Hand writing on the iPad: Note taking with Notability

One of the reasons why I often prefer taking my iPad along as a note taking device rather than my MacBook Air, is that it offers the option for hand writing. In this post, I’ll outline the main features of my favourite note taking app, and how I use it to support my work.

The note taking app market for iPad is extremely crowded, with lots of different apps offering quite similar functionality. Having tried quite a range of alternatives, Notability is the one that has stayed with me, primarily because this is the app that I find most comfortable for hand writing. I also like the relatively clean UI. Several writing apps are rather ‘decorated’, but personally I prefer apps towards the minimalist end of the spectrum. Finally, being a high quality app with fairly rich features, it’s great value for money at 1 dollar in the app store.

So, first some notes on functionality:

Organising your notes

The UI offers categories, subjects and notes, which are hierarchically arranged. Notes can only be created within a subject. It’s easy to move notes back and forth between different subjects, or subjects back and forth between categories. Unfortunately, there are no tags in Notability.


Here are some of the things you can do in Notability:

Write typed notes. You can format your notes using paper in different colours, and adding lines or grids in different sizes. You can also format your writing with bold, italics, underline, bullet lists, and different types of fonts and colours. There is also a nice option for ‘book marking’ your three favourite fonts.

Write hand written notes. This is what I primarily use Notability for. As with written text, you can use a range of colours, and you can also adjust the thickness of the ‘pen’. There is also a zoom box (a must, in my opinion, for hand writing), and hand wrist support.

Insert text boxes, images, web clippings and sticky notes. Web clippings are useful if you want to integrate references to web pages into your notes. I sometimes also use the ‘photo’ option to take pictures of a power point slide, or a figure that someone has written on a black board, when I’m in a lecture or a seminar. That way, I get it all integrated into the same document, and it saves me trying to type up the text of the power point slide or replicate the drawing myself.

Import and annotate PDF files. Personally, I don’t use this option much, as I prefer to mark up PDFs in iAnnotate which has much richer annotation features. However, it’s very useful for students who want to have all their notes for school or university within the same app, or if you want to integrate comments to a specific text within the context of a longer lecture.

Take audio notes, which will sync with your written notes if you are typing and recording at the same time. This is an extremely useful feature; if you are wondering what was said in connection with particular sentences you have noted down, you can just tap on that part of the note to listen to the related recording.

Importing and sharing

Notability connects with DropBox (as well as other cloud services such as Google Drive and WebDAV), and I use this function to import and export files and to keep all my notes auto synced, so that they all appear in my DropBox as PDF files (I love apps that just take care of that stuff without you having to think about it). You can also email notes, or select ‘open in another app’ to export it to, for example, Evernote, Circus Ponies Notebooks, or iAnnotate.

While Notability can be used for a wide range of things, here’s the place it occupies in my workflow:

Notetaking on the iPad when I don’t have my keyboard. I don’t like typing for very long on the iPad screen, so if I’m in a situation where I have to take notes without a keyboard, I usually switch to taking notes with a stylus.

Restructuring writing in progress. While I’m a great fan of outliner tools (which I’ll write a post on later) and use them extensively for my work, I sometimes like to rework and develop ideas for my articles-in-progress through hand writing. This is, I think, because it slows me down – and sometimes that’s an advantage when I’m a bit ‘stuck’ in the process and need to work a bit slowly at unpacking concepts and making new connections. Later, I import the pdf file with my notes to Scrivener on my mac, so I can view it next to my draft text as I’m writing.

Noting down graphs or figures. If I’m in a situation where it’s not practical or appropriate to just take a photo of graphs or figures that people put on black boards and flip charts, I use Notability to capture their content through hand writing.

Notability is one of my ‘mid level apps’ for content creation. For example, as I’ve written about before, I think Circus Ponies Notebooks is an excellent app for storing and organising work related notes. However, I really dislike the CPN hand writing feature on the iPad, and I even find the typing in the CPN iPad version a bit clumsy. So, I often find it easier to type up notes in Notability, and later export them to CPN.

Another strong contender to Notability is 7notes HD Premium. I pretty much rate it equally to Notability, but I happen to prefer Notability’s hand writing feature. A great feature in the premium version of 7notes, which is missing in Notability, is their hand writing to text conversion. This means that your hand written notes are converted to text, which in turn makes it much easier to create searchable files from your hand writing. Unfortunately, my hand writing is pretty sloppy, which resulted in me using about the same amount of time correcting the text prediction as I did actually generating text, so I returned to pure hand writing in Notability. However, if you write a bit tidier than I do, this feature can really improve your work flow. Here’s a screen shot for illustration

Lastly, another little app I really like is Paper. I never use this for work purposes, but it is easy to create beautiful little hand written notes in there – most recently, I used it to create a congratulations note for a colleague who had just been awarded her PhD.

If you recommend any particular apps for hand writing on the iPad, let me know in the comments section!

Related posts on this blog:

Hand writing on the iPad II: Hand writing to text conversion


About macademise

I am a researcher working in the intersection of anthropology, learning and cognition.
This entry was posted in hand writing, iPad, outlining, pdf annotation, writing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Hand writing on the iPad: Note taking with Notability

  1. Pingback: Academic workflows: when to use what, and how | Macademise

  2. Pingback: Circus Ponies Notebook part II: the iPad version | Macademise

  3. Pingback: Academic note taking: Circus Ponies Notebooks versus Evernote | Macademise

  4. Pingback: Hand writing on the iPad II: Hand writing to text conversion | Macademise

  5. Pingback: Hand writing on the iPad II: Hand writing to text conversion | Macademise

  6. Pingback: Hand writing on the iPad II: Hand writing to text conversion | Macademise

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  8. Colin Online says:

    Many thanks for sharing your experiences and thoughts for others to digest. I wanted to strongly recommend MyScript Notes, or the free version; MyScript Memo for hand writing and then having that converted into text – especially if you use Evernote to store your notes.
    My reason for recommending this app so highly is its ability to read absolute scrawl. You can write fast and furious and it converts with amazing accuracy. It is especially good for quick note taking as there is not an app per se to navigate around, more a blank page to write on as the app opens, and then convert & export quickly, then move on. Very good app both in the quick Memo form, and the feature rich Notes form.

    • macademise says:

      Thanks for that, Colin. I’ve tried MyScript Memo in the past, but not very properly, and it eventually went back in my App Store archive. I might have another look at it. I do have its calculator counterpart on my iPad (MyScript Calculator).

  9. Dellu says:

    Can 7notes HD Premium sync the audio with the hand-writing. As you pointed out, syncing the audio with the writing is extremely useful feature (Ponies notebook can also do so)

  10. Pingback: Evernote

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