Choosing and Landing on Notability as a Note-Taking App

note-taking
Choosing and Landing on Notability as a Note-Taking App
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(Justin DiRose) #1

I tend to be a bit of a note app aficionado. In the past 3-4 years I think it’s safe to say I’ve used about 6 different note taking-type applications, including Evernote, Apple Notes, Bear, and others.

Just like email clients and task managers, there is no “perfect” note taking app. However, there are many different types with different features that meet varying needs.

Evernote is a great “everything bucket”.
Bear is great for Markdown.
Apple Notes for its simplicity.

With recent changes to my workflow, I went on another journey to find a better note-taking application. Previously, I was using Bear for its Markdown support and tagging structure. Now, in combination with my 2018 iPad, I needed a different solution for digital note-taking, especially in regards to handwritten notes.

After some soul searching, I defined my needs as follows:

  • Good handwriting support
  • Some OCR
  • Easy ability to type notes
  • Good search
  • Some form of flexible organization
  • Cross-platform

Some of the major players in contention were Evernote, GoodNotes, OneNote, and Notability.

Evernote

Evernote used to be my note-taking app of choice; however, after the price hikes, I began looking elsewhere. Though I was an avid Evernote user for around 4 years, the app’s design and odd features never quite jived with me. Due to the subscription cost and complexity, I axed Evernote from the list.

GoodNotes

GoodNotes is a rock-solid app. Do any searching for Apple Pencil-supporting note-taking apps and you’ll be sure to find plenty of mentions for GoodNotes. Its pencil support and rendering are superb, along with OCR capabilities. Where GoodNotes falls short is typed notes, as it’s cumbersome to get to the point of typing, which means friction. Additionally, GoodNotes uses a notebook organization structure, mimicking paper. The idea is great in theory, but the way my brain works with digital organization, I didn’t find it all that helpful.

OneNote

OneNote had been a staple of my life for the last few years in my old day job being a Microsoft-based IT shop. It has great handwriting support, OCR, search, and strong organization capabilities. However, its iOS apps have been less than ideal for using and searching (for me anyway), and I don’t want to have to spend money on an Office365 account to get higher storage capacity.

Notability — My Choice

That leaves me with Notability, the app I eventually ended up choosing.

Notability ticked most of the boxes for me: great handwriting support, recently implemented handwriting OCR, easy to type notes in, great search, semi-flexible organization, and cross-platform support.

While it’s not the most open app (meaning it doesn’t support URL schemes or much for automation), it does easily export everything to PDF, and if you can get something into PDF format, it imports very easily as well.

There are two areas I feel Notability is a bit clunky for me.

The organization system is one of Subjects and Dividers, like a good ol’ 3-ringed notebook. Dividers are sections where Subjects are grouped together, and Subjects are where notes live inside. The loose organization of this is enough for me not to feel constrained by the app. My main complaint, however, has to do with how Subjects are nested.

When a new Subject is created, it automatically pops to the bottom of the subject list. This means I need to drag the subject from the bottom under the appropriate Divider where it should reside. It’s one extra step which adds friction to the workflow.

Additionally, I’ve had a couple sync issues with it. Monday morning I opened up Notability on my Mac, and it said all my notes needed to be re-downloaded. WHAT? I’m literally jumping into a meeting and none of my notes, sections, or dividers are in the app until it re-syncs. That’s not cool. In fact, this is the one thing causing me not to commit fully to the app just quite yet.

Overall, I like what I’m seeing so far in using Notability, but I am going to continue testing it out for long-term note taking and storage.

Current Structure

Here’s a quick rundown of my current structure:

  • Notes - This section houses Subjects of various natures that I take semi-regular notes on.
  • Classes + Conferences - If I attend a conference, do an online workshop, or listen to something where I’m learning intentionally, the notes for that go in a separate Subject here.
  • Ideas + Brainstorming - Pretty self-explanatory. If I need to get thoughts out of my head and out somewhere I can reference them, this is where they go.
  • Journals - This Divider will be going away soon, as I’ve fully committed to using Day One as a journaling platform.
  • Reference - A small section, this one houses minor items of reference that are more easily accessed in my notes app.

What happens if Notability craps out?

Well, I can revisit the options above, or I can revisit my needs. There are other great solutions out there, like Notion, that may be of benefit. Additionally, I have a personal Discourse instance I’m using for some minor project tracking, so I may go in more fully with that (I know @joebuhlig is going to say do it).


(John Ennion) #2

Great write-up and it mirrors my own thinking on note-taking. One thing I didn’t see you mention about Notability is the great support it has for recording meetings and time indexing the recordings with notes. I use this a lot in my IT job when we are having requirements gathering meetings, that way I can keep broad notes without having to transcribe a requirement word-for-word. I haven’t seen the sync issue you’re mentioning but one complaint I have about sync is it doesn’t seem to happen in the background, so I end up having to queue up a sync by opening the app before a meeting.


(Avrum Nadigel) #3

I’m a paid subscriber to DO, but prefer to not be locked into any one design. So I switched to Notability as my 1-stop shop for journaling and productivity upkeep. With Notability, I decide what elements are included, and how they appear.

Evernote still houses reference material, etc.


(Justin DiRose) #4

You’re right. From what I hear this is a rockstar feature of Notability. In my current use case, I don’t have any in person meetings, so I don’t find it relevant. However, I do think it’s a very useful feature!


(Avrum Nadigel) #5

Every first session with a couple or family, I request permission to use this feature (to date, nobody has declined). Allows me to focus on the session, and take minimal notes. A lifesaver when constructing genograms.


(Ed M) #6

Great write-up. I use Notability a lot and enjoy the look and flow of it. Ginger Labs just introduced Notability 3.0 on macOS, which gains the handwriting recognition ability and handwriting-to-text conversion that Notability 8.0 introduced on iOS. It’s not that handwriting on a Mac is that easy, but now we can search notes on macOS that were made on iOS Notability.

My most common use of Notability in my work is to dump PDFs of meeting presentations or other documents to discuss with clients into Notability on macOS, then with those synced up to the iPad, I take notes, etc., in meetings, on the iPad. With handwriting recognition / search these notes are even more useful than before.

Notability earned its place in the Dock on both platforms, for me.


(Justin DiRose) #7

Update

This is where I have to admit I’m human.

After about two weeks of truly using Notability, I recognized that it wasn’t going to be a great fit. Something just felt clunky about the UI and process of actually using the app.

I really do like its handwriting engine on the iPad, and I think it handles imported PDFs beautifully. However, it seems to treat everything like an imported or generated PDF at times. Not a knock against the app, but a design decision they made that doesn’t always jive with me.

I decided to give Apple Notes a go, and I think this is where I’m going to land for now. Everything lands in the main Notes bucket to be sorted into other folders later. I don’t take a ton of notes, so I think Apple Notes will suffice for the time being!

This is a classic case of something on paper can look like the perfect fit, but in practice, it’s definitely not.

Learn from my mistake!


#8

A year ago I had the 12" iPad Pro and got into handwritten note applications. My go to then was Nebo, but in the past few months I’m back looking at and weighing options on my 9.7" iPad Pro with Pencil.

One of the things I have run across in this re-evaluation is between GoodNotes and Notability and handwriting. It was pointed out to me a couple times that GoodNotes is stellar if your handwriting is mostly printing (with no or few cursive nor flourishes), but if you handwrite in cursive or a mix of cursive and priting or have some flourishes Notability will be a better fit for solid handwriting to text conversion and handwriting to search capability. I found this to hold up and as I mostly print with some cursive and flourishes Notability is a much better fit for the conversions to text and search.


(Michael Wilson) #9

Good post, I will look at it