Apple Pencil first and second-generation

As of Apple's launch of the iPad Air 3 and the iPad mini 5, all new model iPad devices support Apple Pencil. That's the 9.7-inch iPad, iPad Air, iPad Pro, and iPad mini. Whether you need to take handwritten notes, annotate documents, record audio, create sports playbooks, and more, the App Store has a number of fantastic apps for note-taking. Here isç the cream of the crop based on our extensive testing.

Starting out? Try The Notes app

Notes app on iPad Pro with Apple Pencil

The iPad's default Notes app is perfectly suited for use with Apple Pencil. It has text recognition search, inline scanning and annotation, and sketching or handwriting support. With Apple Pencil 2, you can assign the double-tap tool to either erase or the last tool used. It has more limited features than the best third-party notes app — you can't sync your notes anywhere but iCloud, and there's no easy way to link various notes together — but if you're just jotting down a quick note or sketching an idea, the Notes app is that perfect quick-hit app. Sort of like having a napkin with you at all times.

Read more about the Notes app

Notability is the best for general note-taking

Notability

Notability is a fan favorite of many note-taking aficionados, including me. It has an excellent interface full of tools for handwriting, drawing, annotating PDFs, making shapes, highlighting, moving objects around, adding audio, integrating photos and web clips, and more. If you want your note-taking experience to feel more real, you can choose from a number of different paper styles, including grids, which is very useful for vector line drawing. You can share your notebooks to just about every major service and print them, along with importing notebooks from Dropbox, Google Drive, Box, or a WebDAV service. Notability also offers iCloud sync support and a companion Mac app.

Because it's so feature-rich, it can seem a little intimidating to newcomers. Luckily, Notability has a really nice tutorial that guides you through its features when you first open it.

It also works flawlessly with the Apple Pencil — whether you're writing, sketching, or drawing shapes. It's an excellent, well-designed app if you want a little bit more power than what the default Notes app provides.

$9.99 - Download now

For advanced note-taking, try GoodNotes

GoodNotes

GoodNotes is for the power-using note-taker. It is packed to the brim with a robust list of pro features. I'd never heard of the app until developer Chris Liscio pointed it out, and I'm so happy he did.

For starters, GoodNotes offers a truly massive selection of paper types for its digital notebooks, including lined, graph, design, and music notation; there are even advanced options that let you upload custom templates. Better still, most templates are available in specific paper sizes (if you're working for print). GoodNotes also offers a ton of different cover styles and choices, all of which can be written upon and further designed.

Like the other apps in this roundup, GoodNotes supports writing and drawing with the Apple Pencil — along with a number of third-party stylus options — using two different digital writing tools: a digital fountain or ball pen in a preset or custom color spectrum.

GoodNotes also has built-in handwriting search recognition and text conversion (done via MyScript's engine, which also powers MyScript Nebo).

Note: As friend-of-iMore Jason Snell has pointed out, apps like GoodNotes do this largely by guessing your words. You might get a hit for "app" after writing the word, but searching for "ape" might bring you to the same page.

If you're looking for a more extensive option than Notability, GoodNotes is a feature-rich app well worth the download.

$7.99 - Download now

For Office users, OneNote is great

OneNote

Microsoft's note app is more of a note storing receptacle than a full-featured note-taking app. That being said, it's got plenty of useful features for iPad owners with an Office 365 subscription. Even if you don't you can import and edit documents for free. You just need a Microsoft or Skype account. With OneNote, you can share links to your notebooks to the public, email a PDF of your notebook to others, and annotate documents with your Apple Pencil. In a single note, you can sketch an idea, add photos and audio, type notes, create calendars, and more. It's similar to Evernote but is designed to work seamlessly with Office 365.

Free - Download now

PDF Expert is the king of PDF annotation and markup

PDF Expert

Though you can quickly highlight, edit, and markup PDFs on your iPad using the built-in Markup extension, if you regularly need to annotate PDF files, you should consider PDF Expert instead. It's got a list of comprehensive markup tools to make things easier for you. You can open up PDFs from iCloud or pretty much any other online service with the PDF Expert app, fill out forms, and sign documents; you can also work with items with a digital pen, shape tool, underline, strike-thru, or highlighter option, as well as create "stamps" for often-used wording. All of these changes, after saved, are not only fully editable in PDF Expert, but in apps like Adobe Acrobat and Preview — so you can move from Mac to PC and back again with your iPad.

PDF Expert also lets you edit the structure of PDFs themselves: You can rearrange pages, delete sections, extract parts of the PDF, and even add new blank pages to your documents. Once you're finished with a PDF document, you can even zip it (or multiple documents) with PDF Expert's built-in compressor, and password-protect crucial documents.

Should you want to further tinker with your PDFs, Expert offers a Pro upgrade in-app that allows you to physically edit the text, images, and links inside a PDF, as well as redact information.

$9.99 - Download now

If you need handwriting recognition, get MyScript Nebo

MyScript Nebo

Forget mere note-taking: If you want your scribbles converted to text, you're going to need an app that supports handwriting conversion. We've come a long way from the Newton and egg freckles, but the apps available for such things are still few and far between. Apps like Notes and GoodNotes scan your text for search purposes, but don't offer outright handwriting recognition. In contrast, there are apps like MyScript Nebo, which offers full handwriting-to-text conversion.

MyScript has been a big name in handwriting recognition for years (including a handwriting recognition keyboard), but the Nebo app is the company's first attempt at an app designed for Apple Pencil and iPad Pro, and it's excellent. It's simple enough to use and offers a silky-smooth digital pen tool in multiple colors. In addition, users can add photographic and video content, diagrams, and equations alongside handwriting or digital text.

Nebo's notebooks can be converted a paragraph at a time or as a full notebook; those conversions are entirely non-destructive, too, so you can preserve the handwriting if the type conversion isn't perfect. You can also export notebooks as text, HTML, PDF, or Word documents. Sync is available through MyScript's proprietary service, as well as iCloud, Google Drive, Dropbox.

$7.99 - Download now

Other apps we tested

Here are some other great note-taking apps that don't necessarily fit this list, but are still worth mentioning in their own right.

  • Evernote, Free with in-app subscription: Like Microsoft's OneNote, Evernote is an incredible import repository for organizing a ton of data, notes, documents, and sketches. But to take full advantage of its sync capabilities, PDF annotation, and more, you need a monthly subscription. Evernote is great if you need all the features a subscription provides, but not quite worth jumping in for the free version.
  • LiquidText, Free with in-app purchases: LiquidText is a brilliant concept for organizing and annotating PDFs but it's a little too specialized to be considered equal to PDF Expert.
  • Noteshelf, $13.99: This app combines many great features from Notability and GoodNotes, including custom page templates and audio recordings, but the writing tool isn't quite as good.
  • Notes Plus, $9.99: Notes Plus is a strong entry in the handwriting recognition category with support for Apple Pencil — but it's a little clunkier in the looks department, with iffy palm rejection.
  • Whink, $4.99: Whink is a great entry-level handwriting app, and it's still quite nice, offering nice pen tools, audio and photo integration, and basic document annotation. But the stock Notes app is a better overall recommendation for most users.

Your favorites?

These note-taking apps are the perfect fit for iPad and Apple Pencil users. They're not the only ones in the App Store, though. Do you have a favorite you'd like to see on this list? Put them in the comments!

Updated April 2019: Updated for Apple Pencil 2 and support for iPad Air 3 and iPad mini 5.

Serenity Caldwell contributed to an earlier version of this guide.

Drawing on iPad: The ultimate guide

Main

This post may contain affiliate links. See our disclosure policy for more details.