I have already expressed my opinion that Evernote is the best app for note taking available today and I am certainly not alone. However, other note taking apps have strengths and may be better than Evernote in certain circumstances. Below are the 5 best note taking apps for the iPad and the specific strengths of each to help you decide when a particular app might be best suited to your needs.
Best Suited For: All general purpose note taking activities. Generally speaking, you should start with Evernote and look to the other apps when you have a specific need that you want to address.
Description: As I described in a previous blog post, Evernote is the best app for note taking in general terms. You will be hard pressed to find many features that are lacking. The cloud service for storing your notes is top notch and the app makes it very easy to store Web clippings, photos and even business cards. If I had to quibble with Evernote, its one failing is that it is not possible to do sketches or hand-written notes. However, as I note below, it does integrate relatively seamlessly with Penultimate, Skitch and other apps that plug these gaps.
2. Penultimate and Note Taker HD
Best Suited For: Penultimate and Note Taker HD are my two favorite note taking apps for taking hand-written notes. Because Penultimate is integrated with Evernote, I would choose it if you are using Evernote as your core note taking app. Otherwise, Note Taker HD is slightly more full featured.
Description: As with most apps designed to allow you take hand-written notes, Penultimate and Note Taker HD both come with multiple “pens” that you can swap between. You can change the size (width) of the stroke and also switch to a mode that has some transparency in order to highlight items. You can switch between various colors of ink, both for the pen and the highlighter modes. If you make a mistake, you switch to an eraser in order to remove portions of what you have written or you can cut portions of the page using a scalpel or selection tool. With these apps, it is relatively easy to both hand-write notes and to add sketches when that is a better way to capture the information. Perhaps the only issue with Penultimate is that it does not give you the option to type notes on the same page as your hand-written notes. That is a bit disappointing since it seems like an easy feature to add. Note Taker HD does allow you to do this and, in addition, is more feature rich than Penultimate. However, that richness of features comes with more complexity and, for me, the lack of integration with Evernote is a deal breaker.
Best Suited For: Power users and Microsoft fans who use Microsoft Office products extensively.
Description: As with many Microsoft products, OneNote is an extremely full featured and capable note taking tool. It is, for instance, one of the few note taking apps that allows for easy switching between taking type-written and hand-written notes or sketches. There are also integrated to-do and shopping lists. In fact, OneNote is so full featured that I would consider switching if I could port my notes from Evernote. (That is a big if, of course.) There are so many features, in fact, that many might find the user interface a bit overwhelming, which is also a common complaint about Microsoft products. However, I have found OneNote to be very well designed and therefore relatively usable despite its huge suite of features. If you are an extreme power user or someone that swears by Microsoft products, this is probably the note taking app for you. And do not be fooled when you are asked to enter your Microsoft login in order to create new notebooks. You can sign up for a free Microsoft account and use this product. You do not have to subscribe to Office 365 or a similar service.
4. Bamboo Paper
Best Suited For: Serious sketchers who are not particularly interested in taking type-written notes.
Description: Frankly, Bamboo Paper does not do anything that Penultimate, Note Taker HD and OneNote cannot do. It just does what it does with a cleaner, easier to use interface. If you want to do some quick sketches on your iPad and you do not care to be able to do things like add type-written notes or to have even more advanced features available like to-do lists, then Bamboo Paper may be the app for you. It is a classic example of how extremely clean design and a well thought out user interface can make an app significantly more usable that apps that have more robust and extensive feature sets. I would highly recommend that you at least try Bamboo Paper if you are interested in an app for sketching on your iPad.
Best Suited For: People who want to continue to use a paper notebook but also have an electronic note taking app.
Description: Okay, I admit that this is a relatively odd use case. However, if you are the type of person that does not want to completely cut the chord on having a paper notebook but you still want to have an electronic note taking app on your iPad, then you should take a look at the Moleskine iPad app. They have built in some features and functionalities that allow you to take photos of your old school paper Moleskine notebook pages and incorporate them into your electronic app. I considered using this app because I find it much easier to sketch on paper than on an iPad screen and this would allow me to have the best of both worlds. However, I ultimately decided that I could accomplish the same thing by just taking photos of my sketches and storing them in Evernote. If you are really tied to a paper notebook, though, you should at least check out this app.
In the end, if you are looking for the best note taking apps for the iPad, this list should be your starting point. Consider what your use cases are and pick the app or apps that are best suited to your needs. If you really don’t know how you are planning on using the app, then I would start with either Evernote (for most people) or Microsoft OneNote (for those that use Microsoft Office extensively or want the most powerful set of features available).