Taking notes is a nearly universal task. Whether you've got lots of meetings at work or just like to dissect the minutiae of the Harry Potter universe, almost everyone has a reason to occasionally need to take notes.
While there’s a lot to be said for the good old-fashioned pen and paper method, it comes with several downsides: paper notes are hard to search, fragile, and have no backup. Digital note taking apps go a long way towards overcoming these difficulties, while making it even quicker and easier (and more multi-format) for you to take notes. Let’s look at some of the best of them.
What Makes a Great Note Taking App?
It’s hard to make a truly bad note taking app. As long as it’s the digital equivalent of a blank sheet of paper, then it’s going to work in somewhere north of 90% of cases. Note taking is an inherently simple thing.
While the bar for okay is set very low, the bar for a great note taking app is much higher. A digital blank sheet of paper isn’t enough! With this in mind, here are some of the features that I looked for when considering which apps to include on this list:
1. A Great Note Taking App Is Available
Great note taking software needs to be available when you need it. This means it needs to be on every platform you’d like to use it on. If you’re a Linux user, it doesn’t matter how much you like Apple Notes, it’s not going to be a great fit for you.
Each note taking app we examined didn’t have to be available on every possible platform, but it did need to be on at least one mobile operating system and one desktop operating system.
2. Great Note Taking Software Syncs Easily
The app also needed to sync quickly and easily between the different platforms it was on. How it synced was less important than the fact it does. Some note taking apps, like Evernote, use their own sync platform. Others use an OS specific platform like iCloud or a third party platform like Dropbox. This also backs it up so if you lose your phone or laptop, you don’t lose your notes.
3. A Great Note Taking App Is Searchable and Sortable
A great note taking app also needs to be searchable, sortable, and taggable. The whole point of going digital over paper, is that you can easily find notes without having to flick through countless loose napkins or disorganised notebooks. If you can’t easily find a note you wrote two years ago based off a single weird keyword, the app has no place on this list.
4. Great Note Taking Software Has a Good Business Model
While this one is more controversial, to me a great app also had to have a reasonable business model. Note taking is a lifelong process. You don’t want to spend three years using one app only to have to change to another because it’s going out of business.
There are some interesting indie note taking apps, but they aren’t on this list because if something happens to their solo developer (or they just get bored) then you don’t have a working note app any more. This means that note taking apps had to be owned by a big company who could keep them running regardless of whether they turned a profit or had a business model of their own that looks from the outside to work to make it on the list.
5. A Great Note Taking App Is User-Friendly
Finally, the note taking apps had to look and feel good. Or at least, look and feel like someone would want to use them. A confusing or overly complicated interface was a surefire way to get excluded from the list. A note taking app should look good enough to not offend you but then fade into the background.
Now that we've examined what makes a great note taking app, let's start by looking at two of the most popular apps.
The Big Two
There are two huge names in the note taking space and before even looking at any other apps, we should talk about Evernote and OneNote. If you’re just looking for a general note taking app without any specific or unusual requirements, you’re probably going to want to use one of them.
Evernote is the original digital note taking app. Launching just a year after the iPhone, it was the first app to really take advantage of the idea of everyone having a smartphone with them wherever they go.
Evernote’s biggest advantage is how mature a product it is. Having been around for almost a decade, it would perhaps be easier to list the note taking features Evernote doesn’t have (markdown support, if you’re wondering).
Evernote is available on iOS, Android, macOS, Windows, and the web so it really works from everywhere. Even if you use a Chromebook, you can still access your notes.
Like most of the notes apps on this list, Evernote can handle multiple formats. Text, photos, PDFs and other documents, scans of handwritten notes, audio clips, and videos can all be thrown into your Evernote notebooks. A browser plugin called the Web Clipper can also send anything you find while you’re on the web (including full pages) to a note. If you’re subscribed to the Plus ($3.99/month) or Premium ($7.99/month) plan, you can even search text inside images and documents.
The biggest issue with Evernote (aside from the lack of markdown support) is that the free plan is quite limited. You aren’t able to save notes to mobile devices offline, sync to more than two devices, or upload more than 60MB a month. If you’re a heavy note taker (and you use more than just plain text) you’re likely to find one or other of these limits an issue.
Evernote’s at its best when it’s handling notes in all different formats. The optical character recognition in images works great. There are better pure written note apps out there, but no other app does crazy multi-format stuff as well.
To learn more about Evernote, review these tutorials:
- App TrainingEvernote for Beginners: The Basics of the Most Popular Notebook AppHannah Williams
- ProductivityTurn Evernote Into the Ultimate Paperless System With Scanned PDFsAndrew Kunesh
OneNote from Microsoft is Evernote’s biggest competitor. It’s another note taking app that’s available on every platform of note (iOS, Android, macOS, Windows, and the web), handles pretty much any content you want.
OneNote’s approach to notes is a little different than Evernote’s. Rather than simple documents, you start with a blank canvas. You can click and write anywhere making it super easy to do unstructured note taking, mind maps, and other things that are easy with paper but normally hard on digital devices.
OneNote’s other killer feature is AudioSync which is perfect for students and people who take a lot of meetings. The basics of it are that if you use OneNote to record audio, any notes you type will be synced to that place on the track. This means you get the best of both an audio recording and written notes.
The free plan on OneNote is a bit more generous than Evernote’s. You can sync to as many devices as you want, store your mobile notes offline, and upload as much as you want every month. From $6.99/month you can sign up for Microsoft Office 365 which, as well as bringing a few extra features to OneNote, also gets you the entire Office suite.
- OfficeGetting Started with Microsoft OneNoteMatthew Guay
- OneNoteOneNote GTD: Productivity with Freeform NotesBob Flisser
So you’ve considered Evernote and OneNote and decided that they don’t quite fit the bill for you. Let’s look at some of the other great options.
3. Bear Notes
Bear is the hottest notes app on the scene. A recent entry in the category, it’s quickly won fans. Bear is only available on iOS and macOS so Windows and Android users will need to look elsewhere.
Bear is built around a simple, beautiful markdown editor. You can add to-dos, tag and link notes, add inline images, and much more. It’s more geared towards written notes than some of the other apps, but if those are your jam, Bear is pretty perfect.
The basic app is free but if you want pretty important features like syncing across devices, you’ll need to sign up for a $1.49/month subscription.
Simplenote is a pretty barebones app for taking written notes. You can’t even add images! This lack of features, however, is actually Simplenote’s biggest selling point: you can’t get caught up trying different colors, text styles, or weird audio features.
Even better, Simplenote is completely free and available on iOS, Android, macOS, Windows, the web, and even Linux. If you need a replacement for your phone’s built-in app and want something that works everywhere, it might be the one for you.
5. Google Keep
Google Keep’s tag line is a pretty good summary of what it does: “Save your thoughts, wherever you are.” Keep is designed more for quick thoughts and reminders than a full summary of an important meeting. It’s built around short notes, lists, and photos.
Keep is clearly a Google app. It’s available on iOS, Android and the web. It’s totally free and has great search. While it might not make a great primary note taking app, it’s perfect for capturing ideas quickly as you go about your day.
6. Apple Notes
Apple Notes comes built in on Mac and iOS devices, and it’s accessible through iCloud.com. Since it’s an Apple app, it’s deeply integrated with their ecosystem. It syncs using iCloud and plays nice with Siri.
The biggest advantage of Apple Notes is, if you've got an iOS device or Mac, it’s just there. It’s great note taking software and you don’t have to jump through any hoops to use it. If you want the simplest note taking experience on your Apple devices, it’s the way to go.
Ulysses isn’t a traditional note taking app, but it’s the one I use. It’s a markdown text editor built for writers and is available on iOS and macOS. The advantage of using Ulysses as a note taking app is that it’s great for turning notes into articles, term papers, essays, or project proposals. I do all my writing in Ulysses (I’m writing this article in it now), so I like to have my notes there and available.
There’s no free plan with Ulysses; it costs $4.99 a month. If you’re a writer, it’s well worth checking out.
Quip, which we’ve looked at before, is a fully featured team communication and collaboration tool available on iOS, Android, macOS, Windows, and the web. As part of that, it’s got some great built in note taking features.
While you can use Quip on your own, it’s not really designed for solo users. Instead team plans start from $30/month for up to five users. This gets you all Quip’s document editing, team chat, and other features, as well as the note taking.
What’s great about Quip is that your team can collaborate on notes. Rather than each person coming away from a meeting with a different set of notes as to what was said, everyone can contribute to one master set.
If you’re looking for an app for your team that lets them take great notes, but also do much more, Quip is probably the app for you.
As you’ve probably realised by now, Evernote and OneNote have done a really good job of cornering a lot of the note taking market. There are great alternative apps out there, but they tend to target niche features rather than do everything like the big two. Bear or Apple Notes are fantastic, but they’re limited to iOS and macOS. Simplenote and Google Keep have some really interesting ideas, but it’s hard to use them as your only note taking app. Ulysses and Quip are excellent apps for writers and teams respectively, but incredibly overpriced for anyone else.
As always, our recommendation is look at your own needs and pick the app that aligns best to them. For me, it’s Ulysses. For most people though, it’s probably Evernote or OneNote.