Apple Notes: Everything You Need to Know

 

Right now, digital notetakers are spoiled for choice when choosing the perfect notetaking app.

But, if you’re an Apple user, the perfect app might already be sitting on your iPad.

We’re talking about Apple Notes!

The app comes preinstalled on all Apple devices, making it easily accessible for modern notetakers.

This app has come a long way since it first launched with iOS 1.0. The current version comes equipped with a variety of tools to help you write, store, and share your notes.

So how does this app measure up against other major notetaking apps in the App Store? Is it ready for serious notetakers?

Let’s find out!

#toc#

 

An Apple iPad is mounted on a keyboard.  Airpods and an Apple Pencil 2 sit nearby.  Apple Notes is open onscreen.

Why Apple Notes is Worth Trying

Apple Notes has some unique features that you won’t find in other notetaking apps.

Here’s why it’s worth a look:

  • It’s free.
  • Comes pre-installed on your iPhone, iPad, or Mac.
  • All notes are stored in iCloud for fast and easy syncing across all of your devices.
  • Connected to Siri, so you can start a new note and dictate the contents on the go.
  • It’s not going anywhere. Notes is built into the operating system and has been around since iOS 1.0.
  • Constantly upgraded with the latest and greatest features.

While Notes may not have quite as many bells and whistles as some of the dominant notetaking apps on the market today, Apple Notes also isn’t the simple app it used to be years ago.

Apple Notes: The Basics

The latest updates have turned Apple Notes into a strong contender for digital notetakers.

Improved organization, advanced searching capabilities, functional tools, and the ability to scan documents are just a few of the new features Apple has added in recent years to upgrade Notes into a more powerful app.

Let’s take a look.

Organization

For serious notetakers, organization is key. Apple Notes makes this process simple and has integrated new systems that make it easy to find what you’re looking for when you need it.

An image showing multiple notes that have been stored in Apple Notes.

#caption#Apple Notes organizes everything into folders that store everything in iCloud.

Folders

Like most notetaking apps, Apple Notes uses a folder system to keep things organized.

Apple Notes has two different types of folders:

  1. Regular Folders are your basic folders. You can use them to organize your notes however you’d like. You can even move notes from one folder to another easily.
  2. Smart Folders are one of the cool new features recently added to Apple Notes. When you create a new smart folder, you’ll select hashtags to associate with the category for the folder. When you use tags on your notes, those notes will be automatically sorted into the associated smart folder.

You can easily create as many folders as you want by tapping the New Folder button in the bottom lefthand corner of the app. You can also nest subfolders up to five levels deep for even better organization.

On top of the folders you can create, Notes already comes equipped with a few default folders.

The Notes folder under the iCloud Tab is a catch-all for unsorted notes while the All iCloud folder lets you access any note currently in iCloud.

The Quick Notes folder is created specifically to store Quick Notes created on your lock screen or in applications outside of notes.

When you discard a note, it will end up in the Recently Deleted folder, where it can be recovered for up to 30 days before being permanently deleted.

An image displaying the open MORE menu.  An arrow indicates the MORE icon, and boxes have been drawn around the sorting options in the menu.

#caption#To sort your notes, tap on the MORE button in the menu section.

Sorting / Navigation

By default, Apple Notes automatically sorts your existing notes by last edited. However, you can change this by selecting Sort Notes By to find a few more options.

Apple Notes has advanced search capabilities like built-in optical character recognition (OCR) to quickly scan all your notes when you type something into the search bar. OCR can locate your search terms in text, handwritten notes, images, and scanned documents.

The best part? You don’t have to manually search through all your notes when you need to locate something. If you’re looking for something specific, you can even narrow your search to specific notes for better results.

You also have access to other tools to make navigation easy. You can pin important notes to the top of a folder for easy access. You can also tag notes using hashtags for faster sorting (requires iOS 14 and above or macOS Big Sur).

Views

Another easy way to navigate in Apple Notes is by using the different types of views available.

An image showing the List View within Apple Notes.  All notes are listed chronologically on the left sidebar of the app in the form of a list.

#caption#List View is one of two ways to view notes. When the iPad is turned horizontally (pictured) it attaches itself to the left sidebar. When the iPad is held vertically, it covers the note until dismissed.

 

List View

When you’re in List View, your notes will appear in a list with the title and the first few words of your note.

Apple Notes defaults to List View, and this view divides Notes into three navigation windows: folders, notes, and content.

However, this view changes based on whether you hold your device vertically or horizontally while working in notes.

If you’re holding the iPad vertically, these menus will appear over the top of the note that you’re working with. If the iPad is turned on its side, the menu will park itself on the left side of the screen for faster accessibility and navigation.

List View is ideal when you need to keep track of multiple topics at once because you’ll see more notes on your screen. For users who like a compact workspace, List View will allow you to pack as much onto the screen as possible.

But keep in mind that making sense of List View requires better structure and organization for your notes because there isn’t as much to see when searching from the main screen.

An image showing the Gallery View within Apple Notes.  All notes and subfolders are displayed as thumbnails.

#caption#In Gallery View, Apple Notes eliminates the need for a sidebar. Simply tap on any note to open it. Subfolders within your existing folder are featured at the top of this view.

Gallery View

When you’re working in a folder, you can tap the ellipsis and select View as Gallery.

Gallery View will show a thumbnail of each note. The thumbnail will show either part of the text or the top photo associated with the note (if you’ve attached images to your notes).

Compared to List View, this view is more comfortable and offers a greater selection of customization options. By tapping the ellipsis button on the far right, you’ll have the option to increase or decrease the size of each note thumbnail.

If you’re a more visual person, this view allows you to quickly see what’s in each note, especially if you’ve attached a picture or document.

Protip: Regardless of which view you use, you can get a closer look at any note by pressing and holding. When you do this, the note will enlarge itself so that you can take a better look at its content.

A close-up view of the Apple Notes toolbar, which contains all writing instruments.  Implements features include a pen, pencil, highlighter, marker, eraser, lasso, and ruler.

#caption#Apple Notes comes equipped with a standard selection of drawing and writing tools. Tap on any tool to access the customization menu for that tool.

Tools

While the Apple Notes toolbar might seem small when compared to other notetaking apps, it offers more than enough functionality to get the job done.

Here’s a quick overview of the tools and how you can use them to improve your notetaking experience.

Text

Typing with either the on-screen keyboard or an external keyboard like the Magic Keyboard for iPad is one of two ways that you can add notes to Apple Notes.

To have the best experience here, you'll want to turn on keyboard shortcuts, located under General > Keyboard > Keyboards.

Once you do that, you'll be able to use the shortcut menu to change the style and formatting of your text. This also causes a little menu to pop up when using your external keyboard.

While you can’t change the font size or the spacing, you can create a title heading or style your font using bold, italics, underline and strikethrough for emphasis.

An image shows the text formatting menu within Apple Notes, including various font styling and layout options like bold fonts and bulleted lists.

#caption#While Apple Notes comes with some great formatting options, you’ll have the best experience and better access to this functionality by activating Shortcuts in your keyboard settings.

If you’re a big fan of typed text, Apple Notes also comes with onboard handwriting conversion via the Scribble feature. With Scribble enabled, Apple Notes will automatically convert handwritten notes created with your Apple Pencil to text.

You can also disable Scribble in the Settings menu, which is useful if you want to combine handwritten and typed text inside a single document. However, keep in mind that Notes will keep the text and handwritten sections in separate blocks on the page, so intermingling the two is somewhat limited.

Pen / Pencil

Whether you’re taking notes or sketching, you’ll be using the pen or the pencil tool the most. You can use your finger or a stylus/Apple Pencil to write with these tools.

These tools have five preset line thicknesses and an opacity slider, which allows you to choose how dark or light the tool will write. They also have a color selector on the far right with a few default options, but you can use the color grid to select any color variation that you need.

An image demonstrating line thickness for the pen tool in Apple Notes.  Five lines are drawn on the page and are numbered in accordance with the default thickness settings in the tool selection menu.

#caption#Apple Notes offers five thickness settings for your primary writing tools. And don’t forget that Apple Pencils also provide pressure sensitivity (most prominent here in #4 and #5).

Though similar in features, it’s worth remembering that the pen and pencil are two separate tools. The lines created by the pencil look grainy compared to pen strokes, and this is by design.

The pencil tool excels when combined with an Apple Pencil for drawing and sketching. It’s easy to shade or darken a line by tilting your Pencil or adding pressure. The pencil tool responds to pressure sensitivity, has no lag, and offers a realistic drawing or writing experience.

Keep in mind that writing and sketching on a digital notetaking app can be challenging due to the glass screen.

While Apple Notes does its best to offset this challenge, a Paperlike screen protector can make the surface of your iPad feel like real paper, immensely improving your experience.

Eraser

When you make a mistake, you’ll need the eraser tool to correct your note. Apple Notes offers two different eraser modes for added convenience.

When you hold down the eraser icon, you’ll be able to choose between the pixel eraser and an object eraser.

The pixel eraser is your regular eraser that works just like one on a real pencil. The size is default; however, if you’re using an Apple Pencil, you can change the size of the eraser by tilting it.

The object eraser allows you to press on an object to erase larger chunks at a time, rather than moving the eraser tool over every part of it. If you need to erase something large, this tool is faster than using the regular Pixel eraser.

Highlighter

The highlighter tool is used to highlight specific sections of your note, providing emphasis or drawing the focus to this part of the text.

An image demonstrating line thickness for the highlighter in Apple Notes.  Five lines are drawn on the page and are numbered in accordance with the default thickness settings in the tool selection menu.

#caption#The highlighter tool in Apple Notes also offers five thickness settings. #2 is the best for line-item highlighting, and you can make multiple passes to increase the color.

Like the pen and the pencil tools, the highlighter comes with five preset thicknesses and an opacity slider. The nice thing is that even at 100% opacity, it won't dim your notes.

The default color is yellow, but again, you can use the color selector on the right to change it to any color you’d like.

Extras

You’ll also see a few extra tools on your toolbar, including the lasso tool, the ruler, and the color palette.

The lasso tool allows you to move content around on the page. To use it, just outline the content you want to move, then press on the area and drag it to its new position. Unlike some of the other notetaking apps, Notes also doesn’t allow you to resize or rotate your selection.

As you move your drawn selections, keep a close eye on the little tab marker on the left side of the document (pictured below). The marker indicates where your drawn elements begin. This is critical if you’re trying to add text and hand-drawn object to the same document.

A red arrow indicates the separator on the lefthand margin of Apple Notes.

#caption#While both typed and handwritten content can exist within the same note, Apple Notes will keep them separate from one another. The separator on the left margin will show you the current boundary of your handwritten work.

The ruler tool can come in handy if you need to draw a straight line. You can adjust the placement and angle of the ruler and draw a straight line along the edge. The ruler also has measurements, so you can get the exact length that you need.

The color palette allows you to change the color of your writing or drawing tool. Black, blue, green, yellow, and red are default, but you can use the palette to create custom colors too.

An illustration showing a document icon being imported into the Apple Notes app icon.

Importing/Scanning

Apple Notes can be tricky, but iCloud syncing and the new document scanner have both added a little more usability in this area.

Officially, you can only import Evernote Export files (.enex files) when using your iPad or iPhone. Using a Mac allows you to bring in various text file types.

But the truth is a little more complicated than that. Using email or the Files app (or a third-party app like Dropbox), you can add several files to Notes — but they will import themselves as attachments.

To get the information out of the attachment and into the body of the note document, you’ll need to open the attachment, select your desired text, and then copy/paste it into the body of the note. It’s a convoluted and non-intuitive process — but it can be done.

These difficulties are also where the Apple ecosystem comes into play. While importing is limited to some devices, Apple relies on other devices in the ecosystem to pick up the slack.

For example, if you have a huge block of text that you want to move into notes, it might be easier just to copy/paste it into Notes on your Mac and just wait for iCloud to sync it over rather than emailing, importing, and trying to find workarounds.

Universal Clipboard is also built into macOS and iOS and is essentially a copy and paste clipboard. When you copy something to your clipboard, it’s automatically copied to all your Apple devices, so you can paste something from one to another quickly and easily.

Between the scanner and the Universal Clipboard, you should be able to add anything you need to your notes.

Apple Notes also offers the ability to scan a document or photo to incorporate it into your note. The camera icon allows you to take a photo, upload a photo, or scan.

The document you import will be treated as an attachment rather than a note, but depending on the file type, some editing may still be available.

You can also annotate and mark up an image file inside Notes by tapping on the attachment and then selecting the pen button at the top of the page. However, for something like an RTF file, no editing or markup options are available.

Of course, many of these options won’t help if you’re running Windows or Android products. In that case, emailing your content to yourself is probably the easiest way to handle imports.

An image demonstrating the export and sharing menu within Apple Notes.

 

Exporting & Saving

When you need to move your notes out of Apple Notes, you’ll have a few options.

All your Apple devices will automatically save and sync your Apple Notes via iCloud, making it easy to move them from one Apple device to another in a seamless way.

Protip: Keep in mind that you only get so much iCloud storage, but you can buy more inside your iCloud settings.

You can also use third-party apps to move your Apple Notes out of the ecosystem. This comes with some downsides.

While it’s possible to export your notes as PDF files, you’ll have to select notes and send them one at a time. Additionally, because Apple Notes uses raster ink, exports can make your PDFs look blurry.

Also, Apple Notes are vertically infinite, which means you won’t have any idea where your pages will start and end. As a result, you may end up with very inconvenient page breaks and no way to fix them.

While Apple Notes doesn’t make it easy to export out of their system, it is still possible with a little work.

It’s also worth noting that your export won’t impact the original note stored in the system. Your notes are still backed up to iCloud, so you’ll only ever export a copy of your original note.

A Quick Note filled with notes overlays a browser webpage.

#caption#Quick Notes are powerful additions to your on-page research. Simply activate the Quick Note feature in iOS 15, and you can take notes anywhere.

Apple Notes: Unique Features

Now that you’ve got an idea of how to use the basic tools, there are a few more additional features that are worth a look.

In this section of our Apple Notes review, we’ll take a closer look at some of these useful tools.

Collaboration

With iOS 15, macOS 15, and iPadOS 15, Apple Notes introduced new collaboration features with shared folders and shared notes.

You can share a note by tapping the more button in the top right and selecting share. Folders are even easier to share, just swipe left on the folder and tap the blue share icon.

All collaborators must be signed in with their Apple ID to access or edit the note. Once everyone is signed in, it’s possible to tag other users, highlight important sections of text, and collaborate together to build a better document.

While these features aren’t as robust as what you’ll find in Google Workspace, Notes is still a great way to collaborate with others on things like shopping lists, to-do lists, and more.

Quick Notes

Introduced in iPadOS 15, Quick Notes allows you to quickly jot down a thought without having to open the Apple Notes app.

You can:

  • Open this feature from anywhere on your iPad by dragging upward from the bottom-right corner.
  • Open a Quick Note from your lock screen by tapping it with your Apple Pencil.
  • Attach a link to your Quick Note.
  • Associate a website with your Quick Note, so when you open the website, the note pops up too.

Once you’ve created your Quick Note, you can move it to any corner of your screen or dismiss it entirely.

Your Quick Notes will show up in their own folder in Apple Notes for future access.

Checklists / Tables

Most notetaking apps don’t allow you to create a checklist or table unless you draw them yourself, but it’s possible to do both using Apple Notes.

  • Checklists. With Apple Notes, you can create an interactive checklist that allows you to mark off items as you complete them. Items will then automatically move to the bottom of the list. (This feature can be disabled in Settings.)
  • Tables. Use the table icon on the bar above your keyboard to create a table. A two-by-two table will appear. You can add or delete as many columns and rows as you need, and you can make your text bold, underlined, or italicized. Apple Notes also allows you to convert text to a table or a table to text.

These two features help set Apple Notes apart, especially if you’re been creating these items by hand in other apps.

Password Protection

Ever store important information in your notes, such as the combination of your safe or passwords to websites? Then you’ll love the fact that Apple Notes allows you to lock your notes.

While some third-party apps (Notability) also offer this feature, Apple Notes takes full advantage of your Apple’s onboard security features to keep your notes secure.

With Apple Notes, you can create a password to protect your notes, but you can also use FaceID or TouchID to keep everything secure.

Protip: You can only lock notes that are stored inside of iCloud. If your notes sync with third-party services like Gmail or Yahoo, they can’t be locked.

Data Detection

Apple Notes has the ability to recognize data such as phone numbers, addresses, dates, and email addresses and allows you to interact with them.

For example, if you type an email address, Apple Notes will allow you to send mail, Facetime, save to contacts, and more. With a date, you can create an event or reminder or show it in your calendar.

The best part?

Apple Notes is also integrated with Contacts, Calendar, Reminders, and other elements of the operating system, which makes planning events or creating reminders quick and easy.

An image of Apple Notes showing a note with an attachment.

 

How Does Apple Notes Measure Up?

There are plenty of notetaking apps on the market, but many of the important features in third-party apps are hidden behind a purchase or a subscription.

That isn’t the case with Apple Notes. The app is completely free and contains a lot of great tools.

With that in mind, how does it compare to the other popular notetaking apps dominating the market?

Advantages of Apple Notes

This review covers many key features in detail, but let’s do a quick recap.

  • Doesn’t cost anything and is built into the iOS. Notes easily syncs to all your Apple devices, so you can check your notes on your Mac, iPad, iPhone, Apple Watch, and more.
  • Easy to collaborate. Shared notes and folders allow users to work together, and the highlight feature makes it easy to track each user’s changes.
  • Open a Quick Note from anywhere on your iPhone or iPad. Quick Notes make it easy to access and start a note, even from your lock screen.
  • Create tables and checklists. Most other digital notetaking apps don’t have the ability to create and use these tools. With Notes, these features have dedicated buttons and are easy to generate.
  • Provides a realistic writing and drawing experience with the Apple Pencil. The tools in Notes are pressure-sensitive, and you can tilt to shade or press firmly to darken your lines.
  • Data detection recognizes handwritten phone numbers, addresses, dates, and more. It allows you to interact with this data, so you can call phone numbers, write an email, or schedule an event right from the app.

For serious notetakers, the combination of versatility and cost are major factors to consider. By using Apple Notes, you’re taking advantage of a robust operating system and all of the apps associated with it.

Remember, when Apple Notes recognizes a date or needs to store an image, other iOS apps like Calendar, Photos, or Contacts will assist Notes in handling your data and helping you do even more with it.

You won’t find that level of native integration in any other notetaking app.

Main Limitations of Apple Notes

As a free app, Apple Notes is missing some of the features that notetakers have come to expect in their paid apps.

Here’s a closer look at what Apple Notes is missing.

  • Typed and handwritten notes are still mostly separate. This is a big one because it vastly limits how you can use handwritten tools to interact with your notes. While you can use tools in Apple Notes to annotate and markup PDFs, you’ll have trouble if you try to mix typed notes and handwritten content. For example, if you typed your notes during a lecture or a meeting and wanted to highlight key points later, you wouldn’t be able to highlight your own notes using the tools that Apple Notes makes available to you — because handwritten content is kept separate from typed content.
  • Lacks page customization. Both Goodnotes and Notability offer more page templates, sizes, and colors for your notes. You can also rotate, copy, or move the pages around with these apps.
  • Lacks specialized tools. While Apple Notes uses snap to shape, it only supports nine regular shapes, and you can’t do much with them once you’ve made them. Goodnotes and Notability both have shape tools that support both regular and irregular shapes while allowing you to rotate, resize, and modify them for better results.
  • Clunky zooming options. Most notetaking apps allow you to easily pinch and zoom on your notes. You can go through your settings on the iPhone or iPad to zoom in Apple Notes, but it’s awkward and doesn’t work well.
  • Doesn’t integrate handwriting and text well. Apple Notes will separate the two styles into their own blocks on the page, while Goodnotes and Notability easily mix the two.
  • Lacks audio recording capabilities. Some apps have built-in audio recording features to help you supplement your notes with additional information. While it’s possible to do something similar with Voice Memos, it’s not as simple to manage as it would be in other apps.
  • Limited exporting and backup options. You can set Goodnotes or Notability to automatically backup to Google Drive, Dropbox, or Microsoft OneDrive, while Apple Notes only syncs to iCloud. Exporting with Apple Notes is clunky and difficult.

In the end, you’ll have to decide if these features or limitations make up for the extra cost you’ll be paying to use Goodnotes, Notability, or one of the other paid digital notetaking apps.

As another alternative, you could also look into Google Workspace, but the apps are designed more as a productivity suite than a notetaking app.

An image of Apple Notes featured on an iPad.

Final Verdict

While serious notetakers may find Apple Notes lacking in certain areas, this app has many great features that make it perfectly functional and unique.

With tools like Quick Notes, Universal Clipboard, and more, you quickly capture the information you need.

Organizing and navigating through the system is simple and intuitive, and the advanced search and sharing capabilities give this app the important features every notetaker needs.

Plus, creating tables and checklists are pretty unique features that you won’t see anywhere else.

As a bonus for users who are completely bought into the Apple ecosystem, the ability to pass notes between other Apple devices is more seamless than any other notetaking app available.

Plus, did we mention that Apple Notes is completely free?

An image of an iPad standing beside the packaging for a Paperlike Screen Protector.  An Apple Pencil floats in the air, drawing notes on the iPad screen.

Take Better Notes with Paperlike!

Whether you decide to test out Apple Notes or prefer one of the other digital notetaking apps, you can still improve your experience significantly by using a Paperlike.

The Paperlike converts the slick, glass surface of your iPad into a texture that feels the same as writing or drawing on real paper.

This screen protector is a must-have tool for artists, notetakers, and creative professionals looking to enhance their performance on an iPad.

Check out Paperlike today!