Goodnotes vs Notability: App Review [Updated for 2022]
Our GoodNotes vs Notability article was most recently updated in April 2022.
The GoodNotes vs Notability debate has been around for years.
Both apps 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.
So how do they compare to one another, and which one is right for you? We originally reviewed both apps in 2019, and we’ve kept an eye on them every year since.
With so many new features released recently, we’ve taken a fresh look at each app to help you figure out which app can deliver the best note-taking experience in 2022.
Ready? Let's go.
1. Display & User Interface
The first thing you’ll notice when comparing GoodNotes 5 and Notability is the app layout and user interface. While both apps make search and navigation easy, they each approach this core functionality in a very different way.
#caption# The GoodNotes user interface can be sorted as a list or a grid (shown), and arranged by date, name, and file type. You can’t manually arrange your items, which is why we’ve used numbers to force the sorting.
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 and organize your notes and notebooks (more on this below), and it makes complete sense. You can also tap on the name of any document or folder to access additional menu items.
You’ll also notice a menu at the bottom of the GoodNotes app, which includes the search tool, a place for your shared documents, and quick access to your bookmarked note pages (favorites). You may also have access to the GoodNotes Community through a tab in the bottom right of your screen, but this feature isn’t yet available to all users.
#caption# Notability’s user interface is clean, simple, and straightforward. Grid view (shown) gives you an easy way to parse your notes while list view is more compact.
Notability takes a different approach. Opening the app, you’ll see your subjects (folders) on the left sidebar. The notes you’ve housed within those subjects are displayed as either a list or a grid on the right. You can add dividers, which function as collapsible toggles, to help keep your workspace neat and tidy.
Aside from creating new subjects for your notes and dividers to separate your subjects, there’s not much else to see here. It’s a practical, efficient, and effective no-frills approach. That makes it perfect for users who prefer a more spartan or minimalist take on layout design.
While Notability’s user interface is more streamlined, it also hides the option to share, duplicate, or trash your notes. You can access the submenu for any note or subject by tapping and holding until the menu pops up.
One shortfall in Notability is the lack of visibility for bookmarked note pages. These bookmarks can be accessed from within the original note, but you’ll need to find and access that note before you can view those bookmarks.
GoodNotes takes the win here, both on aesthetics and ease of access to important documents.
While navigation is simple and easy in both apps, 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.
If you like to bookmark important notes for later use, GoodNotes also gains a major advantage here by having a dedicated tab for those favorited items.
With GoodNotes, you could bookmark a page or notebook and refer back to it six months later with ease. Because Notability lacks simplified navigation to these pages, it’s much harder to find bookmarked items if you lose track of the original note.
2. Document Management & Creation
If you’re trying to stay organized using Notability, the app provides two essential tools — subjects and dividers — to help you stay on top of everything. This is helpful when you need to keep track of multiple documents simultaneously or create several notes in a single day.
Overall, Notability’s document management is straightforward: From the main screen, you’ll create a subject on the left sidebar and house all notes within that subject.
You can also drag and drop notes between subjects, so relocating a misplaced note is simple and easy.
Strictly speaking, this level of organization isn’t even required. Notability has sorting tools that allow you to sort notes based on name, modified date, and created date. If you’re just creating notes on an ad-hoc basis, you could keep everything in the “All Notes” tab and access every note that way.
#caption# From left to right: The left sidebar is Notability’s main organizational function. You can also sort your notes by name, modified date, or created date by tapping the arrows in the upper right corner. Create new notes using the blue button at the bottom.
To create a new note, all you need to do is hit the little blue button in the bottom right corner of the Notetability interface, and the app will instantly create a new note within the subject you’ve selected on the left sidebar.
And that’s it. Note creation in Notability is fast and simple, without any unnecessary frills or setup. It’s great for users who need to take notes now and want to figure out the rest later.
The velocity of note creation also encourages you to create new notes often. 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 subject and they’ll always be organized in a simple and logical way.
Notes within Notability do come with a default template, as well as seamless, vertical scrolling. You can change all of these preferences under the “Documents” tab within the Settings Menu. The default template is what Notability uses to generate any new note.
#caption# Inside Notability’s settings, you can change your default templates and default note view. Both of these settings can also be changed on a per-note basis.
You can also switch from seamless/vertical to single-page scrolling so that you’ll have to swipe left and right to switch between the pages of your notes. This is great for users who want a little more definition regarding how their notes fill up the page.
However, keep in mind that while these settings are global defaults, they’re just starting points. Much like in GoodNotes, you can change both the template and the scrolling direction on a per-note basis from the Options menu inside each note, which allows you to pick and choose how each note acts based on your needs.
With GoodNotes, document management and creation is a two-part process. When you try to create a new document in GoodNotes, the app will ask what kind of document you’d like to create (notebook, folker, image, etc.) and then guide you through the appropriate workflow.
#caption# GoodNotes gives you a ton of options for document creation. Use Notebooks to hold notes and Folders to store your Notebooks and other files.
And this is where things get a little complicated.
What you choose to create determines what options you have. Notebooks and QuickNotes will hold your notes, images, and scanned documents while folders can hold anything.
But while Notebooks can hold other types of content, like pictures and PDFs, that’s only true if you add those through the notebook submenu.
If you use the image option to import a photo through the document creation workflow, GoodNotes treats that photo as a standalone object.
This isn’t a huge issue, though, because GoodNotes allows you to easily move or combine pages and notebooks. You can drag and drop to rearrange your pages or select one or more pages to move to a different notebook.
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 select 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.
#caption# When you create a Notebook using GoodNotes, you need to go through the setup process where you pick a cover and default page layout.
GoodNotes treats every single notebook you create as a separate entity, and all customization options are unique to each notebook — down to the individual page. Within a notebook, you can change themes, colors, and layouts on a page-by-page basis.
This is great if you’re trying to contain a similar body of work in one place. You don’t have to generate a new note just because you need to change the layout or format of your pages. All you’d need to do is change your paper theme to the selected page.
So if you needed to create a graph on page 17 of your notebook, you could change that page to dotted or squared paper with just a few taps and keep all other pages in your notebook themed to your original preferences.
#caption# In GoodNotes, you can change page templates on a per-page basis. Dive into the notebook settings menu (top right) and hit Change Template to change the page you’re working on.
Notability users can’t do that. In Notability, all pages inside a note are the same. Adding a new color or changing the page template changes every page in the entire note, which means that you’ll need to create an entirely new note in order to create your graph in ideal conditions.
For GoodNotes users, this level of versatility is a plus, especially because it removes the need for tedious switching between notes as soon as your needs change.
The potential downside to this method is that navigation isn’t as simple as it would be in Notability. But, thanks to bookmarking and the Favorites tab on the main menu, it’s actually easier to find the things you want using the GoodNotes system.
You can also use the search function, which features handwriting recognition in the full version, to locate items. GoodNotes can recognize your handwriting and will recognize it when you search. Notability can do the same thing, but it’s a paid feature that’s locked behind an annual subscription or an in-app purchase (for users on the Classic Plan).
#caption# GoodNotes search uses optical character recognition. Tap the search button in the bottom toolbar and get to searching!
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 for your documents.
However, GoodNotes users can enjoy vertical layers of custom organization thanks to the app’s nested folders (folders inside of folders). We tested it to 10 layers of depth, which is probably more than anyone will ever need, and GoodNotes would still let us create new folders with no problems.
The GoodNotes workflow makes it pretty clear that notebooks, which are designed for large collections of work, are the preferred way to organize and manage your content.
On the other hand, Notability takes a more simplified approach to organization. Notes go in subjects, and that’s that.
Depends on your preference.
If you want to treat your notetaking 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.
However, if that’s the case, you might want to look at something like Apple Notes, Evernote, or Microsoft OneNote before you jump head-first into an annual subscription fee.
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.
Nested folders in GoodNotes are also a huge plus for productivity geeks and organizational wonks who want to organize their workspace based on their own system or workflow.
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.
The other factor to consider is searchability. If you’re planning to store notes in either app, you need to be able to find them later.
To that end, the lack of handwriting recognition on Notability’s free plan cripples the app’s search functionality. We feel that this is an essential feature in an app that offers so little by way of organization. Without it, old notes will be more difficult for both avid and infrequent users to find compared with GoodNotes.
But it’s also worth pointing out that while GoodNotes offers more functionality in their full version, their free plan also lacks handwriting recognition.
With all of that in mind, 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 apps have a lot to love, and both companies have spent a lot of time figuring out what works best for their users.
Ironically, that’s also why many of the features offered by both apps are so similar. Each app takes advantage of the digital workspace, allowing you to customize your environment to suit your style and preferences.
(Although, from our last section, it’s safe to say that GoodNotes offers a little more flexibility in both organization and styling).
But what about actually taking notes?
Within each app, you’ll see a similar set of features and tools to help you get your thoughts and ideas onto the page. Regardless of the app you use, you’ll be able to change the layout, color, and design of your paper.
You’ll also have access to a similar toolkit. Both GoodNotes and Notability include each of the following tools for your immediate use:
- Lasso Tool
- Text Box
Each app also has some unique tools to help them stand out. For GoodNotes, the big highlight is the Elements Tool while Notability has real-time audio recording features that are completely unmatched by anything else on the market.
Despite the similarities, both apps offer slightly different configurations for their toolkits — and there are upsides and downsides no matter which app you choose.
The pen tool is a great example.
#caption# GoodNotes offers a handful of pens and customization options, including preset and custom colors. You can also adjust the size of the pen tip to a remarkable degree.
GoodNotes provides a larger variety of pen sizes and 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.
#caption# Notability’s Pen Tool is more compact (fewer menus) and offers full, dotted, and dashed lines. You can also create custom color selections if you’re on the Premium plan.
On the other hand, Notability gives users the ability to create dashed and dotted lines with its pen tool, something that GoodNotes doesn’t offer at all.
While GoodNotes has a few options for the eraser, it doesn’t offer consistent options for the highlighter. This tool is only offered in three sizes: small, medium, and large. That’s fine most of the time, but it’s frustrating when you’d like a larger tool or more fine-grained control over these modifications.
Meanwhile, Notability offers the same selection options for its eraser and highlighter that it does for its pen, giving users a wider selection overall. Notability also provides a favorites bar, where you can add a selection of your personalized tools for quick and easy access. The favorites toolbar is limited to three items on the free plan and 12 on the premium plan.
#caption# Add your favorite tools to your Favorites Bar in Notability by tapping the Favorites button during tool creation. The Starter plan is limited to three tools, while the Premium plan supports 12.
But while you will have to reselect your favorites in GoodNotes every time you want to use them (frustrating), GoodNotes also allows for unlimited custom colors. With Notability, custom colors are only available as part of the premium plan, though this feature is permanently unlocked for users on the Classic Plan.
Stickers, images, and gifs are another big thing that has taken the digital notetaking space by storm in recent years. Both GoodNotes and Notability support this multimedia to some degree.
In Notability, stickers are built into the app and can be downloaded via the Notability Plus menu (subscription required). If you’re looking to import custom stickers, you can use the Media tab inside a note. You’ll end up importing them through your Photos app on your iPad, and Notability will treat them like an image. Afterward, you can save the image as a sticker and reuse it across all your notes.
#caption# The Elements Tool inside GoodNotes works in a similar way to the stickers in Apple Messages. Tap the category (at the bottom), then tap the element you want to add to your note, and you’re all set. You can also create your own sticker groups.
GoodNotes integrates stickers and other media by way of the Elements Tool. This feature allows you to avoid endless copy/pasting and importing by creating a collection of elements for fast and easy duplication. Once you create your collection, you can select items from the Elements Tool and add them to your note in seconds. The best part: This works with any collection of images and makes it ridiculously easy to import third-party sticker packs for your notes.
That doesn’t mean Notability is a slouch in the notetaking department. In fact, Notability offers a unique audio recording feature for notetakers. When using the in-app recording tools, Notability’s audio is synced in real time with the notes as you’re writing them.
#caption# Notability’s audio recording feature draws the text as it plays the audio back to you. As the recording completes, the rest of the faded text will be filled in.
During playback, Notability will highlight the text as it was written during the recording so that you can better understand what prompted you to write something down. For many college students, this audio syncing is a dream come true, especially when prepping for an exam!
While GoodNotes doesn’t do much with audio, they do offer a flashcard maker to help you study. This works by allowing you to create cards using your digital notes by writing the question on the top half of the page and the answer on the bottom half. When the flashcard 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.
#caption# To use flashcards in GoodNotes 5, add your question to the top of the flashcard template and your answer to the bottom. When you start your flashcard review, GoodNotes will prompt you with the question. Tap to reveal the answer and tell GoodNotes how you did.
Both apps also feature a selection tool (lasso) to select and move anything on the page. This feature is similar in both tools, and both tools offer a variety of options regarding what you’d like to do with your selected text.
To get clean shapes, Notability offers shape detection, where you draw the desired shape with your Apple Pencil and hold it in place. As soon as the app recognizes the attempted shape, it redraws it using uniform lines and dimensions.
GoodNotes offers the same thing and also offers a Shape Tool that you can use to fill shapes with color and/or snap shape lines together.
#caption# GoodNotes text conversion pops up to a window where you can copy and paste your test. It also distinguishes between upper and lower case letters.
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 feature requires a premium subscription. For Classic Plan users, you can also purchase text conversion from the in-app marketplace (only necessary if you purchased 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 converted text will drop onto the page in a resizable text box. In GoodNotes, you’ll have to follow an odd workflow where you copy the converted/typed text from the conversion window and then manually paste it back onto the page — which is annoying.
Notability also supports math conversions (subscription only). The app will recognize common mathematical expressions, elements, and rules. This includes Greek symbols, chemical elements, rules, and mathematical notation. GoodNotes can convert basic mathematical functions (addition, subtraction, etc.) to text, but character recognition fails quickly if you get too complicated.
#caption# In Notability, you can display two notes side by side without using Apple’s multitasking feature. Swipe from the left to bring up the Note Switcher, then decide how you want to display your notes on the screen.
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 multiple windows with Split View, you can create similar functionality by opening two instances of GoodNotes at the same time on your iPad. But it’s clunky because it’s relying on iPadOS’s multitasking feature rather than offering the app-based, 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 both apps make using a stylus seamless and easy.
You can even add in a Paperlike screen protector so that the surface of your iPad feels like real paper!
This one was a tough one for us, but we feel like GoodNotes takes the prize.
Here’s why: In previous iterations of this article, we felt that Notability won out due to the audio recording and the math conversions. And, for the most part, we think that’s true if those are features that you plan to use.
However, if you aren’t in one of those niche circumstances where those features are helpful — like taking notes during a college lecture or actually doing math — Notability becomes somewhat less appealing.
In recent years, GoodNotes has added a fair amount of additional flexibility around how the app handles things like page customization, sticker importing, and shape snapping.
While we think that some features in GoodNotes could be better (tool favorites, multi-note support, etc.), GoodNotes offers more in the way of customizing your notetaking experience than Notability does for the average user.
4. Storage, Backup, and Sharing
Until recently, both GoodNotes and Notability used Apple’s iCloud sync to back up your notes. This is standard for most Apple devices since the sync will automatically update documentation across all devices and is particularly useful since both apps have an iPhone version and a Mac app.
For GoodNotes users, nothing has changed. For Notability users, iCloud sync and any form of automatic backup now require a subscription.
#caption# Without upgrading to a subscription, you won’t have access to automatic backups or iCloud syncing. When we tested this, there was no option for manual backups.
Assuming that you have the subscription or are on the Notability Classic Plan, syncing works the same as it always has.
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.
You’ll also have the ability to export files and share content, but both apps handle these aspects differently.
#caption# Sharing in Notability is as simple as tapping the Share button in the top left and then selecting how you’d like to share your content. An account is required to share links but not to view them after they’ve been shared.
With Notability, you can use the link sharing feature to create publicly accessible links that anyone can use to view your notes in any browser or on any device. Collaborative editing isn’t possible using this feature. While you do have to create an account in order to share content, viewers aren’t required to register with Notability in order to view it.
Meanwhile, GoodNotes has gone in another direction. The GoodNotes 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 own devices. However, using shared links, multiple GoodNotes users can collaborate together on the same document — something that just isn’t possible with Notability.
#caption# GoodNotes allows you to share individual notes or entire notebooks. Keep in mind that links shared through GoodNotes can only be accessed by other GoodNotes users (and they can edit your notes).
Beyond link sharing, you can also export documents in a variety of file types, including as a PDF, an image, or in the native format of the app you’re using.
These export options are especially useful if you need to access your data using a PC or Android device since neither app works outside of the Apple ecosystem. In this scenario, you would need to export your note as a PDF and send the note via email or a file-sharing service.
Lastly, both apps recently launched community galleries where you can share and download notes created by other members of the community. GoodNotes Community is more focused on lecture notes and study guides that can be used by students, while the Notability Gallery is a bit more open-ended.
If you’re using Notability’s premium subscription, we’ll call this a draw.
The export tools for each app are on par with one another. GoodNotes has an advantage when it comes to collaboration, while Notability’s open access for link sharing ultimately makes it easier to share content.
If you aren’t planning to pay for Notability’s subscription, GoodNotes is the clear winner since it allows you to safely back up your content using both iCloud and 3rd-party syncing.
5. Pricing & Updates
Before we wrap up, it’s worth discussing pricing and updates since this is where both apps greatly diverge from one another.
Both GoodNotes and Notability offer a free version, but they serve different purposes.
While you can use the free version of GoodNotes for as long as you want, it’s essentially just a free trial that never expires, because you only get three notebooks to use. To fully take advantage of this app, you’ll need to buy it. However, aside from the limitation on notebooks and a few minor things like handwriting recognition and importing documents via email, everything is unlocked.
On the other hand, while Notability’s free plan is very usable for casual notetakers who don’t need all the bells and whistles it comes with some notable restrictions around saving, storage, and backups.
We’ve done our best to differentiate between what you get on both the free and paid plans offered from each company.
Here’s the pricing as it currently stands:
- GoodNotes 5 offers a free trial version with an upgrade to the full version via a one-time, in-app purchase for $7.99.
- Notability offers a free version and a premium subscription for $14.99 per year as an in-app purchase.
But here are a few other things to consider if you’re shopping based on price:
- Notability and GoodNotes both offer a free version, so you can try out the basic features at no risk and choose to upgrade if you wish.
- Prior to the switch to subscription in 2021, Notability never charged for updates to their app. However, the company did offer a few in-app purchases over the years to expand the app’s capabilities.
- GoodNotes’free version is more of a perpetual free trial, but the full cost of the app is paid up front as a one-time purchase when you decide to upgrade.
- GoodNotes 5 (released 2019) is the fifth version of GoodNotes. While the company did allow GoodNotes 4 users who paid full price to upgrade for free (and we hope they do again in the future), there’s always the possibility that a new version of the app will require some cost.
- Any educational institution using Apple School Manager will have full access to both GoodNotes and Notability for free.
If you’re looking for a great notetaking app without paying for anything, Notability can be a great entry-level contender.
Keep in mind that the free version of Notability actually limits the number of edits that you can make to your documents per month, but the company is vague on exactly how many edits you can make.
#caption# If you’re on the Notability Starter plan you’ll have a limited number of edits that you can make in a month. Currently, Notability doesn't disclose how many edits you can make.
If you find the idea of limited edits offputting, and you’re not planning to become a notetaking power user, something like Apple Notes might be a better solution.
The other thing to consider is how the app operates across multiple environments.
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 without additional costs. Couple that with the fact that GoodNotes doesn’t offer in-app purchases, and it’s a great deal!
With Notability, while you can get both the iOS and Mac apps, iCloud syncing doesn't work without a paid subscription. Your ability to work across multiple devices will be severely hindered unless you pay the subscription fee.
As far as updates are concerned, GoodNotes still appears to make all content and updates available for every user.
Notability has said that new features may be locked behind the subscription requirement, depending on the feature and how expensive it is to maintain. With that in mind, it’s difficult to say how the company will select what features reach the free plan and what stays in the paid tier.
If you’re looking strictly at costs, GoodNotes is your best bet and you probably won’t have to worry about key features being locked behind an in-app purchase or paying an annual fee.
But keep in mind that $14.99 per year for a Notability subscription equates to about $1.25 per month. That’s a small price to pay if Notability is an app that you think you’ll really love.
GoodNotes vs Notability: The Final Verdict
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 GoodNotes is currently a better value for most users.
Overall, we still believe that Notability is a more practical notetaking experience. It’s still a great tool for someone who just wants to take notes and get work done — especially on an “as needed” basis.
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.
But GoodNotes feels nicer to use, especially over the long term. The app has some incredible features and, overall, the document creation workflow and user interface feel more complete.
When you’re just 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.
And that’s hard to ignore.
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