Notability: An almost perfect app for journalists

As a journalist, I need to keep track of a lot of things. I have interviews to record and makes notes about, story plans to create, and a bunch of other tasks that don’t conveniently fit into one particular tool. Added to this is that I like using technology and that I hate using paper. I’ve had an iPad Pro for a while now – the smaller one with the 10.5-inch display rather the laptop-esque 12.9-inch model. I’ve also got one of Apple’s Smart Keyboards and the Apple Pencil. So, I had all the hardware I needed but not the software – until now. Notability has filled the void and is an essential ingredient in my productivity recipe.

The thing about Notability is that it can fulfil a massive array of functions. So, I doubt that I’ve discovered all it can do. But what I can say is that I can now travel for days on end with just my iPad Pro, its keyboard and Pencil and a charger. No need for a laptop or even a pen and paper. My main addition to that is a set of headphones for when I’m listening to interviews in a public space like a press room, or when I’m watching a movie when on a plane.

A quick look at the hardware

There have been lots of reviews written about the iPad Pro. And a year ago, I was not a fan of the iPad Pro as I found the device had just a few more limitations than I could handle. But over the the last 14 months or so, my client mix has changed, meaning some of the problematic systems I had trouble with are no longer part of my life. As it happened, my stepson needed an iPad for school so I handed him my iPad Air 2 and purchased the iPad Pro. I went for the model with integrated cellular data so I can use it pretty much anywhere without relying on public wi-fi.

That’s important to me as I have very low trust for the security of public wi-fi services. I attend many security events and compromised wi-fi is common as the presenters sometimes look to make an example of people in the audience. The iPad Pro display is very clear and big enough for crunching words and editing images – the two main tasks I do when it comes to putting stories together for my clients.

The Apple Pencil is a vexing item in my view. It is, far and away, the best stylus device I’ve ever used on a screen. Nothing else comes remotely close. But the price feels very high for what looks like a plastic stick. But there’s a lot more to it with all sorts of very smart features. I’ll get into those shortly.

The total cost of my set-up was

  • $929 for the iPad Pro 10.5-inch with 256GB of storage and cellular Comms
  • $159 for the Smart Keyboard
  • $145 for the Apple Pencil
  • Total: $1233

But you can trim $370 from that by buying the new iPad as that supports the Apple Pencil now and you can probably knock another $50 from the keyboard by going for a third-party unit instead of Apple’s option.

Quick information about Notability

Notability is a $14.99 developed by Ginger Labs and available for purchase from the App Store. It needs your device to be running iOS 10 or later and works on iPhone, iPad and iPod touch. But be aware that the smaller devices and older iPads don’t support the Pencil – which is what makes Notability so powerful in my view.

It does support some in-app purchases as well but these are just stationery packs that make you digital notepaper a little fancy. They aren’t essential in my view and I haven’t bothered with them.

In terms of how I use Notability, I’m going to use it to describe a number of specific ways I use it. So, this review won’t be a listing of features. It will be a hands-on look at how I use the application.

Interviews

I’ve been struggling with taking notes during interviews for years but Notability has solved my problems. Here’s what I do.

  1. Open a new note
  2. Press the record button on the tool bar
  3. Take notes while the app records

When I’m more organised, I even have my questions scribbled or typed into a note ahead of time.The real value of doing this isn’t in the recording and note-taking. It comes after.

When I play the audio back my handwriting is dimmed and it darkens as the audio plays so I can see what notes I took at specific times. It means that when I’m writing a story I can tap on the notes to skip the audio back and forth to specific parts of the interview as the app synchronises what I write with the audio. It’s a very neat feature.

The ability to draw a diagram during the interview and annotate it with the interviewee is really useful when I’m capturing complex ideas. I know that the LiveScribe system does the same sorts of thing but the beauty of Notability is that I don’t need a special pen or notebook. It all works with a device I already carry around.

I also use the highlighter pen to mark up things that are especially interesting. One of the neat things the Apple Pencil allows is that the strength of the highlighter varies depending on how hard I press the stylus tip against the screen. And, if I angle the tip so more of the conical stylus tip touches the screen, the highlighter marking is broader.

Conferences

As well as taking notes, like an interview, being able to snap photos of slides and presentations, directly into my notes, is very handy. Of course, I look like a little weird holding my iPad up to do this but it makes my conference notes far more comprehensive.

Meetings

Although I work for myself and from home most of the time, I’m not immune from the dreaded plague of meetings. Thankfully, most of these are over the phone but I do still need to take notes. In the old days, I’d scribble stuff into notebooks and finding notes pertaining to a specific meeting were a pain in the butt to find. Now, I have a folder set up in Notability called “Meetings” and they go in there. I just give them a title and add the date and time (there’s a handy tool for doing this easily) and I can find things quickly.

I can also share my meeting notes with colleagues and others easily. Notability allowed me, through the iOS sharing tool, to send a PDF of my notes to other people via text, email or through other collaboration tools I use.

Planning and scheming

Like many sole operators, I often have ideas for things I want to try or potential new business venture to explore. I’ve created a “Plans and Schemes” folder for capturing this ideas. As well as scrawling notes, I can create mind maps and other figures to help me out. I know there are specific planning tools for all this, but Notability puts it all in one place.

Are my pictures as pretty as I can creaste with a bespoke app? No. But I can easily draw a square and a approximation of a circle and some lines without needing a special tool.

Work planning

One of the things I didn’t expect Notability to help me with was my work planning. I’ve already discussed the paper-based system I used but I’ve created a template in Notability for this. Here’s what I did.

In Pages for the iPad (you can use Word or some other app if you prefer) I created a template that makes it easy to capture my regular weekly tasks. You can see it below.

I then imported it into Notability, into my “To Do List” folder. Each week, I copy the template and edit the title to represent the week it applies to. As things come up, I add them.

It’s a simple system. I find many of the electronic calendaring and scheduling systems overly complex. And nothing  beats the ease of a pen and paper. Notability’s tools include a highlighter and eraser so I can keep the list organised and ensure that prioritised items are easy to see.

And the ability to write in different colours means I can use a red pen to cross jobs off as they’re done.

Pulling all this together

I’ve now organised my work around Notability. I still use Evernote a lot. It remains my primary text editing tool and the ability to easily send a webpage or email to it makes it an essential tool for me.

Also, Evernote integrates with my scanner so I don’t retain any paper documents any more. And I can easily send text from Evernote to editors.

If I was trying to do everything Notability does with analog tools I end up with a notebook, several pens of different colours, some sort of erasing system and multiple highlighter pens. And I’d still end up having to flick through lots of pages to find stuff.

There are some features I’ve not yet touched on and not really used, other than a cursory play. For example, you can select a section of your handwritten notes and have them converted to typed text. My handwriting, particularly when I’m scrawling notes in an interview, is not great but it captured most of what I wrote on a few tests accurately enough to be useful.

Notability is a 21st century version of something humans have been using for thousands of years.

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