In the beginning, there was Notes, and it was… well, it was pretty awful, actually. No sync, no password protection, and mandatory Marker Felt. But then Apple created the App Store, and it was good. It’s been just over a year since the App Store opened, and plenty of notes apps have appeared, so we thought it was about time to round up some of the top suspects and see which one came out on top.
Before we dive into the assessments, a couple of notes:
John Gruber has written a bit on this subject already. We did our best to ignore everything he said and come to our own conclusions, but in the interest of full disclosure, we did read both of those articles.
We excluded Evernote from this roundup for a couple of reasons: it does one too many things for a simple ‘notes’ app, and it doesn’t actually store most of your notes on the iPhone itself—except for manually chosen favorites, they’re all stored online—so if you don’t have internet access, you don’t have your notes. All the apps we included in this roundup keep a copy of your notes on the device itself, whether or not they also include a sync feature.
How scoring works
First, I made a detailed analysis of each app based on its features, icon, and general user interface experience. I weighed in on ease of use and simplicity, and frowned upon unnecessary navigation to get things started. I like syncing features, judging the webapp or desktop sync client. I personally don’t need password protection for individual notes, but added that to the overall tally. Then I went ahead and assigned a totally subjective score out of 10 based on how much I enjoyed using it. This is an Apple blog, after all.
Note that the review is riddled with linked screenshots of features. Just clicking it will make it spring out like a daisy right inside this window. There are of course more screenshots in the iTunes pages of the apps in question.
And without further ado, the contestants…
The original. Without Notes, there wouldn’t be any other notes apps out there. Oh, who are we kidding? Of course there would be, but they might not have avoided Marker Felt quite as assiduously.
Notes is pretty bare-bones: no theming, no way to change the font, no folder support, and no fullscreen support. There is a search feature within the app (pull down the main screen) as well as some place no other third party app has access to—search from Spotlight. Unfortunately, the spotlight search is kind of unreliable, so we’ll leave that out of the tally. It has orientation support and a reasonably attractive icon that tells you exactly what this application is. The first line of any given note becomes the title. The syncing unfortunately is only with Apple Mail, which also continues the Marker Felt mantra.
Score: 6/10 | A solid first offering, but sadly lacking in a couple of areas—namely, proper ‘over the air’ syncing with a webapp, horrible font, and any form of security.
I have to admit that when I saw the name of this app, I winced. Normally, I associate the word “awesome” in a program’s name with ugly Windows shovelware. As a result, I were extraordinarily pleased to find that Awesome Note is quite far from being any kind of shovelware.
Awesome Note’s icon shows an attractive neatly-color-coded folder with sticky notes attached to it, telling us exactly what we’re getting. The home screen of the app itself shows a set of attractively-themed folders, as well as sticky notes that let you create a “Quick memo” (a handy scratch pad that can easily be cleared) and a small notebook that lets you add a more substantial and permanent note. It’s worth mentioning that memos can easily be turned into notes, and you can have up to four different notes—on different-coloured backgrounds—at the same time. In either case, you can change the font very easily. Wonder of wonders! It’s also really easy to move notes around, change their look (there are eleven different themes), and sort them by name or date. The title of a note is initially assigned from the first line, but can be easily changed by tapping the title in note view. If ‘cool’ user interfaces is what you’re looking for, Awesome Note comes out with flying colours (literally!).
Score: 7/10 | Awesome Note (App Store link) has some cool features and looks pretty nice, but overall it feels like the focus is on theming rather than usability. A lot of the navigation buttons are tiny and take multiple tries to hit and there’s no syncing at all, which would have been fine—except that every other app in this roundup offers syncing in one form or another. Finally, there is no search feature and no way of password-protecting an entry or folder. Update: New version store brings in this: syncing with Google Docs, as well as password protection, and future updates have promised a search feature.
Notebooks supports standard text notes like all the other applications in this roundup, but it also lets you create “notes” that are actually images taken with the camera. Sadly, if you want any text to go along with an image, you’re limited to using the title field or creating a whole separate note. You can organize all notes into folders (“books”) and search them easily from the home screen of the app.
One of Notebooks’ key features—aside from the ability to set the default font that all notes use—oh joy of joys—is passcode protection certain notes or books. Once you’ve enabled protection in the application’s settings (which are not, in fact, in the Settings app), you can click the ‘more info’ button next to a note or book and turn on passcode protection for that particular item. Once done, that item no longer shows up, either in the main view or in searches, unless you’ve unlocked the app by tapping the lock in the upper-right-hand corner and typing in your passcode.
Notebooks technically has a syncing feature, but I can’t recommend it. It requires an ugly, cross-platform java app called SyncDocs. You then still have to export or import your notes by hand, and SyncDocs puts your downloaded notes in a “downloads” file in your Applications folder by default. Not the “just works” sort of experience I was hoping for.
Score: 5/10 | Notebooks has everything you could want from a note app—even the icon clearly indicates what’s going on here—except for really good syncing. And desirability. As much as I was impressed by the features, I just didn’t enjoy using this app. Hence the low score.
This application has a horrible icon. It’s an awful color, it’s not realistic, and it doesn’t clearly indicate what the application is—it could be a notes app, or it could be something altogether more scrapbook-y. Open the app, and the first thing you see is some fairly heavy-handed branding on the splash image. On a 3GS, that gets out of your face pretty fast, but first-gen iPhone and iPod Touch users might spend a bit longer looking at it, so I think it’s worth mentioning. And does the name remind anyone else of an exercise machine?
Okay, enough with the negativity. The UI is pleasantly simple and direct. On the main screen, you’re confronted with a list of the folders (“categories”) you’ve set up. The ‘+’ button in the upper right corner provides an easy way to create new categories. Once you’ve moved into a category view—you can set the app’s start screen to be All Notes if you don’t like this extra step—you’re free to create a new note. You can run a search in any category view, but a search in All Notes doesn’t turn up notes from password-protected categories. Which, by the way, are a very handy feature; no individually-protected notes, but protected categories are pretty convenient as long as you don’t need to do an app-wide search that includes items in protected categories.
What remains to be said about NoteMaster is pretty straightforward (no theming, no font-changing, etc.), with two exceptions. First, if you want to send a note as an email from within the app (something Notes, awesomeNote, and Notebooks all support out of the box), you’ll need to set up your SMTP server. Why, I don’t really know. Second, NoteMaster syncs your notes to a Google Docs account of your choice—and yes, before you ask, it supports Google Apps accounts as well as standard Google accounts.
Score: 7/10 | Despite the ham-handed branding and the awful icon, I really like NoteMaster. Decent syncing with a major webapp is a big deal, particularly when it’s an account like Google Docs that most people already have set up. The notes editor is also rich text enabled allowing you to plunk in images alongside text. I’m not sure about the SMTP setup, though, and syncing sometimes has to be forced to make sure it happens before you quit the app.
Notespark reminds me of a cut-down version of Evernote—and that’s a good thing. Notespark is all about making sure the notes you take on your iPhone get synced to the Notespark webapp, and vice versa. More than any application we’ve looked at so far, Notespark makes syncing a core feature rather than an afterthought.
The main screen of Notespark has five familiar “folders” to help you organize your notes: All, Starred, Tags, Search, and Trash. Notes themselves are very simple; they’re in Helvetica (woo!) and they take their titles from their first lines. By default, they’re themed with a yellow look that makes them feel very sticky-note-ish. If that doesn’t suit you, it’s easily changed to a normal white background in the settings.
Notes are easily shared (or tagged or starred) by tapping the “export” button. You’re given the choice of sharing the note with another Notespark user so they can see it on the webapp or their iPhone (or inviting someone to Notespark) or emailing the note from within the app.
Since syncing with the webapp is such a big part of Notespark, it’s definitely worth talking about. When you sign in (Notespark.com), the new note field is focused and ready for you to start typing. Unfortunately, there’s no way to save a note without using the mouse—Notespark could really benefit from Gmail-like keyboard navigation. Aside from that, the webapp gives you exactly the same options as the iPhone app, just formatted to fit your browser.
Score: 8/10 | In a word, excellent. My iPhone is protected with a passcode already, so I don’t need the extra password-protection that Notebooks and Notemaster offer. What I need is a simple, easily searchable note application that syncs well. Notespark goes one better—it’s push-enabled (as of v1.2 which is pending approval), so if someone shares a note with you, you’ll know it. Shame about the icon.
WriteRoom for Mac is pretty awesome. We like the iPhone version plenty, too.
By default, the app is set up much like its desktop cousin—white text on a black background, with black controls. You can easily change this to just about any color scheme in the Settings app, where you can also change the controls to default colors and change the font to whatever you want. The main screen is a list of your notes, plus three buttons: New note, Sync, and Wi-Fi Sharing (which lets you edit your notes in your web browser). It’s worth noting that trying to edit your notes in Firefox will crash WriteRoom.iPhone, so sticking to WebKit-based browsers is probably a good idea.
The sync feature is excellent, and works with WriteRoom.ws. You set it up using your Google ID in the settings app, and then sign into WriteRoom.ws using that same Google ID. Any modern browser should work fine for this. My only complaints about the webapp are a complete lack of any search feature or method of organizing your notes, and the fact that you can’t change its vintage computing look-and-feel.
One final point—true to its heritage, WriteRoom is the only app on this list to provide a fullscreen editing mode. Just pinch the screen in a zoom-in motion to get the fullscreen mode, and pinch in a zoom-out motion to get back out of it.
Score: 8/10 | Again, the lack of passcode-protection and folder support in WriteRoom doesn’t bother me. It’s simple and it syncs. The fullscreen mode is definitely nifty. Our main complaint is actually a feature request—please add syncing with WriteRoom.ws to the desktop version!
This was John Gruber’s pick for the best notes app out there, and I have to say, I like it. His (and Patrick Rhone’s) complaint about the icon, which used to be a note on a locker door, is a bit out of date, though; the new icon is worse. Thankfully, this one is just an interim icon—a better one should be along shortly.
Gruber’s writeup was very thorough, so I suggest you give it a look. If you prefer the short version, though, Simplenote takes the best features of Notes and builds on them. There are two main views: the list of notes, and the individual note view. The notes, unsurprisingly, are in black Helvetica on a white background. No surprises there. There’s also a Settings view where you can create, log into, or switch your account for use with the webapp (Simplenoteapp.com/). That’s it. No other settings.
Your notes are simple text files that take their titles from their first lines. You can write notes, search notes, delete notes, or email notes, and your notes get synced to a webapp that offers exactly the same functionality. That’s it. This application is exactly what the name tells you it is.
Score: 9/10 | The only reasons Simplenote doesn’t get a 10/10 are these: there are no folders and no password protection (both of which are dealbreakers for some), and the webapp bothers me a little bit (it’s not at all navigable with the keyboard), it’s completely vertical, and it doesn’t remember your password despite its promise to the contrary. That’s it. Everything else about this app and its companion webapp is flawless.
Honorable mention: gNotes
In our search for new and excellent note apps, we ran across this old gem. gNotes syncs folders and notes with your Google Notebook account. Unfortunately, anyone who doesn’t already have a Notebook account can’t get one now—Google has stopped supporting the service and doesn’t offer it to new users.
For those who already have a Notebook account from way back in the day, though, this is a very convenient app. It supports folders and simple text-based notes. If it had a search feature and better control over what section your new notes were created in, its flawless syncing and more complex companion webapp would make it our favorite notes app by far. It obviously won’t work for everyone, but anyone who still has a Google Notebook account should give this free app a try. Perhaps if there’s enough interest, the developer will release an update or two—the last one seems to have been this past December.
Final… ::cough:: …Notes
Even without Gruber’s endorsement, Simplenote came away as the best in class. At $1.99, it’s hard to beat if you’re looking for a clean, simple, stable, syncing notes app. WriteRoom and Notespark are heftier-priced but attractive alternatives at $4.99, and Notebooks and NoteMaster provide some handy organization and passcode-protection features at $5.99 and $3.99 respectively. Awesome Note is built for the theming crowd, who like cool user interfaces, and slick graphics, priced at $3.99, and gNotes is a decent free alternative for those with access to Google Notebook.
We like to think we covered the best notes apps we could find in this roundup, but we certainly didn’t cover all of them. If we missed something you use and love, let us know about it in the comments!
[Sexy iPhone image in header via Flickr]