Your brain contains about 86 billion neurons, capable of giving you virtually unlimited memory capacity.
Yet, if you don't take good notes, you could easily forget what your professor had to say about Plato's Theory of...wait, what was it again?
Research shows that note-taking improves both memory and academic performance. Taking notes during a lecture forms new brain pathways, helping store information more firmly in long-term memory.
Studies have also found that the way you take notes can be just as important. Adding visual aids, being organized, and revising notes is key to absorbing the material. If you prefer a computer or mobile device, note-taking apps can make this process easy.
The best note-taking apps are easy to use and keep organized: just open up a document and start typing. They also come equipped with digital tools you can't get with pen and paper, such as webpage text extraction, search functions, and cloud storage. Some even allow you to take snapshots of handwritten notes and convert them into text.
Here, we highlight our favorite note-taking apps, outlining their features and limitations (based on other similar apps). This list features apps that follow several criteria, such as working without internet access, compatibility with different platforms, and low to no cost.
Criteria For Note-taking Apps
Zoho Notebook is a free notes app that works on both computers and mobile devices. Along with a booklet-and-cards visual theme, which you can customize, Zoho Notebook offers versatile ways to take notes.
The notes can hold text, voice memos, photos, documents, webpages, and scribblings (tablets and mobile devices only). It can also double as a daily journal with to-do lists, schedules, and reminders.
Android, iOS, Mac, Windows, Linux
- Tagging makes notes easy to search and organize
- Voice memos let you record lectures onto a note page
- Web clipper save webpages and research content for offline use
- Customizable covers for note pages
- Version history tool keeps previous note drafts intact
- Sorting is limited to alphabetical or chronological order
- No ink-to-text conversion tool for turning handwritten notes into text
- Collaboration/sharing limited to Zoho users only
Microsoft's OneNote is a free, cross-platform note-taking app with a visual style resembling a spiral notebook. Colored tabs split pages into sections and subsections, making organization simple and customizable.
OneNote offers a freeform user experience. You can put various content types — including text, images, videos, tables, and files — anywhere on the page. It also supports different input types, including keyboard, touch, handwriting, and stylus.
Web, Windows, Mac, Android, iOS
- Dictation tool converts voice memos into text
- Optical character recognition (OCR) extracts text from images
- Audio recordings during lectures synchronize with your notes
- Smart Lookup tool defines terms or explores topics
- Immersive Reader reads your notes aloud
- No tagging makes it difficult to track down specific notes
- Math notation feature limited to paying users
- No single-page sharing
Joplin is a free notes app that allows students to work in HTML or markdown. Joplin lets you customize its layout and move or split columns, folders, and notebooks wherever you like.
The notes, which are in markdown format, can be copied, tagged, and modified from the app or your text editor. Although Joplin doesn't offer cloud storage, it can synch with various cloud services, including Dropbox, OneDrive, and Nextcloud.
Windows, Linux, macOS, Android, iOS
- Web clipper captures full-page articles and webpages
- To-do function includes reminders, notifications, and interactive checkboxes
- Navigation interface includes search, recent notes, and organizable folders
- Math notation supports KaTeX typesetting
- Customizable layout allows toggling, movement, and sizing of various elements
- No collaboration on notes
- No email forwarding
- No OCR, sketching, or handwriting recognition
Milanote is a free/subscription-based note-taking app with an innovative user interface. Rather than being text-heavy, Milanote functions more like a scrapbook or pasteboard.
The notes — which can hold text, images, lines, color swatches, videos, and other formatting tools — can be arranged side by side to match stylistic patterns and connections. Milanote also allows real-time collaboration, which means friends or classmates can edit and comment on your notes.
Mac, Windows, iOS, Android
- Scrapbook/pasteboard user interface
- Customizable note covers with color swatches, images, and web previews
- Real-time collaboration allows comments and co-editing on notes
- Side drawer for storing images, videos, links, and other tools until needed
- Built-in templates provide a starting point for different styles of notes
- No OCR, sketching, or handwriting recognition
- No tags makes it more difficult to search for notes
- Free version is limited, while subscription plan is $9.99 a month
Standard Notes is a free/subscription-based notes app that keeps notes encrypted — a handy feature if you tend to save usernames, passwords, and other personal information in your notes. Only you can access your notes with this app.
Standard Notes' free version includes a plain text editor, taggable notes, and no limit on data capacity. Upgrading to a paid subscription (between $2.48-$9.99) adds new editing tools, customizable themes, and automated backups of your data to cloud storage.
Web, Mac, Windows, Linux, iOS, Android
- Private encryption keeps notes and personal information secure
- Customizable themes including different hues of light and dark
- Unlimited notes for endless note-taking
- Infinite undo tool reverts notes to previous versions
- Multiple editing options, including markdown, rich text, and code editor
- No real-time collaboration (sharing is allowed, though)
- Limited image support doesn't allow you to save images within the app
- Notes can't be dragged and dropped between folders and tags
Evan Thompson is a Washington-based writer for TBS covering higher education. He has bylines in the Seattle Times, Tacoma News Tribune, Everett Herald, and others from his past life as a newspaper reporter.
Header Image Credit: wagnerokasaki | Getty Images