For those with the compulsive need to jot everything down, the days of post-its plastering your walls and cardboard boxes filled spiral notebooks piled in your garage are waning. The rise of the digital notebook has brought on a new era of recording your every thought and, quite notably, it’s glorious.
However, while there are many note-taking apps out there, particularly for smartphones and tablets, there are still very few truly great ones. Moreover, there’s a surprising amount of disparity between the best note-taking apps and what they’re most well suited for.
For example, Google Keep leads the pack for recording quick thoughts and lists for later reminder, while Evernote is best for in-depth research. If you’re just looking for a digital diary, Zoho Notebook ranks as our top pick for that purpose. Finally, there’s OneNote, which we’re quite confident is the best notebook for students, as we’ll explain later.
Our goal in this article is to help you find the right tool for collating your brain, something the cloud is particularly well suited for. If you’re looking for a place to stash your documents, photos and videos, too, we also have a review of the best cloud storage solutions available.
Basics of Cloud Note-Taking Apps
One of the trends (or non-trends) of the current digital notebook market is that there doesn’t seem to be any clear consensus on what such a tool should look like. While Google Keep and Evernote ranks as two of the most popular names, there are few similarities between them of note. That’s not really a bad thing, however: sometimes you need a peashooter and sometimes a cannon.
The only real constant is that the best note-taking apps available today are all connected to the cloud. Rather than storing your notes on your own hard drive, these tools copy them to servers. The advantage is that you don’t lose your inspired ramblings should your computer crash, meaning you don’t have to roll the dice with data-recovery software to try and get it all back.
Storing your notes in the cloud also means that you can access them from any computer or smartphone without having to transfer files yourself. This is called device synchronization, a common feature of cloud storage (read about the best cloud storage with sync).
Other popular features of note-taking apps are less common. Some of the more basic ones include notebooks to organize your notes in, text formatting, drawing tools and the ability to add images and attachments. More advanced capabilities range from voice and video recorders to optical character recognition (OCR) and ink-to-text conversion.
Each of the note-taking reviews we’ve written has a full rundown of features included, though as we go through our top picks below, we’ll outline the most noteworthy. We’ll also talk about what each tool is good for, whether that’s brainstorming, journaling, taking notes for a class or meeting, creating lists and reminders or compiling exhaustive research.
Best Note-Taking App: Evernote
- Best note-taking app overall
- Best note-taking app for research
- Best note-taking app for writers
- Best note-taking app for security
Evernote has been around for over ten years, having been founded in 2007, and since that time has earned itself plenty of positive word-of-mouth among tech-savvy scribblers. In fact, the service ballooned to more than 220 million users at last report, despite substantially raising its prices in 2016.
That, of course, is partly owing to the fact that most people opt to use the free version of Evernote. However, there are plenty of free digital notebooks out there: what makes Evernote special rises above the bottom line.
It all begins with a great desktop app. Evernote makes it easy to create notes and organize them into notebooks. You can also label notes for sorting later with custom tags, which is a great way to pull up all of your “blog ideas” or “recipes” with a couple clicks of the mouse. We also really like the fact that you can tie notes together with crosslinks, like a personal website for your noggin.
Evernote has most of the text-formatting features you’d find with a word processor, including all of the common fonts. You can also insert images, attach files to notes, plus record voice (but not video) notes. More useful for tablet and phablet users, Evernote has an “ink note” option with draw tools and it’s compatible with some smartpens, too, like Livescribe.
We also love Evernote’s automation features. Those include a web clipper that you can use to send URLs or selected text and images directly to a specified notebook. You can also forward up to 200 emails per day to a notebook using a special email address if you’re a paying subscriber, and several pre-made IFTTT and Zapier recipes are available.
For the most part, Evernote is pretty secure, too, which you obviously want from any cloud service, especially one that might be housing your best ideas. Files are encrypted at rest and and in transit, and you can switch on two-factor authentication for some protection against stolen passwords.
While the company manages the encryption process and so could theoretically decrypt your notes for whatever purpose, Evernote is one of two digital notebooks currently supported by a third-party add-on called SafeRoom that’ll fix all that. With SafeRoom, you can privately encrypt your notebooks with a password that only you know. Find out more in our Evernote review.
Evernote Plan Options
Ostensibly, Evernote’s free plan gives you unlimited storage just like its two paid plans do. However, that’s not really true thanks to a monthly bandwidth cap of 60MB. Notes also can’t be larger than 25MB and only two devices can be synced at once.
If you need more flexibility, Evernote Plus will only set you back around $4 per month or $35 per year. Plus bumps your bandwidth up to 1GB per month, the max note size to 200MB and allows you to sync unlimited devices. There’s also a more expensive Evernote Premium with 10GB of bandwidth per month.
1-year plan $ 2.92 / month
$34.99 billed every year
Save 27 %
1-year plan $ 5.83 / month
$69.99 billed every year
Save 27 %
Neither subscription lives up to the “unlimited” billing but the bandwidth allowances should be enough to keep you typing.
- Unlimited storage (kind of)
- Unlimited sync (not free plan)
- Notebooks and note tags
- Affordable subscriptions
- Web clipper
- Optical character recognition
- Monthly bandwidth limit
- No built-in video notes
- 250 notebook max
- No ink-to-text conversion
Number Two: OneNote
- Best note-taking app for students
- Best note-taking app for designers
- Best note-taking app for cloud storage
- Best note-taking app for tablets
OneNote could very easily have ranked first in our rankings, just as easily as it could have ranked third. The most convincing reason to pick OneNote over Evernote is that it actually allows for more flexible note creation, more accurately mimicking an actual sheet of paper in a notebook.
Text can be placed wherever you want within a note and OneNote does a much better job supporting ink notes with great draw tools and ink-to-text conversion algorithms. If you’re looking for a note-taking app for your tablet and smartpen combo, there’s no question that OneNote is a smart choice, as we discuss in our complete OneNote review.
That’s one of the reasons we like OneNote as a note-taking app for students, since it lets you accurately recreate both words and diagrams chalked across a blackboard. Unlike Evernote, OneNote also lets you record video notes. That comes in addition to voice note support, both features of which are great for capturing classroom lectures for those that would rather absorb and participate than type furiously away on their keyboards.
On top of all that, students (and teachers) get Office 365 from Microsoft for free with a valid school email address, which comes with 1TB of cloud storage for OneNote in addition to Word, Excel and PowerPoint.
Other features to enhance notes include embedded links and file attachments, plus a web clipper available as a browser extension. The clipper lets you save pages directly to OneNote to preserve research, plus add annotations and call-outs to remind yourself later why you clipped the page in the first place.
With all the good, the reason we didn’t rank Evernote second and OneNote first is mostly a matter design preference. This writer, at least, who is admittedly a long-time Evernote user, finds Evernote a better tool for organizing and maintaining focus, both important for compiling detailed research and crafting ideas.
Additionally, the OneNote app available in the Microsoft Store for Windows 10 doesn’t support custom tags, which makes sorting related notes much harder. OneNote 2016 does, but that version is being abandoned.
OneNote Plan Options
Another potential disadvantage of choosing OneNote over Evernote is that the free version only comes with 5GB of storage through OneDrive, which space shared with any photos, videos and documents you store there. You can, however, bump up to 1TB of storage for just $6.99 a month and get Office 365, too, which ranks among the best deals in cloud storage.
OneDrive also has a 50GB plan for $2 a month. Be sure and read our OneDrive review for a full look at that cloud storage service’s best features and shortcomings.
- Free application
- Good organizing tools
- Flexible note design
- Sync & share notes
- No private encryption
- No at-rest encryption (on OneDrive Personal)
- No custom tags (OneNote for Windows 10)
Number 3: Google Keep
- Best note-taking app for mobile
- Best note-taking app for voice memos
- Best note-taking app for reminders
Google Keep isn’t nearly as powerful a research tool as Evernote or OneNote: there are no notebooks to organize your thoughts, notes have a 20,000 character limit, you can’t add file attachments, there are no text-formatting features and there’s no desktop client. However, despite all of those misses, it’s still a handy note app if you use it well.
The value of Google Keep comes from recognizing that within the note-taking landscape, it dominates its own space, which we’re going to call the “let me jot that down” niche. Google Keep for Android, in particular, is perfect for recording those unexpected flashes of inspiration that come while riding the metro, walking through the park and pontificating on the toilet.
We’re particularly smitten with Google Keep as a recorder for voice memos (or captain’s logs, if you’re with Starfleet). Recording spoken memos on your phone isn’t a novel feature among note-taking apps, but paired with Google’s generally accurate speech-recognition capabilities, it’s the best tool we’ve played with for converting voice to text notes.
Google Keep also supports tagging to sort your random thoughts later. There’s a handy reminder feature, too, which used in conjunction with Keep’s list-making features works well for compiling project, grocery, revenge and other to-do lists.
Unsurprisingly for the king of search, Google Keep has a Chrome web clipper for preserving content while found browsing the internet. However, we prefer the one you get with Evernote, which is more flexible and lets you compile your clippings in notebooks.
Aside from some of the mentioned missing features, likely the best reason to avoid Google Keep is uncertainty over how private it is. Google makes money from advertisements and reserves the right to scan user data stored in its servers to use in targeted marketing campaigns (read our full Google Keep review for more on that).
While Google Drive can be secured using Boxcryptor, and Evernote and OneDrive using SafeRoom, there’s no similar option to privately encrypt Google Keep notes. With that in mind, be careful what you say to Google Keep because there’s a good chance there’s a marketeer out there listening to you.
Google Keep Plan Options
Google Keep is 100 percent free and lets you take unlimited notes, which does nothing to allay our privacy worries, given that Google is more in the make money than “do no evil” business these days. The app doesn’t take up any Google Drive storage space, so you can keep that clear for your photos (find out where Google Drive ranks in our best cloud storage for photos roundup).
- Completely free
- Unlimited notes
- Easy to use
- Voice notes
- No notebooks
- 20,000 character limit
- No text formatting
- No desktop client
- No automated notes
Number 4: Zoho Notebook
- Best note-taking app for journaling
Zoho Notebook ranks as our penultimate note-taking app recommendation. Like the other entries on this list, there are certain things it does better than the rest of the field, even if those things are a bit more limited.
In particular, we think Zoho Notebook is ideal as a journaling tool. While there’s no desktop client available, the browser interface is designed well enough that you’ll likely not notice. We detail the experience more closely in our Zoho Notebook review.
Of course, that does mean your notebooks won’t be available offline on your desktop, especially problematic if you find yourself documenting an apocalyptic scenario where there’s no interweb.
The design of the online interface is card-based, which each notebook having its own card and an distinct cover. The notebook covers themselves are hand drawn rather than solid colors, which makes them easy to find.
Notebooks can hold an unlimited number of notes, although notes themselves are limited to just 10,000 characters, which is about 2,000 to 3,000 words. However, for a personal diary, that should be plenty for a day’s reminiscing.
A range of different note types are available, too, including photo, audio and sketch notes. These help enhance your journaling options and should especially appeal to creative types.
What Zoho Notebook isn’t good for is business use, which is surprising given that Zoho primarily develops business tools like CRM software. You can’t collaborate on notes with others, there are limited options for formatting, no optical character recognition for pulling text from scanned images and no IFTTT or Zapier recipes to do things like forward social media posts to a notebook.
Zoho Notebook Plans
Like Google Keep, Zoho Notebook is completely free. You can create unlimited notebooks and unlimited notes without ever having to worry about buying more gigabytes in the cloud or even running into monthly bandwidth limits like you will with Evernote.
The only limits you need to worry about are the 10,000 character cap for notes and a 5GB maximum file size for attachments. The absence of limits and cost make Zoho Notebook ideal for those looking for a note-taking app with notebook support and limited finances available.
- Completely free
- Unlimited notes
- Creative design
- No desktop client
- 10,000 character limit
- No note tagging
- Limited formatting options
Number 5: Box Notes
- Best EFSS Tool with Notes App
For business users with a need to take and distribute meeting notes, project notes and other memos easily, a simple notes app makes sense. The easiest way to do this would be through integration with a cloud storage solution. Unfortunately, not many of our best EFSS (enterprise sync and share) picks offer a built-in tool to do this.
OneDrive has OneNote, but it’s too much for simple memos. Dropbox and Box are the two services that probably work best for this need, with Dropbox having its Dropbox Paper tool, and Box having Box Notes. Of the two, we decided Box Notes is the slightly better app, which is why we’re making it our fifth and final note-taking app recommendation.
Individual notes created using Box Notes can be massive, with recommended (but not actual) limits of 200 pages of text and 500,000 characters. However, as we discuss in our Box Notes review, the absence of organization features like notebooks and note tags, as well as no text-formatting options, make it a poor choice for compiling large amounts of research.
At the same time, the note-taking app has a simple design and share features that make it good for day-to-day office work. Coworkers can be granted access to notes via their email address or you can generate a shareable link pointing to the note, and up to 20 people can edit the same note simultaneously.
To manage that amount of collaboration, Box Notes creates a new note version every 30 seconds so you can rollback unwanted changes. An admin console also lets you track viewed, edited and deleted notes.
Box Notes Plans
Box Notes comes free with Box cloud storage. If you’re looking for personal cloud storage option, there’s a 10GB free plan you can use. After that, however, the cost-storage-ratio doesn’t make much sense for home use: $11 per month for a mere 100GB of storage.
For business users, the pricetag is more agreeable. Each plan requires a minimum of three users, but unlimited cloud storage for $15 a month is nothing to sneeze at.
In fact, we rank Box among the best unlimited cloud storage solutions overall. That said, if the notes tool doesn’t mean much to you, we do think Egnyte Connect is a better deal and more capable EFSS tool, overall. Read our Egnyte Connect review to find out why.
- Free 10GB of Box storage
- Desktop application
- Write collaborative notes
- No notebooks
- No note tags
- No drawing tools
- Limited text formatting
There are a handful of other note-taking apps available. However, no other service we’ve reviewed really warrants mention as being better than Evernote, OneDrive, Google Keep, Zoho Notebook or Box Notes for any particular use case.
While naming Evernote the best note-taking app available isn’t exactly original, when it comes to no-nonsense digital notebooks, only OneNote has really emerged as a challenger worthy of the oft-claimed “Evernote Killer” status. Zoho Notebook doesn’t have nearly enough features for its marketing department to convincingly make that claim (even though they do make it), while Google Keep does it’s own thing.
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On a final note, no matter which notebook you go with, if you’re typing away over a public WiFi network, be sure and stay safe with a VPN, especially if you use any of these services to keep personal information. We have a best VPN guide with plenty of good options, as well as a privacy guide for journalists.
Feel free to drop us a note of your own in the comments below, and thanks for reading.