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The best iPad note taking apps to use with stylus pens

With recent reports suggesting that over 75 percent of doctors use smartphones and tablets at work, it is important to ensure that these healthcare professionals are using their new tools efficiently.

We have previously evaluated a range of iPad stylus apps but here we focus on a more relevant sector – Note Taking apps.

The aim of this article is to evaluate the range of apps available for note-taking purposes and evaluate them to find out which is the most suitable for healthcare professionals. It is imagined that these apps will be used in the following range of situations:

  • Annotating lecture notes using a stylus — especially during Grand Rounds or Journal Club
  • Marking up PDF files
  • Taking patient notes at the bedside
  • Taking notes/instructions from senior physicians

In order to evaluate an apps efficacy, we need to define the key roles and functions that a note-taking app must accomplish. These are open to interpretation, however we have listed a number of features that we believe are essential:

  • App must be able to receive input via a stylus and the ‘zoom’ method
  • Ability to import/export files in PDF format (other formats desirable but not essential)

Non-essential features that we’d like to see in a Note-Taking app:

  • Ability to handle templates
  • Cloud storage service support such as Dropbox
  • Ability to add additional media such as images, audio etc
  • Security features such as a password/passcode lock

A number of really great note-taking apps have come onto the App Store since we last reviewed a range of iPad stylus apps. We are specifically focusing on apps that have a ‘zoom’ mode as this is considered an essential feature. To quote from our original review of Stylus Apps for the iPad:

“The Zoom Mode is a feature that allows the user to write in a zoomed-in box that then shrinks down the text, leading to the overall result of something much more similar to the fine tip of a pen. To better understand this concept, it’s like shrinking down the writing of a sharpie on a posterboard to the size of a pen on a lined piece of paper. Since you are writing in a “zoomed area”, even though you are writing with a blunt-tipped stylus or finger, the output will still be as fine as a pen.”

The apps that will be considered are (in no particular order):

  1. Notes Plus
  2. UPad
  3. Note Taker HD
  4. Noteshelf
  5. GoodNotes

Notable mentions also go to:

  1. iAnnotate PDF
  2. Keynote
  3. GoodReader
  4. PDF Expert

Below is a quick summary of each apps major strengths and weaknesses. In order to test the ease of use and functionality of each app, a complex patient note was created and written using each app. A sample lecture was annotated separately using each app in order to compare and contrast the different apps. One of the issues encountered whilst annotating lectures is the difficulty of managing Powerpoint files. All of the apps discussed here work best with Portable Document Files (PDF) rather than .ppt(x).

There are two ways around this; first, powerpoint lectures are converted to PDF using a desktop computer in advance of each lecture (difficult if you are a busy doctor). Alternatively, there are a number of apps that will convert office documents to PDFs on the iPad. In my experience most of these apps perform very poorly at this task and do not format the resulting PDFs particularly well. The most impressive PDF converter app I have encountered (and use regularly) is Office to PDF although it should be noted that this app does perform the file conversion on an off-site server so caution should be taken with sensitive documents.


Tom Lewis


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26 Responses to The best iPad note taking apps to use with stylus pens

  1. February 17, 2012 at 4:58 pm #

    Noteshelf actually does have text input in the latest version. I heavily use this app on ward rounds and at the bed side

    • aldaroma April 1, 2012 at 4:08 pm #

      Hi good morning; can u use on Noteshelf a preprepared module ? How do you use on ward rounds ; I work in Italy , in L’aquila ; we are going an up date in the use of Ipad in the ICU. Can you give us please some suggestions? tx A.D tx a lot

  2. Ryan February 19, 2012 at 9:15 am #

    Your article is outdated. Notes Plus received a major update over one month ago. It allows for importation and annotation of PDFs as well as provides an in-app web browser with clipping functions.

  3. justin February 19, 2012 at 11:01 am #

    Have you tried Notability. This app has all of the functions you are looking for in combination with an intuitive interface.

  4. dylan February 19, 2012 at 8:54 pm #

    FYI goodreader just got a zoom function. So now it meets your criteria. I’d call it #1 by a landslide.

  5. Tom Lewis | Editor February 20, 2012 at 12:15 pm #

    Hi everyone, as some commentators have noted, parts of this article are out of date. We are currently looking through the article and updating where possible. Thank you for your understanding and I shall update you all soon.



    • KW March 22, 2012 at 2:33 am #

      I’m really looking forward to the update since I’m getting an ipad3. That’s great.

  6. Carlos February 24, 2012 at 9:43 pm #

    What about Penultimate?

  7. Imari Queen February 28, 2012 at 7:45 am #

    A second vote for Notability. I purchased the app to be able to seamlessly switch back and forth in real-time from handwriting to typing notes, to easily sketch ideas, markup imported pdf’s, annotate images from the iPad’s photo library, to capture images with the iPad camera and paste into the notes. Notability allows me to do all of the aforementioned and simultaneously capture voice recordings. I can use Dropbox and it also supports templates. I looked into this app after coming across it on the Stanford Med eStudent iPad webpage. The app is so simple to use my 10 year old uses it for her homework instead of paper.

  8. daverph March 26, 2012 at 11:07 am #

    Thanks for the comprehensive review. I have used Notes Plus and Note Taker HD in the past, but now find that I use Notability almost exclusively. I’d be interested to see how it compares with the others when you do your next review.

  9. Peter March 28, 2012 at 12:22 am #

    thanks for the tip on Notability. works and looks great on the iPad 3. simple and flawless.

  10. Richard March 29, 2012 at 1:41 am #

    Notability really delivers! Based on some comments of the apps in the post here, I bought it and tested it out. I must have bought 5-4 different apps for my free note taking needs and somethins is always missing. Hence my continued search. I am glad to announce my search is finally over and Notability gets my 5-stars vote in all departments! Thanks heaps!

  11. Marcus April 14, 2012 at 6:30 am #

    In addition to Notability, I just found Pencilicious — it has great organization and more flexibility to modify your strokes. So far I prefer it for anything where I need to tweak later.

  12. Edwin Hiatt June 11, 2012 at 8:40 am #

    Yes, as stated by others, definitely take a look at Notability. I have tried several others. Notability is the best, and it just keeps getting better. Also, keep your eye on Penultimate. Lacks many features that Notability has, including zoom feature, so now I use it mostly for a quick note or diagram; recently purchased by Evernote, however, and maybe good things will happen.

  13. RK July 5, 2012 at 9:28 am #


    I have purchased notes plus but find the stylus input irritatingly slow. Is that an issue that everyone faces or is it because of the quality of stylus ?


  14. Jack Reidy July 11, 2012 at 2:26 pm #

    As a lefty, the ability to have a palm rest and reversed controls is a deal killer for note taking apps. I’ve been using Note Taker HD for several months, but I find it overly complex. An app doesn’t have to be a kitchen sink of all capabilities to be useful. Notr Taker HD can do a ton of stuff, but I don’t find the interface at all intuitive.

    Also, and not the fault of the app, I keep accidentally dragging down the notifications bar on the iPad. Annoying as hell and everything to do with the usual left hander dragging the hand across the top of the screen. I blame Apple, and the good Sisters of Charity for not teaching me to write correctly in Catholic grade school. 😉

    I’ve been trying Notability for a week or so, and I’m impressed. Good left handed tools, an easy interface to learn, Dropbox connectivity (an indispensable app for the iPad…) and good speed and responsiveness.

    The good reviews on this website for both apps are deserved. But I believe I’ll be taking meeting notes in Notability moving forward. BTW, it’s on sale right now for 99 cents in the App Store.

    A comment on this website. I’m not in the medical field, aside from how commercial real estate touches upon medical needs. This is an excellent website for reviews on apps useful across a broad spectrum of uses in the professional and business fields. Through, even handed reviews on products useful for all. I recommend this site to others all the time.

  15. Nivola August 2, 2012 at 1:03 pm #

    My essential iPad app for business is Beesy. It’s a great tool for my everyday life at work. help to sort out and don’t forget a thing on my differents projects. Very useful also in meeting with I can take note and send minutes at the end of the meeting by mail very quickly and easily.

  16. DrJo August 21, 2012 at 4:21 pm #

    I have tried and researched a few apps, and I almost exclusively use Notability and Penultimate. Notability is intuitive and functional and I use it for conferences, lectures, division meetings, etc while Penultimate is my favourite for jotting personal notes and casual recordkeeping. I haven’t tried all of the applications above though so can’t draw a direct comparison.

    For notetaking on inpatients or consult patients, I would really love an app that allowed you to enter a patient’s basic ID so that you could have a list-at-a-glance of all your active patients, yet link to more detailed info on each one with a touch of the screen. Security would also of course be paramount. Some apps exist but the ones I have found are usually either “scut notes” for medical students or residents or else apps to keep track of patients for billing purposes as opposed to being useful running logs for active patient care. There are a good many patient-oriented personal health records too, which is great but again not helpful for me. If you know of any great apps for this purpose, a review of those would fantastic!

  17. Jon Buckle August 25, 2012 at 5:09 am #

    Have tried about five and settled on Note taker HD for the following reasons.
    1. Folder and file structure. Unlimited ability to create network of folders to organize date.
    2. Zoom function is amazing. Auto advance along a line is brilliant. Return at end of line works well.
    3. Inserting template pages is easy and looks like the real thing.
    4. Duplication of templates or files is quick and easy.
    5. Taking photos and adding annotation works well.
    Finally much better than any othe note app I have tried. The best $5 dollars I have ever spent.

  18. Karen November 28, 2012 at 1:55 pm #

    I am a psychologist and have been exploring using the ipad for sessions, etc. How do you deal with security and HIPPA compliance using the IPAD? What if your ipad is lost or stollen? I know you can use find your iphone to erase but, do you need to encrypt? Can any of these applications accomplish that?

  19. Tina December 26, 2012 at 9:01 am #

    NoteLedge can encrypt notes files, recently lots of enhanced features are available in updated version, such as built-in browser, insert video, audio and tables…

  20. Frank Mancuso March 22, 2013 at 9:58 am #

    I discontinued using Upad after legal advice suggested, and I believe HIPPA laws require, I keep confidential notes in an encrypted file only. Lawsuites are rising and being lost to professionals who have had their unencrypted, confidential information stolen. Do any of these notetaking apps provide encryption?

    • Iltifat Husain, MD March 22, 2013 at 12:37 pm #

      You shouldn’t be storing any patient info on an unsecured device. What lawsuits are you talking about though? I’m not aware of any?

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