Finding a Good Apple Pencil Handwriting Note App

I want a smart notebook, not a digital version of my paper notebook.

Over the weekend I downloaded as many “handwritten notes” apps as I could find on the App Store to test and find what might be the best for using my 9.7″ iPad Pro as a notepad while I work. I was planning on writing one of those posts where I go through them all, but after searching hard and testing dozens, there’s none which I have found good enough to talk about.

There are some promising apps, like Notability, Noteshelf, Notes Plus, Notepad+ — but they all have a fundamental flaw. For some reason each of these apps try harder to replicate what you would get from a paper notebook, than to take advantage that they are digital.

There seems to be more time spent trying to get the ink flows to look natural, than consideration given for what might actually make the app better for users.

A few things I am actually surprised you can’t find in each of these apps:

  • User customizable grids. Most seem to be just rendered images that you draw on, but it would make way more sense to just let me tweak a grid to the exact size I want.
  • Shape identification. I find it hard to believe that these apps don’t work to detect an arrow, rectangle, circle — and then “clean it up” for the user. This should be a setting, of course, but as someone who sucks at drawing why wouldn’t I want the app to aid me and make my notes look cleaner? Paper by FiftyThree does this, but it’s a sketching app, not a note app.
  • Task list integration: not only should I be able to send a selected bit of the document to my task management app of choice, but the app should know when I am making a task and do that for me. If I put a little checkbox next to the sentence, make that into a task and OCR the text the best you can, or attach a picture to the task — do something smart with it.
  • Detectable bookmarks and important information. If I star something, underline it a bunch, hell even highlight it with the highlighter tool that is built into the app — the app should know this bit is important and list those bits out somewhere convenient in the app.

All of the apps I tried failed at any aspect of this, and almost feel like they are outrightly against such features. It’s rather baffling. There’s a lot of good stuff in these apps, but all the good stuff is doing its best to replicate paper notebooks, not to level up paper notebooks.

There’s a market for these type of apps, but there is a much larger market for taking everything which makes paper notebooks great, and fixing all the things about those notebooks which makes them terrible.

It has yet to be a full year of the Apple Pencil being out, so my hope is that developers have some nice surprises in store for the fall, as the iPad was never really a huge drawing tool until the Pro models came to be.