If you’re a student, a teacher, an employee, or just an internet citizen, there are times when you need to collect a lot of information about a particular topic. The process usually starts with a single Google search page and ends up with multiple tabs, maybe spread across multiple windows, with snippets of useful information scattered across different web pages.
There’s no way you’re going to remember all of that, which is where Apple’s bundled Mac and iOS Notes app comes in. This free tool can be an indispensable research aid on both a computer and mobile device.
Here’s how to put it to good use, and a few alternatives you can turn to instead.
Why Apple Notes?
Many users often disregard the built in Apple apps, and I’m guilty of that myself. But some apps like the Safari browser, and Photos app are actually top-notch. Ever since the iOS 9 update, the Notes app has joined the list.
In that update, the Notes app gained much needed formatting support, image markup, a sketching feature, and Share sheet extensions. And with each update, it’s picked up new tricks, including locked notes and collaboration feature. Best of all, iCloud sync for notes between multiple Apple devices actually works! That gives me confidence that Apple is determined to support and improve the app.
Apple Notes itself is a very simple notetaking tool. You can’t even create subfolders or add tags on iOS but what it does do, it does well. And while Evernote might flip-flop on its strategy 3 times a year, changing its pricing policy and interface, limiting features when they see fit, there’s none of that with Apple Notes.
It’s the simple and barebones nature which makes Apple Notes so useful. There’s no need to install an extension that might be buggy or too heavy. There’s no need to deal with the complicated interface of a full-fledged research tool. There’s no uphill battle against the UI.
To compare and contrast with Evernote, you can only use the service on two devices for free and there’s no offline support on mobile devices either. Of course Evernote has a kitchen sink worth of features, integration with other services, and the lion’s share of users.
But for most people out there, Notes will serve as a quick, always-there, and easy way of collecting and organizing information from the web. It’s also great for assembling research on any topic.
Using Apple Notes as a Research Tool
First, you’ll need to make sure that you’re using iOS 9 and above on your iPhone or iPad, and OS X El Capitan or above on your Mac. You should also make sure that iCloud sync for Notes is enabled on all your devices, under iCloud settings.
Then, assuming that a bulk of your researching takes place on the Mac, you really should be using Safari. Because of the Share sheet integration. If you’re a Chrome user, you’re left out in the cold, as there’s no extension for you. You’ll need to resort to the classic “copy, switch to Notes, paste” drill.
But for Safari users, things are much much easier.
Say you’re on a web page that has useful information about the topic and you want to save it. Just highlight the text, right-click, select Share and then Notes.
You’ll see a popup with the selected text right there. Select the note you want to save it in, or create a new note. Click on Save and it’s done.
Want to save the link to the page you’re currently on? Click the Share button from Safari’s toolbar, click on Notes, add some text if you want, select the note and hit Save. When you go to the Notes app you’ll find a nice preview of the link, including the title of the page, a short description, and the feature image.
This visual link preview will be really helpful later on, when you’re browsing through the note, trying to find that one link.
You can save images as well, using the same right click, Share > Notes method. When you save the image, Notes will also save the link from where it came from, right below (super helpful).
Once the image is in the Notes app, you can mark it up as well (right click on the image in the Notes app and select Markup).
It works similarly on iOS. When you’re a webpage you want to save, just hit the Share button, select Add to Notes, select the note from the popup and hit Save. You can also highlight text in Safari, Mail, or other apps, hit Share followed by Add to Notes and specify where you want the content saved.
The Notes extension on iOS is available across the majority of your apps because by now, the Share sheet is basically everywhere, including various reading apps and alternative browsers, making it really easy to send links and other content to the Notes app.
A Few Drawbacks
Now, let’s talk about the downsides of simplicity. When you highlight some text and share it to the Notes app on Mac, it won’t include the source link for where the text came from (a lot of “smart” research tools like Mammoth do this).
On iOS, there’s a weird bug (at least I hope it’s a bug), where if you select an entire paragraph of say, four sentences, the contextual menu won’t show the “Share” button. But if you select, say, two sentences, you’ll be able to “Share” the text directly to the Notes app using the extension, without copy/pasting. This means that if you’re going to be using your iPhone to research a lot, you’ll need to copy and paste text instead (which deters a bit from the sophistication of the Mac app).
You can still highlight and copy text, hit the Share button then Add to Notes and paste your copied text into the box to save both a link and some page content. Hopefully Apple will fix this in a future iOS update.
Alternative Research Aids
It’s totally possible that for various reasons (for instance, the impossibility of switching from Chrome to Safari on Mac), might keep you from the Notes app. Maybe the simplicity of the Notes app just isn’t for you, and you need more. There are a couple of solutions for you.
Mammoth — Mammoth is a powerful research tool masquerading as a collaboration-heavy notetaking tool. It’s the Chrome extension that’s the real winner. Once activated, it shows up as a sidebar. You can drag and drop text, images or links into a note and add comments to everything you add, to give you context.
Mammoth also has apps for iPhone and Android so you can use the same Share sheet integration to send content to the app. The app is free for personal use, with unlimited boards and participants and storage up to 5 GB. If you want more, you can pay $3.99 per month for 50 GB storage, document preview, and unlimited file uploads.
Gistnote Highlighter — Another Chrome extension that makes it really easy to track important information by highlighting it. Once you’ve highlighted stuff using different colors on different pages, you can use the “Collections” feature to organize it.
Use an alternate, cross-platform notetaking app — These days, it’s difficult to go a week without a new notetaking tool showing up in the App Store charts. And you can use a cross-platform notetaking tool like Simplenote, Evernote, or OneNote to accomplish something similar. If you want to stay in the Apple universe, check out the newly released Bear app.
If you’re a Chrome person and you’re ready to adopt a new, albeit complex system for researching, check out the best extensions we’ve lined up here.
Another Use for Notes: A Link Bucket
The current state of bookmarking tools isn’t that great. I’ve personally tried to use two new tools — Raindrop and Stash — but nothing sticks. I’ll just end up going back to Pinboard, yet again (but I find it difficult to recommend Pinboard to most people, because of its almost non-existent UI).
If you’re the kind of person who’s not satisfied with the built-in bookmark manager in your browser and you think third party solutions are either too convoluted or organized in a way that doesn’t make sense to you, try using the Notes app as a link bucket.
Because the Notes app adds link preview for every page you drop in, it makes it really easy to save and organize links in different notes. And as they’re just text links underneath, it’s really easy to go in, rearrange and delete links later. Whether it’s for research purposes, or simply for organizing your favorites. You should give it a shot.
Do You Use Apple Notes?
Apple Notes isn’t for everyone, but it’s received quite the overhaul in recent years which makes it a much more viable tool than when it first appeared. Formatting, markup, a proper Mac client, and the recently improved text size in the Mac app make it a genuine alternative to Evernote and OneNote, albeit a lightweight and simple one.
What’s your favorite app for notes? Do you have a customized workflow? Share with us in the comments below.
Image Credit: NIKITA LEVRINTS via Shutterstock.com