I have had a long and tempestuous history with the iPad. It started with the first generation iPad released in 2010. I then bought every new generation, hoping that it would become a tool I could use in meetings to take notes, add tasks to my to-do list, and do research.
Eventually, I stopped using each device and gave it to the grandkids. In real-world use, I found note-taking especially cumbersome. I momentarily got my hopes up when Apple released the iPad Air 2 when I bought it in November 2014. I also bought and tried just about every stylus on the market.
However, I just couldn’t handle the lag in my writing and the big, fat pen tips. A few of the fine-tip alternatives like the Adonit Jot Pro Fine Point Precision Stylus were better, but I still experienced a noticeable lag. I finally gave up. Since then I have only used my iPad as a teleprompter. I went back to a physical notebook and a Montblanc pen.
Enter the iPad Pro and the Apple Pencil
When the iPad Pro was first announced, a couple of the guys in my Inner Circle™ bought it. They raved about it, and said the Pencil was a game-changer. They claimed it was more precise than any stylus on the market and virtually lag-free. Though I was skeptical, I decided to go to the Apple Store and give it a spin.
They were right about the Pencil—it was accurate and lag-free. It felt almost like a real pen, But I couldn’t handle the 12.9-inch screen of the iPad Pro. It was nearly as big as my 13-inch Macbook Pro! While I understand how this might be useful for artists, I didn’t see using it for taking notes. I might as well just use my laptop. I decided against buying one.
However, when Apple announced the 9.7-inch version of the iPadPro, I decided to take another look. I already liked the size. It sounded like the perfect solution, so I bought one. I have been using it for about a week now.
After setting the device up, the first thing I did was search for a note-taking app that worked with the Apple Pencil. I was immediately surprised by how my many options there are. Of the dozens I tested, here are the seven that made the final cut.
1. Apple Notes (FREE)
As you may know, Apple recently upgraded Notes and decided to make it a real application. While I don’t see it as a competitor to Evernote (yet), it has great potential. You can even export your Evernote note to Notes if you like. It is available on for both iOS devices and the Mac Desktop. Notes sync effortlessly between all devices, using iCloud.
It includes all the pen tools you would expect: pen, marker, pencil, and an eraser. It also includes a ruler function that is unique. As you would expect, Pencil is tightly integrated with the app, so that things like pressure sensitivity work seamlessly.
However, I found the tool set to be too minimalistic. It doesn’t include some of the bells and whistles of the other apps. For example, there’s no fountain pen and you can’t select the style of “paper” you want to use. It might make sense to use this if you are already using it for your other notes. But for now, there are much better options available.
2. Evernote (FREE)
I am heavily invested in Evernote and have written about it extensively. The developers have added the ability to use your Pencil for taking notes. If you already use Evernote and your needs are simple, then you don’t need anything else.
As you would expect, your inked notes sync across all your devices and continue to be editable. You can, for example, create a sketch on your iPad then edit it on your iPhone. Plus, handwriting recognition means that you can search and find text inside your handwritten notes.
However, like Notes, the tool set is minimalistic. It offers a pen, a highlighter, an eraser, and a lasso tool (for selecting portions of your notes and moving them around). It does offer a “snap to shape” feature, so that when you draw a rectangle, it automatically converts it to a perfect rectangle. This is especially nice for quick sketches.
3. Penultimate (FREE)
This app is also owned by Evernote. It is aptly named. In my experience, this is an awesome note-taking app—one of the best on the market. Here’s why:
- You have the ability to create an unlimited number of notebooks. Inside of each notebook, you can create an unlimited number of notes.
Penultimate includes a ridiculous number of paper choices: plain, graph, lined, dotted, storyboard, to-do list, day planner, music paper, and a gazillion more.
It sync directly to Evernote. Once you set it up, you never think about it again. In my experience, it offers the best sync to Evernote of any of the apps I discuss here.
All your handwritten notes are fully searchable from within the app and, of course, from within Evernote itself.
The feature set is similar to what is included in Evernote. I found it adequate, but there is no snap-to-shape option. This isn’t a big deal for me, but I hope Evernote will bake it into a future edition, especially since it is already in Evernote already. I could see some use cases where this would be helpful.
4. Microsoft OneNote (FREE)
I have been impressed with Microsoft’s offerings over the past twelve months. The metaphor of a physical notebook reminds me of the good ol’ days when I used a Day-Timer and then later a Franklin Planner. If you pine for an electronic version of this, OneNote is worth considering.
While you can use Pencil with OneNote, I think Microsoft intended this for making simple drawings rather than actually taking notes. My first clue was that I couldn’t figure out how to even use Pencil with OneNote, until I discovered that I had to select the Draw menu item.
It includes the usual tools. The interface is beautiful—even elegant. I especially liked the color wheel you use to select your pen color. I like the ability to use “tabbed dividers as well.” If I wasn’t so invested in Evernote, I would probably consider this further.
If you like the notebook metaphor or use OneNote on other devices, this app is definitely worth considering.
5. Moleskine Journal ($4.99)
You’ve probably used a physical Moleskine notebook, but did you know that they also make an iOS app, too? It rivals Penultimate for most features and even syncs with Evernote. (However, these must be exported on a note-by-note basis. Unlike Penultimate, it is not automatic.)
It is very similar to Penultimate, but it also includes the ability to import images and a number of drawing tools, including a brush tool. Like it’s analog counterpart, it also has the familiar ribbon marker. You can use this to bookmark specific pages.
You can also choose from a wide array of page styles, including plain paper, ruled, squared, storyboard, and a weekly planner. Moleskine also plans to offer in-app purchases for even more styles. It currently has, for example, a Wine Journal notebook for $2.99, which looks amazing. (I haven’t tried it.)
If synching with Evernote is an issue, then I would choose Penultimate. It is more tightly integrated and includes full search functionality from within the app itself (Moleskine does not do this.) If you don’t use Evernote or don’t care about integration, then you might want to consider Moleskine.
6. GoodNotes ($7.99)
This is an app that shows up on almost every list of best note-taking apps. It uses the notebook and pages metaphor that Penultimate and Moleskine use. However, it is not as full featured as the other two. Still, it is polished and a delight to use.
It does include the usual tools you would expect—pen, highlighter, eraser, lasso, and snap-to-shape tools. You can also import images. They are all intuitive and well-implemented. There are also dozens of paper options, though not as many as Penultimate. Interestingly, you can also choose from several colorful cover options.
GoodNotes offers search functionality which works amazingly well, especially when you consider it is working with handwritten notes. It is also one of the few apps that offers direct printing from within the app itself. In addition, you can export a single note or group of notes as a PDF, image, or GoodNotes format. You can then save the exported document to your camera roll, iCloud Drive, Dropbox, Google Drive, or numerous other services.
7. CaptureNotes ($5.99)
This is one of the most robust apps on the market. It boasts features that no other note-taking app I tried has. For example, it provides you with the ability to handwrite your notes, type them in using a keyboard, or record them as an audio file. You can also import images and even PDFs.
It includes the usual handwriting tools, including pen, highlighter, eraser, and lasso tool. It also provides dozens of paper styles. You can send documents to your printer, an email message, iTunes, Evernote, or Dropbox. These can be sent as an image, PDF, text only or audio only (for audio notes).
One of my favorite feature—one that is unique to CaptureNotes—is flags. These are very similar to the adhesive physical flags that you often see in legal documents, indicating where you are to sign. The Business Group flags are Urgent, Important, Listen, Decision, To Do, Email/Call, Task and Research. However, you can also create custom tags and even save them as groups. You can then filter your notes by flag.
My Personal Pick
I have only scratched the surface of what is available in the App Store. I probably missed some I should have considered. I also tried another dozen apps I chose not to review. They just weren’t (pardon the pun) noteworthy. All of the apps I mention above are worth considering. It really comes down to your needs and your specific use case. One size doesn’t fit all.
Because Evernote is such an important component of my workflow, I narrowed my selection down to three options: Evernote itself, Penultimate, and Capture Notes. I ruled out Evernote simply because I want to be able to use ruled paper. I also like some of the other features in Penultimate and Capture Notes.
For now, I am going to stick with Penultimate. It does almost everything I want. The tight integration with Evernote makes it a no-brainer for me.
Question: What about you? What is your favorite note-taking app for iPadPro and Apple Pencil?