Notability For iPad: Much More Than A Note Taking App

| In-Depth Review

Taking notes has always been a traditional pen and paper ordeal. It is not far fetched to assume many dedicated iPad users still have a spiral notepad and pen at the ready. With that in mind, could Notability change your existing note taking requirements? I believe so, provided you don’t need iCloud integration.

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Features

  • Full-featured handwriting.
  • PDF annotation.
  • Advanced word processing.
  • Audio recording linked to notes.
  • Media insertion of photographs, web clips, figures, and drawings.
  • Library organization.
  • Synchronization to cloud storage solutions.

Using Notability

When you first launch Notability, you will be taken back by the beautiful layout that offers plenty of complexity, whilst still remaining clean and user friendly.

Welcome to Notability

The first document you will be presented with upon launching the app is a two page, Welcome to Notability file. Within, you will be presented with some basic ideas on how to get up and running with the app quickly.

There is also a complete user guide available, by way of the document management area, that is well written across 13 pages. This document will lead you further through the various options and available touch controls. Graphics are also employed, in both documents, to further illustrate how the app can be used for specific purposes.

Both instructional guides have been created directly in Notability and clearly feature the capabilities of the app.

Once you have mastered the basics of the app, you will want to start working on your own documents. This may be in the form of annotating a preexisting file, such as a PDF, or a newly created file in the Notability App.

Creating Notes Within The App

When you create a new note directly in the app, you will be presented with a blank canvas, a title that is easily editable, along with the creation date and time.

The simple but incredibly useable Menu Bar.

The top Menu Bar features the main set of available controls that can be used to undertake specific tasks. You will be able to easily go back to the organizational area, share the document you’re working on, add audio clips, and perform undo and redo requests.

When it comes to adding text or drawing content into a note, you can do this via the keyboard entry, a stylus, or simply your finger. You will also be able to highlight, erase, and cut, copy, and paste content.

The ability to select the background and grid or line pattern on the virtual paper, as well as search for particular text within the document is also available from the top Menu Bar.

If you don’t want to be presented with this Menu Bar, you can always tap on the Eject button in the top right hand corner of the display, thereby removing the distraction. The bottom bar also has this functionality.

Selecting fonts and colors.

Depending on the input format you have chosen, the bottom menu bar will change to reflect the available options. In typing mode the keyboard can be locked thereby preventing unnecessary changes to the typed text. When the keyboard is active tabulation, alignment, and list formatting options are also easily accessible, as is specific font selections and their associated styles.

Select the type of content you wish to include.

Users are also able to take or add photographs from their camera roll, add a web clipping, figure, text, or box containing handwriting.

Notability does work on the original iPad, but due to the lack of a built-in camera, users will be unable to capture images directly from the iPad. Although, you will still be able to access photographs by way of the Photos app, and subsequently, Photo Stream.

These features allow users to mix and match the elements into their documents seamlessly. When you have decided on the appropriate content for your note, you can simply tap anywhere on the canvas to insert.

Text will automatically wrap around these newly inputted fields, although this can be disabled. If you want to change the location of the information box, all you need to do is select and drag it to a new location.

Showing annotation being done directly over a webpage.

A key feature is the ability to annotate on top of the content you have just added. Imagine collaborating on a website and being able to quickly highlight areas of concern.

When using the handwriting and highlighting mode, users will be able to assign a section of the display for their palm to rest on whilst writing with a finger or a stylus. This works extraordinarily well and being able to customize the size of the area certainly makes the app more user friendly.

The accuracy and responsiveness of written text throughout the app, is simply incredible. Move your finger or stylus and the information will simply flow onto the virtual page.

Whilst accidental movements in the palm resting area will not yield any results on screen, the developer has successfully allowed four finger swiping, for multi-touch requirements, to remain active.

Small text box shown with writing area and palm rest.

You also have the option to use a small text box for handwriting input. This technique allows an area for you to write at a normal size, but when the written word is added to the main note, it will be in a much smaller font.

The small text box entry field also has a colored bar that appears towards the edge of the screen. Its purpose is to move the small text box to the next section, from left to right, when your pen stroke crosses into the colored area. 

The small text box can be moved anywhere on the display and cursor keys are available in the bottom Menu Bar, for moving quickly between text boxes so editing can be undertaken.

Recording Audio Notes

At anytime, you can choose to add an audio recording to the file you are working on. When you tap on the Microphone button in the Menu Bar, the recording will immediately commence. There is no pause button to select, but if you tap the stop button, and then tap the microphone button again, the recording will continue.

When you choose to playback the audio you will notice that if you used a series of stop/start segments, they will be separated by chapters and specifically named Recording 1, 2, 3, and so forth. Disappointingly, you are unable to rename the particular segments, but you can delete part two of a three part recording if that suits your needs.

There is no limit to the length of recording for an audible note, it will simply be limited by the available storage on your iPad.

Audio tuning control, for recorded audio clips.

Interestingly, when you playback a recorded audio clip, you also have the option to tune the recording to limit background noise.

The audio narration options are a welcome addition but I feel they lack control that many users would like to have. It would be useful to be able to assign different recordings to particular paragraphs, photographs, or pages for example. At present the app does not have this fine level of control.

Document Navigation & Search

If you are the type of user that creates multipage documents, you will know to tap in the time bar of the iPad to be taken back to the first page of the document. Unfortunately, this functionality is missing from the app. Although, the developers have integrated a page jump system that allows users to type in the page number they wish to navigate to.

Showing the layout and navigation of a multipage document.

If you are familiar with Preview on the Mac, you will also find the thumbnail page navigation option to be a fantastic addition to the app.

Searching the contents of a document is a simple affair. Tap on the search icon, enter a few letters or words you are looking for, then tap search on the virtual keyboard and instantly your results will be presented.

It should be noted that you will be unable to search any of the added content such as web clips and hand written notes. All typed text is easily found.

Importing Documents

If you wish to launch a PDF file that you have on your computer, you will need to use the iTunes App File Sharing Area. In the iTunes App File Sharing area, simply select Notability and add the file/s you wish to use on the iPad.

Unfortunately, working in reverse, you will have to manually select a particular document, to be shared with iTunes. This is disappointing and significantly slows down the usage of this feature.

Importing can also be done via a range of cloud services that include Dropbox, Box, and WebDAV. Throughout testing, I experienced no issues with the linking of my accounts or continuous accessibility to the cloud storage services.

It is important to note that true automatic synchronization is not made active by default. Users will need to proceed to the Settings area and select the services they wish to have content synchronized to and from. This could be simplified by asking if I wanted automatic syncing turned on when connecting, my cloud storage accounts to the app, for the very first time.

When you do activate the sync features, you will be able to assign a folder and the format you wish to have documents saved in. Users can also select the subjects, from the file management area, they would like sync’d whilst leaving other subject areas disabled.

One of the most convenient ways to import a document is by way of the Mail app. If someone has forwarded a compatible document to you, simply tap and hold the attachment and the Open In… option will appear. Select Notability and the document will load.

Document Management And Export Options

Notability has a wonderful file management area that can be split into custom categories and subjects.

You can sort by a number of different methods as well as searching for saved documents. Additional options include renaming documents and moving documents between categories and subjects.

The document management area.

You will also be presented with the date and time of the last update, along with the associated file size. If you have audio attached to the document, you will notice a red dot will be displayed directly under the file name.

The sharing options round out the most important aspects of document management. Exporting to Email, Dropbox, Box, and WebDAV all exist, as does the option to print, share to iTunes, or open in other supported apps such as iBooks for later reference.

Each export option has its own set of preferences. It should be noted that recordings are only supported with RTF and PDF documents, and you will need to manually turn on this functionality before exporting. Failing to do this results in the audible file not being included in the transfer.

When exporting a file containing audio notes, you will notice it will be sent as a .zip file. That is not generally cause for concern as all modern Macs can extract zip files in the Finder.

If you are sending a zip file to another iPad user, it is important to note that zip files are not able to be exacted in iOS without the assistance of a utility like WinZip.

Settings

Auto sync activation for cloud storage is located in the Settings area along with Themes, Paper, Default Text Settings, and a series of miscellaneous options.

Three different themes are available to define how you would like the app to be presented. It would be nice to have a few more themes, but the available ones suffice.

The Paper area allows you to select the default type of virtual paper you will be using. You can choose to have a blank canvas or one containing lines or square boxes at varying sizes, depending on your needs. This can also be modified at anytime while working within a document.

Impressively, there is a left handed option that can be turned on for those of you with that unique ability. It is wonderful to see the developer has thoroughly considered options for its users.

Another useful feature, that is turned off by default, is the ability to ignore the iOS sleep timer. I could easily see this function being used for anyone who is involved in a business meeting, or college students wishing to take periodical notes without the device going to sleep.

What I Did Like

The customizable palm rest area allows users to easily write on their device with a stylus.

The stylus or finger input option is extremely accurate and responsive.

Left handed user mode.

Elegant and well thought out interface with adequate controls. 

Ignore iOS sleep timer.

Annotation ability over various types of media.

What I Didn’t Like

The lack of iCloud integration seriously limits sync options. Unfortunately, the app has not been updated to address this concern or remove, the now defunct, MobileMe iDisk integration.

iTunes App File Sharing is not fully automatic when exporting back to the Mac. 

Auto sync to cloud storage services is turned off by default.

Summary

Notability, is one of most complete and professional note taking apps available for iOS. Considering the app is currently US$0.99, it is exceptional value for the level of functionality that users will receive.

Throughout testing, I experienced no issues that made me feel I could either not trust or rely on the app. It is a solid performer and works as advertised.

Whilst there was areas that I didn’t like, such as the exclusion of iCloud integration and auto sync turned off by default, these are areas that the developer can easily address in future updates and shouldn’t cast a cloud of doubt over the usefulness of this amazingly complex app.

Product: Notability

Company: Ginger Labs, Inc

List Price: US$0.99

Pros:

Palm rest, accurate and responsive input, left handed user mode, well designed interface, iOS sleep timer overide option, multiple annotation options across various media types.

Cons:

No iCloud integration, no automatic file availability in iTunes App File Sharing, auto sync deactivated by default.

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Comments

mhikl

Long, but thorough review. Can’t beat the price Mark’s rating- nor the positive comments on the AppStore. Can’t believe the price. Hope the chap makes some serious coin off his/er efforts.

GageGecko

I use this app at work to fill out forms (imported as a PDF) and then have the user sign the form on my iPad. Some of my users find the adjustable wrist pad helpful when signing I prefer using zoom text feature. I can then email them a copy right there from my iPad.

I completely disagree with the reviewer when it comes to giving this app a strike for lack of iCloud integration. iCloud, the worst implementation of a cloud service in the known universe in my opinion, is not missed. Dropbox integration is a far better alternative. Any changes to your work are auto-synced back to your Dropbox folder.

With Dropbox, you can export the page in .note format to a shared folder in Dropbox for another user to edit and then sync right back to Dropbox. Makes collaborating on files when both are using Notability a dream.

Another nice thing the reviewer doesn’t mention is password protection. You can organize your work into sections that can be color coded, given an unique icon and then have a password applied.

Clearly the reviewer likes this app as much as I but for .99 cents you have nothing to lose by giving it a shot.

Mark Greentree

Another nice thing the reviewer doesn?t mention is password protection. You can organize your work into sections that can be color coded, given an unique icon and then have a password applied.

I certainly did miss this feature in the review. Thank you for bringing it to our attention.

geoduck

This is a great app. I think I’ll be using it a lot. DropBox is wonky and keeps giving me a 403 error when I try to save a document to it. But e-mail works so I can send files to my mac.

Christopher

It is a great app, but if you prefer free hand note-taking, I recommend GoodNotes. They are working on Dropbox sync feature like Notability now.

Paul Goodwin

This really is a good app for an amazingly low price. I’ve used it for quite a while now. I do hope they update it for syncing. A great alternative to iCloud is SugarSync. You get 5 GB free, it’s easy, secure, and you can put any file type into the folders. You can share folders to other SugarSync users - each folder can be assigned different share partners. You can pick and choose folders on your computer to sync, or not sync at all and just have folders on their site. It works with mobile devices too.

Shirley

Very impressed with the amount of detail gone into here. as well as notability i also use write pdf for pdf editing and coversion on the ipad. looking forward to moore reviews!!

Boris

Best app for college! i have everything organized! Lectures, notes and pictures… can’t have a better tool for my freshman year!

Zach

I LOVE this app.  Over the past 4 days I have bought, iAnnotate, pdf max, goodnotes, good reader, and pdfpen.  Total $ spent = 32.00.  Then last night after being frustrated with access to backups, I bought this app because of a unbiased review of many annotation and note taking apps for the ipad.  So I figured I have spent so much money, “What is anothe 99 cents”.  Low and behold, THIS APP IS AMAZING.  I pay 20.00 extra to have 15 gb of storage through iCloud.  What atinks is that I can not use this to backup files.  That should be addressed!  I do not want to pay an outside developer such as dropbox or box or idisk(which is no longer supported by aple with the updated iOS).  In the other apps I would email the backups to myself but when trying to read on my MBP I did not have the proper program to read the files.  So the backups were essentially useless.  Your app allows me to email myself backups daily, in both pdf and rtf format and i can read with “text editor” on MBP.  In my opinion, If Notability was able to backup icloud; the app would be every penny 20 dollars.

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