Finding the Best iOS App for Annotation and Note-Taking

Notetaking[Ian MacInnes is Professor of English at Albion College, where he teaches courses in Elizabethan poetry, Milton, and early modern women writers. He is presently working on a larger project: Albion's Breed: Zoology and the Birth of the Environment in the English Imagination, 1550-1650. Find him online at]

A good annotation tool can make the iPad a powerful companion for any teacher and scholar, especially if combined with a stylus for writing on the screen. But a bewildering variety of apps now exist to satisfy this need. The hard part is figuring out which is best suited to higher education.

Everyone takes personal notes differently, but faculty members share certain specific needs. We all annotate and review scholarship, and we all try to give students detailed feedback on their work. The best mobile applications for these purposes have a range of features:

  • PDF/Notes: The best apps move seamlessly between annotating a PDF and writing a standalone note. For apps limited to PDF annotation, a somewhat awkward workaround is possible by annotating a blank PDF as a note.
  • Highligher: Most apps will let you write with translucent ink and a large pen, i.e. a highlighter, but some provide a dedicated highlighter tool, making it easy to switch between annotating and highlighting.
  • Zoom: Even if you use a stylus, it is difficult to write accurately and neatly in the margins or between the lines of a document. The most effective apps make it easy to zoom in and out while annotating.
  • Dropbox etc.: Getting files in and out of the iPad can be inconvenient. Most of the apps reviewed can use iTunes to upload and download documents. All can send documents by email, but some also interface with online services like Google Docs and Dropbox. Typically the download is handled using the “open in” command from another app such as Dropbox.
  • Images: The ability to insert and manipulate images is not a part of traditional annotation, but it turns out to be surprisingly useful for purposes as simple as adding the photo of a speaker to one’s notes from a conference presentation as a memory aid. Some apps allow the creation of a visually rich set of notes and annotations. (Here’s UPAD, for instance.)
  • Ease of Use: Perhaps because many of these apps began as PDF readers, annotation is sometimes an afterthought, requiring multiple taps to invoke and use. Ideally, annotation should be the default and combined with all the usual PDF navigation tools.
  • Appearance: The most sophisticated apps keep toolbars from interfering with documents and devote minimal screen space to garish trompe l’oeil effects like woodgrain and torn paper. Freehand annotations should be crisp and smoothly rendered, with no lag time.
  • Palm rest/shelf: Touching the screen in an annotating app can produce unwanted marks. Some apps use automatic software techniques to eliminate marks made by resting the hand on the screen, with mixed results. Others use a manually deployed translucent “shelf” that creates a non-responsive area. It’s slightly more intrusive, but it works consistently and allows other useful practices, such as holding the iPad firmly in one hand. (Here’s how Neu.Annotate handles it.)

Previous ProfHacker posts have addressed specific apps–such as Jason on iAnnotate (with a detailed follow-up from Mark coming in a week or so), and Ethan briefly on GoodReader. I’ve compiled a chart mapping these features in leading iOS annotation/note-taking apps:


The bottom line is that if you only intend to annotate the occasional PDF, the best tool is probably one that you already have on your tablet for other reasons, such as GoodReader. If you plan to use annotation and notes as a serious alternative to paper, however, UPAD is the clear leader at the moment. It is superior both in the number of features and in the sophistication and design of its interface. SmartNote, Ghostwriter, and Notetaker HD, are strong but flawed contenders. Neu. Annotate and Neu. Notes would offer a powerful option if they were combined. Other apps, like Penultimate and Notes Plus are good for taking attractive notes but are less capable performers in an academic environment. However, all of the applications being reviewed are undergoing rapid development. The best features may soon become standard.

What about you? Do you have a favorite annotation and note-taking app?

Photo “Notetaking” by Flickr user kristin wolff / Creative Commons licensed

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