Hack Your Notes!

Sleek apps that turn your iPhone or iPad into great note-taking devices.

Sloppy note takers now have more options

Many a student, journalist, and businesswoman has suffered for her flawed note taking. You accidentally get a name or a year wrong. You botch the transcription of a quote because you can’t type fast enough. You completely misunderstand the gist of a meeting, class, or speech because you cannot read your own handwriting.

A spate of products endeavors to make sure that never happens. There are applications for your laptop, like OneNote. There are Web-based and smartphone products, like Evernote. There are awesome, newfangled tools, like the Livescribe pen, which lets you write like normal on a piece of paper but records audio and transfers your notes to your computer. And the most recent wave of sleek tools aims to make your iPad or your iPhone as good as your computer or a pencil for jotting things down in the boardroom or classroom.

Just in time for the new school year, I tried out the most popular iPad and iPhone options to determine which made the biggest difference in the quality and accuracy of my note taking. I asked: How easy was the app to use? What bonus features and doodads were on offer? And how simple was it for me to send notes to myself or to my peers for editing, studying, and polishing?

All three of the apps I tested, AudioNote, Notability, and SoundNote, offer remarkably similar services. They let you create, title, and organize notes. They let you record audio. They let you add drawings, so that you can sketch as well as type. And they let you email your notes, so that you can expand on them, edit them, or share them when you are done.

They also all offer one awesome technical advance: syncing your notes to the audio recording. Say you were halfway through a business meeting, using one of the programs to record it and to type out ideas. A colleague elaborates on a product launch in September. You write, “Sept. product launch.” Later, when you open up the note, you can just click on those words to hear that exact part of the conversation.

That means no more searching for a specific passage in a lecture. It means never again mucking up a quote you cannot get down. And, for journalists, if not for budding academics, it makes writing notes much easier. Rather than spelling something out, you need only write enough to remind yourself of it. Phrases like “explanation of 2002 strategy” and “funny quote about colleague” and “this guy is such a jerk” become useful shorthand rather than useless glyphs.

So what differentiates the apps? Notability ($2.99) is the Christmas tree in the forest, with its host of features, doodads, and widgets. The app lets you add clips from Web pages, photos, charts, and video into your notes. It lets you drag, drop, and resize media within a note, too. And unlike its competitors, Notability allows for all sorts of text formatting. While typing, you can add tabs and headers, bold and italics and colors, different fonts, bullet points, and checklists. It makes the interface more complicated, but it makes the notes easier to read.

SoundNote ($4.99) is more minimalist, easier to use at first, and always simpler for those of us with fat fingers. It lets you draw, take notes, record audio, and email your files. But that is pretty much it. AudioNote ($4.99) splits the difference, and might be my favorite to use. Its screen looks like a real notepad, and the overall style is more handsome than SoundNote’s. Whenever you press Enter and start a new line, it adds a tiny timestamp. It also has some useful text formatting, like a handy highlighter function.

It does seem that the bells and whistles tend to make Notability and AudioNote less stable, at least on my iPad 2. SoundNote never crashed, and never erred in sending my notes to me. AudioNote froze my machine up once. And Notability never did send me my files with the audio attached for some reason. But all three have much to recommend them and offer a vast leap over traditional methods of note taking—at least for those of us with woeful handwriting and the need to get down lots of quotes.

But all these newfangled apps do raise a question: Is your iPad, smartphone, or tablet really an ideal place to be taking notes, anyway? I, at least, need to hunt and peck with two fingers to type on my iPad, slowing me down considerably. I can imagine wanting a keyboard to take down sufficient notes in a detailed class or lecture, as opposed to an interview I plan on splicing up anyway. Moreover, such tablets remain expensive, niche products, ones I’m sure most college and high-school students cannot afford and do not have. Make these products for a laptop. I’d consider that notable.