Harness the Power of Handwritten Notes with These Apps

Writing notes by hand have proven benefits when it comes to memorization and understanding.

Our brains have been rewired with the rise of digital devices in the past couple decades. We’re processing information, both through reading and writing , in different ways than our pre-gadget predecessors. This is by no means to a jab at technology, which has the power to make us more productive and efficient. It’s simply the truth — for better or for worse — about how we’ve adapted.

If you’ve been to a lecture hall or a meeting recently, you’ve probably noticed the proliferation of laptops and tablets replacing traditional pen and paper. Typing has its benefits, as many people are much faster at typing than writing freeform. Typed notes are also far more legible than the barely decipherable notes that we’re sometimes capable of. Saving all the notes in one place without the fears of misplacing them is also convenient.

There is a downside to typing notes instead of writing them the old-fashioned way — and it’s a pretty big one. We don’t remember or even fully understand what we type, compared to when we notes we take by hand.

This presents something of a problem. Somewhat ironically, technology offers some solutions to this dilemma. A number of apps mimic old-fashioned note taking while also offering the conveniences of digital apps.

Writing for the Mind

A handful of studies prove that writing something out by hand is better for memory than typing. Before you ask, these studies weren’t funded by the industries of big pencil or big notebook. It was just the work of curious researchers who were later published in Psychological Science.

In one study, college students took notes while watching Ted Talk. After a 30-minute break, they were tested on the material from the video. The students that typed their notes and wrote them down actually performed equally well on the part of the quiz that tested factual material. Where they differed, however, is in questions that were conceptual.

Those students who wrote notes by hand had a better understanding than their counterparts. Researchers found that computer users simply wrote down exactly what they heard rather than writing out their thoughts. When it came to the quiz, they were unable to recall those conceptual notions.

Follow-up studies found similar results and further evidence. Perhaps most interesting, researchers discovered that notes consulted a week after first taking them are more useful when handwritten rather than typed.

Using Your Hands

For those people in a professional setting, the ineffectiveness of modern note taking is a problem. Written notes taking can be untidy and cumbersome (how many words do you think you can write by hand before tiring?). Despite that, the reliance on writing everything down as fast as possible on our laptops turns out to be a disadvantage.

There are some elegant solutions out there that fuse the best aspects of each note-taking technique into one convenient package.


One of the best-regarded apps for handwritten notes is Noteshelf. The interface is excellent, but what sets Noteshelf apart from the others is just how easy it is to use despite its abundance of features. There are plenty of templates and the ability to annotate pictures, which is quite useful in both a professional or personal setting.

The ease of sharing the photos — either to Dropbox, Evernote, and elsewhere — is a welcome feature for those who are working on teams or like keeping their notes organized.

($7.99, iOS)

Google Handwriting Input 

While Google Handwriting Input lacks the frills of other freeform writing apps, it’s a useful tool. By installing it, you add writing functionality to your phone or tablet. Google markets this app as a complement to existing voice and typing inputs, and that’s exactly what this app does. You can easily switch between freeform writing and typing when using Google’s apps.

Since it’s merely a complement to existing input features, you’ll still need a note taking app. Google Keep, which comes default on most devices, isn’t the most sophisticated but definitely gets the job done.

(Free, Android)


If you’re familiar with note-taking apps, you’ve probably heard of Evernote. The makers of that popular program created the cleverly-named Penultimate, which takes a freeform writing approach to notes. This app integrates nicely with Evernote, so if you’re already using that program you should give Evernote a try.

(Free with in-app purchases, iOS)


Unfortunately, Apple users have the best picks when it comes to handwriting apps. There are, however, some good options for Android users. One of the most popular Android options is Squid (formerly known as Papyrus). This is an intuitive app that lets you markup PDFs. You can also easily shares notes via Evernote or email.

(Free with in-app purchases on Android, $1.99 on iOS)

Give Writing a Try

Habits are hard to break. If you’re accustomed to rapidly typing up notes with a keyboard, give any of these handwriting notes a try. It’ll be a tough transition at first, but science says it’ll be worth the effort. A better understanding of what you’re writing about is sometimes a good trade-off to typing fast.

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