Who needs a paper notebook when you have a smartphone or tablet? We look at apps that will store your multimedia notes, lists and clippings in style and safety.
free with ads or £35/year
Despite its well-publicised loss of user data earlier this year, Evernote remains something of a gold standard for note-taking apps. And while the company will be working hard to prevent future hacking attacks from getting through, the unwelcome media coverage was a boon for its competitors: if Google is targeting anyone with its new Keep software, it's probably Evernote.
That said, Evernote is way, way ahead on functionality – indeed, it is highly sophisticated, with clients available for Windows, Mac and pretty much every mobile platform you can think of, plus Web clipping tools for most browsers and of course a Web interface for when you need access without a local app.
The basic service is free and advertising-supported, or you can upgrade to premium for £35 a year. The premium version claims faster syncing – we certainly found the Windows client slow to sync on the free service, although the mobile ones were fine. As well as creating and editing text, voice and photo notes, you can create written notes using Skitch, Evernote's annotation app for Android and iOS.
Notes can be organised into folders and shared with others via email or social networking – beware though if you tweet a link, anyone with that link can see the note, although note publishing can be toggled on/off. Also, only notes shared by a premium user can be edited by others – others will see them as read-only. You can pin individual notes to the home-screen in Android, though not on iOS.
Perhaps its most amazing feature though is the Page Camera: take a photo of a document, business card or receipt and store it as a note, and Evernote's text-recognition servers will get to work. It takes a little time (unless you subscribe – premium users get priority) but you can then search for text within images.
There is also a business version, aimed at knowledge sharing and discovery. The same client can store both business and personal notes, maintaining them separately so the business has administrative control over its notes but cannot see or touch the private ones. It enables you to share both company documents and manuals, and information collected by colleagues.
free or $5/month
Cutting a middle path between the sophistication of Evernote and the minimalism of Keep, Catch Notes allows you to store text, audio and photo notes, reminders and checklists, organising them in folders it calls Spaces. You can share Spaces too, and checklists can be updated by any collaborator – useful for team to-do lists or family shopping lists, perhaps – although only their creator can edit other notes.
The mobile apps, for Android and Apple, are clean and easy to use, and can be passcode-protected. You can set the app to sync periodically or only on command, or to sync a note as soon as it is updated; it also works well offline. A home-screen widget and a capture-wheel – really just a circular menu – make it easy to start new notes. One interesting feature is the use of hashtags to easily tag, filter and search for content.
Catch also offers a text-only Android notes app for those who prefer that, Web clippers to save selected content to your Catch account, and a compass app which ties into Catch Notes and can store details of where you have been, show your current speed and heading, and so on. Regular notes can also be geotagged by default, and can be exported as text or HTML files or pinned to the Android home-screen (though not on the iPhone).
The free basic account is also advert-free, but is limited to 70MB of uploads a month. Heavier users can pay $5 a month for more and can also attach documents to notes.
free or from £40/year
Designed as a digital notebook that would let you gather and create information in any format, including drawings and handwritten text, and then search the resulting collection, OneNote has grown into a powerful note-keeping and collaboration tool. It is particularly effective on pen-enabled systems such as Windows tablets, where it can convert handwriting to text, but OneNote notebooks can also be accessed via the OneNote Web App and a keyboard and browser.
Like almost everything else, this latest version is fully cloud-connected, using Microsoft's Skydrive service – although a useful option for business users is to host on Sharepoint instead of Skydrive. All the features you might expect are there, including a clipping tool for Web pages, screenshots and so on, the ability to export static copies of notebooks, instant synchronisation, and integration with Excel 2013 and Visio 2013.
OneNote is also the standard notebook app within newer Windows Phone models such as our Nokia Lumia 820, with the ability to pin notes you use a lot – a to-do or shopping list, say – to the start screen. Other apps are available for Android and Apple. These clients are clean, fast and reasonably intuitive, and they make it easy to create numbered, bulleted or tick-lists, and insert photos.
Most of these free versions are limited however, either in functionality or capacity or both – the Android and iPhone apps are only free for up to 500 notes, for instance, and only the paid-for Windows software can do handwriting recognition. Full versions of OneNote 2013 are available as part of Microsoft Office at prices starting from £40 a year for Office 365 or £110 outright for Office Home 2013. (There are also third-party mobile apps which can read OneNote notebooks, such as MobileNoter on Android, which may be worth a look if you need more than the free Microsoft app offers.)
All in all, this is a very powerful set of tools, lacking only the equivalent of Evernote's Page Camera. If you are a dedicated Microsoft Office user, then, whatever your mobile platform, it is hard to see why you would need anything more than OneNote 2013.
There are lots of other note-taking apps on pretty much every mobile platform there is, some saving their notes only on the device and others synchronising to a PC or a cloud service. This open-source project is one of the best – it is currently available for Android phones and tablets, though of course it could be ported to others, and it uses Google Tasks for online storage, with notes appearing as (or on) an additional checklist.
There is no sharing of notes, although that is a limitation of Google Tasks, but notes can be password-protected and given timed reminders. It is also a work in progress, so even if Google Tasks follows Google Reader into oblivion – as some have speculated it might, following the introduction of Keep – its developers should be able find another place to store your notes.