On iPads, Note Taking, and Evernote

by Jon Davis

I've been using an iPad or iPad mini for over a year to take notes at meetings, to summarize readings, and to mark up PDF files. Initially I tried several iOS apps and several writing devices. I narrowed my choices down to a few good candidates and I'm now comfortable sharing what I think is the best solution. And, I also feel strongly that this solution dominates note taking with paper and pen/pencil.

While several iOS apps present some important trade-offs (e.g., Penultimate links very well to Evernote) , the best app in my opinion is Notability. This one really dominates the competition. 

  • The filing system is quite nice and the interface and electronic ink engine are outstanding and very easy to use.
  • It can be set to automatically back up your notes as PDF files in the cloud (e.g., via Dropbox, Google Drive, Box or WebDAV).
  • It syncs across all your iOS devices via iCloud.
  • It allows you to mark up pdf files, photos, and take notes on blank "epaper" of various colors and designs (lines, grids, etc.). The interface itself has a variety of themes that can be selected.
  • It lets you use a variety of widths for your pencil/pen and a variety of colors and it is very easy to change these on the go.
  • It lets you dictate or type.
  • It has a built-in highlighter that also has numerous color choices and an eraser.
  • It lets you record audio during meetings or presentations. 
  • It has a sleep timer to prevent your iOS device from going to sleep while you are in your meeting.
  • In addition to the automatic PDF export via online services mentioned above, you can export notes via email, Dropbox, Google Drive, Box, WebDAV, etc. And, you can send recordings to iTunes.

As far as writing instruments go, I've tried lots of them. Most I didn't like at all. One was very good (especially for artistic endeavors). One was outstanding (especially for note-taking). The one I'd recommend for artistic work on a tablet is the  Adonit Jot Pro. It is noisy to write with though, so it isn't the best for note taking and meetings. It can be annoying. The best (by far) for note taking is the Wacom Bamboo Stylus. I now own several of these and I use them daily. (Side note: at some point, you'll want to buy some replacement nibs because they eventually wear out).

Once you have Notability on your iOS device and a stylus and you've got a bunch of notes collected, the next step is connecting them to a system like Evernote so that you can find things when you need them. Over the last two years, I've split my electronic database/filing usage between Evernote (for on-the-go notes and photos and most personal stuff that I want to remember) and DevonThink (for electronically scanned paper files, electronic documents and most work-related material).  Over the last couple of months, I've come to the conclusion that this isn't particularly efficient and that Evernote has progressed to a point where I could use it as a dump for most everything I want to keep and still find what I need. So, I'm going to hire someone to move all of my non-research DevonThink files to Evernote. DevonThink is still a very powerful tool, but mostly for research... 

I'm not a fan of doing things manually when they can be automated on the computer. So, I went looking for something that would move my automatically created Notability PDFs to Evernote and then remove them from my Dropbox. I found a solution on Joshua Roger's blog that uses IFTTT.com and Hazel (Hazel is OS X only, but there is probably something similar you could use on Windows or Linux).  The steps outlined by Joshua follow:

  1. In the Dropbox public folder, create a folder called "Notability".
  2. In the Notability app settings, set up PDF export to go to the Notability folder created in Step 1.
  3. Use Joshua's IFTTT receipt HERE that monitors a specified Dropbox folder for new files. When a new file is recognized, a gmail action sends the file along with the name of the file as a Subject line to Evernote. The result is a new note in Evernote containing the PDF with the name of the PDF as a note title. To make this work, you need a gmail account and an IFTTT.com account (both of which are free).
  4. For Mac users only, the final step is to remove the PDF from your Dropbox. To do this, Joshua uses a Hazel rule that monitors the folder set up in Step 1  and moves month-old files to the trash (this gives you time to make sure the IFTTT rule is working correctly).
  5. Added bonus: According to Joshua, you can use Tags or keywords in the Notability note title to have Evernote automatically sort notes into specific folders. I haven't tried this part out yet.

One last thing... I have a single caveat regarding all of the above that I have not solved yet. If anyone figures it out, I'd love to get your input. In particular, while Evernote does a great job of handwriting recognition when you take a photo of something (e.g., a white board, a wine label, etc.), the handwriting recognition engine does not seem to play well with PDF files. So, while everything is nicely stored in Evernote and can be tagged, commented on, etc., there is very limited ability to search handwritten notes using Evernote's OCR.