Forget drawing: Want to take notes on your iPad or annotate documents with the Apple Pencil? Here’s what you need.
Just got a new iPad and Pencil? Whether you need to take handwritten notes, annotate documents, record audio, create sports playbooks, or even make your own fonts, the App Store has a number of fantastic apps for note-taking. I’ve tested over 25 of these apps, and here are my favorite options.
- PDF Expert
- MyScript Nebo
- Other apps we tested
Starting out? Try The Notes app
The iPad’s default Notes app is a veritable handwriting and annotation program in and of itself, with iOS 11 adding text recognition search, inline scanning and annotation, and sketching or handwriting. It doesn’t have some of the features that more robust note-taking apps sport — you can’t sync your notes anywhere but iCloud, and there’s no easy way to link various notes together — but if you need a simple starter for school or work, try out Notes before jumping onto a more comprehensive program. (It also has excellent Apple Pencil support, if you’re using an iPad Pro.)
Read more about the Notes app
Notability is the best for general note-taking
When it comes to multipurpose handwriting apps, you’d be hard-pressed not to find Notability at the top of most lists. The $9.99 note-taking app has an excellent interface full of tools for handwriting, drawing, annotating PDFs, making shapes, highlighting, moving objects around, adding audio, integrating photos and web clips, and more. You can choose from multiple colored paper styles and lined or unlined paper, share your notebooks to just about every major service and print them, along with importing notebooks from Dropbox, Google Drive, Box, or a WebDAV service. Notability also offers iCloud sync support and a companion Mac app, if you’d prefer an app that works on both Mac and iOS.
As such, Notability’s toolbar is more full-featured than Notes. It could be confusing at first glance, if not for the app’s incredibly helpful tutorial notebook bundled on launch; it guides you through almost all of Notability’s tools and features.
The app also works flawlessly with the Apple Pencil — whether you’re writing, sketching, or drawing shapes. It’s an excellent, well-designed app if you want a little bit more power than what the default Notes app provides.
- $9.99 – Download now
For advanced note-taking, try GoodNotes
If Notability is the everyday sedan of handwriting app picks, the $7.99 GoodNotes app is the high-powered sports car: It’s less intuitive, but stuffed full of highly-valuable pro features. I’d never heard of the app until developer Chris Liscio pointed it out, and I’m so happy he did.
For starters, GoodNotes offers a truly massive selection of paper types for its digital notebooks, including lined, graph, design, and music notation; there are even advanced options that let you upload custom templates. Better still, most templates are available in specific paper sizes (if you’re working for print). GoodNotes also offers a ton of different cover styles and choices, all of which can be written upon and further designed.
Like the other apps in this roundup, GoodNotes supports writing and drawing with the Apple Pencil — along with a number of third-party stylus options — using two different digital writing tools: a digital fountain or ball pen in a preset or custom color spectrum.
GoodNotes also has built-in handwriting search recognition and text conversion (done via MyScript’s engine, which also powers MyScript Nebo).
Note: As friend-of-iMore Jason Snell has pointed out, apps like GoodNotes do this largely by guessing your words. You might get a hit for “app” after writing the word, but searching for “ape” might bring you to the same page.
It’s additionally a fantastic app for PDF annotation — I’ve used it to manage my D&D character on Total Party Kill, and to take notes atop scripts or other work projects.
If you’re looking for a more extensive option than Notability, GoodNotes is a feature-rich app well worth the download.
- $7.99 – Download now
For Office users, OneNote is great
Microsoft has impressed iOS enthusiasts around the globe with its commitment to great iPhone and iPad apps, and OneNote is no different. Though you need a Microsoft or Skype account to use it, an Office 365 subscription isn’t required to edit documents. That said, OneNote is largely designed to be an import repository — you can share links to OneNote notebooks with the public, but there aren’t the easily accessible options (like exporting to PDF or JPG) you’ll find in comparable programs.
It’s worth noting that you can use the app’s share commands to email a PDF of your OneNote notebook, but it’s not a particularly user-friendly solution in the age of Apple’s share sheets.
If you don’t mind the lock-in to Microsoft’s sync service or the inability to traditionally export documents, however, OneNote is quite a good note-taking app and general repository — you can write with the Apple Pencil or type; add photos, audio, files, PDFs, and links; transcribe mathematical equations; and even create a calendar.
- Free – Download now
PDF Expert is the king of PDF annotation and markup
If you’re planning on doing some PDF annotation and form-filling on your iPad, you can do one or two with Apple’s built-in Markup extension in iOS 11 — but for more comprehensive annotation tools, you’re going to want a dedicated app to help you out. There are lots of great ones, but PDF Expert’s iCloud syncing and advanced markup features make it fly to the top of my list.
Best PDF markup and annotation apps for iPad Pro
You can open up PDFs from iCloud or pretty much any other online service with the $9.99 PDF Expert app, fill out forms, and sign documents; you can also work with items with a digital pen, shape tool, underline, strike-thru, or highlighter option, as well as create “stamps” for often-used wording. All of these changes, after saved, are not only fully editable in PDF Expert, but in apps like Adobe Acrobat and Preview — so you can move from Mac to PC and back again with your iPad.
PDF Expert also lets you edit the structure of PDFs themselves: You can rearrange pages, delete sections, extract parts of the PDF, and even add new blank pages to your documents. Once you’re finished with a PDF document, you can even zip it (or multiple documents) with PDF Expert’s built-in compressor, and password-protect crucial documents.
Should you want to further tinker with your PDFs, Expert offers a $6.99 Pro upgrade in-app that allows you to physically edit the text, images, and links inside a PDF, as well as redacting information.
- $9.99 – Download now
If you need handwriting recognition, get MyScript Nebo
Forget mere note-taking: If you want your scribbles converted to text, you’re going to need an app that supports handwriting conversion. We’ve come a long way from the Newton and egg freckles, but the apps available for such things are still few and far between. Apps like Notes and GoodNotes scan your text for search purposes, but don’t offer outright handwriting recognition. In contrast, there are apps like MyScript Nebo, which offers full handwriting-to-text conversion.
MyScript has been a big name in handwriting recognition for years (including a handwriting recognition keyboard), but the $2.99 Nebo app is the company’s first attempt at an app designed for Apple Pencil and iPad Pro, and it’s excellent. It’s simple enough to use and offers a silky-smooth digital pen tool in multiple colors. In addition, users can add photographic and video content, diagrams, and equations alongside handwriting or digital text.
Nebo’s notebooks can be converted a paragraph at a time or as a full notebook; those conversions are entirely non-destructive, too, so you can preserve the handwriting if the type conversion isn’t perfect. You can also export notebooks as text, HTML, PDF, or Word documents. Sync is available through MyScript’s proprietary service, but unfortunately not iCloud.
Even without iCloud support, however, Nebo is still the best app on the store for handwriting recognition.
- $2.99 – Download now
iFontMaker lets you make your own handwriting
Okay, so this isn’t technically handwriting, but it’s not quite drawing either — it’s somewhere in the middle. If you’ve ever looked at your handwriting (or someone else’s) and thought “That would make an awesome computer font,” you’re in luck. The $7.99 iFontMaker app lets you create gorgeous hand-built fonts and install them on either your iPad or on a Mac or Windows PC of your choice.
All the tools you might be used to in a desktop typography program are there, including free-hand drawing, vector curves, and support for pretty much every character available to type online — including glyphs for several Asian languages.
iFontMaker doesn’t officially support the Apple Pencil, but I found no hindrance toward using it with the accessory; on the contrary, even without pressure sensitivity, it’s an incredible tool.
If you’ve ever dreamed of creating your own font, give iFontMaker a try: I built my own font in a few hours. I bet you can, too.
- $7.99 – Download now
Other apps we tested
For the latest version of this roundup, I looked at a number of writing and note-taking apps. Here are some that are great but didn’t quite merit their own entry:
- Evernote, Free with in-app subscription: Like Microsoft’s OneNote, Evernote is an incredible import repository for organizing a ton of data, notes, documents, and sketches. But to take full advantage of its sync capabilities, PDF annotation, and more, you need the app’s $7.99/month subscription (or $5.83/month if billed annually). Evernote is great if you need all the features a subscription provides, but not quite worth jumping in for the free Basic or $3.99/month Plus subscription.
- LiquidText, Free with in-app purchases: LiquidText is a brilliant concept for organizing and annotating PDFs, and will be in an upcoming PDF annotation apps roundup, but it’s a little too specialized to overtake PDF Expert as my all-purpose annotation recommendation.
- Noteshelf, $9.99: This app combines many of my favorite Notability and GoodNotes features, including custom page templates and audio recordings, but I don’t like the writing tools nearly as much.
- Notes Plus, $9.99: My former top pick for handwriting recognition before Nebo’s release, Notes Plus has now been optimized for iPad and Pencil — but it’s a little clunkier in the looks department, with iffy palm rejection.
- Whink, $4.99: Whink was my top pick for an entry-level handwriting app, and it’s still quite nice, offering nice pen tools, audio and photo integration, and basic document annotation. But the stock Notes app is a better overall recommendation for most users.
These might be my top apps for handwriting, but I bet you have your own picks, iMore readers. What should I try? What’s worth our time? Let us know in the comments.
Updated April 2018: Here are our favorite handwriting apps!
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