GoodNotes: Simple PDF Annotation

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?


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Design

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.

GoodNotes' read-only mode stays out of your way when it's time to review your notes.

GoodNotes' read-only mode stays out of your way when it's time to review your notes.

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 shelf view is nothing special but makes it easy to keep your files organized by class or subject.

The shelf view is nothing special but makes it easy to keep your files organized by class or subject.

Importing/Exporting

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.

GoodNotes gives you access to any folder in your Dropbox, or you can even create a new one.

GoodNotes gives you access to any folder in your Dropbox, or you can even create a new one.

Multiple files are zipped before being exported to your destination of choice.

Multiple files are zipped before being exported to your destination of choice.

Annotation

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
  • Eraser
  • Lasso
  • Undo

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.

All of the vital annotation features are available in the tool bar at the top of the screen.

All of the vital annotation features are available in the tool bar at the top of the screen.

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.

The wrist pad handles can be used to adjust window size, but this is clunky at best.

The wrist pad handles can be used to adjust window size, but this is clunky at best.

Write in the blue box to advance the close-up box to the next position.

Text

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
  • Justification
  • 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.

Text is highly customizable, and GoodNotes hides the formatting menu until it's needed.

Text is highly customizable, and GoodNotes hides the formatting menu until it's needed.

Templates

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.

The template menu offers a variety of paper styles and notebook covers.

The template menu offers a variety of paper styles and notebook covers.

Wrap Up

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.


Summary

GoodNotes is a simple note taking application for creating and sharing handwritten notes and PDF mark-up.

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  • Chris

    For me in my first year at university, nothing can beat GoodReader. While the annotations feature is rather new, it is more than I need to get my work going. I think you’re better off paying 1$ more for a full-featured document manager!

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  • Charles

    I have GoodNotes too and love it but have you found a way to permanently add templates to the app’s collection? Or do you know if someone has amassed a collection of additional templates (day planner, etc.) for people to download?

    Thanks.

  • kyle

    to add a custom template open your custom pdf “template” then select the plus sign and go to other templates, from there there is a plus sign in the upper left hand corner wher eyou can click and save your template as a new custom template.

    ps, if you ever find a stock library that would be amazing!!!

  • Amie

    Okay I need help, every time I open my book the whole app crashes and the program closes, it’s only that one book that I have and I need to use it for study and I can’t look through any of it HELP!!

  • Jen

    I love using Goodnotes, but it keeps crashing whenever I try to export it as a PDF. Any ideas?

  • Becky

    Question
    I Need to transfer all of my goodnotes books to a new iPad. When I export, a zip file is placed in my Dropbox. I cannot figure out how to open the zip. Dropbox will not open, goodnotes will not either. Any help would be appreciated.
    Thank you