Returning to Apple Notes

Like many nerds in the Apple ecosystem, I have tried many note taking apps. It all began for me in 2012 with Evernote. When I discovered Evernote, it was my first foray into productivity and organization software, and I became obsessed. Looking back it was more about the novelty of software to help me work than the quality of Evernote itself.

In 2015, along with iOS 9, Apple updated their built in notes app substantially, and I moved my life there following a growing dissatisfaction with Evernote. When I started using Drafts 5 last spring for all of my writing, I wanted a notes app with automation capabilities for creating and appending to notes from Drafts. Bear was the obvious choice, and I once again moved my notes database.. I was most recently tempted by Agenda after using it for lesson planning, but as I recently shared, I am back in Apple Notes for my note taking needs.

While I hadn’t planned on writing about it, several people asked me to share more, so I’m going to attempt to explain.

My Ultimate Note Taking App

To understand why I’ve moved my notes around so much, you need to understand what I’m looking for in a note taking app.

First, I need an app that is aesthetically pleasing. This means the UI, typography, and color scheme (or theme options) are clean and beautiful. In terms of typography and the writing experience, I would prefer to write in Markdown, but don’t necessarily want to see the markdown after I’ve typed it.

Automation is also important to me. Being able to quickly send text from Drafts or Shortcuts saves me a lot of time.

As far as organizing notes, I prefer tags over folders. For example, I like having a lists tag and a work tag. Then if I have a list for work, it can be found in either place.

I also want rich previews of links and attached files. I don’t just want to see a link as text or a placeholder for a PDF. I want more information at a glance.

Why Apple Notes?

When I look at my ultimate notes app, none exists with every desired feature. However, Apple Notes actually meets 4/6 of my needs.

Apple Notes doesn’t have Markdown support, but you also don’t have to look at Markdown in the notes. Additionally, Apple Notes’s keyboard shortcuts work almost as well as Markdown for quick typing. Notes also gained some more automation support in a recent update to Shortcuts, and because it’s a native app not using URL Schemes, the automation can work without ever leaving Shortcuts. While automation support in Notes isn’t nearly as robust as an app like Bear, it’s a good step forward. I’m hopeful more support is added in iOS 13 and Shortcuts 3.

Finally, Notes’s implementation of rich previews of files and URLs in unmatched in any other app, at least on iOS.

An example of where Notes shines over all other apps is for storing information related to a trip. I can save links to flight confirmation emails, right next to map previews from Apple maps of my hotel location, take a picture and annotate it of where I parked at the airport, and save PDFs relevant to the trip and have them all preview inline in the note, not just as a thumbnail. No other app does this as well, and the ease of viewing the information later far outweighs the desire for speed of input.

What About Drafts?

Most people who follow this blog know of my love for Drafts and may wonder why I don’t use it as my primary notes app. Drafts is hands down the best app for working with text on the iPhone. However, it can’t save documents and images inline with the text.

Drafts is my primary writing environment. All of my blog posts, long or short, get written and published from Drafts. Even things like sub plans, which used to be written in Bear due to its easy export features are now written in Drafts thanks to the additional PDF export abilities added in version 12.

Conclusion

This post could be irrelevant next week, month, or year. I love trying new apps, and probably will at some point. Bear has teased an upcoming change to their editor that looks really nice. And who knows what happens with iOS 13 and Shortcuts 3.0?

For now though, Apple Notes is meeting my needs.

Craig McClellan @craigmcclellan