Ever feel like you’re struggling to remember everything?
You’re not the only one—and that’s why it’s so important to take notes. As author Tim Ferriss says, “I trust the weakest pen more than the strongest memory.” Write something down, and you’re certain to remember it.
There are plenty of ways to take notes. You could carry a notebook and pen in your pocket, or scribble thoughts on a napkin at lunch. Or, better yet, you could use a notebook app, so you always have a way to store your thoughts—even if there’s not a pen nearby.
Note taking apps come in all shapes and sizes. From simple plain-text notebooks to apps that recognize your handwriting and record audio, you can find a notebook app for anything you want to remember.
I took dozens of note-taking apps for a test drive in order to separate the must-try options from the weak ones. First, you’ll find full-featured note-taking apps, including Evernote, OneNote, and Simplenote—the popular notebook apps that can save everything. Then, we’ll look at handwriting apps, designed for scribbling your thoughts on tablets.
And if that’s not enough, there’s a bonus section at the end with “one-trick ponies”—note-taking apps that do a single job very well, and might be a great companion app for your preferred notebook app.
The Best Free Note Taking Apps
Notes come in all shapes and sizes—but if you want a notes app to keep track of everything, you’ll need a full featured notes app. These apps let you keep your text notes organized, and include extra features to add notes, import images, recognize text from handwriting, and more.
Evernote (iOS, Android, Mac, Windows, Web)
Best for taking notes, scanning documents, and clipping web pages
Evernote is perhaps the most well-known digital notebook, and for good reason. It’s simple enough to capture quick notes on the go, and still powerful enough to organize your entire digital life.
Notes in Evernote are much like rich text documents. You can add text, images, audio, and files to notes, then organize them into notebooks. Everything is tied together with powerful search (which can even index handwritten notes and attached documents if you upgrade to Premium), so you can find any note no matter where you saved it.
If you prefer handwritten notes, Evernote makes one of the best document scanning apps as well: Scannable. You can scan your handwritten notes, receipts, important documents and more to Evernote just by taking a picture with your phone. Then, you can find any text in the documents, using Evernote’s Optical Character Recognition (OCR) to find text from Evernote search. You can search inside images on any plan, then with a paid plan you can also search inside PDF and Office files.
Evernote’s best feature, though, might be its browser extensions. The Evernote Web Clipper makes it easy to add just about anything to your notebooks. As you browse the web and discover things you want to remember, just click the browser extension to save highlights or the entire page to your notebook along with any notes you have about that page. It can even save just the text of an article, nicely formatted as an easy way to read your favorite articles later.
Evernote Price: Free for basic features and up to 60MB file uploads per month; from $25/year Plus plan for offline notebook access, email integrations, searching inside files and more
Microsoft OneNote (iOS, Android, Mac, Windows, Web)
Best for organizing thoughts, to-do lists, and projects
OneNote part of the Microsoft Office suite, is a note-taking app that feels a bit more like a paper notebook. Instead of Evernote’s more note-centric feel, OneNote is designed around notebooks and note sections. You could easily use Evernote just by relying on search to find what you want—that’d work in OneNote, too, but its notebook and section tabs will make you want to keep things organized.
Each note in OneNote feels more like a paper note as well. Click anywhere inside a page, and you can start typing right there, even on the middle of the page. Drag in images and file attachments, then add highlights, notes, to-do lists and more anywhere on your page. You can even include audio, sketches, and videos in your notes.
OneNote’s flexibility makes it a joy to use. You can keep audio notes next to written notes, mark up images, and add to-dos right alongside your notes to keep yourself on track. And if you’re already accustomed to using Office, OneNote’s ribbon-style toolbar will make you feel right at home.
OneNote Price: Free for basic features; from $69/year for Office 365 for Microsoft Office including the full version of OneNote
Google Keep (iOS, Android, Web)
Best for collecting images, drafting documents, and creating checklists
Google Keep might look like a basic sticky-note app, but don’t be fooled by its minimalist skin. It’s actually a full-featured notes app that’s a great place to jot down ideas, create checklists, and much more.
The app is stripped down compared to Evernote and OneNote, but that might be just what you need to keep you efficient. You’ll write new notes on digital sticky-notes, and then can preview them without having to open each note. If you want to take your notes further, there’s a “Copy to Google Doc” feature, which turns any note into an editable Google Doc. And if you write down something you can’t afford to forget, Google Keep’s location reminders can refresh your memory when you’re in a certain area.
Google Keep’s most useful feature, though, is audio transcription. When you record your thoughts with Keep’s audio recorder in its mobile apps, Google transcribes the text and records the audio. You’ll never need to transcribe a conversation again.
Google Keep Price: Free
Simplenote (iOS, Android, Mac, Web)
Best for taking notes without distraction
True to its name, Simplenote offers a clutter-free space for typing notes. There are no frills here—just a blank canvas for plain-text notes about meetings, weekend plans, and more. You can’t add images or attachments, but you canquickly write down text notes and search through your entire collection.
Accidentally delete something important? Simplenote’s history will come in handy, as you can look back through every version of your notes and roll back changes. It also lets you share a note, so you can invite a friend or coworker to help collaborate on a project.
Simplenote isn’t a replacement for robust tools like Evernote, but it’s a useful distraction-free writing space. As Matt Mullenweg—the founder of Automattic, which now owns Simplenote—told The Verge, “You don’t open a letter with a chainsaw.”
Simplenote price: Free
Apple Notes (iOS, Mac, Web)
Best for quickly taking notes on Apple devices
Often, the best note-taking app is the one you already have. Because Notes comes on every Apple device and works with Siri, it’s the easiest way to write notes on your iPhone, iPad, and Mac.
Notes has come a long way since its days as a yellow legal pad. The latest version lets you bookmark sites, draw sketches, write notes with a pen, and create simple to-do lists. Tap the Share button in almost any app on your iPhone or Mac, and you can save favorite articles and more to Notes quickly. And, as always, you can format your notes in rich text and share them over email.
Even if you’re away from your Apple devices, you can still use Notes via iCloud.com. Or, the Notes app can sync your notes to other email services like Gmail and Outlook. It might not be as fancy as the other notebook apps, but Notes removes all friction from jotting things down on the go.
Apple Notes price: Free with an Apple device; extra iCloud storage from $0.99/month
Hackpad (iOS, Web)
Best for collaborative brainstorming
Hackpad is a collaborative, cloud-based notes app designed to help you organize anything you need to write down, with powerful features tucked away into into its simple interface. Each “pad” is a blank slate for collecting your notes and thoughts, but its collaborative tools are the real game-changer.
Just like most notes apps, you can write text notes, drag in images, and format text with simple headers, list styles, and more. Then, you can organize notes into collections, adding one note to as many collections as you need to keep related notes together. Add an @ symbol followed by a pad name, and Hackpad will turn it into a wiki-style link or a brand-new pad where you can continue your thoughts.
Then, you can bring all your team together and edit the same Hackpad at the same time. That’s how the ShareThis team uses HackPad, as SVP Daniel Odio wrote on his blog. At the start of meetings, Odio adds each attendee to a single pad. Everyone takes notes in thatt pad, meaning everyone is (literally) on the same page. Each contributor is identified on the left, headers are automatically turned into a table of contents, comments are displayed inline and links to sites like YouTube and Google Docs turn into rich media. It’s a digital whiteboard that’s perfect for collaborative notes.
Hackpad Price: Free for public workspaces and private workspaces with up to 5 users; $2/month per user for additional users on private workspaces
Quip (iOS, Android, Mac, Windows, Web)
Best for combining notes with documents and spreadsheets
Quip isn’t your typical notebook app. It starts with notes, then adds in simple document creation, spreadsheets, and even team chat. Each item is saved to its own file, but you can search through everything from Quip’s interface and embed documents or spreadsheets into other Quip documents.
Quip shines with its fast and unique interface. Instead of detailed formatting options, Quip includes document styles that let you reformat your notes in a click. You can then publish your notes to the web, or save them as a PDF to share later.
Quip really shines for team communication. You can add anyone to a document or note, and work together with every change listed on the left sidebar so it’s easy to see what each person added. Or, if you have a question, just type in the sidebar and you’ll have a quick team chat. And if you need to crunch numbers in your notes, you’ll find Quip’s built-in simple spreadsheets are far more useful than the tables in your average notebook app.
Quip Price: Free for personal use; from $10/month Team plan for unlimited documents for 10 users
Dropbox Paper (Web)
Best for discussing projects inside Dropbox
Not to be confused with the iOS drawing app Paper, Dropbox’ newest app is a team collaboration and notes tool called Dropbox Paper. It’s much like a redesigned Hackpad inside Dropbox. You’ll write notes on a white sheet of digital paper alongside your team, and can use Markdown-style formatting to add headers, checklists, and more. Then, you can drag in images or embed videos or files from Dropbox to discuss and collaborate on them inside Dropbox Paper.
It’s most unique feature are its comments, which feel like a combination of Google Docs comments and Facebook Messenger, complete with stickers to lighten up the mood. Then, you can share finished notes with a link, or print them out—though oddly there’s no option to export a PDF or other file to your real Dropbox storage. For now, it might be best as a place to make checklists and discuss your Dropbox files.
Dropbox Paper Price: Free in beta; included with Dropbox account
Box Notes (iOS, Android, Web)
Best for simple notes in Box folders
Another file sharing tool with a notes app, Box Notes feels a bit more like Quip’s editor, complete with an office-style toolbar along the top. Like its competitors, Box Notes lets you collaboratively edit notes with your team, with basic formatting tools and comments to discuss ideas together.
Unlike Dropbox Paper, however, Box Notes stores the notes files right inside your regular Box folders. That makes it a great option to add notes to a folder of files, as an easy place to collaborate on your projects right along every other part of the project—even when you’re working from a mobile device. It might make it a bit more difficult to find all of your notes, though, but at least you won’t have to open another app to add notes about your projects again.
Box Notes Price: Free; included with Box account
The Best Handwriting Apps
Typing notes on your desktop or recording audio notes from your phone can be handy, but plenty of people still prefer writing their notes by hand. A study from Princeton and UCLA, in fact, has shown that taking notes by hand improves your information recall.
“Laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim, rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words,” says the study, “is detrimental to learning.” Those who take handwritten notes tend, instead, to hone in on key concepts and action items, making it easier to learn from your notes.
But what if you’re trying to digitize your notes? Luckily, there is a middle ground for people who prefer to write notes but want features like cloud-syncing and collaboration: handwriting apps.
You could scan notes into Evernote, or use OneNote’s mobile handwriting and drawing features, but these apps are focused on handwritten digital notes.
Paper (iPhone, iPad, Web)
Best for combining sketches, images and text notes
Paper, one of the most popular drawing apps for iOS, is great for text notes, handwriting, drawing, and images with annotations. The app is beautifully designed, with little animations that make it fun to use. Each note is stored on its own piece of digital paper, which you can organize in groups and share online if you’d like.
Paper’s simple interface makes it easy to jot down notes and lists. It cleans up your drawing as you go, turning simple loops into a perfect circle and penstrokes into calligraphy-style writing. Or, you can type in text notes and checklists, or import images and annotate them right inside Paper, then add standard drawings at the bottom of the note. There are even tools that help you make business diagrams, and
an optional stylus for pressure sensitive drawings.
Paper price: Free; Pencil stylus from $59
Best for adding written notes and drawings to Evernote
Penultimate was one of the original handwriting apps for the iPad, and today it’s part of the Evernote family of apps. It’s designed for handwriting more than drawing, with natural-looking digital ink and a variety of paper styles to choose from. You can also pick your ink color and thickness, and use your own stylus or the Evernote JotScript to make writing easier.
Then, you can save your handwriting notes back to Evernote, where they’re synced along with the rest of your notes and documents. Evernote’s Optical Character Recognition (OCR) will then index your handwritten text, so you can search through your notes and find your handwritten notes, too.
*Penultimate price: Free; digital paper designs from $0.99; Evernote Plus account from $2.99/month for extra storage
Squid (Android, Windows)
Best for free-form writing and document annotation
Don’t worry Windows and Android users, you haven’t been left out.
In addition to OneNote’s handwriting features, Squid is another handwriting app that works on Windows and Android tablets. You can write and draw anything you want with a pressure-sensitive stylus or your finger, or import images and PDFs and mark them up with digital ink. You can even import a document, sign it with a stylus, and export it as a PDF to send back to your business contacts right from your tablet.
Squid also includes all the organizational and text-editing features you’d expect from a full-featured notebook app. You can even export your notes in PDF format, as an easy way to share or copy them to your other devices.
Squid pricing: Free; in-app purchases for PDF export and cloud sync from $3
Do you have a favorite note taking app that didn’t make the list, or a favorite trick that makes one of these apps even better? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below!
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