I’ve looked briefly at several note-taking apps so far (actually, one note-taking app and a few outliers), and I started thinking that this was going to be a fool’s errand because thanks to the dumping ground that is Apple’s App Store, devs are incentivized to get their app under as many different keywords as possible. Who knows what the next app I open would actually offer?
Thankfully, that app was Notability, an honest to goodness note taking app. I had tried this one before but bounced off because I don’t remember why, but I’m back, now, and ready to talk about it.
Thank gawd Notability offers some level of organization. On the left-hand side of the main screen, groups can be created. Each group holds a note, which is a bit misleading as a “note” is an everscrolling page. Consider “groups” as a “folders” and “notes” as “notebooks” and everything makes sense. To add icing to the cake, the sidebar also has sections, which are disclosure triangles that will hide any groups placed beneath them. This allows the opportunity to hide groups that don’t need to be seen, which will be good for those who are often overwhelmed by “clutter”. Notes themselves are thumbnailed in the section on the right. Sadly, it doesn’t look like the thumbnail of the note can be customized, so the thumbnail is limited to the image of the first page.
For another Hallelujah moment, there’s the “Import” feature. It looks like Notability allows for the import of content from local files, Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive, Box, and WebDAV, as well as the ability to scan documents. To test, I imported a PDF of the Cyberpunk 2020 rules I have stored in Google Drive, and the import was fast, and navigating the pages is even faster.
There are a decent number of templates available out of the box. There’s the standard lines, grids, and dots, each of which can be customized to resize the respective markers (line spacing, grid square spacing, dot spacing). Colors can also be chosen to give your paper that legal pad look you love so much.
There are three other sections, education, creative, and planning, and this is the first note-taking app I have seen that offers football (U.S.), football (everyone else), and basketball templates alongside daily and meal planner layouts.
At the bottom of the selection screen are Planners and Worksheets. These seem to provide entire notebooks full of pre-formatted sheets that can be used for journaling, letter-writing practice, and digital coloring books. Most are only available to paid tier users so I can’t really speak to them beyond this.
There does seem to be a community-created template section, however, displayed at the top of the template selection page. A few items are presented by default, but the “Browse more” link opens a login page where, I assume, more custom templates can be downloaded. This is an incredibly powerful feature if the ability to create templates is simple enough; one of reMarkable’s key features was the ability to use images and PDFs as templates, and I had created a few of my own for things I felt I could use. Reading their FAQs, it seems that all we have to do is create a notebook and upload it for the community; that means a PDF or maybe an image could be used for a page design, which is completely doable.
A document or note is a continuous scroll of content by default. So long as you keep writing, you’ll keep scrolling. Alternatively, the note can be set to use the more traditional side-swipe method which will make one-screen-per-page possible. A tap-to-navigate controller is provided in the lower right corner.
One thing I’m not a huge fan of is the omnipresent toolbar at the top. Here we find the export icon, the tools icon, and the settings for the note.
The tools consist of typewritten text, Pencil or finger drawings, highlighting, erasing (per-pixel), selection lasso, and a pointing finger that allows for the navigation through the note without accidentally adding unwanted marks to the page. Notability also allows for the recording of voice notes. Voice notes do not show up in the page but are available from a drop-down menu in the top toolbar. These recordings are stored individually, but are presented on one continuous playback, so a meeting can be recorded in one shot, or in pieces to be played back later as a single recording.
Like other note taking apps, Notability offers stickers, photos from the camera or local library, GIFs provided by Giphy, image snapshots of web URLs (nice feature), and PostIt-like notes (good for annotating PDFs, I suppose).
One cool feature that Notability offers is the ability to have two notebooks side by side. This does include the ability to split the screen vertically or horizontally and have a Pencil-enabled notebook on one side and a PDF on the other. Although the two won’t sync, this would be a massive boon for students to take notes and read a textbook at the same time.
Issues and Limitations
Not really an issue, but more of a The More You Know: when erasing an area that was scribbled on top of a colored background or a background with a designer template, the eraser marks are always white, which makes it look like the eraser is removing everything beneath it. This is not the case, as the eraser marks are only removing what the pencil put down, not the underlying template.
Also, like Penbook, Notability does have a desktop analogue, but it’s only for Mac, and unlike Penbook, there is interoperability between Notability iOS and Notability Mac. Still content can be exported to a PDF, image, RTF, or native Notability format for backups and archiving, and these can be pushed to a local folder, iOS share, email, printed, or to a cloud storage provider (Google Drive, Dropbox, OneDrive, Box, or WebDAV).
After having written and scheduled this post, I spent time using Notability in the Real World and it worked great…until it didn’t. Although the free version is “usable”, and the exhortation to upgrade to Plus indicates that the paid version only adds features, I was met this morning with a notification that I “had reached my usage limit” and that it would “renew on Jan 18, 2023” (I am writing this on Jan 12th, 2023). I can view what notes I took last night, but this morning, I am basically locked out from using the app in any meaningful way. Notability got flack for switching from a pay-to-own model to a subscription model, which rankled those who paid for the app and were being forced into a subscription model a year after the app went sub. I was OK with a sub since I hadn’t known the app prior to this point but locking down the app almost entirely unless I pay the sub, after having allowed me to use it for a very brief period, leaves a very bad taste in my eyes.
Notability Plus can be had for $12.99 annually, which IMO is a fantastic price. With Plus, the app offers handwriting recognition (a big plus for some), math conversion (!), the oft-seen “iOS ruler”, the ability to mark notes as favorites, more stickers, planners, worksheets, and themes.
I have to admit, after Penbook I was skeptical that I’d find another note-taking app that would bowl me over, yet here I am, actively weighing which app is going to get my premium subscription.
Notability’s up-front presentation is nothing to write home about; it’s two columns, and a few thumbnails. Note taking is exactly as one would expect with the Pencil, and while the fringes features are cool, I don’t know how often I’ll be adding “stickers” to my development notes.
Being able to import PDFs is always a big plus. Being able to write on them is also a bonus. Seeing them side by side with another notebook is huge (any notebooks work side by side, not just PDF and notebook). Being able to switch between continuous scroll and side-swipe is a nice option too; one for writing, and one for reading later on.
Honestly, the benefit that Notability has is the import and import source options. Penbook allows for PDF import, but accessing cloud services requires that the service be registered with an app at the iOS level; not a deal breaker, but again, another step.
If my goal is to find the no-frillsiest note-taking app out there that still does everything I need, then Notability has pulled ahead of the pack, I think.
Unfortunately, I cannot get over the sudden lockdown of my evaluation period. There was no warning up front, and the Plus tier mentioned nothing about unlocking a locked app. I’m OK with limiting features in a free trial, and I am OK with locking the app after a period, but that needs to be mentioned up front. Although I am not affected by the change in monitization from pay-to-own to subscription, and while that kind of position usually doesn’t color my view when considering subscribing to a service, the whole unannounced lockdown in conjunction with the switch in pricing makes me wonder what other kind of sudden and unannounced trick this company might pull in the future. For that reason, and much to my disappointment, I will not be moving ahead with Notability at this time.