Think back to your grade school days. Were you ever taught how to take notes?
My guess is no.
Given note-taking’s long-established benefits to learning and retention, how could that be?
The short answer—according to this paper: Note-taking doesn’t get any respect!
More seriously, you don't generally learn to take notes because academics tend to minimize the knowledge and skill required to effectively do so.
So you're left to figure it out on your own. And many of us end up using a note-taking tool like Notion. Its clean, sophisticated style, enthusiastic user base, and all-in-one promise lure us in.
Why Notion isn't the perfect note-taking app
Notion is a well-designed app with tons of features. But, Notion’s learning curve is steep. And its versatility needlessly complicates what can be a much more functional, purpose-driven approach to note-taking.
A note in Notion can be just a note. But it can also be a database, or an interactive mini-app. It can include words, images, tables, or thirty other nifty content blocks.
A lot of these features get in the way of note-taking. Notes are often best when they are clean, simple, and short. More important than all these bells and whistles is having a way to get the info down when you need it, and stay organized without too much work.
Why are you even taking notes?
In this post, we’re going to overview several Notion alternatives to note-taking. These alternatives include:
- Google Keep
- iA Writer
- Microsoft OneNote
Before diving into features and functionality, though, make sure you keep the purpose of your note-taking in mind. Ask yourself: Why am I taking notes?
In our experience, depending on your style and role, what you’re trying to accomplish when taking notes includes one or more of the following:
- Informing decision-making
- Capturing action items
- Improving collaboration
- Organizing and documenting your ideas
- Creating an external reference
As I review each alternative, I’ll highlight how well they help you accomplish these ends.
Google Keep: For the Google Fanatic
If you have a G Suite or Gmail account, you have Google Keep. You can find it in the right sidebar of all your Google apps: Slides, Sheets, Docs, Calendar, Gmail and morel. And you can head to keep.google.com for the full product.
The interface is well-organized and straightforward, replicating the style of a corkboard. And if you choose to use colors, you can approximate the feel of a board full of Post-it notes.
Google Keep doesn’t have nearly the steep learning curve of Notion. But it still provides the standard features you’d expect with any note-taking app. Your notes can include text, lists, images, and audio.
Plus the integration with all things Google is seamless. Among other helpful features, you can copy notes over to Google Docs if you need to transfer them.
Keep’s search functions are solid too, with the ability to search notes by color, collaborator, and label.
If you’re already in the Google ecosystem and your goal is to collaborate effectively, organize ideas, and inform decision-making, Google Keep is sufficient.
It isn’t purpose-built for meetings like Hugo. And you wouldn’t use it to build a full-fledged wiki. But as a basic, free note-taking tool for Google users, you can’t go wrong.
- Free app: Yes
- Paid plan: N/A
Evernote: General Purpose Note Taking
Despite the last 4+ years of problematic changes, Evernote deserves a spot on your list of note-taking apps to consider. It provides a solid mobile experience, a comfortable interface, and an effective organization system using notebooks and folders.
It's a flexible product that syncs across all your devices and is even capable of searching handwriting. Plus, it provides a handy web clipper that seamlessly integrates into your web browsing experience. Evernote supports text, handwriting, PDFs, images, audio, video, and PDFs.
Unlike Google Keep, Evernote is platform-agnostic. So if you have a device and that device has a browser installed, you can use Evernote.
All that said, if you’re looking for a free note-taking app, you may want to skip Evernote. Its free plan only syncs up to 2 devices. And, if you’re a heavy user, the 25MB note size and 60MB monthly upload limits on the free plan may be deal-breakers.
Evernote supports your ability to take notes to improve collaboration and decision-making. And once you’ve become well-versed with the product, it’s a useful tool for building external references. If you’re okay with the price tag or can get away with the free version, Evernote is a good general-purpose note-taking alternative to Notion.
- Free app: Yes
- Paid plan: $7.99/month for Premium, $14.99 for Business.
iA Writer: For the Minimalist Note Taker
For a clean, markdown-oriented note-taking process, you can use iA Writer to take notes.
But first, the caveats. iA Writer lacks many of the note-taking features you’re probably familiar with. As of this writing, iA Writer doesn’t support searching for text in images. It doesn’t support attachments (like PDFs). And its organization system is fairly limited; all you have at your disposal are folders and tags.
On top of all that, while iA Writer is available for iPad, iPhone, macOS, Windows, and Android, each app is sold separately. Other than the Android app, which is $4.99/year or a one-time fee of $29.99, all iA Writer apps are $29.99 each.
Where iA Writer excels is its distraction-free interface and Markdown support. By writing notes in Markdown, you can easily convert them to HTML, which is very useful if you write on the web.
iA Writer is ideal if all you need is bare-bones functionality, you’re a fan of minimalist design, and you don’t mind paying. While you’ll still be able to create lists, insert links, iA Writer eliminates the distractions of typical rich-text editors like Microsoft Word.
- Free app: No (free to try)
- Paid plan: $29.99 (one-time)
Hugo: The Meeting Notes App
If you do most of your note-taking before, during, and after meetings, Hugo’s built for you.
By default, your notes are centralized and organized around the meetings in your calendar. Hugo works with G Suite, Gmail, and Office 365 calendars. And if you want, you can organize your meeting notes beyond calendar events into tags.
Also, you can create shareable meeting agendas and keep track of meeting preparation tasks.
One of Hugo’s most distinguishing features is its extensibility. Since it integrates with more than 20 apps used for work, you can sync notes to your CRM, push tasks to project management tools, and launch meetings all from within Hugo.
It’s one of the rare note-taking apps in which you can turn notes into action items.
Its Chrome browser extension is also useful for accessing your notes while you browse or during meetings. Just open and close the Hugo drawer when you need to check your agenda or jot a note down.
With Hugo, you get a meeting-focused notes app that enables you to prepare for, run, and follow up on more effective meetings. If your note-taking mainly takes place in the context of meetings, Hugo is the tool for you.
- Free plan: Yes
- Paid plan: $6/user/month for teams 11+
Microsoft OneNote: Best for Free General Purpose Note-Taking
OneNote’s interface will be familiar to anyone who’s used a Microsoft product, like PowerPoint or Word. But it’s available, and free, on iOs, Android, macOS, Windows, and in-browser.
In terms of functionality, OneNote and Evernote are very comparable, so I won’t dive into too many feature details. Maybe the biggest functional distinction is that OneNote uses OneDrive to sync across all of your Microsoft apps.
So if you don't have an office 365 subscription, you’ll need to upgrade for more storage.
If you’re looking for a versatile but not overwhelming note-taking app, and you don’t want to pay, OneNote is a good option for you.
- Free app: Yes
- Paid plan: Starting at $1.99/month for 100 GB
Ulysses: Premium Note-Taking for Apple Users
Ulysses is a powerful writing app that doubles as a full-featured note-taking app. With built-in export styles and various themes, Ulysses is a customizable tool that can:
- Import and export diverse file formats
- Publish to Medium and WordPress
- Organize with views, custom searches, filters and tags
In addition to its many note-taking capabilities, Ulysses is also particularly well-suited to the word processing needs of long-form writers.
You can navigate it entirely with the keyboard and, because you can split Ulysses into two panels, you can use one for writing and the other for reference. The rub is it’s only available for Mac, iPad, and iPhone users and there are no free options.
If you’re an Apple user, prefer minimalist design and you’re looking for a full-featured note-taking app made for long-form writers, Ulysses is the one for you. Unfortunately, Android and Windows users have to sit this one out.
- Free plan: Trial only
- Paid plan: $4.99/month or $39.99 ($3.33/month) when paid annually
LucidChart: Bonus Option for the Mind Mapping
LucidChart is a diagramming application that doubles as an online whiteboard. You can use it equally well for mind mapping, brainstorming, taking notes, and creating all kinds of graphs and charts.
It supports several common export options, diagrams are shareable, and it allows multiple, simultaneous editors. However, you’ll have to export your diagrams to share them with non-LucidChart users. And the free version has very limited storage, so you’ll have to pay.
Plus, there is a bit of a learning curve, particularly if you’ve never used a diagramming app.
If you wish you could create useful diagrams in your notes, try creating one for free with LucidChart. If you’re so inclined to make a few more, you can decide if it’s worth it once you hit the limit.
- Free plan: Limited storage
- Paid plans: Individual ($7.95/month), Team ($27.00/month)
A final note on notes apps
Think back to your note-taking “why”. Now take it a step further.
Don’t just think about why you’re taking notes. Think about where, and when.
You might be taking your notes during a meeting, on your laptop, in a meeting agenda. Or on the go, while you’re browsing the internet on your phone.
And you might be using these notes later, in a different place, like when you’re preparing for a meeting, putting together a presentation, or writing up research.
Does the note-taking app you’re using support your note-taking process from start to finish?
If not, you can save yourself a lot of time by ruling it out early.