As somebody who used to be hooked on my Palm PDA because of all the time management stuff it could do, my migration to iOS (iPad and iPhone) is far more focused on productivity apps than games. For instance, I’ve bought most of the digital ink, note-taking apps available for the iPad and I’ve recently picked a favorite. Noteshelf.

Main Level of my Noteshelf (above)

In reviewing all of the features of the various digital ink apps available, the single most important thing is how well it translates what you think you’re writing into pixels on the screen. You often hear mentions of the “inking algorithm” and what people are trying to describe is how well the motions of your stylus (or finger) are accurately tracked and saved as digital ink pixels. And when you’re scribbling quickly, if the app can capture your strokes accurately, the algorithm is better. NOTE: Just to be clear, these programs do NOT convert writing into typed characters. (I haven’t found a single OCR for writing that saves more time than it wastes.)

One of the explanation pages from the Noteshelf User Guide (above)

Besides Great Inking…

While I have yet to find a “perfect” digital ink program that always captures exactly what I scribble, there are a half dozen or so that are quite good and on par with one another. So then you start looking at other features which make one inking program better than its competitors. Big features that matter are things like:

  • Does it include an option for typing?
  • Is it easy to find and organize various pages/notes/collections, etc.?
  • Is editing type and ink easy and intuitive?
  • Does it have a “zoom mode” for more accurate writing?
  • Does it have a ‘wrist guard’ so you can rest your hand on the tablet as you write?
  • Can you snap or import photos and then crop, scale, and annotate them?
  • Can you password protect notes?
  • Can notes be shared and printed easily?

With respect to all of these points, Noteshelf is at least as good as the best in class competitors, with one notable exception… It is absolutely the best, most intuitively organized app for taking notes, bar none!

As the name suggests, it uses a bookshelf analogy for visual organization of notebooks. It gives you the option to put as many notebooks as you like on the main shelf, or you can group collections of notebooks together and tapping on the group, opens a 2nd level shelf with as many notebooks as you want. For instance, I have a group of all my notes for work. In that group I have a couple dozen notebooks, each representing a topic. It’s that simple.

Besides great organization, Noteshelf is also the only app I know of, that lets you design and import your own papers, and you can even mix papers within any given notebook. I have several forms we use all the time at my office and I’ve added them as pages to various notebooks. Now I can fill out an ‘official’ form from the office, digitally sign it, and email it as a PDF, all from within  Noteshelf. It also has custom cover options, but that’s just cool and makes the visual organization even nicer. It’s not really a make or break feature.

 The missing big feature

Speaking of big features that you might be looking for, audio recording is not a part of this app. Now, that’s okay with me because I’m rarely in an environment where I can record decent audio while I’m taking notes. I suppose if I were still in college, I would want that function. If that’s you, go for my 2nd favorite note taking app Notability. It does ink and typing as well as anything in Noteshelf and it adds recording audio. – My big problem with Notability is the comparatively difficult organizational structure. My other big problem is that, while the program is very robust, the instructions and tutorials to use it are not. I learned a little from a built in ‘Welcome’ note, some from built in help, some from videos at the developer’s web site, yet I still had unanswered questions about functionality, saving and sharing files, etc.

Notability comparison of how notes are organized (above)

Again, Noteshelf outshines Notability with their very comprehensive getting started note (User Guide). It’s 17 pages and will take 10 or 15 minutes to digest, but if you do, you’ll know everything about the app without any blanks. Then again, because the app is so intuitive, you’re welcome to jump right in and you’ll probably get it.

Noteshelf and Notability are both great digital ink, typing, note taking apps for the iPad, and you’ll love either one. But if intuitive visual organization is important to you, pick Noteshelf. If you need audio recording, pick Notability, and spend some time learning how to keep your notes organized and categorized.

You can get Noteshelf for $5.99 here from the iTunes

You can get Notability for $0.99 here from the iTunes


A word about iPhone compatibility

Unfortunately none of these digital inking apps has an iPhone version available. However, I have found that I can save all my notes (or just selected ones) from Noteshelf or Notability into my free Dropbox account as PDFs and that way I can get to them from my IPhone, even if I can’t edit them.