I've recently updated the tools that I use to take handwritten notes on my iPad. First, I updated my hardware; I now use the Wacom Bamboo Stylus that I reviewed two days ago. Second, I updated the software that I use on my iPad. For a long time I had been using Note Taker HD. It is a powerful app but has a confusing interface and it lacks one feature that I found in another great app Notes Plus, the ability to see your prior writings in a magnification window (I'll explain what I mean by that in a moment), but Notes Plus lacked the speed of Note Taker HD. And then there is Noteshelf, an app that has a beautiful interface but isn't quite as powerful as those other two. For a few weeks now I've been using another note-taking app called GoodNotes. GoodNotes is a $3.99 app (the developer sent me a free version to review) that includes the best of all of the features that I loved in Note Taker HD, Notes Plus and Noteshelf.
[For an update to this review, see this post from July 16, 2012.]
GoodNotes has a nice interface that is easy to use. You take notes in notebooks (which can contain as many pages as you want). You can create covers for notebooks if you want. You can organize notebooks into folders, and you view the notebooks in each folder on a series of shelves that mimics the iBooks interface.
Viewing a Notebook
Once you tap on a notebook, you can view the pages. Just swipe left and right to move between pages and pinch to zoom.
The button at the top right allows you to take notes on a page using, for example, the pen tool. The button at the top left shows you the different pages in the notebook and gives you a link to return to the main library.
From here you can rearrange pages, delete pages, copy and paste pages, export individual pages from a notebook, etc.
Pen, Highlighter and Eraser
You have a choice of three pens. First, you have a thick highlighter with two different pen sizes and five different colors. When you highlight text, the text underneath the highlighting stays dark — unlike some apps that make the underlying text hard to read when you add highlighting. Second, you have a pen with three different tip sizes and ten different colors. Third, you have an eraser.
Magnified Input Field
All good iPad note-taking apps include a magnified input field so that you can write in a large window at the bottom of the app and have the text appear smaller on the page itself. This is the only way to get a large number of words on an iPad page because the iPad cannot recognize input that is as small as the tip of a real pen. Apps like Note Taker HD and Notes Plus notice when you are getting to the end of the magnified input window and let you continue writing in the left portion of the window. In Note Taker HD, however, it is tough to know exactly where you need to start writing again. Notes Plus solves this by showing you the text you have already written in that left portion of the magnified window so that you can see exactly where to place the next letter. GoodNotes works the same way and it works great. Better yet, the text input is very fast even when in the magnified window mode, just like Note Taker HD, and unlike Notes Plus which I find to have a slight lag.
You can change the magnification in this input field by pinching inside of the magnification window, making it easy to add the small print that some lawyers are famous for. You can also adjust the side margin so that when you get to the end of one line, you don't start all the way at the edge of the page. (In the pictures above, that dotted blue line represents the left margin that I created.)
Select and Move Text
Sometimes you write something, and then you realize that you want to put something else just before it. Thus, it is nice to be able to select something that you have written and move it around. GoodNotes has the best feature that I've seen for this. Just tap the selection tool (right next to the eraser) and circle some text. (If you select any part of a pen stroke, the entire pen stroke is selected, even parts that fall out of the circle.) Then you simply drag the text to some other location.
Add Typed Text
Sometimes you want to type something on a page instead of writing with a stylus (or your finger). You can create a text input box by tapping two fingers at the same time on the screen. Depending upon how far apart your fingers are, that is the size of the text input box. You can then type using the keyboard, or paste text that you have copied from some other app, or dictate text if you have a third generation iPad.
Import and Annotate Files
You can import files into GoodNotes a number of different ways. For example, the app lets you import a picture from your Photos library (or take a picture using the iPad's camera) and then you can use the tools to annotate a photograph. (Read this post from a year ago to understand why this can be incredibly useful in a deposition.) In addition to using a picture as your entire page, you can also insert a picture into a page and then resize it to make it take up as much of the page as you want.
You can also use the "Open in..." menu to open a file such as a PDF file from an e-mail. Or, from within GoodNotes, you can import a file from Dropbox or Box.net. I have found this to be very handy when a colleague sends me a PDF file and I want to annotate it. Using the pen and highlighter, I can circle things, draw in the margins, highlight text and then e-mail back the annotated file when I am done.
You can also import a file and then use it as a template for future notebooks. GoodNotes comes with several notebook templates including a blank page, a page with lines on it, a page with a grid (like graph paper) and even a page with music staffs. But you can create any other background on your computer and then use it as a basis for a new template. For example, I thought it might be nice to have lined paper that also had a dotted red line on sides to create a left and right margin, so I took the built-in template with lines (called "Ruled Paper") and then used a PDF program on my computer to draw two dotted lines. I sent that file back to GoodNotes and made it my new default template:
GoodNotes does not have every feature of those other apps I mentioned. For exaple, unlike Notes Plus, it cannot convert handwriting into text or create perfect circles and squares. In fact, unlike many other apps, GoodNotes cannot insert shapes at all (although the developer says that this is planned for a future release). But when it comes to the features that I find most useful in other apps when taking notes, GoodNotes has them all, and the app itself is very fast to use. And while there is always tension between ease of use and features, I find that GoodNotes strikes the right balance, packing a lot of capability into a good looking and relatively intuitive interface.
If you want to take handwritten notes on your iPad, I highly recommend that you get yourself a stylus and download a copy of GoodNotes. This is an excellent app that has quickly become one of the most-used apps on my iPad. If you want to try before you buy, there is a free version of the app that limits you to two notebooks, a limitation that can be removed with a $3.99 in-app purchase.