The best note-taking apps for the iPad and Apple Pencil

With the new 9.7-inch iPad, the Apple Pencil at last comes to the masses. Apple’s recent push to get its scrappy tablet back in schools means you no longer how to shell out mountains of cash if you want to use the iPad like a digital legal pad, and that’s good news for all of us regardless of whether we’re in boardrooms or third-grade history class.

Even better for Apple Pencil newcomers, the App Store is already stuffed with note-taking apps that use it to its full potential. Here are our favorites, chosen after years of enthusiastic experimentation.

Apple Notes: The best free app

If you want a head start on writing on an iPad with an Apple Pencil, then there’s no better place to start than Apple’s own Notes app. It’s not exactly packed with features: You can’t even adjust the stroke width for the included pen, highlighter, and pencil tools. In fact, true to Apple form, customization feels forbidden. All you can really do is choose between blank, lined, or gridded paper and write in black, blue, green, yellow, or red.

Apple Pencil in iOS Notes App Leif Johnson/IDG

Seriously, I’m really impressed with the look of that digital pencil graphite. No other app really comes close.

But Notes sometimes makes up for that lack of variety through convenience. Apple built Notes compatibility into the design of the iPad itself, so you can scribble a new handwritten note at any time by simply tapping the Apple Pencil on your iPad’s locked home screen. The selection tool is also impressive; more so than any other app I’ve used, Notes precisely selects the line of script you want to select, even when it’s piled on top of another jumble of squiggles. It’s kind of magical.

The iCloud syncing across all iOS devices is nice, too, but if we’re being blunt, Apple basically did the bare minimum here. To truly see what the Apple Pencil is capable of, you have to look elsewhere (and likely spend a little cash).

Ginger Labs Notability: The best all-purpose app

Notability, fittingly enough, is by far the most notable app that supports the Apple Pencil, and for good reason. If you’re going to spend money on any handwriting-compatible app, consider spending $10 on this one. Not only does Notability lets you do everything from annotating PDFs to making shapes, but it also captures the experience of writing with a pen or pencil better than any of its competitors. The strokes are fluid and precise, allowing you to forget about trying to get the stylus to work properly and simply focus on your writing.

Notability on iPad Leif Johnson/IDG

Notability doesn’t offer many fancy options for writing tools, but the options it does give you work so well that others rarely feel needed.

The appeal doesn’t end there, though. Notability also excels by letting you choose between nine styles of lined and unlined paper, and it gives you 15 choices for paper color as well. (Weirdly, none of those choices mimic the sulphuric yellow of a legal pad.) It’s easy to import PDFs and webpages and mark them up as though they were paper. You can record audio while you’re writing by hand, and you can hear exactly what was being said when you wrote a note.

Notability’s iCloud support works like a dream, so you can easily write out notes from your iPad and consult them on your (separately sold) Mac app within seconds. You’ll find that feature in traditional note-taking apps like iA Writer, but the ability to call up your handwritten scrawl on your phone at any time counts as a major plus.

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