Note Taking Software – A Guide to Choosing the Best App For You
When it comes to note taking software there is no one-size-fits-all, but there are important features everyone should consider. That’s because you’ll want to be sure your note taking app will handle your needs today, and into the future. The worst thing is to invest in a note taking app by filling it with notes, only to discover that you now need a feature that it does not support.
Note Taking Software Checklist
When evaluating note taking software, use this checklist of important features to compare the different apps, and evaluate how an app will satisfy your needs now, and in the future:
- Support for “rich” text notes (multiple fonts, colors, styles, etc.)
- Can add attachments to notes
- Voice annotated notes
- Support for diagrams and sketches
- Can turn notes into “action items”
- Supports structured note taking
- Supports “free-form” note taking
- Ability to organize separate note taking sessions
- Traditional simple text search
- Advanced search function (to avoid waisting time picking through reams of search results)
- Export notes, for sharing with others
- Support for both your computer and your mobile device
Storing Notes and Other Information
By definition a note taking app needs to store text notes. Most users assume apps support “rich” text—multiple fonts, colors, styles like underline and strikethrough, tabs stops, and alignment like center and justified. Almost all apps on the Mac do support rich text, but be aware that 98% of iPhone and iPad apps do not support rich text. That’s because the iOS does not include a rich text “object” that app developers can easily add to their applications, so adding rich text support on iOS means writing that object from scratch (which is hard).
But notes often mean more than just text. If you’re collecting notes on a project, for example, you may want to include a spreadsheet with some important figures, or a PDF. A note taking app should therefore also support adding attachments to your notes.
If you plan to use the app for serious note taking, you’ll want to be sure it supports voice annotation. Voice annotation is the process of recording the person who’s speaking while you’re taking notes, and syncing that recording to your notes. If you miss an important point while taking notes, or are confused by what you’ve written, voice annotation can help fill in the blanks. It’s also handy for reviewing material, as with a student prepare for an exam by listening again to a class.
Notes are often task-related, so the ability to create action items, or to turn notes into action items, can be important. An action item in this case means at a minimum a checkbox. Some note taking apps let you add due dates and even export your action items to your calendar.
Other “non-text” type notes include diagrams and sketches. You may or may not be a big diagrammer or sketcher, but like attachments, when selecting a note taking app you’ll want to carefully consider whether you might need these features at some point.
As you load more and more notes into a note taking app, its organizational features will start to become essential. Some apps present your notes as a list, or a hierarchical list with folders and subfolders. If you’ve used the Mac Finder much, you’ll know that this system breaks down pretty quickly – in fact, if you’re working with lots of notes, the apps that take this approach are not much better than just creating folders in the Finder to storing your notes in text files.
Ideally, a note taking app will let you create structured notes – think “outline” while taking notes in a meeting or lecture. But not all situations require structure, so you should also have the option to take notes in a free-form fashion. A note taking app also needs to provide a secondary level of organization, so that you can keep your note taking sessions grouped with and separated from other sessions. One great real-world example is the paper notebook. A paper notebook often contains dividers that group and organize the individual note taking sessions (i.e. the pages). You have the flexibility to fill each note taking session (page) with freeform or structured notes. If you’re an ex-Windows user familiar with OneNote, you recognize this approach (and that OneNote Mac does not exist).
Especially as you collect more and more notes, your note taking app’s search features will become crucial. That’s because not being able to find an important note when you need it is the equivalent of not having that note at all!
All note taking apps include a text search function. A huge problem with this traditional approach to searching is the number of “hits” you get back from a search. If you’ve used Spotlight on the Mac, or Evernote Mac, for example, you know that a search often returns hundreds of matches. What these programs then leave you to do is pick through the long list of matches until you find the one you’re looking for. But isn’t that the computer’s job, to pick through all the possibilities to find the one you’re looking for?!
Another downside to traditional text search is that it doesn’t cover all the ways your brain recalls information. For example, maybe what you remember about the note you’re looking for is not a word but an attachment it contains, or maybe the date you last edited that note.
Exporting Your Notes
In case you need to share your notes with others you’ll want to make sure your note taking software includes options to export your notes (and most do). This includes everything from PDF export, to export in other file formats like OPML (“outline processor markup language”), to HTML.
If your note taking app supports attachments, how do you open those attachments in their native app? Are they trapped in the note taking app’s database, or easy to access in a pinch? Can you make changes to the attachments? If so, do those changes live in the copy of the attachment that’s stored in your notes, or do they go into a separate, new document that lives outside of your notes?
Support for Desktop and Mobile Devices
With the emergence of powerful mobile devices, we now have the option to reference and even create our notes at places other than just our desktop. There are a number of note taking apps that run on both the Mac and iOS platforms. An important consideration, though, is how well do your notes translate between those environments. For example, if a note taking app supports rich text and attachments on the desktop, does it also do so on your iPad? Again, because it’s so much harder to create apps that support rich text and attachments on iOS, the surprising answer might be no. If you only have a Mac today, you might have an iPad in the future.