Noteshelf vs. Remarks vs. Notability: iPad handwriting app shootout!

Noteshelf vs. Remarks vs. Notability: iPad handwriting app shootout!

The iPad has led to a renaissance of apps for handwritten note-taking, but with top contenders like Noteshelf, Remarks, and Notability to choose from, which one is best for you?

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?


noteshelf design

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.


noteshelf notability remarks folders

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.

PDF Annotation

remarks & notability pdf annotation

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.

Audio Notes

notability audio notes

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.


notability noteshelf remarks sharing

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.

Handwriting quality

Noteshelf vs. Remarks vs. Notability: iPad handwriting app shootout!

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.

Noteshelf - $5.99 - Download Now

Notability - $0.99 - Download Now

Remarks - $4.99 - Download Now

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Leanna Lofte

Former app and photography editor at iMore, Leanna has since moved on to other endeavors. Mother, wife, mathamagician, even though she no longer writes for iMore you can still follow her on Twitter @llofte.

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Reader comments

Noteshelf vs. Remarks vs. Notability: iPad handwriting app shootout!


One thing that I like about Remarks (updated with Dropbox Sync by the way) is that it saves the notes in PDF (with annotations). That means that you can at least partially edit your notes in every PDF annotation program.
Overall I like Noteshelf the most, because of it's superb handwriting engine. Remarks is pretty new and you can see that in terms of feature quantity and refinement. But it has lots of potential.

I prefer Notability as a college student. It also allows typing AND handwriting in a single document. The audio syncs with the typed text. I prefer the list type UI for easily finding a particular note. PDF import is also a must for me.

Can you also do a comparison with Notes Plus? One particular feature is which has the least amount of lag between the input and the text appearing on the screen. Thanks!

+1 for Notes Plus comparison... I have been using Notes Plus for a long time, but I'm thinking switching if something is better for my new iPad.

For handwriting alone, Noteshelf. It's a great app. But, when I switched to using my Bluetooth keyboard in class, I chose Notability, its typing is much better. Noteshelf's typing is limited and clunky in comparison. Notability's scissors tool is much better as well.

I only have Noteshelf and Notability and personally love Noteshelf because I feel like the handwriting is a lot more smoother. However, because there's no PDF importing, I use Notability a lot more. Hopefully PDF annotation will Come to Noteshelf.
I'm also curious about Note Plus. I know plenty of people who swear by it. Any personal opinions?

Leanna y u read my mind! Seriously I've been googling top notes/handwriting apps to transition my collage life from notebooks to apps, Is any of them optimized with the new iPad? A comment said that notability is the only one capable of hand-writing and typing at the same space?
BTW beside this, @Leanna give me one stylus review's post! I beg iMore. Specially one with the slimmest pointer available.

After a lot of research I went with Notes Plus. It's the most complete program and have a good enough handwriting design(visuaslly). The handwritten feature is far superior to any other I saw out there. And the developer are an update machine. Only that yet they don't have Reina compatibility, but oddly the drawings do, which is good. Love it.

PenUltimate is very nice and produces such nice looking handwriting. I decided to leave it out, though, because when it comes to features, Noteshelf blows it away.

I second uPad. It seems to have the features of Notability and more. Seems it has better organization and the hand writing recognition is second to none. Better than notes+,better than note taker HD and better than remarks. Who would really pay 5x more for a app that doesn't do PDF's???
To the author, you have some good articles that I enjoy but why leave out some MAJOR players, the one that started this back on the original iPad.

As a teacher, you should know the importance of proof-reading before posting.
Is it a typo in "Remarks also has the greatest selection of paper and pen color and sizes." that should read Noteshelf instead of Remarks?
Because if not, then I guess it must be a typo in "Remarks has a nicer, more intuitive design, but is lacking in other features like pen sizes and highlighters."
Also, "How thing your stokes appear are dependent on how fast you write" - I guess you mean "how thick your stroke is dependent"
Other than that, it's a okay review, but could really have done with including some of the many other options out there. Upad and Writepad are worth looking into, as it NotesPlus which has a great looking interface and pretty good handwriting recognition to convert your scribbles into text.

I do not understand why people have to criticize the reviewer. Keep your comments to yourself and move on somewhere else.

Despite proof reading it at least 3 times, I still have typos. Sorry. Yes. I meant Noteshelf the first time. "thing" was supposed to be "thin". Fixed.

You still haven't given a reason as to why apps with just as many options and some with more were left out. I would like to know why you are/have focused on just these 3. If anything, Noteshelf should've been left out of this list with its inability to handle PDFs.

Because I wanted to narrow it down to just a few. Believe it or not, I actually put a lot of time into this. Of the plain handwriting apps, I think Noteshelf is the best, so I chose to include it. Of the ones the support PDFs, I think Remarks and Notability are the best. I included Noteshelf because there might be others, like me, that really like the design of it and would want to use it and use another app to meet their PDF annotating needs.
If I include too many choices, readers may still feel overwhelmed and not be able to make a decision. I'm trying to narrow it down for people.

Thank you for a answer. I also never said you didn't put a lot of time into it. I know it takes time to review multle products and then write, rewrite, proofread , change mistakes and publish. All the while hopeing that none of the grammar nazis on here burn you at the stake for misspelling. Looking foward to the next photo article.

Yes I don't understand why people revs ant to have lame comments about the reviewer , teacher or no teacher we all have typo's , so relax yourself and just be grateful for the review ......thank you

I a Bamboo stylus. It's the one that I use as its more pen like than any of the others. It actually has some weight to it so it doesn't feel like you're holding a piece of plastic. The weight also helps with taking notes as it allows for a more natural writing motion vs one of constantly pressing down and trying to write.

Hi.. The bamboo stylus seems to write well. I just want to know if it works well with a screen protector? My iPad 2 has a matte anti-glare screen protector.. If that is worth mentioning.

Can anyone answer this question: Does the Bamboo stylus work well with a screen protector on? Thanks.

I use the Boxwave stylus that doubles as an actual pen. Its nice to have that feature. But the stylus head is large. It takes my already terrible handwriting and brings it up to serial killer levels!
I use Noteshelf and Remarks with it on the new ipad.

Have you tried Note Taker HD ? It works very well for me, with the possibility of typed text, photos, and PDF annotations. Only downside is that the interface is complex and not very appealing. But functionality is great!

I have used all of this app as well as note taker hd, upad and notesplus. I used noteshelf for some time because of the nice evernote integration but in the end I went back and stayed with notesplus. It just has way too many features and it seems like the developers are always keeping their mind open to user's suggestions as they have put more and more stuff people have asked for on each version.

I too would like to see a few more apps included. Thanks for the review. I just moved from Penultimate to Noteabilty. Penultimate has a better writing experience and is simple but I like Notabilities organization of notes and the default settings option. I save my notes to Evernote also and while notability does not have a specific feature, I can email my notes directly to Evernote.

Sharing can be a big deal for me. It looks like I can share Noteshelf to Dropbox, but corporate security requires me to store documents on a secure internal server. Are any of these tools configurable to allow me to drop my docs into a server of my choice?

I take tons of notes everyday on an old fashioned legal pad. Has anyone successfully transitioned all of their paper-based note-taking to an iPad? What has been your experience? Is digital note-taking really ready for "prime-time"? Are you able to find notes that you are looking for weeks or months later?

I've used Noteshelf and Notability and prefer the UI and handwriting in Noteshelf. Although, it would really polish things off if they add Dropbox syncing and PDF annotation. Audio recordings would be nice too but not essential for my needs.

Yes but it auto-syncing a notebook to Dropbox anytime I update it would make me feel more secure about not loosing notes!

Great article, Leanna! I have used all of the notetaking apps mentioned (plus a few more) and I too agree that Noteshelf is the best. My iPad has replaced my marble notebook and pen so the Noteshelf paradigm works perfectly for me. I also created a custom paper with my letterhead and contact information so I can scribble a quick note and e-mail it directly to a client from within Noteshelf. Backing up my Noteshelf notebooks to dropbox in PDF format lets me view the saved files everywhere: my PC desktop, my MacBook Pro, my iPhone, and in any browser anywhere.
I use the just|mobile alupen and it is wonderful.
I have written some blog posts about my use of Noteshelf (two were published in iBusiness magazine); you can check it out here.

Leona, if you are really "a sucker for well designed, beautiful UI’s" you would have fallen into a spontaneous immediate state of ecstasy if you tried Notes Plus. Not to mention its feature set.

I use Notability 9/10 over Noteshelf.  I'm a teacher as well and use it for meetings, grading, and planning. The features make it an amazing value and I love the new ha dweitong style. Thank you for doing this article so I don't have to even look at Remarks. At $4 more for the same thing, I'll stick with Notability. 
One other thing that makes Notability better than Noteshelf: Autosync. You picked on Notability's clunky UI, but I'll take it (which I don't think is clunky) over an app that doesn't sync easily any day. Oh, and don't forget the folder-level security: this is great when I have student grades in the app. 

Do these programs also convert handwritten notes to text? If not are there other good apps that would carry out this function?

I am also interested about Notes+ to be compared. I already have Penultimate and Notability, but don't know if worth taking Noteshelf or Notes+.

Hi. Thanks for the review! You said "As a teacher, I like to provide my students with solutions to quizzes and exams and use Notability or Remarks to get that done."
What is it about these two that you use to provide solutions to quizzes that Noteshelf doesn't do?

Excellent publish, very informative. I wonder why the opposite experts of this sector do not realize this. You should continue your writing. I'm confident, you have a huge readers' base already!|What's Taking place i am new to this, I stumbled upon this I've found It positively useful and it has helped me out loads. I'm hoping to give a contribution & assist other customers like its aided me. Good job.

As a real estate agent, I need to write / edit appointments timing frequently on my calender. Typing will be too slow.
Which app is best for my purpose. Plse recommend.

Dear Ms. Lofte,
Thank you sincerely for your excellent analysis and description of NoteShelf, Remarks and Notability.
I had been a user of NoteShelf but was stifled when needing to download a PDF for notation. Very frustrating!
After reading your article I decided to make the outrageous investment of $ 0.99 and try Notability.
What an excellent program.
It may lack some of the nice design features of NoteShelf, however, from a practical, straight-forward, functional perspective, Notability runs circles around NoteShelf!
In one day I downloaded four (4) PDF's for four (4) completely independent purposes and was able to successfully make extensive notes in an hour and a half group meeting, respond to a design proof - ON THE PROOF DOCUMENT ITSELF! - and sign and authorize two (2) separate government inquiries.
If that's not a high return on investment I have no idea how you define those terms!
Thank you!
J.R. Philbeck

Very good review, i first use remarks but after read this review, I tried Notability that is simple, very funtionality and with much more options in tipe font, size, color of letters, with remarks you have to choose one size and ripe of letter for all the text or make a different text box for every type, but here works like a text editor so it's can take hybrid notes with hand writing, tipping text drawing and adding fotos. Also you can export in PDF to Dropbox and safe all your notes in a folder there....and only 0,79€....I paid 4,99 for remarks!!!!! It is finally the app that I was looking for take notes in congress and classes, much more better than Evernote, remarks, one note and many other app in the app store. I haven't use noteShelf but for my needs and if You want to use the keyboard also, I think Notability is better. Thanks again!!

Excellent review! I started out using Noteshelf and absolutely loved it. I have tried numerous note taking apps to find the best one. Noteshelf was the most responsive I first discovered. But then I had the need to annotate a PDF so I went in search of an app to accommodate my needs and discovered Notability. Notability is just as responsive as Noteshelf as far as recognizing your handwriting. Yeah the interface is not as "pretty" as Noteshelf but it is just as functional. As far as sharing your notes with your PC they both have their pros and cons. I will continue to use both apps I like each of them for different reasons.
As far as the best stylus...I have to say that Adonit Jot is by far the ultimate!! It is truly like writing with a regular ink pen.
Thanks again for your review.

Wow. This review perfectly illustrates the vast difference between the way men and women think. It's 85% about the appearances of the apps, but as a guy, I want to know functionality. Does it OCR my handwritten notes? Does the audio recording time sync with handwritten notes? How does it handle drawings/sketches? Just how usable is it in the wild, in real use?

Also would like to have seen Notes Plus and Goodnotes…

What's funny is that beside the sexist, misogynistic thinking that lead you to that conclusion, I also found this review to lack any concrete recommendation on functionality. Notability, unfortunately, does not offer time sync recording with the notes. Neither Notability nor Noteshelf OCR your handwriting, and although they both do fine with drawings and sketches, they are no replacement for a dedicated drawing app. Noteshelf offers the ability to write using a pencil or a calligraphy pen that is more true to life, whereas Notability really only has a pen option.

As a college student, I find that Notability works better for me. Noteshelf may have a somewhat smoother interface, but that's no substitute for a well designed app for heavy note takers. Plus, I like the filing system in Notability. I categorize by semester and then by course, and I'm able to see it all at once.

As a person looking for function, I would have liked a review that focused on functionality rather than aesthetics. The fact that you're a man and I am a woman has nothing to do with that.

Again for Notes Plus. I used Notetaker HD for the longest time just because of its screen response. I hate it when the app can't keep up, or it's awkward to write somehow. Notes Plus semi recently added on-the-fly backup to Dropbox as SVG. Since I am on a Mac, that's fabulous.

I bought Noteshelf based on this and your other review, which called it the best note taking app for iPad, and while I agree that the UI is very beautiful, I'm disappointed with its functionality. I don't need PDF annotation or audio notes, but I do need to be able to take fast handwritten notes and I find Noteshelf's zoom box too sluggish and imprecise to be useful in a business situation. There also seems to be no way to make it stretch the full width of a page, wasting space on the sides, and if you write directly on the page the writing is too big. For anyone needing to take fast handwritten notes on the go, I would recommend Notability or FastFinga3. Sadly neither are as pretty as Noteshelf, but they're better suited for speed.

Nice article, the comparaison between these apps is interesting, but at the end of the article, I realise that it's to bad using 3 apps to meet your needs. Personally, I use Beesy for PDF annotation, but also because I don't need to design my files, the layout it's already integrate when I want to send an email. About the audio, Beesy offer the possibility to have a continuous monitoring audio and in one click, recording informations 1mn before and 1mn after allowing to not miss important informations

Interesting how people's preferences are so different, because I like Notability's UI way better than the other two. Not even close for me, but to each their own.