By Thomas Clapper
It wasn’t until I started my online master’s degree that I realized how important it was to take better notes. Throughout my undergraduate degree, I mostly took notes in a classic spiral notebook. It has been proven that taking handwritten notes during a lecture has some advantages. However, there can also be some advantages to having typed notes ready to go.
Using a Digital Filing Cabinet
One of the most notable benefits of digital notes is that they are protected from the elements that traditionally would destroy paper notebooks. As someone who lost notebooks in an office fire a few years ago, this is a huge selling point for me.
I also appreciate that unlike a traditional filing cabinet or set of notebooks, digital notes can be accessed anywhere. Deciding to do my education online meant greater flexibility with my schedule. It also meant that I needed a solution for my school work that didn’t hinder such flexibility. A portable device such as a laptop or iPad was essential for reading my books and writing my papers — wherever I found myself needing to access my schoolwork. This also meant that I needed to access my notes anywhere.
Handwritten Notes VS Digital Notes
At times, it can feel like these two methods of taking notes are pitted against each other. You must choose one or the other. We all know that reality is much more complicated and messy than that. Most people I know who use a digital notes system do not use it exclusively. There are times when I need a temporary sticky note instead of a full-fledge new page on my computer. The trick is figuring out what works best for you and seeing if you can combine the two methods to work together.
For instance, you may have a notebook that you love to journal in, but at the end of the year, you want to archive it. I found that tear out pages worked well because I could go to a fancy copier, put them all in the upper tray, scan them to my email, and add them to my digital filing cabinet.
I scan in bills, important documents, even my kid’s art. In other words, it doesn’t have to be one or the other. You can even create a digital note, print it, physically write on it, and scan it back in. The possibilities of using handwritten notes with a digital filing system are endless.
Digital Filing Cabinet Options
There are many options for great note-taking apps. A few of my favorites that I have used:
Cost: Free version, $100/ year (all features)
I have a love-hate relationship with Evernote. It is a remarkable program used across many industries. It has the ability for you to type notes as well as capture handwritten notes that are searchable. The organization of Evernote uses notebooks that allow you to categorize your notes, for instance, into each class you take. It is cross-platform, which means it will work on a PC, Mac, Android, iPhone, plus any web browser on any computer— the works. Last but not least, you can install an extension that allows you to capture articles, websites, and snippets from online to add to your digital filing cabinet. All in all, it is a great tool.
However, it does come with some caveats. Recently the company has gone through an identity crisis that has left its future uncertain. This has caused many to leave the platform and wonder what Evernote will look like in the next few years. Also, to get all the features, it costs close to $100 a year. If this seems like a lot to you, keep reading because there are low cost and free solutions.
- Robust set of tools
- Company focused on one program
- Many advanced features
- Access across all types of devices
- If using an iPad, a dedicated companion app for handwritten notes
- Costly for all the features
- Uncertain future
Cost: Free trial, $15/ year (all features)
This company is new to the game and is taking on Evernote headfirst. Similar to the design of Evernote, Bear looks to focus on the simplicity of notes. More importantly, it is much less expensive.
Bear is Apple-only, which means that it is very limiting if you are not in Apple’s ecosystem. It also focuses on markdown language, which is useful for web writers. Less so for those looking to use the app for school. Ultimately, it is a niche product that may speak to some but will need to grow if it is going to take on Evernote.
- Cheaper than Evernote
- Apple devices only
- Markdown language
- Missing some key features
Google is a powerhouse. If I need to find information online, no matter where I look, I always use the phrase “Google it.” Now that is impressive. Google offers a variety of solutions, including a note-taking app that is a direct competitor to Evernote. The interface will look familiar to those who use Google Docs or Drive. As always, Google makes it simple to do what you want to do. From images, to voice memos, to handwritten notes scanned in, Google will handle it all for you. And of course, any device that can access Google can access Google Keep, which makes it available to you anytime, anywhere. It comes at the astounding price of free!
So what’s the downside? For one thing, Keep appears to be designed as more of a quick reference than for long-term notes. Therefore, categorizing the notes into a filing cabinet is more complicated than with some of the other options. Labels work but can become cumbersome.
My most important concern has to do with privacy. Whenever a program offers something of high value for free, you have to ask what the company gets out of it. In Google’s case, they are attempting to sell ads and want as much of your data as possible to do that. If this doesn’t bother you, Google is a great solution. If it does, finding other companies that care more, or paying the premium upfront, might be a better solution for you.
- Simple and easy to use
- Connects with all of Google
- Google is known to mine user data
- Organizing may be tougher
Cost: Free version, $120+/ year (all features)
This is Microsoft’s answer to the note-taking world. Initially a paid app, OneNote now has a free version. However, you should be aware that some of the features need Microsoft Office to work. If you attend Crown or a similar institution, this won’t be a problem because Microsoft Office is often provided for free.
Similar to the other platforms, OneNote offers a robust set of tools that allows you to take notes, make lists, export, and so forth. Like Evernote, the organization is divided into notebooks enabling you to split classes or subjects. If you are familiar with Microsoft Office, this app fits right in.
- Free if you have Microsoft Office
- Has stylus support
- To access all features costs quite a bit
- Interface focuses less on the notes
Apple Notes started as a very simple text editor and, over time, has gained tools that have allowed it to compete across the board. Folders allow a similar filing system to Evernote. The features easily stack up against Evernote and Google Keep.
One area in particular that I have found Apple Notes to shine in is its integration of the Apple Pencil. I love taking handwritten notes most of the time, and the ability to insert precise handwriting and drawings is invaluable to me. If you haven’t tried an Apple Pencil for writing, it is worth trying—it is truly a magical experience.
With that being said, the most significant drawback of Apple Notes is that it works best with an iPad and, ultimately, the Apple ecosystem. However, unlike Bear, Apple Notes can be accessed by anyone with a free iCloud account, which means no matter where you are in the world, on whatever device, you can still access your notes and edit them. This free solution makes it a compelling one, particularly if you have an iPad.
- Best stylus support
- Great all-around note-taking app
- Works best if you are in the Apple ecosystem
- Some features are dependent on an Apple device like an iPhone, iPad, or Mac
Which is Right?
As you may already suspect, I love digital notes. I have tried many of the platforms to attempt to figure out which works best for me because my notes really matter. Each platform has pros and cons, which means that you need to find the right program for you.
For me, I switched from Evernote to Apple Notes this last year. I use an iPad daily, and the integration with the Apple Pencil sold me. It just worked. With hundreds of notes from my master’s program and over 1500 notes from work, home, and beyond, I can say that it has held up well. The decision came down to Apple Notes being free, and it is from a company that focuses on privacy, which I highly value. If I were not in the Apple ecosystem, I most likely would have gone another route.
I invested in the process of picking and utilizing a digital filing cabinet because I knew that my coursework was going to be a lot of work. I wanted to make life easier on myself and make sure that my notes would be available for the rest of my life so that I can continue to use the education that I invested in for years to come.
If you are interested in exactly how I used my notes to make my schoolwork easier, you can check out the article: How to take Digital Notes for School the Right Way.