Note taking


I know, I know, there are a million blog posts out there stating what the best note taking method is, but I don’t want to impose what I like to do to others. I would like to tell you my “note taking journey” (if you can call it that) to you with the hope that you might find some tool you can use to improve your workflow.

The beginnings: high school

When I went to high school, I used to take notes the old fashioned way: with pen and paper.

There is something in writing with real ink and real paper that simply no electronic tool can provide. For some, it’s the feel or smell of paper, the sound of a pen scribbling, the beauty of notebooks. For me, personally, it’s the friction between the pen and the paper: no electronic device that I have tried in the past has been able to recreate that feeling and, being used to it since I was little, it was tough to adapt to digital note taking initially.

The thing that made me switch to using digital notebooks was comfort: being able to have practically nothing in my backpack every morning instead of lugging around heavy textbooks was a dream come true.

Historically, my household has always been an Apple household, so my device of choice was an iPad Mini. I can’t recall the model, but it was before Apple Pencil support was introduced to it. In fact, I used a cheap passive pen that I found on Amazon back then to write my notes. It was pretty great for its price point of about €10.

While the iPad Mini might seem a weird choice for note taking, given its small form factor, it was very comfortable for taking notes during lectures.

The main app I used back then was Notability, a great note taking app that is still available right now.

Notability had (and still has) a great feature: you can have a small window overlaid on top of the page that zooms in on the current line you’re writing on and advances automatically once you reach the end of said window. This made writing on the iPad Mini much easier.

I also used digital versions of my textbooks, but the apps for those were abysmal then: laggy, ugly, unresponsive and broken. They were the apps that the textbook editors developed. I hope that they have become at least a little better since then, but I have no intention to find out.

At first, my handwriting was awful: the friction I was so used to from my pen scrubbing on paper was completely gone and I was left with a plastic stylus that slipped on the iPad’s glass surface. Getting the hang of this took a while, but I was determined: my back would never hurt again if I kept bringing my iPad only to school. So I persevered.

After a while, I adapted my handwriting to digital note taking, and it was great. I loved being able to make straight lines without needing a ruler or change ink without putting the cap back onto my pen and exchanging it with another one from my pencil case.

When I turned eighteen, endlessly in love with digital handwriting, I decided to ask my parents for an iPad Pro and Apple Pencil 2 combo. My wish was granted, and I never looked back. The latency given from the new 120 Hz screen was insane: now everything that I traced on my screen appeared nearly instantly, which helped me getting even better at writing with no friction whatsoever.

About accessories that enhance friction

Initially, I found the lack of friction unbearable, so I decided to try some silicone tips to put on my Apple Pencil nib in order to get some more control while writing.

I quickly found out that they are completely useless: they do not provide the same type of friction you would expect from a notebook, they just add more, which makes it more difficult to write on glass. I do not recommend those. Avoid at all costs.

Discovering new stuff: Markdown and GoodNotes

While in high school, I also found out about a cool little app called Bear, which is also made by Italians and was what introduced me to Markdown.

Markdown, in my opinion, is the best markup language you can learn, period. It is used everywhere, it’s extremely straightforward and provides a “what you see is what you get” experience like no other.

I started making some summaries of my handwritten notes in Bear and quickly realised I could create beautiful, typed notes that could be easily shared, printed and re-read.

My new plan was: take handwritten notes while listening to lectures and then summarise in Bear to study things faster.

In my last year of high school I also found out about GoodNotes 5, which back then I regarded as being better than Notability because of its note organisation: instead of writing single, separate notes, GoodNotes relied on actual notebooks that you could personalise: covers could be changed, the paper could be customised…

It was much simpler for me to create a notebook for a given subject than it was to create a divider and a topic in Notability, so I decided to try it out and sticked with it for my entire Bachelor’s career.

The database era: Notion

I continued using Bear until my first year in university, until it started to feel a little restrictive: the inability to resize images or create tables was limiting for a lot of summaries and notes I had taken, so I started looking for something more powerful.

I stumbled upon Notion, which you most definitely know. I was absolutely mesmerised by the sheer amount of things you could do with Notion while still using my beloved Markdown, so I moved again.

I organised my entire life in Notion: I made reading lists, videogame completion lists, movie lists, public databases for my notes, even a little guide for downloading and using an iOS Shortcut for the European Green Certificate back when The Event® happened.

The minimalistic era: Obsidian

This freedom to create was great, but it was also overwhelming. Too many things were going on in my Notion library, so much so that I stopped using it for everything that was not simply taking notes for university.

Furthermore, I was getting tired of its sluggishness: the Electron-based Mac app was terrible, it was slow and consumed a lot of battery very quickly.

The final blow that made me turn away from Notion was that I could not use it offline, unlike everything else that I had used thus far. So I started searching the web for a solution and found Obsidian.

Obsidian could recall Bear for its simplicity, but it offers so much more. It is still essentially a Markdown editor, but it’s extensible, meaning that the entire Obsidian community can create plugins to enhance its functionality.

One big feature of Obsidian is that your notes remain yours: all Obsidian offers is a nice way to organise and write your notes, but they are nothing but Markdown files, which you can decide to move at any time to another editor, another app.

I switched, and never looked back. I discovered so many great plugins and made great looking notes with just a couple symbols to get formatting done.

Plus, Obsidian is very actively developed, so new features come out often and provide incredible tools to all its users.

The betrayal: back to Notability

In 2023, With the release of Goodnotes 6, the GoodNotes community was annoyed, to say the least.

While GoodNotes had a great set of writing tools, it lacked very basic things, like a dotted or dashed line, a ruler, and the ability to have more than three colours on the toolbar.

The community asked for these features for a very, very long time, and never got them.

Then, suddenly, Goodnotes 6 was released, and people were excited to see what new things it would bring to GoodNotes, only to find out it was merely a way to jump on the AI hype train of 2022-2023: Goodnotes 6 only brought AI autocomplete and handwriting correction. No core features like the dashed line were added.

All of this was also crowned by the switch from a one-time payment scheme to a subscription-based service, which really annoyed loyal GoodNotes 5 users. There was still a one-time payment option, but the price was three times the latest GoodNotes 5 price.

I was so disappointed by the GoodNotes team that I decided to ignore Goodnotes 6 and return to Notability, which had exactly what I needed: a ruler and a dashed line, to help me with my Mechanics drawings.

The GoodNotes team added those features later (as in months later) and only to Goodnotes 6, which made me resent whoever decided to change the business strategy of the company.

The present: my current setup

So, after this very long journey, what am I still using and how?

Given the nature of my Master’s courses, I rarely use Notability anymore, because most of my lectures can be followed with a laptop only or summarised through the lecture slides directly into typed notes.

I would still recommend Notability over GoodNotes right now, although it is a subscription-based service. The only reason I don’t pay for its subscription and still get all benefits is because I had purchased it years ago, when subscription services weren’t as popular (or unpopular) as they are now.

If you have never purchased GoodNotes 5 before, then you might enjoy Goodnotes 6, but the switch makes no sense for a previous GN5 user.

I am also a very loyal Obsidian user and use it as my main note-taking app everywhere.

I recommend trying Obsidian Sync as well if you have iOS devices, since the only ways to sync to those is either through iCloud, which is unbelievably slow, or through the first-party sync service. It costs 9,99€/month, but if you are a student like me you can get 40% off a subscription through your educational email.


What I recommended above is not for everyone, but can be used by everyone: both Notability and Obsidian leave a lot of freedom to the end user, letting them use them as it’s best for them.

I recommend you do try other stuff out though: it’s only through experimentation that I found my ideal setup, so when you find something that catches your eye around on the Internet, try to use it. See if it can yield to an improvement of your workflow and switch to it if it does.

My general advice would be: stick to stuff that lets you keep your notes. Use Markdown files, editable PDFs or other file formats that you can keep, regardless of what app you’ll be using three months from now. Remember: no app sticks around forever.