Some writing/notes apps for the iPad

Since buying my iPad2 I’ve tried out a number of writing and note apps and thought a few observations on some of the available software might be of interest.

Initially I was keen on getting a notepad app that would let me take notes in longhand. Two I’ve tried are Noteshelf and Penultimate. Noteshelf has not distinguished itself, its single USP seeming to be that you can arrange the notebooks you create on a virtual shelf (hence the name). Of the two I prefer Penultimate; it does much the same job with regards to note taking, but looks better. These apps only let you write and draw free-hand (neither has a type option) but oddly neither support the iPad’s zoom feature that lets you expand or shrink a page using your fingers, which is useful if you want to keep your writing small.

I’ve also tried a couple of hybrid notebook apps that allow you to combine handwritten and typed text. In this camp we have Notes and Notes Plus. I’ve not enjoyed using Notes. This app allows you to create post-it style notes on a page into which you can type text, but these are difficult to resize and manipulate. It’s not very intuitive and there’s nothing about the app that makes me want to persevere with it. I should mention that this Notes is different to the ‘Notes’ app that comes free with the iPad.

My other combo app purchase is Notes Plus, this is a sophisticated more fully featured app that is quite clever in its own way, for example you can draw a circle or a square freehand and the app will recognise it and render it as an object that you can move about and resize. Unfortunately you also draw circles round drawings and blocks of text to select them and the app sometimes has trouble deciding if you want to select something or draw a shape. I enjoyed using this when I first bought it, but it’s not grown on me.

The best of the hybrids I’ve come across is Notability. The apps I’ve mentioned so far tend to be configured as handwriting/drawing apps to which you can add typed notes, but Notability work the other way round, it’s basically a typing app that will accept freehand writing and drawing. It’s also easy to import graphics, images etc in a way that’s straightforward and intuitive. Another feature is the ability to organise your notes within ‘subjects’ and subjects within ‘categories’, so it’s easy to manage groups of documents. The keyboard is customizable too, though your choices are limited.

Getting onto the more type-centred apps. I’ve mentioned the iPad’s Notes app, another is Simplenote. Simplenote is a good robust typing app and I’ve done a lot of useful work on it, However the only reason it’s my main workhorse is that it syncs well with Scriviner, if it wasn’t for this I might not be so enamoured. There’s a slight weirdness to Simplenote in that synced Scrivener files seem to turn up in a random order (and if it’s not random I’ve still not figured out what order it is).

Another typing app I’ve tried out is Paragraft which is decent enough and has its own quirky way of ordering text: it treats individual paragraphs as if they were mini documents that can be formatted in various ways. ThinkBook is similar in that the developer has gone to some trouble to come up with a novel way of moving and manipulating text: essentially you have a side tab that can be used to copy, paste and cut text or format it as ‘to do’ list, or whatever. It would probably be quite useful if I ever took the time to learn how to use it properly.

Most of the note/writing apps I’ve mentioned so far seem to have been designed for the student/business market but My Writing Spot has the creative writer more in mind. The layout is similar to iPad’s Notes and Simplenote with a full-page display in portrait and a split display in landscape, a left-hand side-bar containing a list of all the files created within the app. My Writing Spot has a choice of nine fonts and a good keyboard. By good I mean one that has keys for apostrophes and quotemarks up front so you don’t have to go digging for them. There’s also a key that lets you navigate to the top or bottom of the document. Some of the apps I’ve mentioned so far synch via Dropbox or iCloud, but My Writing Spot syncs via a Google account, not sure where it syncs to or how it works, but it seems to to the job.

My favourite writing app of the moment is iA Writer, a simple but classy piece of kit that is also available for the Mac. Although iA Writer gives you only one font in one size they have created a very pleasant writing environment. The keyboard is excellent as all the common punctuations you could want (apostrophes, quotemarks, brackets, colons etc) are up-front so you don’t have to change keyboards to find them. You can also navigate through the text using left-right key combos that move the cursor from character to character, or word to word, making it easy to go back and tweak text without having to resort to the iPad’s text magnification feature (My Writing Spot also has character to character navigation ). iA Writer also has a nice display option that greys out all but the last three lines of the paragraph you’re working on allowing you to concentrate on the text you’re writing at that moment. This feature also turns off the underline on misspelled words, eliminating another potential distraction. One drawback of the fully-featured keyboard is that you’re limited to six lines of text in your writing window when using the iPad in landscape, but I don’t find this an issue. iA Writer is by far my favourite iPad writing app of the moment.

One last app is miTypewriter which creates a 1920s style typewriter on your iPad. I got it to show my children the sort of gizmo their great-grandmother might have typed a letter on, but it’s actually quite fun to use. It sounds like the real thing and there’s even a ‘ting’ to tell you to hit the return lever and start a new line. I wouldn’t consider this to be a serious writing app, but it is fun, and I’ve actually written an email or two on it.

One last, last app, not writing or note-taking this time, but a mind-mapping/flow-chart app called Popplet. It’s fairly basic, but really easy and intuitive to use. I use it as an alternative to corkboard, an outliner to arrange thoughts and play around with story lines. The lite version is free.

Hope this is of interest. There are loads more writing and note apps out there so please don’t take this as a comprehensive list, the above barely scratches the surface.

And of course, next year you’ll be able to add Scrivener to the list. :slight_smile:

You mean, like, January? :smiley:

Thank you for posting this. There are two apps you might want to consider too. For longhand notetaking, Wacom’ Bamboo Paper, much more flexible than Penultimate. And for long haul writing, Notebooks, the most comprehensive writing environment on the iPad. It allows you to organize your projects in folders (unlike iaWriter), reads images, PDF and web pages, and, most importantly it sync seamlessly with Scrivener via Dropbox.

Keith, are you serious? I want to know more about it.

Serves me well for being away from the board for so long. This is fantastic! Thank you Keith, and thank you Jen Yates. I can’t wait to finally see Scrivener on the iPad.

Scrivener on iPad?

It’s like a happy dream.

Excellent news.

Amaru: Did you mean NoteBook by Circus Ponies? I’ve heard it’s excellent, but it was a little pricey for me.

I think he’s referring to a different application: … rview.html


Yes, I was talking about Notebooks. It is the most flexible solution, as it allows you to work on different projects, each one synchronized to corresponding projects in Scrivener, and, in addition, lets you configure it so it looks and feels as you want it. When it comes to iPad writing apps, the deal breaker for me is the ability (or inability) to organized your files into projects. Some apps, such as iaWriter and Writings, have well thought out interfaces, but when you have to handle dozens of files from more than one project, they are unusable. Check Notebooks out, and, until we have Scrivener for iPad, I am sure you will be satisfied (no affiliation with the developer).

For handwriting apps, I absolutely recommend Note Taker HD: I tried several, and used Notes Plus for months, but this is better. It seems intimidating at first, but it’s a serious work tool.

As a historical note, it’s by Dan Bricklin, who invented VisiCalc, the very first PC spreadsheet software. VisiCalc is the app that made the PC into a serious business tool.