I tried many note-taking apps, but I keep coming back to Apple Notes. Not because it’s perfect, it isn’t. It just does a right. It’s fast and it’s fluent. You use it without thinking and waiting. And Apple keeps making it better.
Notes is the app that locks me into the Apple ecosystem. In fact, you can call it the center of my work. Because, each one of my ideas starts with a draft in Notes.
My requirements for a note app
A note app has to check these boxes for me:
- Taking notes, including the use of images.
- I want it on the devices I use most for work.
- It must be fast in use and syncing.
- It must be reliable.
A big nice to have is the ability to write and sketch with a pencil.
I primarily use note apps for current projects (for larger projects I use text files or Notion), my to-do’s and things I need to remember in the short run. And that's where the Notes app excels. This post covers all the items that make it do that.
Setting up Apple Notes
Notes comes pre-installed with your Apple devices. When launching it for the first time, it asks you where you want to store your notes. Local or in iCloud and this will be your default account. If you choose iCloud, you can still use local notes and the other vice versa.
That’s all for the set-up.
Using Notes across devices
Notes is available on Mac, iPhone, and iPad. Classic Apple, there’s no app on Windows or Android. You can use the web version through iCloud, but that’s quite slow and not on par with the apps.
The features on all devices are more or less the same. Handwritten notes are only available on iPad because you need a Pencil.
Sketch your ideas
With that pencil, you can sketch or take notes if you are more of a writer than a typer. I use the Pencil mostly when I'm brainstorming. I prefer sketching and write random ideas with the Pencil because somehow that works better for me than typing the same ideas.
On the iPad, switching between the Pencil, touch typing and the Magic Keyboard feels natural. One second I'm typing on the Magic Keyboard, the next I'm sketching with the pencil. It's one flow.
I have a folder in Notes with random ideas of notes that are mix sketches, images, links and typed and written text. With Notes, I choose the format that best suits the task.
You use folders for organizing your notes. That's an indispensable feature for to keep track on what I'm doing. Notes also supports nested folders and tags (e.g., #apple). You can use those tags to create Smart Folders with notes from multiple folders. With the release of iOS 16, iPadOS 16 and macOS Ventura you can add more rules like dates, shared, checklists and more.
Organizing your notes in Apple Notes is pretty straightforward and fits my needs. I don’t use it as my second brain. I just want to use it without thinking about a system.
Apple Notes offers a default sorting option for your notes. Date created, date edited, or title. This is the default for all your notes, and you can set another sorting order for individual folders. I sort most of my notes by title, but sometimes date created fits better. For example in my quick notes folder.
Using Quick Notes
In 2021 Apple added the Quick notes feature. I don’t use this a lot because I have my custom Shortcuts. But it has some nice features. You create a Quick note by pressing fn + Q and on iPad also by swiping up from the bottom-right corner.
When you add a quick note while using Safari, you can add the link to the note. Next time you visit the page again, Notes recognizes it and presents you the same Quick note for adding more notes.
For my personal workflow, I created a Shortcut with the Shortcuts app for adding my own type of quick notes. The Apple feature works, but I like my quick notes to have timestamp as title by default. Together with the location in the body of the note. These things help my brain with recalling random thoughts because that is what quick notes are for me.
Search and OCR
You can search through all your notes by tapping the search bar or pressing Command + Option + F. This is one of my favorite features in Apple Notes. Besides types notes, it also searches handwritten notes, PDF documents and text in images. It lets me find anything within in a blink of an eye.
How do you format your notes
Apple Notes offers limited formatting options, and that’s a good thing. For me, that's a plus. I want to focus on my notes and nog the formatting.
By default, you only have one color option for text, but on the Mac you can use more colors through the color pallet (CMD + Shift + C).
Notes have the following font styles:
- Body (bold, italic, underline, strikethrough)
- Bulleted list
- Dashed list
- Numbered list.
Other options are checklists and tables. You apply these options through buttons or shortcuts. On the Mac, you also have the Menu Bar.
Attaching files and images in Apple Notes
You add images and files to notes with copy and past or through the share menu in other apps. A note can display those items as small or large images. With PDF documents, I prefer small images. Otherwise, you see one page and might miss the rest. You open attachments with Preview like you can do in Finder on the Mac and Files on iPad and iPhone.
The camera on your iPhone or iPhone allow you to add photos directly into the app or scan documents. Your iPhone can even act like a camera for your Mac. After scanning a document, you can annotate it with the Apple Pencil.
Protect notes with a password
When you store your notes in iCloud, they are protected through your account with iCloud. But, sometimes you want to hide them for people who have access to your device. Apple Notes offers the option to lock individual notes.
When using the lock feature for the first time, Notes prompts you for setting a password. You can enable the option for unlocking a note with Face ID or Touch ID.
Sharing notes and collaboration
Notes lets you share individual notes and folders. Select the Share note icon, and you are presented with several options. On macOS, the Share note icon is located in the top bar. On iPad and iPhone, you find it by tapping the three dots menu icon.
In a shared note, you can see people’s activity and who made what changes in the note. Click, or tap, on the share icon and select Show All Activity or Show Highlights.
In Apple Notes you can export an individual note to PDF. And, as for exporting notes, that is about it. There is a hack for exporting notes, but that one is mediocre at best and requires an iPad. That also goes for other solutions I tested.
The lack of exporting options is one of the biggest drawbacks of Apple Notes. It relies heavily on iCloud, and I had issues with that in the past. That's why I only use Notes for "simple" notes, smaller current projects and sketching ideas. Everything else and notes that I want to keep for a longer period of time are stored in text files or Notion.
Apple Notes does so much right, that it's okay that it isn't the best at everything. For me, it's by far the best note-taking app in the Apple ecosystem. Now Apple only needs to add good export and backup options.