The search for the best (for me) note-taking app

Sifting through the best note-taking apps to find what works for me.

The search for the best (for me) note-taking app
Photo by GoodNotes / Unsplash

While I’m relatively new to the world of digital productivity, I’ve sunk an inordinate number of hours into curating my personal app stack. The irony of procrastinating by researching and testing apps that are meant to make me more productive isn’t lost on me, but I’ve since accepted the fact that every app will have its drawbacks.

In my last article, I outlined the features I was looking for in my ideal writing and note-taking app — like cloud capabilities and a clean UI — but most of the apps above check all of those boxes. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this focus on superficial, technical features was the wrong approach. I had failed to consider elements like my writing and note-taking style, organizational methods, and personal knowledge management (PKM) system — elements I was still in the process of refining.

To that end, I’ve appended a couple more features to my ideal app:
✅ Can be adapted for different note-taking methods (e.g. Zettelkasten)
✅ Can support different organizational frameworks (e.g. PARA)
✅ Can support different organizational tools (e.g. tags, folders, interlinking, etc.)
✅ Offers a healthy balance between customization and convention

When it comes to writing and note-taking apps, my journey has exposed me to several of the big players in the modern note-taking world. Here are my key takeaways.

Notion

Notion
Notion

With its flexible database capabilities and beautiful templates, there’s a reason Notion is one of the most popular apps for project management and note-taking. If you take a look at Pinterest, you’ll see that Notion users are proud to show off their creative dashboards, which track everything from habits to study notes.

Where it falls short

Notion was my entry point into note-taking apps, and it’ll always hold a special place in my heart. However, Notion’s strength in being immensely customizable was the reason I had to move on. I found myself spending hours tweaking my dashboard and pages, from the colour palette to the layout, rather than actually writing. When I did write, the fact that every element is a distinct block made the experience feel less smooth than a dedicated writing app. I also wasn’t too happy with the mobile app experience; the formatting of blocks like tables and columns was often wonky.

Bear

Bear
Bear

Bear is a beautifully designed app with a variety of themes to choose from. Users write in markdown, which is a great format for exporting to other apps. The writing experience in Bear is unlike that of any other apps — and despite it’s minimalist UI, it can be a powerful tool.

Where it falls short

Like many other users, one of my complaints is the glacial pace of development. I can overlook the lack of support for features like tables, but the fact that markdown formatting is displayed when I’m writing really takes me out of it. Bear is also opinionated in terms of its organization system, forcing users to use tags rather than folders. As someone who often experiments with different methods of organization, I’m not too keen on having to regularly edit my tags.

Apple Notes

Apple Notes
Apple Notes

Apple’s native note-taking app has come a long way since its early days, offering a variety of formatting options and features that make it a viable alternative to its paid competitors. For users entrenched in the Apple ecosystem, its integrations with other native apps are unparalleled.

Where it falls short

Admittedly, I haven’t delved too far into Apple Notes, so I can’t speak to the entire gamut of its features. It offers the organizational flexibility that I crave, like tags and folders. But where it falls short for me is its difficulty in exporting to other formats and the fact that it’s a little…ugly.

Obsidian

Obsidian
Obsidian

Obsidian is widely touted as being one of the best apps for PKM and Zettelkasten. Like Bear, Obsidian is a markdown editor — and at first glance, it’s not as attractive. However, with its variety of core and community plugins, users have the power to customize the app to their unique needs.

Where it falls short

Although I still use Obsidian on a regular basis, I fell into the same trap I did with Notion. The sheer scope of customization is often a distraction for me, and I’ll waste time experimenting with different themes, plugins, or organizational structures. Also, even though the mobile app has improved, there are no widget options, and the experience still feels clunky.

Craft

Craft
Craft

Perhaps the newest of the aforementioned apps, Craft seems to be gaining traction in the note-taking and writing community. Like Notion, Craft features a block-based editor but offers less flexibility in customization. However, its clean, minimalist UI makes writing a joy, and the mobile experience is just as pleasant.

Where it falls short

Although there are workarounds, Craft doesn’t offer a native tagging system — instead, it encourages its users to use folders and linking. Being a block-based editor, moving elements around can feel a bit clunky. Apart from that, the price tag is a little high.

Where I’m at

So far I’ve landed on Craft and Obsidian as my primary note-taking apps. I’ve mirrored my folder structure on both, so I can switch from one to the other. And the fact that both apps support markdown makes this a piece of cake.

I appreciate the fact that Obsidian is free, but the number of themes and plugins can work against my self-discipline. On the other hand, Craft gives me precisely the lack of freedom I need to get work done. I also enjoy the clean, minimalist, inter-device experience on Craft more, but there’s just something about Obsidian that keeps me coming back.

I suspect that as I continue to refine my workflow and system, a clear winner will emerge.

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