At one time, I had pretty much forsaken the iOS Notes app. Other than taking down to-go orders and a few other random thoughts on the iPhone version, I had pretty much stopped using it a few years ago. I hardly ever used it on any of my iPads. I had Evernote and kept almost all notes that I took there, whether for personal or work use. I even had their paid Premium service for over a year so I could upload more content for work notes. Since it was completely platform-agnostic and easy to get data into and out of, I just assumed at the time that I would stick with them long term.
Unfortunately, nothing lasts forever. Evernote was once a darling among cloud-based services and was regarded as a successful and stable company, along with the likes of Dropbox and Box. However, the luster started to fade a little over a year ago, as Evernote’s apps and services began to stagnate, employees began to leave the company, and even CEO Phil Libin either left or was forced out (depending on who you ask). All of the negative tech press surrounding them and their future got me thinking. Not wanting to be locked into what could now be a declining or dying platform, I decided to start looking elsewhere for a primary home for my notes.
I started with Microsoft’s OneNote, and thought I had quickly found my solution. There are free tools available that will migrate all of your notes from Evernote over for you, and so I thought this would be an easy transition. However, I had several sync failures that occurred at very unopportune times that quickly soured me on the experience. In two especially bad cases, I was attempting to use OneNote to take job site notes for a quote, and opened a note only to find it blank and the app unable to retrieve the original content so that I could add to it. Considering that I had taken the original note on the iPhone, I found this to be absolutely unacceptable. I had never experienced this with Evernote or other note taking apps, and just couldn’t afford to waste my, or even worse, a customer’s time in the field. Features don’t matter if an app breaks down when you need it.
I have also used the popular app Notability to take notes for a few years now. It has one of the strongest and most complete note taking feature sets, especially for iPad, and is also very easy to use. However, I have typically used it more for stylus input, taking sermon notes at church, meeting notes (it allows you to record and take notes with recording bookmarks), and notes that require annotations or highlighting, so it is more of a specialty app than the tool I use everyday. It also works very well with the Apple Pencil, so Notability is usually my go-to app whenever I use it.
However, the issues I had elsewhere did push me towards using it a little more. While there is a version available for iPhone, the app isn’t cross-platform, and the ability to sync data out is limited. Notability can share data with MANY cloud services or sync to iCloud, but the files you get out are just static versions of what you create in the app, so there are limiting factors. It has become my go-to when I need more features and horsepower, but it still isn’t my first choice for taking Notes everyday.
This is where the realiable old Notes app comes back in. One of the main reasons I went with Evernote over the early versions of Notes is because your options for syncing back then were extremely limited. Basically, you could email your Notes out to yourself, but that was about it. That was a big reason why I largely ignored the app early on. The syncing situation changed when iCloud came along in iOS 5, but I was so far down the road with Evernote at the time, and Notes was still so lacking in features, that it didn’t make a big difference to me.
A big reason why I gave Notes a second chance last year was because of the upgrades that Apple rolled out in iOS 9. They gave Notes an across the board upgrade, adding the ability to use different fonts and text alterations, bulletted and numbered lists, checklists, add photos and images, and even digital ink with your finger or a stylus.
While it didn’t quite measure up to what Evernote and Notability offer (different backgrounds, integrated sound recording, etc), I decided it was close enough to start using it again. As I did, it slowly worked itself back to the 1st Screens on both my iPad and iPhone.
The primary reason that I went back to using Notes is that it is ultimately the MOST reliable note taking app on iOS. It NEVER fails. If you take a note on your iPhone, it’s there, and never leaves unless you delete it. If you have iCloud sync turned on, it will show up on the iPad in short order. If you make changes, they reliably sync across. I have never once experienced a failure or had to wait for something to sync in the field. I now take all of my field notes for job quotes with Notes because of this. I can embed pictures of whatever I find and quickly add whatever text or annotations that I need. It is super fast and completely reliable, and in the field, those are priorities 1-100. No cool feature or fancy background can top that.
Another reason that I have trended toward using Notes for more and more tasks is that, like Evernote, it is very easy to search for content.
Evernote does have a leg up, in that it can search images and digital ink rather than being limited to text (a big reason while I still use it for a few select things). However, the search function built into Notes is also very good at finding text quickly. Even better, both Notes and Evernote work with Spotlight’s ability to search within apps, making finding content spread among the two very easy.
The feature that has really solidified Notes as a primary app that I use on a daily basis is sharing. What was once a glaring weakness for the app is now a strength. When Apple released iCloud.com, Notes instantly became a de-facto cross-platform app. While web access to your content may have drawbacks in comparison to a native app, it still works reliably for me. I am a Windows user at work and at home, so this is not inconsequential. I would have to sync out a Notability note as a different, static file type to get access to it on a Windows machine. I can access my Notes content directly, which is an important distinction. As for OneNote, again, I thought this would be the best solution for me, since I am a Windows user. However, I never got either of the two Windows apps that I tried to properly sync everything from my iOS apps. It’s too bad, because it did look like a very good app and service, feature-wise.
Notes’ ability to share got another boost when Apple opened up app extensibility in iOS 9. Native apps like Notes got this feature immediately, and it works really well. If I use Notes as a starting point for taking a note on something, and I want to share the content, it’s very easy to do.
I can share it directly with other iOS users, subscribing them to any change that I make to the note, or I can send the note as it stands out to them using Mail or iMessage. However, the feature that I like, and have used on several occasions, is the ability to transport the content of a note over to Evernote. If I need the information in another app for something that I’m working on, getting it there is a breeze (at least for apps that build Notes share sheets into their apps). It also works very well the other direction, as I can send the content of notes from other apps to Notes, and even choose whether to create a new note, or append the information to an existing note.
The native Notes app on iOS has probably come further over the last 10 years than any other native app. Safari is probably its only competition in this regard. I won’t go as far as to say that it is as feature complete as it could be. I am still hoping for the day that Apple wises up and merges the Voice Notes app with Notes to make one central iCloud synced location for all Notes. However, with the improvements that Apple has made over the last five years, Notes is good enough to meet the daily needs of most users. It’s even good enough to meet some of the needs of a power user, like myself. There’s a lot to be said for the combo of speed and reliability. At the end of the day, that’s what brought me back to it.
I am curious to hear the experiences of others with Notes. Is anyone else out there using the native Notes app? If so, what are you using it for? Has anyone left another product and come back to the fold, like myself? If so, let me know in the comments, or feel free to respond on Twitter @iPadInsight or @jhrogersii.