The note-taking apps you should be using on Android – and elsewhere

If like us, you have been stuck at home over the past year thanks to the pandemic then chances are that you have no shortage of sticky notes plastered all over your preferred working space at home. And filled up notebooks courtesy of the many virtual meetings you have to keep up with. And other scribbles scattered across the various platforms where those meetings take place and their associated apps.

Or maybe you’re just someone who’s been going about their day-to-day business, the pandemic be damned. In which case, a good note-taking app is still a need you have and that need isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

This is why this list, which explores some of the note-taking apps you can consider for your daily use, might be important to you. As can be expected, all these apps are available across all the major desktop and mobile computing platforms.

1. OneNote

Unlike most of the apps listed here, except, maybe, (Google) Keep, OneNote probably enjoys the most advantage in that many a Windows device user already has it installed on their machine if they have or use Microsoft’s Office suite of productivity apps. It comes bundled there, even though it is also available as a standalone app on the Windows Store, and enjoys easy integration with the rest of the Windows ecosystem.

Now that we are living in a virtual meetings-centred world, if Microsoft Teams is part and parcel of your workflow, or what your organization uses, then OneNote’s Android app, available on the Play Store (and comes pre-installed on some devices, like Samsung Galaxy smartphones and tablets, for instance) is worth a short.

The app is not just propped by its links to the products by the mothership – even though those do give it a leg up over the competition. It is also a solid standalone note-taking application.

Unlike the desktop application, what you use on Windows and other desktop computing platforms, which comes across as cluttered, the OneNote Android app is clean and to the point. Sure, it’s not the “open and start typing” kind of solution like some of the other apps on this list since you still have to work your way around how it organizes notes, through ‘Notebooks’, but you’ll be on your way as soon as you have that figured out.

Like Notion, below, notes in the ‘Notebooks’ are organized through pages. Every new note is a “page”. Pages are usually under “Sections”. That hierarchy can be confusing but my way of living with it is just skimming through to the end (pages) to just jot down whatever it is I need to. If you’re not in the mood for typing, or need to take advantage of your Android device that has a stylus then you can also scribble your way.

Integration with Microsoft’s Office Lens allows OneNote users to scan and upload documents directly from the note-taking app instead of using the import feature as was the case previously and as might be the case on other note-taking apps.

The third pillar of OneNote’s three-pillar slogan (the other two being ‘Capture’ and ‘Organize’) is Share. This means that, for those that are in the Microsoft ecosystem, all notes can be synced immediately to Microsoft’s cloud service (OneDrive) so that, should one lose their device or need to access them from another device, all they need to do is just log in using their credentials and they are good to go. This also works the other way. For those that use Windows computers, any notes taking using the Sticky Notes app on the computer are stored in Microsoft’s cloud and synced across devices. They are, thus, accessible either through the OneNote app or the revamped Office application.

While entry into Microsoft’s productivity suite (Word, Excel, PowerPoint and others) means parting with money for a subscription or getting a license the old way, OneNote is free to use everywhere for everyone.

2. Simplenote

Simplenote, by the makers of the very platform you are reading this text on, like the name suggests, has simplicity at its core. The focus is just on taking notes.

If you are looking for a no-frills note-taking app that goes beyond what is provided on the free app thrown in by your device maker, then this is it. Unlike many of those, which tend to either not have cloud sync or, where one exists, it is limited to the device maker’s platform and devices (I am looking at you, Samsung), Simplenote will always sync your notes no matter where you are and what device you are using. Just log in and go.

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Simplenote, like many good things we enjoy today, was only on iOS for long before finally making it to Android about 8 years ago. It went open source 3 years later and is the only app on this list that is an outright recommendation for open source enthusiasts (though there is a caveat – that doesn’t apply to the server-side bits).

Being a “just type and go” kind of note-taking app, some things are sacrificed at the altar of simplicity. The most standout omissions are the exclusion of any form of editing. Need to create some emphasis in your notes by bolding some text? Not here, look elsewhere. You can’t underline and you can’t highlight, either.

My favourite feature? It has a robust search feature. Plain and straight forward. It does not have filters but you get something close to that if, in your note-taking, you make use of its “Tags” feature.

Adding checkboxes in a new “note” on the app may not be the best-looking way of monitoring your to-do tasks in a given day but it’s something you can do if you’re down for it and avoid having yet another app on your device to do the same thing.

Should you, like yours truly, accumulate so many apps over time, you can pin your favourite/most accessed notes so that you can always find them. You can change how your notes are sorted if that helps. See how the hierarchy of Microsoft’s OneNote that we don’t admire so much is a necessary evil since it can get chaotic very fast?

3. Keep

Remember the days when Keep used to have a desktop app to complement the Android one? Maybe you don’t.

Anyway, if you’re deep into the Google ecosystem then Keep is probably the note-taking app for you. It is everything Simplenote is and then some more. It syncs all your notes with the rest of the stuff on your Android device (contacts, Gmail etc) to your Google cloud.

Where it trumps Simplenote is that it is also an organizer/planner. You can add reminders for actionable items in your notes and it will do just that at the appropriate time and place (yes, that).

Like Simplenote, you can also create to-do lists and check off items as you go along your day.

Keep is a breeze to use on the desktop thanks to the web version, accessible via any browser, including on your smartphone, or the Chrome extension, should you need it beyond the phone app.

The one thing that you will like over almost all the other note-taking apps on this list? No one makes it easier to collaborate on things online than Google and Keep is no exception. Just start typing the name, email address or workplace domain of a saved contact and it will do the rest.

Except for the ability to colour code notes, Keep lacks the ability to manipulate text in any other way. No formating options are available, as is the case with Simplenote.

For those copying text from another language, Keep’s built-in Translate feature (requires one to be online) can be a godsend.

4. Notion

If, like yours truly, you cheat on Android regularly with Apple products like MacBooks and iPad then Notion should be something you highly consider. It is one of the best notes apps on the Apple App Store and its availability on other platforms seems to be a good feeder for its reputation on iOS, iPadOS and macOS.

Like the next app on this list, Notion might nudge you to part with some coins in order to use it but you don’t have to. The free tier, as I found, is more than sufficient for many daily tasks.

Unlike any of the apps on this list. It has a level of complexity that adds a learning curve so it will likely take you a couple of days to figure out where everything is and what you need to do but, once your muscle memory is sorted, you’ll never look back.

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It uses “pages”, just like OneNote and it doesn’t stop just there. It lets users create “sub pages” for more organization.

Like the other apps on this list, it lets users create to-do lists as well.

It doesn’t stop there. It allows users to add comments to notes – their own or shared.

It lets users export their notes as portable documents or in readable web (HTML) formats.

For the writers, this is probably one of the best apps out there as it includes block quotes, callouts and more, transforming casual note-taking into something fun that makes it easier to export the notes to a word processor, for instance, for further manipulation and proper organization. Already, it lets users edit text just like they would on any worthy word processing app.

For the coders, Notion provides the best means of writing lines of code on the go for easy transfer to an IDE once one is settled without having to worry about things like indentation and what have you.

My favourite feature as someone who creates content for the web? The rich lists one can create on Notion. Here, I can keep track of what we are doing with our podcast, upcoming videos as well as, away from work, keep up with my book reading.

Should you be beholden to any other notes app, Notion provides an easy way to import your stuff from there. Heck, it will do the same for even Microsoft Word.

5. Evernote

Evernote is as old as the hills and is quite synonymous with note-taking. Evernote is different things to different people. In my case, it is simply a decent note-taking app that has constantly delivered.

In the quest to be different things to different people, however, Evernote has become bloated and that weight can always be felt when you fire up the PC app and it needs a minute or two to get its house in order – on a fast computer, before you ask.

There are lots of features, which, if you are like yours truly, you’ll probably never use. There are also other nice ones that you may find useful. Like, I am a big fan of its search tool and how it handles in-line images.

The same can be said of the mobile application.

Unfortunately, Evernote’s cross-platform credentials are what makes it not necessarily the best note-taking application on the market. Evernote has been restricting use to just 2 devices for quite some time now and for those who have a home computer and a work laptop, what happens to them? Don’t get me started on the need to have it on your mobile device(s) as well.

I mean, the easy way of that predicament is to simply pay up but, uuum, where is the (about) Kshs 10,000 for that annual premium subscription going to come from? I mean, personally, that’s already more than I pay Microsoft annually for its extremely useful Office suite which actually includes a notes app many like and swear by, OneNote.

On top of that, besides the device restriction, I have never gone past the 25 and 60MB notes and monthly uploads ceiling respectively that would necessitate the upgrade and many would be on the same boat, as well.

Besides the obvious limitations of the two-device plan when one is on the Basic (free) tier, they also can’t access their notes when offline on mobile. That feature is only available on desktop apps.

From the above, it might seem like there is no need to get Evernote. However, for long time users who derive a lot of value from the app, it’s probably worth keeping. It can completely replace one’s entire reliance on a word-processing application. For those that aren’t on the Microsoft Office bandwagon and swear by the power of Google Docs, it does give Keep a run for its money given that it is more than basic and has a robust web version that integrates nicely on Chrome.

Have something that you believe I need to have a look at? Hit me up: echenze [at] androidkenya.com

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