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

| How-To

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...

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Great notes (sic) thanks Sandro. I also like that I can access and add to the Notes on my (work) Windows PC via the iCloud web client… The perfect way to share ... ummmm… what could I call them…well, notes I suppose across all my connected devices. I find Notes invaluable now.


I would love to be able to use notes but there is no search within notes (usually command+f) on OS X. Renders it useless to me


The problem I have with notes is that the formatting seems to get messed up when I am using notes on the computer, the ipad and iPhone.
There seems to be no way to correct it.

I can correct things on my mac and they look ok on the mac, but the double spacing and other issues persist on notes on the ipad and iphone. Seems to be a bit of a bug that has been persistent over time too.

It is mostly annoying and I have yet to have anyone tell me how to go about reformatting my notes so they will be the same across all devices.


I love how notes syncs between devices. However, I can not get any note to float. That menu option is grayed out.

Aaron Miller

Good, useful post. Thanks! However, for maximum cross-platform availability and full-featured-ness, I use Evernote. Short of a couple free App Store downloads, nothing you note (heh) here gives an advantage to Notes.


Is there an OS X Service to get text into Notes?


I have notes on Mountain Lion. Can’t remember having it under Lion. Under mountain lion everything just finds its way to all my devices over the Cloud.  (if enabled and using the same iCloud account). My problem is that there seems to be some sort of formatting bug on Mountain that messes the notes spacing on my iOS devices. If I correct the problem on Mountain Lion, the problem is not propagated back to the iOS devices.

I don’t know how to fix it or reformat notes on iOS.


Thanks for pointing out the Easter Egg which led me to look more closely at the writing on the Notes icon.  But the end of the 5th line, the one using the word “different” [sic], looked like it ended with a “y” or maybe even with “ly.”  So I listened to the original TV ad (and also the narration done by Steve Jobs that was not aired) and the word used is actually “differently” and not “different” despite being used in the “Think Different” ad.  (Also, enlarge the TextEdit application icon to see a more complete and very legible version also using the word “differently”.)

In any case I found it an interesting diversion from what I had been doing and liked hearing that ad again.  Thanks for pointing the way.

Dawn Coombes

How do you remove the document background from Notes text? Sometimes when I cut & paste, the background will be a different color (i.e. white or black) and I can’t seem an option to set document color to none.

random mouse

why does the writer nor anyone else on the intertubes not mention that attachments to notes on OSX do not appear in iOS, what a over site! Just a silly icon of a paper clip…or am I wrong here? I can find no way to review my important attachments!

Richard Bidgood

Thanks for this great primer on Notes.  I’ve only ever used Notes as a scratchpad, and kept my longer more permanent notes on Notespark.  With that latter app shutting down, your column has convinced me that it is a worthy replacement, especially now that I know how to use its new features.  Thanks again.

Giacomo Gustatili

Thank you for the article! I still use Notes for personal notes like shopping lists or ideas. However for professional notes (I’m an ipad-only worker) I prefer us a dedicated app for productivity like Beesy, which is all-in-one and has dynamic note taking features.


I use SimpleNote from  There are apps for OSX and IOS.  It is password protected and can be secured with a pin.  You can get the notes with other apps on windows machines (notational velocity is one).  It is quick and does not rely on iCloud and much better than “notes”

Juan Carlos Coello

Hi, adding to Rocco’s comment: Is there a way of finding a specific word in a note? command+F used to work but no longer. I need this and am thinking of not using Notes anymore. I am using Mac OSX 10.8.5.

Rocco Neil April

Yeah, you can use command + f now:

My problem is that you still can’t search in this manner with the iOS version. So I’m now very happy with Write on iOS and nvALT on OS X. Using iCloud for both.

Any idea why the “default account” is greyed out in the Yosemite version of Any idea how to set the default account in the Yosemite version of



Has anyone found a way to print a list of note titles that are in a folder?

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