Taking notes on an iPad

I like taking notes on my iPad—I have had an iPad for a couple of years now and I find that by using a stylus, I can take handwritten notes in a way that feels a lot like writing in a notebook and I get the advantages of being able to easily edit what I’ve written and to easily save and move the resulting files as needed. Since I often get questions about how I use the iPad to take notes I thought I’d do a blog on the topic.

To be clear, I still use paper and pen—I almost always have a notebook or a small stack of index cards with me for times when I want to quickly jot something down and I don’t want to spend the time needed to turn on the iPad, find the right app, and get my stylus out. There are also times when all I have with me is my phone and I’ll use my thumbs to type out a quick note or reminder (or ask Siri to take and save a note). But for this post I’m talking about taking notes at a meeting—at a time when I’m sitting and comfortable (or as comfortable as you can get at a meeting), when I want to keep engaged with the discussion, and when I want to have a document as a record of the meeting.

I tried a number of apps and I have found that what I like is an app that works well with a low-tech stylus and that does a good job at simulating writing on a piece of paper or in a notebook. The two apps I now use almost exclusively are Notability and Goodnotes.

Notability was the first note-taking app I found and it is often my default choice. For me each document feels like I’ve just opened up a new tablet of paper but instead of flipping the paper over at the end of each page, the paper is on a long continuous roll. You can adjust the color and thickness of the pen and choose paper that is either plain or lined. In the original app, there was an adjustable gray area along the bottom of the writing surface where your wrist could rest without causing any marks to be made on the paper. The newest version of Notability has dropped that feature and improved the software to differentiate between even a simple stylus and your wrist. There are also options to bring in other images (e.g., a photo or a pdf), to use a highlighter, and to use a “scissors” that lets you cut out an area of the document and move it (or rotate it) to a different position. You can also attach audio files to the document, but I admit that I haven’t used that feature.

Goodnotes is my other go to app for taking notes. In Goodnotes you create notebooks where each notebook has the feel of a spiral notebook but there’s no limit to the number of pages in the notebook. While I prefer Notability if I want to take notes for a stand alone meeting or where I want to be able to file my notes by date (e.g., notes I take in committee meetings), I turn to Goodnotes if I’m slowly collecting ideas for a new course or research project or if I’m at a multi-day workshop. Goodnotes has most of the same features as Notability but it also syncs across multiple devices, i.e., I can access my notebooks from my phone or my iPad without having to take any extra steps. One of the other features of Goodnotes that I like is that you have the option of working in a zoom window—a zoomed view of the page that corresponds to a rectangular area on the page. My handwriting can be a bit messy at times and working in the zoom window lets me write in a large size but the writing looks much smaller in the document itself.

Using my iPad for notetaking with a stylus satisfies my preference for handwriting my notes in meetings and the small size of the iPad and using the iPad to access other meeting documents, e.g., agendas, makes it easy to travel between multiple meetings without having to carry a lot of stuff.   I admit that when the iPad first came out, I wasn’t sure that I’d ever find a use for one; the ability to take notes easily on the iPad now means that I rarely go anywhere without it.

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