Mac/iOS notetaking apps
Last updated: August 19, 2020
I find the ability to write and search notes anywhere one of the most beneficial uses of my iPhone. However, I’ve had trouble finding an app I’m happy with. The more notes you write, the longer it takes to switch between apps, so I want to make sure I make the correct choice.
After extensively using Apple Notes, Bear, OneNote, and Ulysses, I’ve developed the following criteria to help guide my decision. I selected these 4 apps primarily because I am at least somewhat confident they won’t shut down in the near-term. There are very enticing note-taking apps from newer/smaller companies out there (see: Notion, Agenda), but I don’t want a painful migration to a different service if they shut down in a few years.
This is intentionally focused on Mac and iOS. If you are cross-platform, stop reading here: OneNote is the obvious choice, with Evernote coming in a distant second due to business instability (more on that below).
|Will work 5+ years from now?||Parmount||Very confident1||Somewhat confident2||Very confident3||Very confident4|
|Native Mac and iOS apps||Critical||✓||✓||✓||✓|
|Backups||Critical||Barely8||Manual||Automatic||Manual via OneDrive 9|
|Support for large numbers of notes/attachments||Critical||Unknown||1000s||Unknown11||No limit|
|Ability to export en masse to a different app||Critical||❌12||✓||✓||Read-only13|
|Quick mobile note capture||Important||✓||✓||✓||✓|
|Quick open via keyboard||Important||Via search||✓||✓||Via search|
|Search embedded PDFs||Important||✓||❌||❌||Only when PDF is inserted via iOS app|
|Handwritten notes on iPad||Nice to have||✓||❌||❌||✓|
|Search handwriting||Nice to have||✓||❌||❌||✓|
|Support for tables||Nice to have||✓||❌||❌||✓|
|Markdown-based||Nice to have||❌||✓||✓||❌|
|Sharing support||Nice to have||✓||❌||Via Dropbox14||✓|
|Link to specific notes||Nice to have||Barely15||✓||✓||✓16|
Last updated in December 2018.
My decision (as of December 2018)
I’m giving OneNote a try.
Bear was almost my choice. It ticks all the “critical” boxes, but it can’t search PDFs and doesn’t have most of the “nice to haves”.
Ulysses was disqualified due to the poor support for embedded images and other attachments. Because it’s primarily a writing app, rather than a note-taking app, I don’t expect this support to improve substantially anytime soon. If it does, Ulysses is definitely worth another look.
Apple Notes was disqualified for several reasons:
- I don’t know if it will become sluggish with many notes (with attachments). If it does there is no good solution — the only option is to manually delete some notes.
- There’s no good way to restore from a backup.
- There’s no good way to export notes to a different application, though presumably if Apple discontinued notes someone would figure out how to do this.
UPDATE · August 2019
As of August 2019 I am still using OneNote.
OneNote concerns and solutions
- Microsoft. They’re cool again, and since they never discontinue any software, I’m fairly confident OneNote will still work in a decade.
- No iOS/Mac backup. I will trust their cloud sync solution until I have reason not to — so far it seems solid. I will also manually download a snapshot of my notebooks each month.
- No Markdown support. I’d actually rather have rich text + inline images/PDFs for my notes than be able to write in Markdown. I will also start using the excellent iA Writer again for longer-form writing.
Exciting OneNote features
OneNote has a few unique features that help push it over the line for me:
- You can “tag” lines of notes and then search for these tags. This allows you to put todo checkboxes in notes and then see all your outstanding todos in one place. This can be extremely useful when taking notes in e.g. meetings.
- You can write directly on notes with Apple Pencil on iOS, and then search your handwriting! (Apple Notes does this too.)
- I really like the infinite canvas approach OneNote uses for notes. I like having multiple narrow columns of text that can all fit on a landscape iPad.
- Wiki-style links between pages.16
Other apps of interest
I’ve only included applications that I think are viable long-term (>5 years from now), but there are some newer apps that may be options in the future if they stick around. Some of these are designed for teams, but could certainly be used by a single person.
- Collected Notes
- Quip (has been around since 2012, but is really a Google Docs alternative rather than a note-taking platform)
- Roam (long description of Roam from early 2020)
- Strike (similar to Bear)
Standard Notes is an interesting application that is possibly worth a look. It’s been around since 2016 and has a strong take on security and longevity. I have not personally tested it out, however.
There are also some “Linuxy” applications for note-taking:
I’m not interested in these because they don’t fit the aesthetic I’m looking for, and this matters for a tool I’m using every day.
The New York Times has some open source software called
library, which provides a shared knowledge base using Google Docs as the back-end for editing content. This is a pretty cool idea that would work well for shared notes.
See also “Evernote lost its CTO, CFO, CPO and HR head in the last month as it eyes another fundraise” (2018).
Because of this, Evernote does not seem viable long-term.
- Apple doesn’t have the best reputation for longevity of services, but so many people use Apple Notes I don’t think it would be possible for them to shut it down (unless the company was going bankrupt). If this did happen, there will definitely be tools for exporting to a different platform. I am not concerned. [return]
- Bear uses iCloud to sync but the files don’t appear in iCloud Drive. If Bear shuts down, there will be a somewhat painful transition to another service but it should be possible to do this from a backup. I am mildly concerned. [return]
- I use Ulysses with files stored in Dropbox in a standard format so I could easily transition to another service. I am not concerned. [return]
- Microsoft does not shut down products or remove features, to a fault. Also the OneNote file format is an open standard. I am not concerned. [return]
- Uses iCloud to sync, which can be difficult to fix if it gets into a strange state – there is no “sync now” button, or any way to troubleshoot besides signing out of iCloud, restarting the device, or uninstalling/reinstalling the app. [return]
- Syncs with both iCloud and Dropbox. As of December 2018, modified timestamps are incorrect via Dropbox sync and updates among devices are slow. iCloud sync works better but suffers from inability to troubleshoot.5 [return]
- Uses OneDrive to sync. It seems to work fine but I haven’t used it enough to verify reliability. [return]
- You can use Time Machine to do a full restore, but partial backups are not possible. [return]
- The Mac and iOS apps don’t have a built-in backup feature. However, you can manually download your notebooks from OneDrive. You can also use the Windows OneNote 2016 application to do backups, but this is kind of a pain. [return]
- Ulysses doesn’t handle inline images very well: it will display all images scaled over a fixed number of lines, which makes most images impossible to view inline. It’s also not very easy to zoom in on an image (requires 3+ taps/clicks). [return]
- I suspect the limit is very high (1000s of notes) because it is plain text without indexing, but I can’t find any documentation online. In my own use it has always worked well with 100s of notes. [return]
- You can manually export one note at a time, which is not helpful for moving all notes to a different app. [return]
- You can use the Windows app to export an entire notebook as a PDF, which will allow for a read-only copy of your notes in a new app. Because of OneNote’s canvas paradigm, it’s not practical to expect automated ediatble exports from OneNote. But you can always manually export things that you need to edit, and rely on the PDF notebook exports for everything else. [return]
- Yes via a shard Dropbox folder, but not via the default iCloud sync option. [return]