The Best Note-Taking Apps for 2021

What Makes a Great Note-Taking App?

Having a good note-taking app is like having your own personal internet where you can look up anything you might ever need to know about your work or personal life, no matter where you are. What movies and books did my friends recommend? In that meeting last month, when did the client say they needed approval by? Where’s a copy of my eyeglasses prescription? Note-taking apps can help you be more organized and more productive.

With the right note-taking app, you can make notes about anything and sync them to all your devices. You can keep a daily diary, snap pictures of whiteboards filled with meeting notes, save screenshots from virtual meetings, and record lectures while also writing down their most important ideas in the same place. You can make to-do lists, save and annotate recipes, keep a record of everyone to whom you should send a thank-you card, save copies of your kids’ vaccination records, and on and on. The use cases are endless.

The real value comes in being able to organize, share, and find the notes you need when you need them. The best note-taking apps have powerful search tools and various ways to organize and catalog your notes. Some use optical character recognition (OCR) to search text even when it’s in an image or PDF.

Many of the best note-taking apps also have email forwarding, meaning you can forward an email to a special address and have the message turn up in your note-taking app as a note.

Ultimately, the best note-taking app is the one that clicks for you and the type of notes you take.

Best Free Note-Taking Apps

Several of the best note-taking apps are free or at least have a decent free tier of service. Typically, if you want to use a note-taking app for free you can, as long as you don’t exceed the free storage limit.

Microsoft OneNote has the most features of any free note-taking app, and Joplin is our favorite free and open-source option. Both are Editors’ Choice winners. With OneNote, storage comes from OneDrive, where you get 5GB for free. You can pay $1.99 per month for 100GB of storage, which is a fantastic deal, or get 1TB of storage with a Microsoft 365 account, starting at $6.99 per month. With a Microsoft 365 account, you also get several Office apps, so it’s a lot of bang for your buck.

With Joplin, you have to bring your own storage, so the true cost of that app comes down to how much storage you need and where you get it. It works with Dropbox and OneDrive, among others.

Other totally free note-taking apps that we list among the best are Google Keep, Zoho Notebook, and Simplenote.

Best for Business Use and Collaboration

We have one more Editors’ Choice winner, and that’s Evernote Premium—which is not free. Although Evernote does technically have a free tier of service, we do not recommend it because it’s too restrictive to be worth using. Evernote Premium costs $7.99 per month or $69.99 per year. There’s also a Business version that runs $14.99 per person per month with a minimum of two people. 

Evernote has a multitude of impressive features, a generous storage allotment that renews monthly, and impressive collaboration features. You can share notes with others and co-edit notes. You can even get suggestions for related notes based on keywords and other metadata about the notes, which is helpful in business environments in particular.

Regardless, the price for Evernote Premium is high, and loyal Evernote users have been let down by the company more than once in the last few years, due to unexpected changes in the pricing and plans, plus an inexcusably buggy app update. Although Evernote remains an Editors’ Choice winner for its overall standing among note-taking apps, we’ve lowered its score to reflect these issues.

We have one other semi-related pick for business use, or rather, team notes and task management combined. Notion is a relative newcomer to the space that still has a lot of kinks to work out but is a promising app. To get into Notion, you have to clear a lot of setup hurdles. The app has a confusing structure. It’s all too easy to clutter the interface with needless junk. If you can manage, however, Notion can be a powerful tool for teams.

Best for Students

Note-taking apps are great for students, and our top pick for them is Microsoft OneNote. Not only do you get a lot for free, but also the app has a few features that students may want.

On touch-screens, for example, you can write by hand and make sketches for classes in biology, physics, and others. With a Microsoft 365 account (free for students and educators), OneNote recognizes math equations written by hand and can solve them. OneNote is also one of very few note-taking apps to still offer in-app audio recording, letting you capture entire lectures to listen to again when it’s time to study. If you do go this route, be sure to check out our tips on How to Use OneNote to Take Notes for School.

Best for Creatives

The best note-taking app for designers and other creatives is Milanote. This app has the freeform feel of a diagramming or mind-mapping app, while still being a note-taking app.

It gives you boards (instead of pages) where you place images, text notes, to-do lists, color swatches, URLs with previews, and other material. You move the elements around however you like on the board. You can overlay arrows and emoji, or publish your boards to a public link to share them with others. Milanote also supports full coauthoring, so multiple people can work on a board simultaneously. Though unique, Milanote does have some room for improvement still. Even so, it’s the best note-taking app currently available for creatives.

Best for Text-Only Notes

If the only kind of notes you intend to make are text-based, then you don’t need a feature-rich app. Simplenote by Automattic (the same company behind WordPress) is a free note-taking app that syncs to all your devices and comes with no storage limit, but it only supports text.

It’s easy to use, lightweight, and totally reliable. If you don’t need an app that can save images, scanned documents, sketches, and other multimedia, then Simplenote is a very good option.

Take Notes, Sync, and Go

In past years, PCMag had only one Editors’ Choice winner among note-taking apps, so it’s a pleasant change of pace to now have three top contenders: Evernote, OneNote, and Joplin. These apps and the others on this list, let you capture your ideas and stick them somewhere useful. That way, no matter what you need to know and no matter where you are, you can pull up the information you need.

While you’re thinking about notes and note-taking, you might also check out our 10 Tips for Managing Your Digital Notes.

About Jill Duffy

January 14, 2021
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