Note-making and annotating with an iPad – which apps do I need?

Note pic

flickr photo by S@Z shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

When academics and students start using an iPad some of the first things they want to be able to do are make notes (in lectures, at conferences or in meetings) and annotate pdf documents.

There are many apps available to accomplish these tasks so we have been comparing some of them to help new iPad users to decide which to try.

Make notes or organise notes?

First, it is important to think about what you want or need to be able to do. For example, do you only want to make notes, or do you want an app that will let you organise your notes as well? Will you be keeping the notes on your device or do you want to sync them so that they are available with a web browser or other mobile device(s)? Additional questions to consider include:

  • Is it enough to have typed notes or do you want to handwrite notes and add freehand diagrams?
  • Do you want to add other media (images, sound recordings, video, web pages etc.) to your notes?
  • Do you want to use the same app for making notes and annotating documents or are you prepared to use different tools?

Free options

iPads come with the ‘Notes’ app already installed. This will let you create text notes, including adding images, and ‘sketches’ which could be diagrams or handwriting. ‘Notes’ won’t automatically sync your notes across devices but you can add notes into other syncable apps such as Evernote or OneNote. You cannot annotate pdf documents with Notes, but Adobe Acrobat Reader (also free) will do this.

University of Sussex staff and students have free access to Microsoft Office 365 which allows you to download and install Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote and Lync apps onto your iPad. You can then use OneNote or Word for making notes that can be stored in the OneDrive cloud (each user has 1TB of storage). OneNote will let you create text notes and diagrams/handwriting using the ‘draw’ option and add images and links into your notes. Notes can be organised into notebooks and sections and tags applied.

Paid apps

kitty's pic

Picture by TEL’s Kitty Horne

If you want more, and are prepared to pay for it, there are many apps to choose from, but we have compared a few.

Notability (currently £4.49) combines the functionality of ‘Notes’ and Adobe Acrobat Reader to let you create text and handwritten notes including photos, audio and website screenshots and annotate pdfs – with the added ability to sync to other iOS devices via the iCloud.

Evernote, which starts with a free account but also has paid plans (currently £19.99 or £34.99p.a.) works with Penultimate to let you create a wide range of note types (text, handwriting, photos, video, audio, webpages) and sync them with any web-enabled device. The advantage of Evernote is that you can also organise your notes with ‘notebooks’ and tags. If you want to annotate pdfs with Evernote you will need to pay for a Premium account.

Other options for annotating and syncing are iAnnotate (currently £7.99) and GoodReader (currently £3.99) which won’t let you create notes, but are good for annotating pdfs and syncing them via different cloud services.

An all-rounder for the iPad is GoodNotes (currently £5.99) which lets you create text and handwritten notes, annotate pdfs, organise your notes in notebooks and sync them to other iOS devices via iCloud.

Which is for me?

This table brings together the information above and will help you choose between the apps discussed.


What about other tablets?

Some of the tools we have looked at here are iPad / iPhone only (Notes, Notability, GoodReader, GoodNotes) but iAnnotate is available on Android and OneNote, Evernote and Acrobat Reader are available for Android and Windows devices too.

If you would like to find our more about note taking apps and online note management, please contact your school Learning Technologist.

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Posted in App review, Technology Enhanced Learning
One comment on “Note-making and annotating with an iPad – which apps do I need?
  1. Tim 'Dangerous' Vincent says:

    Thanks for this, Anne. Helpful distillation of info.
    I thought that iOS Notes app did sync across all devices? This feature is switched on by default in iCloud settings but can be switched off. NB This now requires upgrade to the latest Mac OS (El Capitan) to sync between mobile devices and Mac desktop/laptop.
    I think Ticker also mentioned Notes Plus ( as a good app for note-taking and document annotating (I’ve not used it myself)

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