Steve Jobs might not have been a fan of the stylus, but for many iPad users it's become an indispensable tool for note-taking, thanks to excellent handwriting apps like Noteshelf, Remarks, and Notability. At their core they all offer a big piece of digital paper for you to scribble, draw, scrawl, annotate, mock up, sketch out, or just plain write down your thoughts, ideas, and projects. Whether you're in a corporate brainstorming session, a student/teacher conference, or family meeting, they're your virtual whiteboard, sheet of lined or graph paper, scrapbook, and art pad all rolled into one. Yet each has its own unique strengths and weaknesses, and each excels in different aspects of the same, broad purpose. So the question becomes, which one is best for you?
When it comes to looks, Noteshelf's beautiful design blows both Remarks and Notability out of the water. The main screen displays each of your notes like a notebook and displays them nicely on a bookshelf similar to iBooks. Noteshelf also has the greatest selection of paper and pen color and sizes. There is also a Noteshelf store where you can buy more paper and book cover designs. Making Noteshelf visually appealing was clearly a priority on the developers' list.
All three apps allow you to organize your notes into folders, but do so differently. Noteshelf has separate bookshelves for groups of notes, Remarks displays each folder like it's own notebook, and Notability has more of a file system take on grouping notes. All of them are equally functional, but Noteshelf's is the most visually appealing.
With Notability, you can also add categories as a way to further organize your folders.
One feature that Noteshelf does not offer is importing and annotating PDFs. Both Remarks and Notability do, however. To import a PDF, you must browse to the PDF from somewhere else -- like Dropbox or email -- activate the "open in" option and select Remarks or Notability from the list of choices. Once opened, the PDF works like any other note that you have in the app.
With Notability, you can also import from Dropbox, iDisk, or WebDave directly from the app.
A unique feature to Notability is the ability add audio recordings to your notes. Neither Remarks or Noteshelf offer this functionality. Unfortunately, you can't indicate which area of the notes your recording is applicable to, but this feature will still be welcomed by many.
Remarks and Notability have the "open in" feature enabled, allowing you to quickly open your notes in another other application. It is a little buried in Notability and Noteshelf does not offer this functionality at all.
For Notability, the destination options are Dropbox, email, "Open in", WebDAV, iDisk, iTunes, and print.
With Remarks, you can email, print, or "open in" another application (including Dropbox).
Noteshelf allows you to export to email, iTunes, Dropbox, Evernote, your iPad album, or printer. Noteshelf is also the only app of the three that lets you share just individual pages from a note. You can also choose to quickly share the page you are editing to email, Twitter, or Facebook.
Just like different pens and writing utensils can make your handwriting look better or worse, different handwriting apps can have different impacts on the look of your handwriting. Of the three, Noteshelf is my favorite.
Noteshelf and Notability actually have a way of improving the look of your handwriting with smooth, natural looking strokes. The beginning and end of each stroke gets slightly thicker and mimics the way a nice pen would write. How thin your stokes appear is dependent on how fast you write, slower strokes are thicker and faster strokes are thinner. Notability uses this technique more drastically than Noteshelf. In my opinion, Noteshelf's implementation is better and more natural.
Remarks doesn't have bad handwriting, it's just not as good as Noteshelf and Notability. The strokes have a fixed width regardless of how quickly you write. The strokes are nice and smooth, though, so your handwriting does look nice, just not as nice as it does with Noteshelf and Notability.
When it comes to design and features such as colors, highlighters, and pen sizes, Noteshelf is the clear winner. If you're looking for PDF annotation, however, you'll probably want to scratch Noteshelf off your list.
Between Remarks and Notability, I think Notability is the better option primarily because of the handwriting. But Notability's UI isn't anything to brag about, and I'm a sucker for well designed, beautiful UI's. Remarks has a nicer, more intuitive design, but is lacking in other features like pen sizes and highlighters.
If audio notes is something you need, Notability is the way to go. The other big thing that Notability has going for it is the price. At just $0.99, Notability is a lot more affordable then both Noteshelf and Remarks.
Personally, I use Noteshelf and go back and forth between Remarks and Notability. As a teacher, I like to provide my students with solutions to quizzes and exams and use Notability or Remarks to get that done. I can't decide which of the two I prefer. Even though Remarks is doesn't have all the features (yet?), Notability's clunky UI gets on my nerves. For all my other note-taking needs, I use Noteshelf because of the larger selection of papers, notebooks, and pen colors.
If you have a preference between Noteshelf, Remarks, and Notability, let me know which and why.