Notability vs. GoodNotes 5: The Best Handwriting App

The Battle for the Best Digital Note-taking App

With the popularity of digital note-taking soaring at an all-time high, so has the demand for sleek note-taking apps like Notability and GoodNotes 5.

Although the purpose of the two apps is the same, they have many subtle differences that result in a unique note-taking experience. So you might ask, which should I invest my money in?

The answer lies in what sort of experience you’re looking for.

When I first got my iPad for school, I watched a few videos explaining the differences between the two, and ultimately bought GoodNotes 5. Its creativity and customization options appealed to me, and I used it to decorate my notes with flair.

When I got to college, I decided to try out Notability. I get so many questions on which app is better objectively better, but to be honest, there is no better app.

The “best” app will be different for each person. There are so many benefits and drawbacks to each that alter the user experience, and I’ll be explaining in depth about all the features Notability and GoodNotes have and which app is better for which type of notetaker.

Organization

The way Notability and GoodNotes stores each note file is quite different.

Notability has two layers of organization, dividers and subjects. Notes can go into the subjects. With only two layers, there’s limited embedding, but you can see all the dividers and subjects all at once on the side bar. Its simplistic style of navigation sacrifices customization but excels in functionality.

GoodNotes 5 has unlimited folder embedding, which allows for folders in folders in folders and so on. It has a “Google Drive” or “OS Finder” style that requires multiple taps if you have embedded folders. Instead of the default note being a page, GoodNotes has “notebooks,” giving a more realistic notebook experience. You can change and customize the covers of the notebook, which is fun. A key feature that Notability lacks is the ability to favorite a note or notebook, and filter for favorited notes.

I strongly prefer Notability’s organization system over GoodNotes mainly because navigating through GoodNotes’s folder system is too clunky and requires many more taps and screen changes.

Notability: streamlined and simple (5/5)

GoodNotes: clunky, but customizable (3/5)

Tools

In terms of writing tools such as pens, erasers and drawing shapes, the two apps are very comparable.

Pens, Colors, Highlighters, Oh My!

Notability has set pen and highlighter thicknesses and default color palettes. You can still create a custom color palette, but the default color options are more accessible.

GoodNotes has a much larger selection of colors and you can set custom thicknesses of pens and erasers. The biggest difference is that GoodNotes allows you to select three preset colors and thicknesses for easy access, while Notability makes you reselect every time you need a different color.

Eraser and Shape Tools

GoodNotes and Notability both have wonderful eraser tools, but GoodNotes has the edge with a function called auto-deselect eraser, which allows the eraser tool to switch back to the pen tool after a single use, saving time.

To draw shapes such as a perfect circle or a triangle in Notability, you draw the shape and hold the stylus down for a few seconds to the shape to snap into place. In GoodNotes, you select a shape tool (separate from pen tool) and they automatically detect shapes. This really comes down to preference, but my personal opinion is that Notability is more convenient since you don’t have to change tools every time you want to draw a straight line.

GoodNotes has a sleeker photo input option and a screenshot feature that allows you to screenshot what you selected. Notability allows you to resize selected parts by using your fingers to pinch instead of having to tap “resize” like in GoodNotes.

Paper

Notability has a good number of paper options, and have different sizes of each type. Notability only supports portrait-style paper while GoodNotes has both portrait and landscape paper. GoodNotes has a limited number of default paper options but you can also import your own paper templates, which makes GoodNotes a better choice in terms of paper.

Notability: straightforward, fewer options (3/5)

GoodNotes: customization heaven (4/5)

Navigating Your Notes

Scrolling Through A Note

Notability only supports vertical scrolling in a PDF-like style. It’s faster and better with handling large files. New pages are added automatically as you write, so you never have to manually add pages. On the other hand, GoodNotes requires you to manually add pages, but has both vertical and horizontal scrolling options. It tends to be slower when flipping through pages, and lags when dealing with files with large amounts of pages.

Finding a Recent Note

By swiping left on a note in Notability, you access the Note Switcher, which has the ten most recent files accessed. From there, tap on a note to access. GoodNotes has a tab bar much like browser tabs at the top that can be accessed at any time if you have several notes open. The bar takes up space, but can be more convenient to find recent notes.

Notability: faster, more polished (4/5)

GoodNotes: sluggish (2/5)

Writing Experience

Your handwriting will depend on what pen and what thickness you use, but there are a few subtle differences I’ve noticed between the two apps.

Notability’s pressure sensitive pen is more sensitive, while GoodNotes’s pressure sensitive pen (Fountain pen) is a bit less sensitive. I prefer the control that the GoodNotes pen gives, and I prefer how my handwriting looks in GoodNotes. I know others who strongly prefer their Notability handwriting over their GoodNotes handwriting, it all comes down to preference.

Writing in Notability feels more crisp, while writing in GoodNotes feels muted and soft.

Notability: sharp, sensitive (3.5/5)

GoodNotes: controlled (4/5)

Other Key Features

Audio Recording and Playback

Notability is well-known for its audio recording feature that allows play-back along with what you were writing when the audio was recorded. This is perfect for lectures or meeting notes, so you can play back what was said and what you wrote then. I use this feature extensively in college, and I can figure out why I wrote down something by listening to the audio.

PDF Scanning

Notability has it, GoodNotes doesn’t (yet).

Search Function

In both apps you can search your notes for handwritten or typed text, but GoodNotes tends to be slightly more accurate and provide context of the text, while Notability only shows the files with the text.

Presentation Mode

GoodNotes has a fun presentation mode that comes fully equipped with a laser pointer. This could be good for study sessions or presenting slides.

Price

Notability is $8.99 and GoodNotes 5 is $7.99. Compared the amount we spend on paper, pens, highlighters and erasers, a ten dollar investment in a good note-taking app is worth it. The price difference shouldn’t influence your decision to buy either one.

The Verdict

I prefer Notability. Once I switched, I couldn’t go back to GoodNotes. However, this might not be the app of choice for everyone.

I recommend Notability for the practical notetaker and students. Notability is simplistic, functional, and polished. Its audio recording feature is great for lectures, it has a “loose leaf” organization that is sleek, and gives enough color and customization options to keep me happy.

I recommend GoodNotes for the artistic notetaker and those who need to draw diagrams. GoodNotes has so many customization options and gives more creative control to those who like pretty notes. It is also for people who like the notebook organization style and want to switch to an app with a digital notebook feel.

I hope you’ve come closer to deciding what app you plan on using. Notability and GoodNotes both have all the features you need to take beautiful notes efficiently. Again, both are amazing, end-game apps that will serve you right, and there is no wrong choice.

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