GoodNotes vs Notability: App Review [Updated for 2021]
Our original GoodNotes vs Notability article was published in Nov. 2019 but has been updated for 2021.
The GoodNotes vs Notability debate has been around for a while.
Both are powerful tools for students and business professionals who want to use their iPad and Mac devices like a digital whiteboard to capture handwritten notes and compile detailed documents.
How do they compare to one another, and which one is right for you? We originally reviewed both apps in 2019, but they’ve grown significantly since then.
Let’s take a fresh look at both apps and how they’re shaping up for 2021.
Bonus: check out our video review from late 2020 if you're not the reading type.
Table of contents
- 1. Display & User Interface
- 2. Document Management & Creation
- 3. Taking Notes
- 4. Storage, Backup and Sharing
- 5. Pricing & Updates
- GoodNotes vs Notability: Our Choice
Goodnotes vs Notability: The Breakdown
As you can see, both GoodNotes and Notability offer very similar features when it comes to note-taking.
From global search functionality to palm rejection and text conversion, you’ll find most of the features that you want inside both apps.
The difference is in the implementation of those features and the interface that you’ll be working with on a daily basis.
1. Display & User Interface
The first thing you’ll notice when comparing GoodNotes 5 and Notability is the app layout and user interface. Though both apps make it easy to find and navigate content, both apps handle this core functionality in a very different way.
When you open GoodNotes 5, you’ll be treated to either a list or grid layout (your choice), which displays all of your notes, folders, and notebooks in a quick and easy-to-read format. This has to do with the way GoodNotes wants you to create notes (more on this below), and it makes complete sense.
Notability takes a different approach. Opening the app, you’ll see your folders on the left sidebar and the notes within those folders displayed on the right. Aside from creating new subjects (folders) for your notes and dividers to separate your subjects, there’s not much to see here. It’s a practical, efficient, and effective no-frills approach.
Both methods are easy to follow and can help you manage multiple documents with ease. Thanks to global search functionality, it’s easy to find any content you need quickly from the main screen. Just tap the magnifying glass on either app and start your search.
GoodNotes 5 takes the win here, purely on aesthetics.
While navigation is simple and easy in both apps, it’s obvious that GoodNotes has put a bit more effort into “dressing up” the document management process, and both the navigation display and user interface benefit from those design choices.
2. Document Management & Creation
With Notability, document management is straightforward: From the main screen, you’ll create a subject and house all notes within that subject.
It’s simple, easy, and almost instantaneous.
This kind of organization isn’t even required — although we do recommend keeping your notes organized if you’re trying to keep track of multiple documents at a time.
With Notability, every note comes equipped with endless scrolling, which makes note-taking and categorization easy. Create a note for every classroom session or every meeting, take notes until you’re done, and start a new note next time. Keep your notes in the right folder and they’ll always be organized in a simple and logical way.
With GoodNotes, document management is a part of the creation process. When you create a new document in GoodNotes, the app will ask what kind of document you’d like to create. You can choose between a notebook, a folder, an image, and a few other options.
Creating a notebook follows a uniform workflow. Once you choose to create a notebook, you’ll be directed to a setup screen where you can choose your notebook cover and the type of paper you want to use. After you make these choices and give your notebook a name, a new note will open and you can start jotting down your handwritten notes.
GoodNotes treats every single notebook you create as a separate entity. All the customization options are there. You can add pages with ease or change themes, colors, and layouts. While this is great if you’re trying to contain a similar body of work in one place, you lose some navigational features in the process because switching between notes and notebooks isn’t as simple as it would be in Notability.
With Notability, exiting a note at the end of a session seems to serve as a strong breakpoint between sessions. End your session, then create a new note when you start the next one. Each note has its own title, and that makes navigation easy.
Using GoodNotes, you’re forced to either rely on the search feature or scroll through endless pages inside a notebook to get back to old content. This won’t always be ideal when you’re trying to find things quickly.
There are a few extra tidbits when considering customizations. While Notability is more practical, it’s also more limited. At times, this can be frustrating.
For example, GoodNotes users can change their paper theme on each page inside a notebook. If you need to draw a graph on page 17 of your notebook, you can change that page to dotted or squared paper with just a few taps and keep all other pages themed to your original preferences.
Notability users can’t do that. All pages inside a note are the same. Adding a new color or changing the paper template changes all pages in the entire note, which is a letdown if you only need to make a change for a specific use case.
Lastly, when it comes to keeping your notes in order, GoodNotes offers a few more options to help you keep everything neat and tidy. With Notability, you can create a subject or a divider. Dividers house subjects, and subjects house your notes. That’s only three layers of organization with very limited functionality.
However, GoodNotes users can enjoy vertical layers of custom organization thanks to the app’s nested folders (folders inside of folders). We tested it out to ten layers of depth, and GoodNotes would still let us create new folders — but ten layers of organization is probably more than anyone would ever need.
It’s also worth pointing out that it’s possible to use a folder and the GoodNotes “QuickNote” feature to create a layout structure similar to what Notability provides, but it’s not intuitive. The GoodNotes workflow makes it pretty clear that notebooks, which are designed for longer bodies of work, is the preferred way to do things.
Depends on your preference.
If you want to treat your note-taking app like a quick place to jot down important notes and ideas, Notability is probably the winner here. The streamlined, no-frills approach is perfect for people who just want to open the app and get started quickly.
With GoodNotes, creating a notebook feels more like a commitment — and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The app has a great aesthetic, looks amazing, and comes with a ton of features that feel good to use. The good looks and solidly built workflows are among our favorite features from both apps. The nested folders are also a huge plus.
If you’re likely to be working in the same space for a while, it makes sense to customize everything to your liking before you settle in. GoodNotes comes with a lot of options to make your experience feel unique and personal, which is a nice touch in the long term.
At the same time, both apps are designed for note-taking at the end of the day. They lack the utility for long-form word processing, as well as the artistic toolkit that you’ll find in Procreate or Photoshop.
To that end, the question for users is pretty simple: How much time do you plan to spend in the app, and how much customization do you really need to get the job done?
3. Taking Notes
Without a doubt, both GoodNotes and Notability provide a robust toolkit for taking notes. Both companies have spent a lot of time figuring out what works best for their users.
Ironically, that’s why many of the features offered by both apps are so similar. Both apps take advantage of the digital workspace, allowing you to customize your environment to suit your style and preferences.
You can change the color and design of your paper, as well as the size, color, and functionality of your tools without breaking a sweat. With both apps, you’ll get a selection of important tools, including a pen, a highlighter, an eraser tool, a lasso tool, and a shape tool.
GoodNotes shines in this area by providing a larger variety of pen types along with sliders for precise adjustments when choosing your stroke width. While Notability does allow users to pick how large or small lines should be, it lacks the fine-grained control you’ll find in GoodNotes.
On the other hand, Notability offers a unique audio recording feature for note-takers. Using Notability, users can record audio files while taking notes. When playing back audio, Notability will animate when the text was added to the page during the recording so that it’s easy to know what prompted you to write something down. For many college students, this audio syncing is a dream come true.
Notability also offers stickers as an in-app purchase. These can be highlighted and added to spruce up your notes. It’s possible to do this in GoodNotes by downloading stickers online and then using the lasso tool to copy/paste them into specific documents, but only Notability has a dedicated system set up to handle this process.
Recently, GoodNotes added flash cards as a new feature. This allows users to create flash cards within their digital notes by writing the question on the top half of the page and the answer on the bottom half. When the flash card review sequence is initiated, the app will present the front half of the card, and users can tap the screen to see the back half.
Both apps also feature a selection tool (lasso) to select and move anything on the page, but they differ in creating shapes. Since our last update, GoodNotes has added shape snapping into the app. Just like Notability, you can create shapes by simply drawing a shape anywhere on the page and the software will convert your drawn lines into your desired shape.
Speaking of conversions, both GoodNotes and Notability support handwriting to text conversions. To do this, you can highlight your handwriting with the selection tool and select “convert to text.” However, in Notability, this requires an additional in-app purchase for users who are buying the app after Jan 1, 2020.
Both apps will provide a preview window so that you can verify the conversion. In Notability, you can tap the “Convert” button, and the app will drop onto the page in a resizable text box. For GoodNotes users, you’ll have to follow an odd workflow where you copy the text from the conversion box and then manually paste it back onto the page — which is annoying.
On top of that, Notability now supports math conversions (another in-app purchase). The app will recognize common mathematical expressions, elements, and rules. This includes Greek symbols, chemical elements, rules, and mathematical terms. GoodNotes can convert basic mathematical functions to text (addition, subtraction, etc.), but the character recognition fails quickly if you get too complicated.
Notability also shines when working on multiple documents. While GoodNotes supports document tabs (think of tabbed browsing when surfing the web), Notability allows users to open two notes side by side in a split-screen view. This makes comparing notes much easier.
With iPadOS now supporting a multiple window feature, you can create a similar functionality by opening two instances of GoodNotes at the same time on your iPad. But it’s not the same as the native integration that Notability has supported for years.
Last but not least, both apps support using the Apple Pencil 2 or a 3rd party stylus for the iPad, so you can use your favorite drawing and sketching tools to create handwritten notes. The built-in palm rejection and left-handed support provided by either app make using your Apple Pencil 2 a no-brainer.
You can even add in a Paperlike screen protector so that the surface of your iPad feels like real paper!
This was a tough one for us, but we have to give it to Notability for the audio recording and math conversions.
While GoodNotes offers multi-note support, it sidesteps the feature because the app isn’t responsible for this function. Instead, GoodNotes relies on the operating system to do this by allowing users to open two separate instances of the application side by side.
GoodNotes is a formidable tool, especially with the added functionality around pen features and line stroke width, but the recording feature is one of our favorite perks. It’s just too good to pass up if you’re taking notes in a business meeting or during a lecture.
4. Storage, Backup, and Sharing
By default, both GoodNotes and Notability use Apple’s iCloud sync to back up your notes.
This is standard for most iOS devices, and it makes sense here since both apps also have an iPhone version and a Mac app. Using iCloud sync, everything automatically updates on all other Apple products.
Both apps also allow users to back up their files to 3rd-party storage services like Dropbox, Google Drive, and OneDrive using the Auto-Backup. Notability has a few more options (Box and WebDAV), and the backup process is roughly the same between both applications.
With Auto-Backup, users can select the service of their choice and create a secondary, one-way backup on that service. The iCloud sync still takes place unless separately disabled.
While both GoodNotes and Notability allow users to export files to share with other devices, each app handles some sharing aspects differently.
For example, Notability recently introduced link sharing, where users can create and share a publicly accessible link for anyone to view. While users are required to create an account in order to share content via link, viewers are not required to register with Notability in order to access that link. Notability links can be viewed in any browser, on any device.
GoodNotes is a little more limited in this regard because their link sharing is focused around collaboration. Using link sharing, GoodNotes provides a way for multiple GoodNotes users to collaborate on the same document. Unfortunately, the app doesn’t allow non-users to view notes via a browser or outside of their platform. Viewers must have an updated version of the app on their device.
Overall, these sharing options are useful if you have a PC or Android device that you need to use to access your data. In this case, you’d either email or export your note as a PDF file to one of the offered services and send it on its way. With Notability, you could also just share a public link.
If you’re sharing notes with another GoodNotes or Notability user, you could also send the GoodNotes file or Notability’s “Note” file so that the file can be imported directly to another user’s app.
Notability wins here based on the open access for link sharing.
Overall, we feel like it’s easier to share a link with other viewers than it is to export and send a file.
However, regardless of which app you choose, you’ll be able to share and export your documents. Your mileage may vary in terms of difficulty and ease of access, but it’s possible to share content out of both applications.
5. Pricing & Updates
It’s worth discussing price and updates before we wrap up, and this is where the GoodNotes vs Notability debate takes a distinct turn.
Both apps cost under $10 on the iPad app store, but what you get for your money varies between each app.
With GoodNotes, you’ll get the app for your iPad, iPhone, and Mac without any extra purchases required. This means that GoodNotes users can enjoy the app on all of their products and devices for no additional funds. Couple that with the fact that GoodNotes doesn’t offer in-app purchases, and it’s a great deal!
On the other hand, Notability sees the iOS and Mac apps as two separate softwares, which requires two separate purchases — meaning that you’ll have to buy it once for each operating system you own. Plus, some of Notability’s desirable features, like math conversions and handwriting recognition (if purchased after Jan 1, 2020) require an additional purchase through the app. And those costs can start to add up.
While neither app charges users for regular updates, Notability has consistently updated the same version of their app for years.
GoodNotes transitioned from GoodNotes 4 to GoodNotes 5 a few years ago, and it seems logical for the company to continue that trend. While they did offer a free upgrade from the legacy version for a full year, anyone who missed that window would end up needing to purchase the newest version of the app once again.
If you’re looking strictly at costs, GoodNotes is your best bet.
You’ll get more for your money, and you probably won’t have to worry about key features getting locked behind an in-app purchase.
However, Notability’s features are the right fit for some users, and we’re talking about a low-cost software purchase in either case.
With that in mind, we recommend picking either app based on features and use case, rather than cost.
GoodNotes vs Notability: Our Choice
When we first created this guide, we went into the GoodNotes vs Notability debate completely blind, and we didn’t look around to see what everyone else said before making our decision.
In the past few years, we’ve watched both apps grow and evolve. As a result, our position has shifted.
Based on what we see and how we think we (and our readers) would use these apps, we believe there is no clear winner here.
But wait! Hear us out.
Notability is more practical. Overall, for someone who just wants to take notes and get work done — especially on an “as needed” basis, Notability is the way to go.
If you’re opening up your note-taking app for a specific purpose, and you’re not planning to spend much time with it after the fact, the tools and features that this app provides are probably a great fit.
On the other hand, GoodNotes feels nicer to use. The app has some incredible features and, overall, the document creation workflow and user interface feel more complete.
When you’re jotting down your thoughts, creating a sketch, or looking for a dedicated workspace that you can truly call your own, the customization and functionality that GoodNotes offers makes you feel more comfortable and in control.
That wraps it up for the GoodNotes vs Notability debate. Did we miss a major point that you think we should mention? Keep the conversation going and let us know!
Until then, happy note-taking!