Test Drive Gadget Reviews with Bill and Phil

Note-Taking Apps: So Many Choices — Which Is Best for You?

We are obsessive note-takers. There are so many benefits to be gained from diligent and effective note-taking. 

Bill & Phil

Of course, we all make notes for a variety of reasons. We can take notes to organize our thoughts, to save important information that we might forget. We may take notes in the form of a to-do list or even for witness interviews or witness testimony.

There’s no shortage of ways to do this. There are stand-alone devices, such as the reMarkable 2 (which we previously reviewed), Rocketbook’s smart products, and legal pads. In this article, we’ll discuss our favorite apps that are designed specifically to take notes (either handwritten or typed), store them digitally and organize them.

First, we had to narrow the field and pick our favorites. Here is a by-no-means-exhaustive list of some of the most popular note-taking apps: Evernote, OneNote, Google Keep, Drafts, Apple Notes, Notability, Notion, Standard Notes, Nebo, GoodNotes, Simplenote, LiquidText, Bear, Note Taker HD, Agenda and Dropbox Paper.

We decided to pick six of these apps — Evernote, OneNote, Google Keep, Notability, Nebo and Notion — to review the various types of note-taking solutions. Each of these apps are among our favorites. (Bill has all of them — and more.)

Evernote: evernote.com (free; $7.99 per month for personal)

Evernote was one of the first apps in this category, and it remains a leader in this area. The Personal version has most everything you will need, but its many features and its flexibility can be daunting.

As you move up the learning curve, however, you will see how useful and valuable it is. You can store anything in Evernote: typed notes, handwritten notes made with a stylus, pictures, voice memos and webpages. You can organize the notes with tags, geolocations, notebooks and so on. It really can be your filing cabinet. Some attorneys use it as a filing system for all their cases. (We do not recommend using it that extensively — there are better options.)

“There are so many benefits to be gained from diligent and effective note-taking.”

Evernote runs on every platform: Windows, MacOS, Android, iOS, and as a web app. The web app is especially handy — you can access your notes wherever you can find a browser. You can run a full-text search on all your notes, even in images. (Evernote makes text in images fully searchable.) The web clipper is also very useful. You can save webpages of interest, turn them into notes and save them to read or review later. If you have a paid account, you can use your unique Evernote address to send emails to the account and turn them into notes. There are also ways to connect most any other app to Evernote.

If you can imagine a note-taking scenario, Evernote can handle it.

OneNote: onenote.com (part of Microsoft Office; there is a free version)

Like Evernote, OneNote is filled with useful features. (That’s why it’s Phil’s favorite.) In our opinion, it’s easier to use than Evernote but not quite as versatile. The free version provides 5GB of free storage, but if you have Microsoft Office 365, you have the full-blown version and 1TB of storage with OneDrive. Like Evernote, there are apps for Windows, MacOS, iOS and Android, as well as a browser version.

If you are familiar with Microsoft Office, you will find it easy to navigate in OneNote, especially the Windows version. It is not nearly as complex as Evernote but almost as powerful. You store your notes in Notebooks, which have Sections; Sections have Pages. The Page is actually the note.

It uses a “ribbon” for a menu of commands, like all Office applications. There are many formatting tools and options. You can insert images, tables, webpages, recordings and more into your notes. The search function in OneNote is powerful as well. You can search all your notes at once, and you can turn words into a “tag” just by putting the # symbol in front of the word. You can share your OneNote notes with others and collaborate with them.

If you already have paid for Microsoft Office, then OneNote is likely your best note-taking option.

Google Keep: keep.google.com (free)

If you use a note-taking app to jot down thoughts and ideas — and memorialize items you do not want to forget — then Google Keep is for you. It’s not as versatile and feature-rich as OneNote or Evernote, but it’s perfect for jotting things down quickly and easily.

You get 15GB of storage for free and can get more space by buying storage on Google Drive. (Other Google apps, such as Gmail, will use that storage as well.)

You can put your notes into categories by adding “tags” to the notes, but there is no real filing system for organizing them. If you have Google Docs, however, you can convert a note into a Google Doc, and then you can store and organize from there. Google Keep also has a very powerful optical character recognition (OCR) function, allowing you to capture text from an image, extract that text and paste it into other documents.

If you just need something to quickly capture information, then Google Keep is for you, especially if you use Gmail, Google Calendar and Google Docs.

Notability: gingerlabs.com ($8.99; available for a limited time at $3.99)

Notability and its main competitor, GoodNotes, are specialized note-taking apps, but they are only useful on an iPad. Both are primarily made for taking handwritten notes.

Notability provides an excellent handwritten note experience. You get a wide choice of pens, highlighters and an easy-to-use eraser. If you use an Apple Pencil with your iPad, it capably mimics writing on a sheet of paper. Plus, the handwriting recognition is excellent. It can quickly turn your scribbles into text and is amazingly accurate. But if you want to write directly on the screen, using iOS’s Scribble function, Notability is clunky. You have to create a text box before you can use the function.

It also has most of the features that are available in other note-taking apps, but it has one feature that makes it uniquely attractive to trial lawyers: It allows you to record while you take notes. If you record while in court or a deposition, for example, your notes will be synced to the recording, so you can go to a specific place in your notes and listen to exactly what was said while you were writing. The recordings are clear and very useful. This feature is what sets Notability apart.           

Nebo: nebo.app ($9.99; it works better with a cloud storage account)

Nebo by MyScript is the best app for handwriting recognition. In fact, other apps and operating systems use MyScript’s technology for this purpose. While it’s available for iOS, MacOS, Windows and Android, it works best with iOS on an iPad. To take full advantage of Nebo’s strengths, you’ll need a device that uses an active stylus.

Nebo uses the notebook and page metaphor for organizing notes, which is intuitive and easy to use. Additionally, it supports 66 languages, should you need such a feature. You have the option to write or type your notes, and you can convert your handwritten notes to text, if you wish. And it does a great job of recognizing equations. Like most note-taking apps, it supports photos, lists and drawings. You can also import PDFs into Nebo and annotate them.          

Additionally, Nebo also allows you to export your notes to other platforms and even to publish them by creating a shareable link. The link can be public or private. Additionally, you can sync your notes across all platforms — though sometimes this function can be a bit eccentric. Make sure the note you are syncing is the latest version. Otherwise, syncing will overwrite a later version with an earlier version.          

If you really like the handwriting conversion feature, Nebo is the app for you.

Notion: notion.so (free, but $4 per month is best for an individual)

Notion is more than a note-taking app. It is also a task manager and productivity app. It is available for macOS, iOS, Windows and Android. You can also access your Notion account via a browser.

Notion is very powerful; consequently, there is a learning curve. For example, unlike most note-taking apps, you do not start out with a blank page to create a note. You have to deal with filling in (or deleting) multiple fields, such as title, tags, create date, update date, comment, etc.

Once you learn how to use Notion, it can replace tools like Todoist (for to-do lists), calendar apps, a cloud storage account and other note-taking apps like OneNote. Notion has numerous suggested templates that will help you get organized and be productive. Unfortunately, the biggest drawback for us is lack of handwriting support (except in the iPad app).    

You may want to give the free version of Notion a try to see if it fits your needs.

Come join us at the 2021 ALA Annual Conference & Expo in Austin, Texas. We’ll be presenting The Bill & Phil Show: It’s 2021, So Where Is My Flying Car? We’ll explore the current state of technology — and unveil some of the latest gadgets and innovations that every legal professional will want.