How to choose the right note-taking app

Reading time: 12 minutes

The note-taking tools market is projected to reach $1.35B by 2026. The good thing is: there is a note-taking app for everyone. The not-so-great thing: with a new note-taking app popping up every single week, it can be hard to decide which one is the best for your use case.

How to choose the right note-taking app: architect, gardener, or librarian

Before we dive into the pros and cons of the best note-taking apps on the market, it is important to remember that a tool is what you make of it. There is no universally perfect note-taking app, and no note-taking app will do the work for you.

Furthermore, choosing a note-taking app doesn’t have to be a black-and-white type of process. It is likely your use case is at the intersection of several apps, and that you may need to use two or more of them in combination to achieve your goals. However, it’s better to make a conscious effort to avoid building a Frankeinstein’s monster of a productivity system. When it comes to taking notes and turning them into creative output, simpler is often better.

Finally, try to not keep on switching note-taking apps too often. The shiny toy syndrome is real, and the desire to always use the “latest and greatest” will end up wasting lots of your time. The more you invest in your note-taking tool, the more value you will get out of it. So, whichever tool you choose, stick with it for a little while before deciding to try something new.

You probably have read several articles that compare note-taking tools in terms of features, with tables showing you which ones offer which functionalities. In this guide, we will take a slightly different approach. Because features don’t mean anything when considered in a vacuum, we are going to look at the benefits of certain note-taking apps based on your own note-taking style.

G.R.R. Martin, the author of A Song of Ice and Fire (better known by the title of its first book, Game of Thrones), said:

“I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.”

Similarly, there are three main note-taking styles:

  • The architect. They enjoy planning, designing processes and frameworks, and need a note-taking tool that allows them to easily structure their ideas.
  • The gardener. They enjoy exploring, connecting various thoughts together, and need a note-taking tool that allows them to easily grow their ideas.
  • The librarian. They enjoy collecting, building a catalogue of resources, and need a note-taking tool that allows them to easily retrieve their ideas.

Again, it is likely that you don’t fall under one single category, and different projects will require different approaches to growing, structuring, and retrieving your ideas. However, this metaphor is immensely helpful in deciding which note-taking app is likely to work best with your own thinking style.

Categories

Disclaimer: there are too many note-taking apps on the market to list them all in this guide. However, with 16 alternatives listed below, you should have enough options to find the right solution for you.

Note-taking apps for architects

“All architecture is shelter, all great architecture is the design of space that contains, cuddles, exalts, or stimulates the persons in that space,” once said American architect Philip Johnson.

Architectural note-taking apps rely on a hierarchical structure based on pages and categories. As such, they require a bit of planning to decide whether an idea deserves its own category, its own page, or just its own block of content.

But once you have made the effort to go through that decision-making and design process, you can keep on re-using your templates for different workflows, which can be great for productivity.

  • Notion. Probably the most popular option for architects, Notion is a powerful note-taking app that allows users to turn pages into extremely elaborate tools. Thanks to tables and toggles, you could build a calendar, a kanban board, a spreadsheet to track your tasks, and more. As Khe Hy puts it: “Notion is like a giant set of legos – by putting the various components together, you can create a simple tree house or the Eiffel Tower.”
  • Coda. Is it a document? Is it a spreadsheet? Coda allows you to program documents so you can manage every aspect of your workflow. Built on templates and blocks, it not only allows you to take notes, but also pull data from other apps so you can make the most of your notes.
  • Tettra. With categories, tables, and templates, Tettra aims to let you centralise and organise your knowledge. You can also automate some of your note-taking workflows thanks to the integrations with other apps.

Beware that these note-taking apps can have a steep learning curve. If your goal is just to take notes so you can build a library to look back at whenever you need to retrieve an idea, you may not need all the bells and whistles.

Note-taking apps for gardeners

A few key features make these apps for gardeners different from the more structured ones. Instead of having a template-first approach, they are more akin to the process of simultaneously exploring and building a map in a video game.

Non-linear, these apps offer bi-directional linking, allowing you to not only see what a note links to, but what notes link back to it. Some let you access both explicit and implicit links, so you can discover connections between ideas that you may have not made yourself. Some even have a visual knowledge graph, so you can literally explore a map of your ideas.

  • Roam Research. Largely responsible for the revival of non-linear note-taking apps, Roam is a (currently) web-based non-linear note-taking app, featuring bi-directional links, paragraph-level connections, transclusion, and a knowledge graph. Not everyone is a fan of the UI, but it doesn’t really matter, since you can customise Roam to make it look exactly like you want. Read my beginner’s guide so you can get started. For advanced users, you can use shortcuts, build your own algorithms for thoughts, and expand its capabilities with browser extensions. See all my articles about Roam.
  • Obsidian. If you would rather keep your notes locally on your computer, Obsidian works on top of a local folder of plain text Markdown files. It also features bi-directional links and a knowledge graph. The use of panes that can be pinned makes it easy to work on many notes at a glance. And if you need more features, Obsidian is extensible with many plugins, including page preview, custom CSS, and even an audio recorder.
  • TiddlyWiki. Launched in 2004, this is the grandfather of non-linear note-taking apps! It’s free, open-source, and self-hosted. What makes TiddlyWiki so powerful is meta-programming: a new note can modify the behaviour of TiddlyWiki itself. It means that TiddlyWiki can practically do whatever you want. But with great power comes great responsibility, and some of the most advanced features require some technical knowledge. See my guide to get started with TiddlyWiki.
  • RemNote. Extremely flexible and built at MIT, RemNote is great for students. Not only does it offer bi-directional links and a block-based editor, it lets you easily create flashcards from your notes. If space-repetition is a key part of your workflow, this is a great note-taking app to consider.
  • Milanote. A bit different from the previous options, Milanote is great for visual gardeners. It lets you manually create links between your notes, design visual maps, and organise notes with an intuitive drag-and-drop interface.

Both Dynalist and Workflowy have announced they will implement bi-directional linking this year. When that happens, they may also be good options for gardeners. If you want to have a look at open-source options for gardeners, check out my list of alternatives.

Note-taking apps for librarians

Note-taking apps do not have to be more than a place to store and retrieve information you care about. In the words of American writer Sidney Sheldon: “Libraries store the energy that fuels the imagination.”

Web clipping, rich formatting, file attachment, tagging, and a way to filter your notes is all you need to quickly save and access what you need, whether it’s some book notes, meeting notes, or a recipe. These apps allow you to do just that.

  • Evernote. Also launched in 2004 (same year as TiddlyWiki), Evernote has all of the features you need to capture content and search your notes. It lets you save written and audio notes, screenshots, and other files such as PDFs. You can link and tag your content for easier retrieval, and create folders to better organise your notes. It syncs seamlessly across devices, so you can take notes whenever you need to.
  • Bear. If you are deep in the Apple ecosystem, Bear is a beautiful note-taking app for iPhone, iPad, and Mac. It aims to give you the most enjoyable note-taking experience possible, with dark mode, gorgeous themes, and rich previews. Thanks to its “focus mode”, Bear is also great for writing longer essays. You can link, tag, and organise your notes in folders for easy retrieval.
  • OneNote. Built by Microsoft, OneNote is a great way to take notes, whether you want to write them or draw them. In addition to the usual features such as clipping, tagging, and highlighting your notes, the “ink” feature lets you draw annotations using a stylus or your finger.

Of course, you can also use Dropbox Paper or Google Docs to take, organise, and retrieve your notes, but it may be worth investing in an app that is specifically designed for taking notes.

Note-taking apps for quick capture

Not everyone heavily relies on note-taking to capture, organise, and retrieve their thoughts. If you just need a lightweight solution for those lightbulb moments or to put together a quick to-do list, you can also use a quick capture note-taking app. In fact, many people use a quick capture app in addition to a fully-fledged note-taking tool.

  • Apple Notes. If you are an iPhone, iPad or Mac user, Apple Notes is perfect to jot down quick thoughts, or save images, web links, and scanned documents. It also lets you create checklists, handwritten notes, and sketches.
  • Google Keep. For Android users, Google Keep does pretty much the same, including drawing, sketching, and saving images. You can access it on desktop whether you use a PC or a Mac, and it lets you easily transfer notes to Google Docs.
  • Simplenote. A lightweight app that works across any device and does what it says on the tin: taking notes. Its killer feature is the ability to take notes in Markdown, so you can easily export them to any Markdown-based writing tool you may be using.
  • Zoho Notebook. Another cross-device app with a focus on mobile which allows you to quickly save and organise your notes, including audio files, check lists, files, sketches, and more. The app features nice touches such as custom illustrations for each notebook.

The challenge with these apps is that many people end up building a mind backyard instead of a mind garden. Which is fine if your goal is just to dump some thoughts for immediate use. But if you want to go from collector to creator—whether you are an architect, a gardener, or a librarian—it may be helpful to consider a note-taking app from the previous categories.

Choosing the right app

There are two ways you can choose your note-taking app: based on your note-taking style, or based on your use case. We already covered the various note-taking styles and corresponding apps, but sometimes you may need to use a combination of apps to achieve a particular goal.

Need to store a large amount of mostly static information in order to easily retrieve it later? A library may be appropriate. For instance, Nat Eliason has stored more than 200 book notes in Evernote over the years. Whenever he needs some inspiration, he can go back and search through these book notes with ease.

Need to brainstorm new ideas? In this case, you may want to use an app for gardeners, which is better for free thinking and creative work. These note-taking apps are particularly recommended for writers and researchers, where the goal is not to retrieve ideas, but to generate ideas. That’s why I personally use Roam as my primary note-taking tool.

Need to organise a large project and manage your productivity? You may need some structured frameworks and workflows, which may be easier to put in place with a note-taking app for architects. Similarly, reusable templates can be incredibly helpful for collaborative work with many moving parts. Tiago Forte is a big fan of Evernote, but he also uses Notion to track key tasks and deliverables when working with his assistant.

As you can see, there is no one-size-fits-all note-taking app out there, and that’s probably a good thing. It means you get to pick and choose the tools that make the most sense for your specific goals.

Again, just make sure to pick a couple of apps at most, and to stick with them for long enough so you don’t waste too much time re-designing your workflow every time you switch. Taking notes is a powerful habit to build; one that can dramatically increase your productivity and your creativity. Choose your weapon, and don’t wait for too long to get started.

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