[UPDATE 3 on Feb 4, 2011: added  Notes Plus and modified UPDATE 2]

[UPDATE 2: If you haven’t bought any note-taking app yet and you’re looking for a REALLY powerful one. Check this out: Notebook for iPad by Circus Ponies. Pretty expensive with a price tag of US$29.99 but if you’re a professional e.g. a lawyer, a lecturer, or if you’re a college student/grad-school student looking for a serious note-taking app. This could be just perfect for you. I haven’t bought it yet (I was thrilled to see Circus Ponies announcing its release on FB until I saw the price tag…!) so I can’t testify whether it works as it says. But if it works as it says, it’d mean it has everything all other apps offer combined: formatted note (with fonts, font colors and sizes, plus expandable hierarchical outline), diagram with shapes and lines/arrows, insert PDF into notebook and annotate, search in notes (the search function on Mac is really robust: imagine having an index page you normally find at the back of a textbook but with even more powerful and detailed keywords), and scribble (since I haven’t bought it, I can’t tell whether it’s good for handwriting). I’m now writing to the devs to ask about how files are exported from iPad. This should be crucial to non-Mac users in particular.]  <– UPDATE 3: I’ve kept a really close eye on the reviews in App Store since the day it hit the shelf and I have to say that it’s a bit disappointing to see that the comments are mostly negative. It seems that functions are there but the execution sounds pretty flawed. I guess it’s mainly due to the limited RAM and CPU power of the current iPad (though obviously the developers need to review the UI as well). Most people complained about sluggishness and crash. These are actually mostly due to memory shortage of the device than to flawed codes. Anyways, US$29.99 is just too much. Think about this: Pages is only US$9.99. So I don’t see myself buying it any time soon.

[UPDATED on Dec 15, 2010: 1 app added and apps got re-ranked]

I’ve lost count of how much I have spent in AppStore. In fact, I don’t want to keep track of it coz I know the number would be a bit horrifying – I’ve bought too many. Some people think it’d be nice to get a trial period. Well, it’s true but then at the same time, I think, it’s just like dining in a restaurant. You go visit a restaurant because you’ve read some nice reviews along with some bad reviews and you wanna see it yourself. You go in; you sit down; you make your orders and you taste the food. It only tastes so so or, maybe, it tastes awful. Do you just leave the restaurant without paying? Or do you pay and swear you’ll never go there again?

Anyways…My ‘death spot’ in AppStore is productivity apps e.g. note-taking apps and to-do apps. I need to take many notes during the day as I teach. I also need good to-do apps to keep track of the various to-dos I have from various jobs (I don’t have a real full-time job but I have many part-time and freelance jobs). To-do apps don’t matter anymore now since I’ve got Pocket Informant on both iPhone and iPad. PI is a great app and got a good tracking record. It connects calendar and todo very well. So, what about note-taking apps? I’ve bought quite a few and I’ll list them out with what I think the best comes first:

1a. Notes Plus (US$5.99 – iPad only – 5 stars)

Bought this app when it was on sale at US$0.99! Too bad that it’s back to US$5.99 now but this app is very often on sale – sometimes 1.99. metimes 2.99. Go over to Appshopper and you’ll see how often it goes on sale. Put it on your wish list and wait! I use this app mainly for my Japanese lessons.

  • 4.5 stars because DropBox is NOT supported yet (but the developer is working on it)
  • Supports recording
  • Supports typed notes
  • Supports handwritten notes
  • Have palm/wrist guard function
  • Got folder system
  • Can be exported to Google Docs
  • The developer(s) is very responsive. I wrote to him about a minor bug and he replied within hours.

As I said in point 1: DropBox! It now integrates with Google Docs but it’s not a sync. You can upload the file but it’s not syncing, which means the different versions of your file will become different files in Google Docs. Having Evernote integration will also be nice because with Evernote, handwritten notes in PDF can become searchable (on Mac/PC, not on iPad/iPhone). This can be really helpful. Some other people want to be able to import  PDF but I can do whatever I want to my PDF files with GoodReader and iAnnotate already. So I don’t really care about PDF.

 

1b. Noteshelf (US$4.99 – iPad only – 5 stars) 

Couldn’t resist the urge and finally bought this one a couple weeks ago. Fantastic app for hand-written notes:

  • You can create as many notebook as you like and they’ll be nicely displayed on the “shelf". You can rearrange their order on the shelf;
  • There are many book types/templates to choose from and each book type has its own cover, which makes it easier to be spotted on the shelf;
  • extremely smooth handwriting (for both pens and fingers);
  • You can export a page or several selected page of a notebook or the whole book through email/dropbox/evernote. You can also choose to export as image (png) or PDF;
  • You can rearrange the pages/insert a page in a notebook;
  • Overview page thumbnails in notebook (which makes it really easy to find the page you want);
  • Apart from handwriting, you can also add pictures from photo library and draw on it. There are also stamps (emoticons-like) available.

I now usually write lesson notes in this app and email it the note to my students after lesson. With almost all of my music books on iPad (btw, I use forScore, US$4.99, great app for musicians, praise team leaders etc), I can literally go paper-less.

Noteshelf VS Penultimate

Though I don’t have Penultimate but I have tried it on my friend’s iPad. I think Notesehlf is far better than the highly popular Penultimate (US$3.99). Penultimate has got really limited functions, IMO:

  • It has only one single book cover and a few templates such as ruled and plain paper – makes it really hard to find your desired notebook as you gradually build your library.
  • No thumbnail of pages provided. You have to flip through the notebook to find the page you want.
  • One Pro though: it supports VGA out now. But since I don’t have the app, can’t test how the VGA out works. Some so-called VGA-out-supported apps do a poor job on it. May ask my friend to test it.
  • Hmm…well… maybe one more pro: it’s one three bucks cheaper than Noteshelf (but with much fewer functions…).

1c. PlainText (FREE – universal – 5 stars) 

This runs tie with Awesome Note for one reason: it’s free. The more I use this app, the more I like it. This app goes to the opposite of Awesome Note that there’s nothing graphic in it. Just as the app title, PlainText, says, it is plaintext only. Why place it 2nd on my list then?

  • This is a universal app – free universal app that just works;
  • It syncs with Dropbox! (Now, if you haven’t got Dropbox yet, hit this link – it’s free and this link will get both of us an extra 250mb);
  • It’s simplicity done right – simple and elegant;
  • Plaintext only – no format, no image, no voice, just text;
  • It supports multi-layered folders (and the folders will sync to Dropbox).

I like this one more than Evernote, though both are free. If you’ve ever tried to export notes from Evernote, you’d notice that it only exports as html or Evernote’s propriety .enex format – neither is good for further edit in other apps/softwares. Of course, you may copy and paste but there’s no simple way to do it if you want to get the content of a whole set of notes from Evernote to, say, MS Word or Apple Pages. PlainText being plaintext means basically all text-editing software, may it be as simple as Text Editor or as professional as MS Word or Apple Pages, can read and edit the notes you’ve made.

2. Momonote (US$4.99 – universal – 4 stars) 

It has a weird name but the app itself is not weird at all. I bought this app back in Nov 2008 and I’ve seen many updates in this app.  I could think of 3 pros and 3 cons back then but now… it’s basically all pros:

  • This is a UNIVERSAL app (AwesomeNotes has already stated that the iPad version will come as a separate app);
  • It supports formatted notes (multi-layer bullet points) and notes with image (There really aren’t that many note-taking apps that support formatted notes);
  • It syncs with Web Momo very smoothly; Web Momo is free and has export to csv function;
  • Tags for notes plus customizable ‘favorite’ list and ‘smart list’ (I think ‘tagging’ is more useful and powerful than ‘folders’);
  • It has calendar view;
  • A pretty good search function;
  • Integrated with Facebook, email, twitter
  • Got a feedback forum and the developers do listen to users’ feedbacks and requests.

From what I read on forum, some much requested features are now under-review by the developers (which means update is coming). These requests include syncing with iCal and Gcal, connecting with blogs like WP, tabular notes, UI enhancements…etc. I can’t wait for the next update.

I used to use this almost daily but stopped doing so after getting the iPad coz there’s no iPad native app. Blowing up the iPhone app on iPad doesn’t work for Momo coz it’s mostly text and those wriggling lines were really killing me. So I switched to other note-taking apps. But now that it’s universal, I am definitely coming back to Momo. I’ll come back to this app more often.

3. Awesome Note (US$3.99 – iPhone only – 3.5 stars)

This app uses a folder system instead of a tagging system but since it syncs with Evernote (or google docs), you may add tags on Evernote later. This one surely is an eye-candy. The whole UI looks really colorful (but not girly) and beautiful. There are many things I like in this app but it just doesn’t really fit into my daily needs:

  • It has To-Do included in note-taking. You can also tick off a task when it’s done;
  • It has alarm setting and badge number on app icon for to-do notes;
  • It has beautiful themes and fonts for notes;
  • It uses folder systems. (You may add tags later <see below> but I much prefer tagging a note within the app. I have far too many notes that I’ll need more than a dozen folders to make the app really work for me);
  • It syncs with Google Docs and Evernotes. And since it syncs with Evernote, you can add tags to notes after syncing them to Evernote.
  • You can add image or map to a note but there’s no formatting supported in notes.

Seriously, if you have iPhone only, this is a really good app. It doesn’t stay in top 10 paid apps in AppStore for no reason. My biggest gripe is there’s no iPad version and the developer has made it quite clearly that the iPad version will be a separate app, which means I’ll have to pay again if I want to get it over on iPad. Though I understand it involves a lot of work to port the whole GUI over to iPad, I don’t wanna pay again. Say I’m cheap… I admit it.

[UPDATE: the iPad version is on shelf: US$4.99 and no, I didn’t buy it and don’t see myself buying it.]

4. Daily Notes (US$4.99 – iPad only – 3 stars)

This one kind of goes along the path of Awesome Note – it looks beautiful; it’s basically folder based though it has tags as well…

  • This is an iPad only app;
  • It supports text input only;
  • It exports in PDF format only;
  • It has calendar view;
  • It has various fonts and background color for each folder;
  • It does NOT sync with anything;
  • It has folders and tags (but tagging works in a slightly strange way)

This app is developed by the same developer who created Noteshelf (see no. 1 above).

4. Noterize (US$2.99 – iPad only – 3 stars) 

First thing first, I don’t really like the icon but it’s a good app function-wise:

  • The UI needs some improvement, I think. Too many clicks to switch from one function to another;
  • Free hand drawing, typed text, stickie… all supported in the same note (some apps support all these functions… in the same app but not in the same note, which means you can create a typed text note but if you wanna draw, you have to create a new note to draw on);
  • Integrated with Email, Google Docs, Facebook, Twitter, Box.net, Dropbox;
  • It can import PDF and allows annotation but not without flaws. The annotation is saved as embedded image in PDF and so there’s no way to modify the annotations on PC/Mac/another app. I think the cheapest PDF annotation app that works is GoodReader.

5. Notes n More (US$0.99 – universal – 1 star) 

First thing first, I HATE this icon. This icon simply looks cheap. I simply don’t wanna let this icon sit on the home page.

As for functions, just as the icon suggests, it supports handwritten note, voice recording, video and images. It also supports to-do. The problem is each note can only make use of one function…except for image – you can draw on image, but other than that, text note is text only, to-do is to-do only… So it’s all in one app but not in one note. I have to admit that I’ve abandoned this app for a while after having tried it and failed to like it. But I notice that there’s a recent update that has added cloud support (dropbox, maybe? I have to check. UPDATE: I can’t figure out how that cloud support works. I’ve got iDisk, Dropbox and Evernote. I’ve got these three work in other apps like GoodReader, PlainText,  SlipBox, NoteShelf, QuickOffice… but just can’t figure out how to get “cloud support" in Notes n More. And as a result, I have deleted it from my iPad already. So, to be fair, no star scoring for this one. You can go over to its website and have a look at the introduction video.

* Evernote (Free – universal – hard to decide)

This one is hard to decide. The Mac app is great – supports formatted notes, image, voice etc. But I find it hard to like the iPhone/iPad app. One thing is there’s no way to view notes offline on iPad. On  iPhone? Only ‘Favorite’ notes are usable offline. The iPhone/iPad app does not support formatted notes either though it supports image and voice. But then, the free version allows 40mb of traffic capacity per month. Now if you take text notes only, 40mb is a lot; but if you make voice notes a lot, 40mb isn’t much.

I’ve tried to force myself to use it (cuz it’s free) but I really don’t like it that much (see above under PlainText) – just personal preference. You may like it, though. Go give it a try. It’s free after all. And if it turns out you like it a lot, you probably don’t mind paying US$5/month to go premium.

*Slipbox (US$4.99 US$9.99 – universal – 3 stars)

This is an odd one. I use this almost solely for taking Bible-related notes. It’s intended for people with a huge collection of notes. It has a robust tag and search function to help you locate the idea you need. It can work with its Mac app (free), which works with BibDesk, Bookends (programs to manage references), Skim (a PDF reader and annotation tool) and Graphviz (a graph visualisation tool) – perfect for researchers. I’m not a researcher but reading the Bible actually is very similar to being a researcher. The app works with Dropbox and also supports iTunes file transfer. At US$4.99, it’s ok to just buy it for trying out. But now it’s US$9.99 – a bit steep, I’d say. But if you use a Mac and you’re studying/doing research, it’s worth it to go over to its website and have a look.