Taking notes on the iPad: Philosophy, function, and apps

Find out why and how Patrick Gray uses his iPad as an electronic notepad, including some of his preferred note-taking applications.

In the beginning, there was a filesystem

Note taking on a tablet is not very useful without an easy way to get notes on and off the device and store them so they're accessible to other devices and people. Most tablets lack this functionality out of the box, but luckily, third-party vendors have filled the gap. There are a number of cloud storage options available, but Dropbox is one of the first, and it's commonly supported. In essence, Dropbox has become the missing filesystem for Apple's iPad.

For note taking, the application I discuss below can save files directly to Dropbox in PDF format. Within seconds, your notes are on all your devices and in a common format. This is a key criterion for the way I use my notes. Should my iPad go missing, all my critical notes still "live" in Dropbox. Another plus is that the Dropbox desktop and mobile applications are free if you store under 2GB of data, a threshold I have yet to exceed.

Digital paper: Noteshelf

There are a variety of note-taking applications available for the iPad, each with a different paradigm for representing a sheet of paper. Luckily, many have free "lite" versions, or they're relatively inexpensive so that you can try several options before committing to a single platform.

I find Noteshelf best for text-driven notes. It provides a magnified writing area at the bottom of the screen, allowing one to write in fairly large letters, and then the app reduces it to a more "normal" size. Notebooks can easily be emailed and exported to Dropbox or Evernote (discussed below). Noteshelf creates standard PDF files, making it easy to email notes to colleagues or store them in an archive format that doesn't require a specialized application.

Where Noteshelf struggles is with more free-form notes like diagrams, flowcharts, or simple sketches. Perhaps I lack artistic talent, but most of my diagrams end up looking like crude, poorly rendered scratches rather than the slightly more legible renderings I can produce with pen and paper. Noteshelf also imposes a rigid paper metaphor — you can run out of length in a single sheet of paper and must flip to the next page vs. other solutions that allow an infinitely long sheet of paper, which I prefer.

Noteshelf, while imperfect, seems the best of the breed at the moment, and it sells for $5.99 (USD) with occasional sales.


The final piece of the puzzle that I use is the Evernote application — again, available for traditional computing platforms, tablets, and phones. Evernote attempts to replicate Microsoft's OneNote to some extent, providing a mixed-use "notebook" where one can store anything from screen clippings to PDF notes exported from Noteshelf. I primarily use Evernote as a consolidation application, where I can combine handwritten notes from Noteshelf with other materials related to a particular project. Evernote also adds the benefit of being able to search in PDFs with handwriting when one ponies up for the paid version.

I routinely feel that I should be getting more out of Evernote. It would be ideal if I could take handwritten notes directly within the application, but until that happens, I find myself using it as more of an ancillary tool to the above applications rather than my primary note-taking platform.

The future?

The popularity of applications like Noteshelf seems to indicate that I'm not the only one who desires a connected, electronic notepad. Several companies have offered their take on this usage scenario, and everything from Windows 8-based tablets to the continued evolution of devices like the Samsung Galaxy Note hold some promise. Until then, the ubiquitous nature of the iPad offers great note sharing, archiving, and passable note taking.

By Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...