How to Effectively Use the Notes App in iOS & OS X

The Notes app. It's been around since day-one in the life of iOS. The Mac version is now available for Mountain Lion, and it's fully iCloud-compliant. This isn't the word processor you're looking for. It's a skeuomorphic yellow legal pad for taking notes.

To me, prior to Mountain Lion, iOS 6 and iCloud integration, the Notes app was useless. Yes, I could keep "local" notations on my iPhone or iPad if I wanted to. Yes, there was primitive syncing available. However, since there was no Notes app available on the Mac, synced notes ended up in the Mail app.

No, thanks.

The Notes app has now done a one-eighty with the introduction of Mountain Lion, iOS 6 and iCloud. All of a sudden I find the Notes ecosystem to be simple, yet immensely useful. Let's take a look.

First, in order for the syncing via iCloud to work, the syncing service for Notes needs to be enabled on the Mac and iDevices. When you first configure your iCloud account on all your devices, you are given the opportunity to turn on iCloud syncing for Notes as well as other apps. Ultimately, you can enable or disable Notes syncing at any time.

Mac OS X Configuration for Notes Integration with iCloud

On the Mac, starting with Mountain Lion, Notes syncing is enabled by going to System Preferences > iCloud and enabling Notes via the checkbox provided.

The iCloud Preferences Pane in OS X.

Enable Notes iCloud Syncing on the Mac via the iCloud Preferences Pane.

iOS Configuration for Notes Integration with iCloud

In iOS, go to Settings > Mail, Contacts, Calendars > [tap on your email account]. In the configuration panel of the selected email account, you will find all the switches for activating iCloud syncing for a number of apps, including Notes.

The iCloud Settings pane in iOS for iPhone.

Enable Notes iCloud Syncing in iOS via the iCloud Settings Pane.

Notes Integration via iCloud: a Wonderful Thing.

If you have configured Notes on all your devices to sync with the same iCloud account, your notes are seamlessly synchronized. For all practical purposes, this happens instantaneously – assuming there exists a wireless or cellular data connection. If you are out of range, things will sync up nicely once a connection is re-established.

Details of an open Notes window in OS X.

Notes on the Mac has some basic data organization features.

Using Notes, you can create a note and add an image or a file to it by drag-and-dropping, you can delete notes, and you can share notes via email or messaging.

You select notes to view via the sidebar. You can open a note in a separate window by double-clicking the note in the sidebar. Occasionally, I like to "float" a note on the desktop by going to Window > Float on Top. The floater can be dragged around the screen. Sorting can be done via View > Sort By.

Your notes are stored in containers the app calls "folders", corresponding to one or more email accounts you have configured your device with. To enable viewing notes from other accounts, go to Notes > Accounts.

You can also create folders to visually organize your notes. If you don't see the folders list to the left of the sidebar, click on the Show Folders List icon at the bottom of the sidebar.

To display notes from a specific folder, select a folder. To display all notes in an account, select the "All" folder for that account, such as All iCloud. To display all notes in all accounts, select All Notes at the top of the list.

To create a folder, choose File > New Folder. If All Notes is selected in the folders list, the folder is created in the default account. Otherwise, it's created in the account of the current folder.

Renaming and deleting folders can be done by right-clicking the folder and making a selection from the popup menu. Pay attention to any alerts that may come up.

Moving notes and folders is intuitive. Move a folder you created by dragging it to another account. To create a subfolder, drag the folder onto another folder that you created. Move a note to a different folder by dragging it from the sidebar onto a folder. To copy a note, hold the Option key while you drag the note.

Some text formatting is supported in Notes. Simply select the text you want to format, and then make a choice from the Format menu. Bulleted, dashed and numbered lists are also supported via Format > Lists

Using Notes in iOS

Pretty much everything works the same way when running Notes in iOS.

Three screen captures from the Notes app on an iPhone: The Accounts pane, the Notes pane listing all available notes, and the actual note contents of one of the notes listed in the second screen.

On the iPhone, Notes functionality is spread across several screens.

A couple of considerations to brief you on:

In the iOS version of Notes, you can set a default font via Settings > Notes. I happen to be one of three people in North America who like Marker Felt. (Hey, I happen to like Comic Sans on the Mac; gimme a break!) You also have Noteworthy and Helvetica to choose from. On the Mac side, you can set other fonts via Format > Fonts > Show Fonts, but anything other than the three default fonts will be substituted when syncing to iOS. 

Two screen captures from iPhone Settings. The Notes Settings panel allows you to choose from one of three default fonts. The Large Text pane in Accessibility Settings let you set system-wide font sizes for apps that can accommodate large text.

Notes can default to one of three fonts. For apps that support large text, system-wide size settings can be set in the Accessibility Settings Panel.

If you want to set a larger-than-default text size (I like 20 points), go to Settings > General > Accessibility > Large Text, and make your selection.

To search in Notes on iOS, keep in mind the search field may be hidden from view. While viewing the list of notes, scroll to the top of the list, by swiping downward, to reveal the search field. Tap in the field and type the text you’re looking for. By the way, you can also search for notes from the Home screen.

Finally, for any Mac-based notes which contain attached images or files, the attachments do not currently synchronize over to iOS; just the note and a little paperclip icon to represent the non-existent attachment.

In conclusion, Notes really works quite well and is all you need if you want is a simple, built-in solution for synchronizing notes among all your devices as well as some rudimentary storage and organization features.

Although Notes is highly practical to me, I would like to see at least two enhancements: export options (other than cut-and-paste) and multiple note printing. I don't mind the yellow legal pad with the realistic tiny-paper-tearing-thingies-at-the-top-of-the-pad, but it would be nice to be able to choose from a variety of paper designs.

Why not give Notes a good two or three day workout on all your devices. Once everything is configured to sync properly, you may just be surprised at how simple and useful the Notes/iCloud ecosystem can be.

Did you know?…

There is an Easter Egg in Notes. If you can get a magnified view of the the icon for the Notes app, you will see that the scribbling shown on the notepad is a tribute to the ancient but famous "The Crazy Ones" Apple TV ad from the late nineties – part of the "Think Different" ad campaign. The text reads: 

"Here’s to the crazy ones.
The misfits. The rebels.
The troublemakers.
The round pegs in the square holes.
The ones who see things different.
They’re not fond of rules,

and they have no respect for the status quo."

The Notes app icon in OS X.

This scribbling on the Notes app icon actually means something...