Note Taking Reimagined

I am a religious note taker. When I was a freshman engineering student in college one of the first things they taught us to do was to start to keep a journal. Tracking when you invent something is very important. When I was an intern at Motorola, one of my favorite days was the day I was able to request and receive my very first engineering notebook. Those notebooks lead to 25 patent applications, 15 patents issued, 10 of which I was named co-inventor.

Note taking has always been a big deal to me. If you have ever seen Neil De Grasse Tyson’s notebooks from college1 they look like works of art. Of course, Leonardo De Vinci’s notebooks are art.

I always knew that if I took good notes, I recalled material better. I mean handwritten notes. Typing was a poor substitute, but longhand worked wonders. There’s some science behind2 summarizing what you know that helps improve retention. If you can make your notes visual3 all the better. A huge chunk of our brain performs visual processing.

To that end, I started Sketch-Noting4 a couple of years ago, and it has transformed my note-taking. Sketch Notes are very visual notes that incorporate colors, different fonts – heck it’s easier to see than to explain.

Well, this past August a friend of mine blew my mind when he introduced me to the ultimate note-taking app. We were at a conference in Salt Lake when he comes up to me.

He says, “You take amazing notes, but you have to see this new system I have.”

“What’s so special about it?” I ask

He answers, “Don’t get me wrong. I love notebooks, but the problem with notebooks is that you are limited to the book. If you take notes on the same kinds of projects, the notes become interleaved.”

I nod in agreement. “Yeah, and then you have to go back and index them when they are full.”


“And that’s a pain in the ass,” he adds. “Plus, a new idea can be captured between two lists or meeting notes. When you come back to flesh out the idea, you have to put it in another place in the book, or a different notebook altogether.”

I knew what he was talking about. “And keeping different notebooks doesn’t work,” I said.

“Right! Too big and clumsy!” He agreed. “And it seems like you never have the notebook you need.”

“So what’s the answer?” I ask, completely hooked.

The Tool

He pulled out a custom made Italian sleeve from his bag and showed me four things.

  1. An iPad Pro. 12.9” Model
  2. An Apple Pencil
  3. An app called Notability
  4. A screen protector called PaperLike

I used to have an iPad Pro 12.9” model and apple Pencil. I sold them. I had found them unwieldy, and I didn’t know what to do with them. At first, I was thinking, what could an app and a screen protector do?

The answer? Change Everything

Notability has changed my note taking life. It is flat out the best handwritten note-taking app I have ever seen. I have used quite a few. As an “Every New Thing Now Guy”, I try lots of stuff. Somehow I had missed this. Notability is great.When you cover the screen of the iPad with a paper-like screen protector, however, it gets even better. It feels like writing on paper. And the tracking of the apple pencil is the best stylus available. Don’t take my word for it. Try it yourself. The Microsoft surface and google pixel book don’t compare (and I have tried both).

Notability goes beyond merely drawing on the screen, however. They try to simulate paper. They even have PDF templates you can import into the app and use. The folks at Ginger Labs killed it.

They even allow you to create your own ink colors. So what did I do? I used the iPad camera to take pictures of my inks (I collect fountain pens, and fountain pen inks) and I used the eyedropper to sample my favorite colors. Now I can write in my colors.

But it is the digital extensibility Notability brings to your journals that I find most valuable. First, the app can search your handwriting. You can also insert images, or web clips and draw right on top of them. The power of the tools is genuinely astounding. Everything you write is a vector, so you can move it, resize it, copy it and paste anything you draw or write.

Words do not do it justice so I will provide a video demonstration. (See below)

Perhaps the most useful part of the application is that each note is infinite. You can organize the notes into notebooks by topic, and then carry them all with you.

Of course, you can also type with a keyboard – but I find the text editing sub par. That’s okay; I have 20 bazillion ways to type text, but I have yet to see anything as intuitive as Notability for note taking.

Oh yeah, Notability can also record audio in a note. So if you are in a meeting, or listening to a lecture, you can record the whole thing while you are taking notes and go back and check the recording! How awesome is that!?

I started to play around with this on a smaller iPad Pro and Apple Pencil 1. I found I loved the app but discovered that it scaled my writing from the 9.7” to 11” piece of paper. I felt like I was writing on a notepad, but my handwriting ended up 13% bigger, which does not sound like much, but for something as personal as handwriting, my notes looked strange when I printed them. That was why I just decided to get a larger iPad. I wanted to get closer to a piece of real paper.

For me, that’s the magic of the 2018 iPad Pro 12.9”. It is not a small tablet, but it is significantly smaller than the first generation iPad 12.9. They shrank the bevel, but kept the screen size mostly the same. It is as close to a piece of paper as you are likely to find. I feel like I am writing on a letter size notebook.

Bonus

After I switched to analog-digital note taking, I learned I could also record live whiteboard talks. Using the latest iOS, you can not only record your screen, but you can also record yourself talking as you write on your screen. The iPad Pro has become my top content creation tool.

The four components (iPad, Pencil, App, & screen saver) combine to create the most powerful system for creating and capturing notes I have come across. I still use real paper and fountain pens for morning journaling. For absolutely everything else I use the iPad.

I highly recommend it.

Example – Live Capture From iPad

I recorded a short video to demonstrate Notability with Apple Pencil on my 2018 iPad Pro 12.9. The “scratchy” sound as I draw withthe Apple Pencil comes from the PaperLike screen protector.

Video example of using the tools

Tools Recap

  1. An iPad Pro. 12.9” Model
  2. An Apple Pencil
  3. An app called Notability
  4. A screen protector called PaperLike

Books and Resources


  1. Neil DeGrasse Tyson Fountain Pen Addict Interview ↩︎
  2. Smart Thinking by Art Markman ↩︎
  3. Unlimited Memory ↩︎
  4. Sketch noting by Mike Rohde ↩︎