this list. It’s functional, but not boring to use and despite being a Google app, it’s fair to say the iPhone, and iPad apps feel more like they have been created with iOS in mind than anything Evernote has built.
Perhaps the biggest draw for Google Keep is the fact it’s free, something that only Apple Notes can compete with on our list. If the price is a primary concern, then the decision is a toss-up between Apple Notes and Google Keep, and the beauty here is that you can try both out without spending a penny. They both work well, and we don’t think you can go wrong with either at your side.
The darling of the iOS community last year, Bear isn’t the must-have app that it once was, but it’s still a fine note-taking app. Like Apple’s Notes, Bear only syncs via iCloud, so it works best if you use Apple devices.
Bear does support Markdown, though, which is something the Notes app can’t boast. Bear also displays images that are attached to notes in-line, making it perfect for taking notes in order during a lecture or similar meeting environment. Unfortunately, Bear does not give you previews when you add URLs; it turns them into clickable links instead.
Aesthetically, notes don’t look quite as good inside Bear, but whether that impacts the app’s usefulness depends on your preferences. Speaking of aesthetics, Bear has plenty of themes to choose from, altering how the app looks throughout.
There are iPhone, iPad, and Mac versions of the app.
You can use the free version of Bear and get most of its features. However, you’ll need a Bear Pro subscription needed to get the best out of the app. At $14.99 per year, Bear Pro adds advanced features like note tagging and the ability to export notes to Markdown, plain text, or as images. Unfortunately, device syncing is also part of the Pro subscription, so if you need to use Bear on multiple devices, you’ll have to pay.
Drafts works a little differently than most note apps. The idea behind it is that you can create text of any kind quickly and easily, and then decide later where that text should go. At its simplest, Drafts is a great place to jot down notes in an instant. Opening the app immediately creates a new, blank note with the keyboard up and the cursor blinking away, ready for text. While taking a note is simple, the real power behind Drafts is what comes next.
While Drafts is a note-taking app, it’s designed to let you take notes and then act upon them. You can do all sorts of things with your text, such as send it to iMessage or Twitter or a dozen other apps. And even those barely hint at where Drafts can take you because you can create your own actions or even browse an Action Directory where other users have uploaded their actions.
This post could go on and on about how Drafts can change how someone uses their iPhone, but even if you were to use it only as a place to store text, it’s great at that, too. Note tagging is in place, and Workspaces can be configured to show only ones that have specific characteristics. Think of Workspaces as saved searches and you will be in the right ballpark. Everything syncs via iCloud and while a Drafts app is not strictly available for the Mac as yet, there is a beta in the works at the time of writing.
Drafts is a free app, with a Drafts Pro subscription required to create end edit actions as well as unlocking some of the best features like Workspaces. At $19.99 per year, it is one of the more costly options, too.
It’s impossible to talk about note-taking apps without also mentioning Evernote. A service that has had its troubles in recent years, Evernote was once the place to go if you wanted an app that could act as your “everything bucket.” Evernote is much more than a note-taking app, letting you add files, documents, and more—and making everything searchable once it’s in there.
While Evernote doesn’t lack in the features department—handwriting recognition, clipping of web pages, note tagging, and so on—the biggest gripe we have about it is the app itself. It feels crowded and not quite at home on iPhone or iPad. That said, Evernote does work across any major platform you can think of and has a web interface as well. You’ll always have your notes with you, even if they don’t feel great to work with on iOS. We’d probably put Evernote towards the bottom of our list of favorites, but it works for plenty of people just fine.
In its basic form, Evernote is free, but to be able to use some of the more advanced features like note sharing and integrations with cloud storage services, you’ll need to hand over $7.99 per month.