Emerging Classes of Note-Taking Apps
3 min read

Emerging Classes of Note-Taking Apps

If you’ve paid any attention to productivity news in the last 6-8 months, there has been a lot of talk around note-taking apps. Note-taking apps are part of the productivity trifecta (task managers, calendars, and notes), so this attention is no surprise.

And of course, with this attention usually comes a flurry of “What are the alternatives to X note-taking software” articles.

These articles usually lump software like Evernote, OneNote, Notion, DEVONthink, Apple Notes, Bear, and others all into the same list. While these apps all handle text well as note-takers, most have widely different feature sets.

There is a substantial break forming between different classes of apps in the note-taking space which I’d like to draw attention toward. If you’re in need of a note-taking app, this separation into multiple categories may help you make a decision based upon what you need.

Class #1: Note Takers

These are the apps we’re all used to seeing. At the very base, these apps take text, images, attachments, and put them into notes. The apps usually have straightforward organization systems (usually folders, tags, or some combination of both), and offer a similar experiences across platforms.

Apps that fall into this category include:

Class #2: Reference Libraries

This is the first sharp distinction I noticed in the note-taking space. Many tend to lump these apps in with the note takers, but the feature set of reference libraries often far exceeds what note takers can do.

Most often, reference libraries offer easy ways to clip data from external sources, search inside documents and images (usually via OCR), and organize documents in a highly detailed way. Reference apps also normally heavily rely on search and need to have a rock-solid sync system to handle the materials contained within.

Apps that fall into this category include:

You might be saying, “Wait, you added Evernote on this list too?” Well, yes.

While the free version of Evernote is as standard of a note taker as they come (really one of the first), the Premium subscription, which adds OCR and the ability to email in items for storage among other features, fits nicely into the reference app category.

Class #3: Wiki/Documentation

One of the newest categories of note-taking app are wiki or documentation apps. These apps are database-like and can be used for personal information storage or collaboration among team members.

These aren’t solely note takers because the experience tends to be more like creating a web page with information. T

hey aren’t reference libraries either because the apps often don’t feature the ability to easily get documents or web clippings in the software (though they may tie into software like Google Drive or Dropbox).

Apps that fall into this category include:

Class #4: Paper Replicators

With the rise of the iPad Pro, this category is one many look to if they want to move to a completely paperless lifestyle. The number one differentiator in this group: a heavy reliance on Apple Pencil for input and a free-form layout.

Apps that fall into this category include:

Notes are Notes

I think as these categories begin to mature, we’ll see fewer applications trying to be all-in-one. Evernote has done decently at trying to be al things to all people (with OneNote being the most successful), but most people don’t need an everything notes app . They want an appropriate place to store the stuff they need to keep track of.

I recently made the distinction in my life that I need a note taker AND a reference library. The two serve definitively distinct purposes in my system, yet I was trying to cram both functions in either Bear or Apple Notes. While they can serve as reference libraries, that’s not the role they best serve.

If you can get one software to work for you, that’s great. However, I say do not be afraid to use multiple apps for different purposes .

When you’re looking to choose a note-taking application, here are some questions you can ask yourself to get to those honest answers?

  • Do I want everything in one place, or am I okay with keeping different types of information in different apps?
  • Am I needing a place to store documents and search inside the contents?
  • Do I gravitate toward handwriting and like the idea of a paperless notebook?
  • Is something highly visual with building blocks work with my brain better than a sheets or cards metaphor? (If yes, something like Notion may be a good fit).

While these questions don’t get into the depths of individual features you may need from a note-taking application, these will at least help you figure out what classes of apps to focus your research on.

One last thing — be brave and commit to something when you find something that works! Remember: the most important thing is to get the work done.