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The iPad and the Swiss Army Knife

By June 13, 20125 Comments

It’s known in many circles that I’m leading on how the iPad can be used to inform and support teaching and learning at Clevedon School. Part of that role involves me looking at apps and determining their pedagogical value and how they might be used to support learning. With that role, I also often get asked by staff to recommend apps for their own personal use and productivity……

I spent some time today thinking about different note taking apps that take account of the desire to both handwrite and type notes as I had been asked to research which was the best app for the job. I had whittled it down to three:

  • Noteshelf currently reduced by 80% to £.069
  • Notability currently reduced by 80% to £.069
  • Paper by 53 – free with £5.49 in-app purchases for full app

Whilst Paper is a particularly amazing app that shows off some of the cooler and more exciting and graphically pleasing features in apps available for iPad (plus its amazing Brushes/Pens) I do see Paper as being more of an artist’s sketchbook or a notebook for ideas than a serious note taking tool. Don’t get me wrong – it is a simply gorgeous app, dripping with geek chic – it wouldn’t have won one of the Apple Design Awards 2012 if it wasn’t great. However, that left me with Noteshelf and Notability both currently reduced in price to a brilliant £0.69 each.

My way of reviewing the apps normally falls in to the following categories:

  • Ease of use
  • Features
  • Pedagogical benefit
  • Inspiration
  • Relevance to students
  • Relevance to curriculum
  • Price

In this case, as I was reviewing it for a staff member for personal use as opposed to students, it was far more linked to the first two options. So, given that both apps are pretty much identical in terms of core features, it led me to think that the Notability app would be the one. I say this, as not only does it have the same note taking power of Noteshelf of being able to write / type on notes, choose papers (albeit Noteshelf allows you to add custom papers which is a benefit over the Notability app), zoom in on sections to allow fine handwriting/diagram creation, Notability has some seriously powerful features that Noteshelf doesn’t have:

  • Import of PDF
  • Import/Export to Dropbox / iDisk / WebDAV
  • Recording of audio notes
  • Editable toolbar for text editing
  • Extended text editing features
  • Web clips
  • Handwriting boxes
  • Text boxes
  • Figures (for flow charts and more)

So, like me – you’d probably think straight away – ok, they’re the same price, they’re both easy to use (although to be fair, Noteshelf is probably a bit more intuitive) and Notability has the extended features over and above Noteshelf – Notability is the winner.


Yes, Notability has more features but I’d always recommend Noteshelf.

He went on to use the analogy that some apps are a bit like a Swiss Army knife. Yes, they have tools that mean you can complete lots of tasks with them, but they’re not particularly great at any of them. So if you want to cut up a loaf of bread, yes you could use your Swiss Army knife, but given the choice would you want to use that or a bread knife? If you wanted to cut your toe nails would you use a Swiss Army knife or a pair of nail scissors… so forth and so on. So, whilst Notability is an app that has bells and whistles and lots of features, the Noteshelf app does exactly what you want it to do, intuitively, elegantly and given it’s a tool specifically for handwriting notes and the feature of the great backgrounds you can add in to your notebooks from different papers (and any of your own you want to add in) it is the best tool for the job. Everything is laid out really clearly and is very intuitive. Noteshelf is the best tool for the job.

Do you agree? What process do you go through when you’re comparing similar apps and trying to ascertain which one to recommend? What’s important to you, more features or simplicity of design to facilitate the job the app is supposed to.

Me? I bought both!

I’d love to hear what you think.

Mark Anderson

Mark Anderson, @ICTEvangelist. Click here to learn more.


  • Having used Penultimate, Noteshelf and Notability I have found that I now prefer to use Notability. When I was using Noteshelf it was useful to have different books (on the shelf!) and I was able to use the export to PDF feature to share notes with pupils. I did find though that I didn’t write as much on a page as I would do if using pen and paper. The final decision to move away from Noteshelf to Notability was partly down to the iOS update that included multitasking gestures. It played havoc with the wrist protection and I wasn’t willing to switch it off (I was using this feature more than I was using Noteshelf). Maybe I could put a plastic ruler on the iPad to rest on.

    Having used OneNote on a tablet PC, I found that notability had a few similarities and features that I liked. I decided to use Notability for all my different types of notetaking so that I could master one app, rather than try and remember how different apps worked. I’m happy with the range of different paper backgrounds offered. Maybe Notability will allow custom paper backgrounds in the future.

    I’m very interested to see how Evernote will improve Penultimate, but I think I’ll stick with Notability because I know my way around the app and I’m more productive using it.

    • Thank you for taking the time to comment Tim – I’ve used all three and reflecting back I can’t believe I didn’t comment about it in the post. I guess it was because I used Penultimate as my handwritten note tool for so long, I discounted it given the overwhelming improvements in the Notability / Noteshelf discussion. Like you, I eagerly await the developments to Penultimate, but I fear it will never have the smooth iOS-ness of Notability or Noteshelf.

  • iPadTrolleyLady says:

    I have tried about 10 different note taking apps and am recommending Notability to our students and staff. Partly because having too many different apps to get to grips with can make some people slightly despondent about why life gets complicated (eg the family of different Neu apps). Our students really liked Notability when we did an explore session on note taking apps. That said, everyone will be looking for different things and I suspect they will end up downloading a huge range. Another issue is the in-app purchases, with Notability it’s comfortably all-in-one rather than having to pay to tweak according to your needs with Noteshelf, this is one thing, as a straightforward buyer, I find rather annoying.

  • I have always preferred the method of design. When I select an app I look for features that I will use more often than the others. Lets say I have a swiss army knife, I will use the blade to cut an apple, or another feature to take out a screw. But I most likely would not use the corkscrew feature. In an app I will use the notepad or internet access, or I may use it to tweet. The important tool is the one I will use most of the time.

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