GoodNotes vs. Notability vs. Noteshelf—Manage Notebooks [Review 2022]

Planning is a part of our everyday lives. We plan our time and tasks, write the to-do lists, carefully craft our meal plans, and envision what we want to do in the future. Planning can be as simple as scribbling thoughts on paper or writing down the ideas in a planner app on your iPad.

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And since I’m crazy about digital planning on the iPad, I created an extensive four-part-review of the three best note-taking apps for daily planning: GoodNotes vs Notability vs Noteshelf. Some of you asked me to include Collanote, Zoomnotes and Zinnia in my reviews, but I will address those separately, in the future.

Read the full review

Now grab a coffee, and let’s dive in.

What is a digital planning app?

A digital planning app is a program that allows you to take notes and create digital documents on your iPad. Just create simple notebooks or import PDF files inside the apps to start scribbling your thoughts, meeting notes, plans, and more.

Although the best digital planning apps for iPad do pretty much the same thing (allow you to take notes), there are some differences in the overall user experience that you should know about before choosing the right app.

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GoodNotes vs. Notability vs. Noteshelf

1| GoodNotes 5 app

GoodNotes is a nice mix between a digital notepad and PDF markup tool. Use it to type notes on the keyboard, handwrite ideas with the Apple Pencil, add images, decorate planner pages, or even scribble your grocery list. Read the full Goodnotes app review here.

2| Notability app

The Notability app was designed with students in mind. It’s super easy to use and has robust features like the type tool or the voice dictation. With a powerful autosave feature, Notability will take care of your notes so you’ll never lose important work.

But the app isn’t just for students! Professionals love the app’s simple way of organizing personal and work notes and accessing written notes on the go.

3| Noteshelf app

Noteshelf is a somewhat undervalued player in the digital note-taking market. The Noteshelf app is a digital note-taking app for iPad & Android tablets (although the Android app is not the best). It makes it easy to sketch ideas on the go, organize your notes in categories and store large word documents to annotate on. Read the full Noteshelf app review here.

When it comes to note-taking apps, there are three main things that matter:

  • How you can organize and navigate your notes (like in folders, categories, or groups)
  • The tools you can use to take notes (like the pens, typing tools, or highlighters)
  • How does the app boost your productivity (like how easy and faster you can find your notes when needed).

So, let’s take a deeper look at some of the best digital planning apps’ features and functionalities.

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How to organize and navigate your digital notes

It’s no secret that your note-taking app interface dramatically impacts your overall experience when taking notes at work. You want to be able to access your ideas quickly, and you want your notebooks to be clutter-free.

You’re a busy person. You don’t have time to waste fumbling through your note-taking app, trying to find the right note or page at work or during an important meeting. And you constantly need to share notes with colleagues and partners.

So let’s see what makes a note-taking app the right app for you.

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How to navigate the note-taking apps

1| Goodnotes App Navigation

GoodNotes is the most known note-taking app on the market. It’s all due to the straightforward, elegant interface that allows you to easily create and organize notes in an intuitive and fast way.

GoodNotes uses a one-column interface, meaning that the information occupies the entire width of the screen.

When you open GoodNotes, you’ll see a list of your notebooks and folders on the main screen (the Documents screen). You can tap on those folders or subfolders to navigate farther into your notes.

This flow is simple and distraction-free when using fewer digital notebooks.

However, everything changes if you have a lot of notebooks and a short memory like I do. Finding notes can be challenging, especially if you don’t remember where exactly you wrote them.

Take away: The Goodnotes app is best for you if you’re using fewer and smaller documents.

2| Notability App Navigation

Notability’s interface is pretty straightforward and is best for people using many notebooks.

Notability uses a two-column interface, meaning that information spreads on two columns.

The left-sidebar shows ALL of the dividers (act like categories) and subjects (act like folders) you use to organize your notes. Tap a subject, and you’ll see all related notebooks on the right-side window. Tap any note to open and scribble ideas.

Using dividers and subjects is specific to Notability only, and you won’t find this in any other note-taking app. This system makes it easy to navigate through a massive number of notes without the dreadful feeling of being lost in the clutter.

Take away: The Notability app is best for a large number of documents, however you can also use it for just a handful of notes.

3| Noteshelf App Navigation

Noteshelf’s interface is also good for handling many notebooks, although it’s slightly less effective than Notability. 

Noteshelf uses a two-column interface, meaning that information spreads on two columns.

The FLYOUT left-sidebar shows ALL of the categories you’re using to organize your digital notebooks, the recently opened notebooks, and the pinned notebooks (a handy feature!) 

The downside is that each time you tap a category, the FLYOUT sidebar disappears to display the notebooks’ thumbnails. So, if you want to switch categories, you’ll have to open the flyout sidebar again and tap another category.

Take away: The Noteshelf app is the second best note-taking app to handle a large number of digital notebooks and documents.

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How to organize digital notebooks

1| Using Folders vs. Dividers vs. Categories

In Goodnotes, organize your notes in folders and endless subfolders, just as you do on the desktop or laptop.

In Notability, organize your notes in dividers (see them like categories) and subjects (use these like folders). Create a divider for each category relevant to you—Work, Home, Piano, etc. Create a subject within a divider for every relevant topic within that category—Projects, Clients, and ToDos. Subjects act like folders, so start adding notes inside.

In Noteshelf, organize your notes in categories. A category acts like a folder so it can host all relevant digital notebooks inside. You can also create groups of notebooks inside a category, similar to the sub-folders in Goodnotes (just less good-looking).

2| Displaying digital notebooks (thumbnails view)

…by date, name or type

You can display your digital notebooks by name and date in all three apps, GoodNotes, Notability, and Noteshelf. So if you’d like to organize your files in a particular way, just put a number in front of the name of every folder and every notebook, then arrange them by name.

Bonus points: In Goodnotes 5, you can also organize your files by type, making it easy to see which files are PDFs, images, and more.

… in List view or Grid view

In GoodNotes and Notability, you can easily switch between the List view and the Grid view of your documents. 

In Noteshelf, you only have one option available: the Grid view (their idea was to show the documents on a shelve)

Tip: make your list of documents look organized and clean by adding beautiful covers to each notebook. You’ll love to open your note-taking app daily to see a motivating, clean view of your documents.

Take away: If you only have a handful of documents and you’re familiar with organizing your documents in folders and sub-folders like on the PC, then Goodnotes is the only app to use. If you’re looking for a note-taking app to organize hundreds of notes (that are easy to find and navigate), then Notability and Noteshelf are two great options. When it comes to notebook display, pick any app, and you’ll be fine. The way files are displayed should not be an essential point in your selection.

How to switch between digital notebooks

1| How to switch between documents in Goodnotes 5

Goodnotes uses tabs to display opened notebooks.

It is similar to how internet browser windows work, using tabs to display multiple websites in one window. In GoodNotes, you can open various notebooks at once as tabs and switch between these notebooks by clicking on their tabs. If you’ve opened too many notebooks, you can close them individually (by taping the X on each of the tabs) or close them all at once and only keep the one you’re currently working on.

So next time you’re working with the best goodnotes templates switch between them with ease.

2| How to switch between documents in Notability

Switching between notebooks in Notability is easy: use the Note Switcher flyout menu to switch between recent notebooks quickly. It is a great way to get to your recent notes faster!

How to use the Note Switcher in Notability? 

Open a notebook, then use your finger to slide from the left edge to the middle of the screen. A flyout menu will appear on the screen’s left side, and you can choose which recent notebook you’d like to open.

3| How to switch between documents in Noteshelf

The Noteshelf app has a super-handy flyout menu that allows you to switch between categories of notebooks or search for recent notes and pinned documents. To open the flyout menu, slide the finger from the left edge of your screen to the middle of it. 

The flyout menu is super helpful because it allows you to browse between documents without leaving the current notebook.

Takeaway: All three apps do a great job switching between documents. Goodnotes brings intuitive-to-use tabs, while Notability and Noteshelf have handy flyout menus. However, I would choose the Noteshelf app for a more productive work due to its brilliant way of implementing the flyout menu.

How to pin a notebook for quicker access

Noteshelf is the only app that allows you to pin one or more notebooks for quick access while taking notes. 

In Noteshelf, open the Flyout left-sidebar and press and hold a recent notebook’s name to pin it. Next time you want to open it, activate the Flyout menu and tap on the pinned notebook.

Goodnotes and Notability do not have an option to pin notebooks for easy access; however, you can add them to your favorite to find them later.

How to see recently opened notebooks

In Goodnotes, you can’t see the recently opened notebooks, which is a pity for productivity.

In Notability and Noteshelf, you can see the recently opened notebooks in the left sidebar menu: the Note Switcher (in Notability) and the Flyout menu (in Noteshelf).

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How to create digital notebooks

1| How to create a default digital notebook

All three apps make it super easy to create a default digital notebook (using the built-in paper templates).

To create a default digital notebook in Goodnotes:

  • Go to the Documents screen
  • Open a folder (optional)
  • Tap + New > Notebook > choose a cover and paper template > add a title and hit Create.

To create a default digital notebook in Notability: 

  • Open a subject and tap the + icon on the bottom-right corner
  • Select a favorite template for the inner pages
  • Hit Create to start typing notes straight away

Bonus points: In Notability, you can also create a quick note when you’re inside the notebook. Just slide in the Note Switcher (left sidebar) and tap + Create New Note.

To create a default digital notebook in Noteshelf: 

  • Open a category and tap the + icon on the top-left corner 
  • Tap Notebook
  • Choose a cover and paper template (or leave the default)
  • Add title and hit Create Notebook.

Takeaway: Overall, the Notability app is the most straightforward, less overwhelming, and easy to use. However, Noteshelf allows you to add extra settings to the new notebook, like turning on the auto-backup or enabling the password. I find Goodnotes a bit more overwhelming, but it is excellent for people who want to invest more time in customizing their notes pages. So if you want something more advanced but still very straightforward and easy to use – my recommendation would be Noteshelf.

2| How to create a quick note

Notability has invented the Quick note and implemented it the best. Let’s see what’s the difference between the other apps.

To create a quick note in Goodnotes:

  • Tap + New icon, then tap QuickNotes (or double-tap the +New icon to make a quick digital notebook)
  • The quick note will use the last selected template. For example, if you created a notebook before and selected Dots for the inner page, the Dots template will also be used for the quick note. 
  • You can add a title or delete the note when you leave the notebook.

To create a quick note in Notability: 

  • Open a subject and tap the pen icon on the bottom-right corner to open a new note, then start typing.
  • Once you leave the notebook, Notability will label the note with the creation date and time. You can rename or delete it later if you no longer need it.

Bonus points: In Notability, you can also create a quick note when you’re inside the notebook. Just slide in the Note Switcher (left sidebar) and tap + Create New Note.

To create a quick note in Noteshelf:

  • Tap the + icon, then tap Quick Note (or double-tap the + icon to make a quick digital notebook with a blank page). 
  • You can add a title or delete the note when you leave the notebook.

Takeaway:  Overall, all three apps are great for quick notes and reminders. If you want to delete the notes later, Notability is best because it automatically adds a title for you (and saves you time).

3| How to create a notebook from a PDF file

As you begin your journey into digital planning, you’ll notice that the default notebooks don’t cover all of your needs. So you’ll want to use custom-designed digital planners (meaning PDF files with hyperlinks). Here’s how each app handles these files.

To import a PDF file with hyperlinks inside Goodnotes 5:

  • Go to the documents screen, or open a folder,
  • Tap + New and select Import 
  • Locate the PDF file saved on your iPad or in a shared location (like iCloud or Dropbox) 
  • Tap the PDF once to import (and automatically open)

To import a PDF file with hyperlinks inside Notability:

  • Open a subject, and then tap the Import icon located in the top-right side of the screen
  • Choose the location of the PDF file to import (like Files or Dropbox) 
  • Locate and tap the PDF file 
  • In the new window, select Create new note
  • Add title and pick the location (subject)
  • Hit Import

To import a PDF file with hyperlinks inside Noteshelf:

  • Open a category, and then tap +
  • Select Import Document
  • Locate the PDF file saved on your iPad or in a shared location (like iCloud or Dropbox)
  • Tap the PDF once to start the import process
  • Tap the new document to open it and take notes

You can also use this method for files like plain PDFs, Word documents, or PowerPoint presentations.

Takeaway:  Overall, GoodNotes, Noteshelf, and Notability handle the PDF file import beautifully. The process is quicker in GoodNotes, but you have to switch between the editing mode and viewing mode to write and use hyperlinks; in Noteshelf or Notability, you can take notes and use hyperlinks straight away, without extra tapping.

4| Create a notebook from an image

To create a notebook from an image (say a “weekly meal planning template”), import it into the app. 

For Goodnotes and Noteshelf, this process is the same as importing PDF files. The only difference is that, at the end of the flow, you’ll end up with a notebook with one page. So you’ll need to duplicate that page for more notes.

If you’re using Notability, however, the best way to create a notebook out of an image is to add that image as a template first. If you’re trying to import the image directly as a note, the image will be added as a “sticker” and not as a page template, so you’ll get into some trouble on the way.

Should I save images in the custom templates library?

If you’re using Notability, the answer is: Yes, you have to. There’s no other way.

If you’re using Goodnotes or Noteshelf, the answer depends on how often you will use that template. 

Please do it for templates you often use at home and work. Please don’t do it for occasionally used templates, or you’ll create a lot of clutter in the templates library.

Takeaway: Regarding images, the three note-taking apps can be very different. GoodNotes handles them very well, followed by Noteshelf. However, I find Notability is dreadful at that—but it still works for many.

5| Other formats to import and annotate

You can import and annotate PDF files, Word documents, Powerpoint presentations, and Excel documents in all three apps. So it’s time to be more productive and get your notes and work done faster.

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The Verdict – Which app can get notes organized?

This is where the customer needs play a huge role. If you’re an occasional note taker and handle just a handful of notes Goodnotes may be ok for you. Just like using Noteshelf or Notability apps may be ok for you.

However, if you need to be productive while handling dozen or hundreds of notebooks, then Notability and Noteshelf are two great choices.

Notability is best at notebooks organization and productivity, while Noteshelf offers a super smoother experience and pretty good notebooks organization and flow. In my day-to-day life, I use the Noteshelf app for everything digital planning; however, if Noteshelf stops working tomorrow, I will immediately switch to Notability.

Next, I’ll discuss the tools you have to take notes and be productive at work.

Continue reading the review

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