I see a huge number of people on the hunt for a good note–taking application these days, and most attempts at an answer involve some sort of comparison between Evernote — the reigning king — and Microsoft’s OneNote, which has its own, growing tribe of followers. And they are both, at some point, almost inevitably, compared to the inbuilt Notes.app provided by Apple. This is simply wrong and should be avoided.
First of all, there are broadly two classifications of note–taking applications: on the one hand are swift, simple (humble?) jotting applications and on the other are file organisers. A note is a type of file at the end of the day which makes Evernote squarely a file organiser whereas Notes.app is a simpler, more straightforward note–taking application. It is much easier to jot something down and get done with it on the stock Notes.app. Evernote feels too bulky for this sort of thing. On the other end of the spectrum, Evernote excels at handling long notes, taken over a longer duration, often built upon, edited, re–worked and filed often as part of a larger collection of related notes. Generally speaking, one often needs both types of note–taking applications.
Simplicity goes a long way
I often find myself using Evernote about ten times a month often (across all devices), but have, on occasion, used it as often as several times a week. To me, the premium plan that Evernote pushes so frequently in my face does not make much sense. At the end of the day, I have a Pro subscription to Dropbox that I can use for storage, but Evernote’s organisational and notes handling capability is what keeps me with it — plus the scanner app, Scanable, from the makers of Evernote is excellent and naturally ties well with Evernote. There is a monthly upload limit on Evernote (reset to zero every month) which I have never reached till date. If Dropbox’s Paper takes off and sheds its current confines within the Dropbox environment, it would make an appealing alternative to Evernote. But, like Google, the fact that Dropbox nonchalantly shuttered an excellent product such as Mailbox does little to give users faith that Paper will last. Evernote, on the other hand, has a good business model that will help it sustain itself1.
Think of Evernote as a notebook and Notes.app as a sticky note. You don’t always need all hundred sheets of your notebook to jot things down quickly and move on.[[/perfectpullquote]]
Coming back to the stock Notes app: Apple’s Note–taking solution is simpler and easier to follow. It is easy to get lost in Evernote. However, they each have their own strengths, and the first I can think of is that sharing to an existing note is easy on the stock notes app, but not on Evernote; however, clipping a webpage on Evernote (though it takes longer) helpfully saves the page contents unlike in the stock Notes .pp where only the link is saved.
Another thing that Notes.app does beautifully and simply is it serves as an all-in-one storage unit: drawings, text, attachments, lists, heading/subheading structures, images and links can all be put into the same note, complete with style and formatting. And then you can lock that note safely with your fingerprint via Touch ID (I have not really found a justifiable use for this yet since my secure notes have long been on 1Password). Notes can be put into folders one level deep and while that is as far as organisation itself goes, using Notes.app since iOS 9, I have found it to be more than enough: there is almost never an inclination to over–organise and in the process lose all meaning of productivity.
One last qualm I have, since we are speaking of simplicity, is how Apple never got rid of the textured background from their Notes and Reminders applications when they famously dropped their old skeuomorphic designs in iOS 7 and again in iOS 8, and yet again in iOS 9. This forces them to add a bad–looking text shadow, all of which I hope they wrap and toss aside in iOS 10 coming later this year.
A note–taking style
Another important observation to consider is how we make notes in the first place: some of us love to use markdown2, some of us make largely plaintext notes, some of us draw a lot and so on. It is important to be able to move this around, should anything happen or should you ever change your mind. This migration is an advantage with some third–party solutions like Notational Velocity (and later Brett Terpstra’s fork, nvALT) because they store plaintext notes. A solution would be to use the likes of Evernote for attachments alone, but if you are not paying for the OCR and offline storage perks that comes with a paid account, you might as well throw things into your Dropbox or Google Drive or what have you. Unfortunately, Notational Velocity (or nvALT for that matter) both seem to be somewhat abandoned and have no good iOS counterpart. Simplenote does what it can and would probably have been my choice had Apple not magnificently overhauled the stock Notes app. (On a side note, I wish all stock apps get that treatment in iOS 10).What Evernote does is store its notes in a proprietary .ENEX format, which, like anything else proprietary, is not good news. It does export to HTML, however, but this too is of little use. This was the case when Jason Burk addressed the issue last year and remains as I go over the programme on my MacBook even now. In all fairness, however, as Mr Burk explains, the same case regarding inflexible migration can be made against Notes.app as well since it only exports as .pdf, which I personally think is worse than an .ENEX or an .html file. However, Notes.app now supports importing .ENEX files from Evernote3.
At the end of the day, however, Evernote does all this too, but only matter–of–factly, because its true power lies elsewhere. I do not believe Notes.app is an Evernote replacement, although it is undoubtedly perfect for anyone who is either overwhelmed with Evernote or just need a simpler solution. Unless everything you do and everything you ever jot down is one mega project, you probably do not need the capabilities of Evernote (and if all you are doing is hoarding notes like a dust bin, you are probably using Evernote all wrong). The best analogy I can think go involves a notebook and a bunch of post–it or sticky notes: you don’t always need all hundred sheets of your notebook to jot things down quickly and move on. Think of Evernote as the notebook and Notes.app as a sticky note. They both do their job well, but they do not do the same job. And for your day–to–day life, you will probably find the stock Notes.app to be just fine to help you navigate your way around, while Evernote will show its worth in the long run to organise your life, store documents and keep track of everything noteworthy.
*No pun is intended in the title