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When it comes to note-taking applications, it’s hard to beat Notability for iPad. It’s the perfect replacement for a moleskine or other paper notebook. Writing on the iPad felt natural to me within just a few minutes, and notability provides the features that help to make the iPad feel close enough to a piece of real note-paper for the whole process to work smoothly. In addition to typical note-taking you can also annotate PDF documents and images, which turns out to be incredibly useful. Meaghan and I signed parts of our mortgage paperwork on our iPads using this technique. No need to print out forms, sign them, and then scan them back in. Just open up the form on the iPad, sign it, and email it back to the sender.


However, taking good notes is just the first step in a strong strategy. Equally as important is ensuring that they are backed up and eventually integrated with your central note repository; in my case Evernote. Fortunately these are easy goals to achieve as Notability supports direct integration with Dropbox and can export notes to Evernote via email.

Once notes are completed, I send them to my Evernote email address and remove them from my iPad notebook. This helps to keep my iPad notebook small and maintains Evernote as the system of record. Evernote provides several advantages as a system of record, most importantly the ability to search the text within images; arguably the most useful way to find information within hand-written notes.

Example Workflow
Take notes on the iPad just like you would with pen and paper.

Step 2 (automatic): Sync with Dropbox
This provides off-device backup in case something should happen to your iPad.

Step 3: Export the note to Evernote via email
Note how the subject line in the screenshot below has @House tacked on the end. This instructs Evernote to route the note to my House notebook.

Update (06/09/2012): As Marijane noted, Evernote cannot currently search into the text within images stored inside a PDF. The above screenshot is therefore a little misleading. I will sometimes export as an image instead (allowing Evernote to search within the image) but more often I will export as PDF and add keyword comments to the top of the exported note that I can search into. I’m doing this in the hope that Evernote will eventually add the ability to search text in images inside PDF documents and hence allow my strategy of PDF export to be long-lived.

Step 4: Tag, Index, and Search in Evernote
Leverage the benefits of Evernote to tag, index, and search your notes. It’s much easier than digging through piles of note paper or scanning through a traditional notebook. Additionally your notes are now available on all of your devices; iPad, iPhone, MacBook, and desktop PC. Anywhere you can get access to a web browser you can get access to your notes. I’ve used this in countless places: when opening a new savings account at the bank and needing access to reference information, when buying boxes at Home Depot and referencing a list of how many of each size we need. Ubiquitous access to all of your notes is an amazing thing. It has to be experienced to be truly appreciated.


  • Marijane

    How did you get Evernote to do handwriting recognition on PDF Documents? Their support site claims it only works on JPEGs. I have fallen hard for Notability but without the ability to search handwritten notes it’s of limited use to me, and so far your workaround isn’t working for me. Any tips you could provide would be greatly appreciated. Thanks for posting about this!

  • Unfortunately for right now you have to export the notes as images if you want them to be searchable by Evernote. It’s a huge blind-spot in their tech stack for some reason. You can search hand-writing in images, or text in PDF but not the handwriting in images in PDFs. I’m sure there must be some reason why this was complicated for them to do but it would be a huge value add if they could figure it out.

    So far I’ve figured out the following:
    * Either export the hand-written notes as images and store those in Evernote (urgh)
    * Export as PDF and add a list of keywords manually at the top of the note (my current solution)
    * Use a lot of tags when exporting the notes (i.e. add #tag1 #tag2 on the email subject line)

    Really hope they add the ability to search inside images in PDFs soon. That would be the complete solution.

  • Erik

    Is there a version of Notability available for the MacBook? I’m less interested in the hand-written feature and more in linking my typed notes to a lecture I’m recording.

    • I don’t believe that there is a version available for the MacBook. I use Evernote primarily on my Mac. You can add audio files to notes in Evernote. Hope that helps!

  • Ashley

    I use a MacBook Pro. I want something like Notability. I am not concerned with handwritten aspect. I am in veterinary school, and currently using Pear Notes. The app would be perfect, IF I could add notes to the actual slide. Do you know of any applications that will import slides, allow for addition of notes to the actual slide and while also recording?

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