Life as a student revolves heavily around class lectures. I’ve tried every method of note taking, from outlining to audio recording, but my notebooks always end up mangled and recordings forgotten. Fortunately, the iPad brought along with it a new method of taking notes. Sure, it’s possible to annotate PDF files on a laptop, but it’s not practical. Writing directly on the lecture slides is the only way to guarantee that I’ll ever give my notes a second glance.
There are plenty of PDF annotation apps in the iPad app store, but most are either feature sick or buggy. I’m not interested in an underdeveloped outlining feature or changing the in-app theme; I simply want an app that provides a minimal interface, snappy writing performance, and a few basic features. I’ve tried countless annotation apps, and there’s only one that combines the right balance of features and performance to make its way onto my iPad home screen. GoodNotes by Time Base Technology Limited provides an unobtrusive interface, solid performance, and a focussed feature set, but are these enough to set the app apart from the competition?
Poorly implemented themes and terrible design choices plague iPad note taking apps. There’s no need for colorful sidebars or complicated menus when I simply want to view a PDF file, and GoodNotes takes this idea to heart. The only UI elements present in GoodNotes’ read-only view are two small buttons in the top left and right corners of the screen. The left button provides access to the slide gallery, bookmarks, and document library, and the right button brings up the annotation features.
Most of the organization in GoodNotes takes place in the note shelf. The GoodNotes shelf shares many similarities with the iBooks shelf in that it allows the user to separate notes into folders. The shelf is where documents can be renamed or exported, and a long press initiates the rearrange feature.
The iPad is perfect for reviewing class notes, but there are plenty of situations where it might be necessary to send notes to a friend or upload them to the cloud. GoodNotes supports iTunes sharing and open in as well as email and Dropbox. Emailing multiple notes is a snap with GoodNotes because it automatically zips multiple files into one folder.
This eliminates the need to send multiple emails due to too many attachments. Unfortunately, the app uses the same technique when uploading to Dropbox. GoodNotes allows the user to download or upload to any file in a dropbox account, but multiple files will be uploaded in a zipped folder, requiring later unzipping. This is an odd design choice that’s left me scratching my head but shouldn’t be a problem if the user backs up his or her notebooks individually after editing.
The quality of the writing experience makes or breaks a note taking app, and GoodNotes’ simplicity is its strongest asset. The drawing feature set is limited, but includes all of the necessities:
- Highlighter with five colors and three brush sizes
- Pen with 10 colors and four brush sizes
There isn’t a color wheel or a plethora of brush sizes, and all of the choices are accessible without the complication of a popover menu. Redo, paste, and template features that are used less often are tucked away but accessible from a popover menu. The writing itself is fast and fluid, with no uncomfortable lag. The strokes are smooth but aren’t as elegantly rendered as those in Penultimate or Notes Plus.
Swiping to the left on the pen colors reveals five additional choices.
Close-up input is a key feature of any PDF annotator worth its salt, and GoodNotes provides easy access to this feature. Entering annotation mode brings up an additional menu tab at the bottom of the screen. This tab provides a wrist guard and close-up button. The middle icon serves as a handle to adjust the size of the wrist guard. Resizing GoodNote’s close-up entry window can be done, but it’s inconvenient at best. The user can adjust the entry box size with a pinch to zoom gesture within the text-entry box or by awkwardly adjusting the wrist guard size. The developer could fix this issue with a pinch to resize gesture on the close-up box itself, which is a common feature of other annotation apps.
Write in the blue box to advance the close-up box to the next position.
At first it appears that GoodNotes is lacking a text feature, but it’s cleverly tucked away. Double tapping on the screen creates a text box that spans the two finger positions. This gesture brings up a keyboard that offers a variety of options:
- 12 fonts
- Easily adjustable font size
- Bold and italic styling
- Font, background, and border color
- Text padding
GoodNotes doesn’t shove a poorly-placed text menu in the user’s face. Combining text and drawing is a complex design task that GoodNotes handles quite well. Long tapping a text box will bring the user back to editor mode, and the text box can be resized with a simple drag gesture.
GoodNotes provides a set of customizable templates that can be used independently or inserted between pages in a PDF file. All of the templates are free, and the user can choose which templates show up in the selection menu. A recent update introduced notebook covers to the mix, so it’s easier than ever to tell notebooks apart in the shelf view. I can’t say that I’ll be using notebook covers anytime soon, but most users will appreciate the opportunity for customization.
If I’ve learned anything from testing and reviewing applications, it’s that most of the best applications focus on doing one thing well. All-in-one apps that claim to slice, dice, chop, and look pretty while doing so should be avoided at all costs, and it’s this realization that brought me to the focussed features of GoodNotes. It’s important to stress that the app is far from perfect. The close-up entry needs a bit of refinement, and attempting to create a text box often leads to stray marks, but these are small prices to pay for an app that stays out of my way and lets me get to work.
I’m still waiting for the perfect PDF application, but for now GoodNotes has earned a place on my dock. If you’re looking for an app that annotates PDFs well without being feature sick and complicated, then GoodNotes is worth a look.