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Notes on Notes in iOS 9

I wrote about a lot of great new features in “iOS 9: A Take Control Crash Course,” but sadly, there wasn’t room to explore Apple’s notable revision of Notes as thoroughly as I wanted. So here I am to do that in TidBITS!

In iOS 9, Notes evolves from a simple app that supported only plain-text notes to one that offers checklists for things like grocery and to-do lists; advanced formatting to create basic outlines; the capability to attach images, videos, and documents; and sketching, which lets you draw your ideas on the screen. With these features, Notes is now capable enough to be the primary note-taking app for most people, although those who have already settled on another solution may not be compelled to switch. But first, I want to address three mild annoyances.

Notes Annoyances — First, despite being overhauled, Notes’s interface controls maintain the dull yellow text on a white paper background look that’s been around since iOS 7. Yellow on white isn’t the most readable color combination, and how the background paper texture survived Jonathan Ive’s skeuomorphism purge, I’ll never understand.

The second annoyance is that even to see the new features and sync those notes to other devices, you must “upgrade” your Notes accounts after updating to iOS 9 (or OS X 10.11 El Capitan). The problem with doing so is that the Notes app in 10.10 Yosemite (and iOS 8) doesn’t support the new format, so notes in your iCloud account won’t sync until upgraded. You have two choices:

  • Upgrade Notes on your iOS 9 devices and use the Web app on unsupported devices.

  • Skip the upgrade until you install 10.11 El Capitan. If you want to try the new features, you can do so with device-only notes.

Before you perform the upgrade, it’s also important to note that the syncing protocol has changed as well to provide increased speed and reliability, so Notes will no longer sync via IMAP or Microsoft Outlook once you upgrade. Or at least that’s what Apple says, but one commenter noted that he was able to maintain IMAP-based syncing. Plus, although it’s unclear what protocols are in place behind the scenes, you can still enable note syncing in at least Google accounts created either in the Internet Accounts preference pane in OS X or in Settings > Mail, Contacts, Calendars in iOS. In either case, toggle note syncing off and on again if it’s not recognized at first. Using
Google for note syncing would also likely provide some level of compatibility with Android devices.

Device-only notes still require that the associated account (On My iPhone/iPad/iPod) be upgraded; if you see Upgrade next to On My iPhone in the Folders screen (tap the back button once or twice to get there), tap it. Your notes will be upgraded to the new format with no data loss, and if you had a “Local Notes” folder, it will be renamed to just “Notes.”

If you don’t see the On My iPhone header, you didn’t have any local notes in the previous version and there’s nothing to upgrade. However, you must then enable that account to be able to create device-only notes. Go to Settings > Notes, and turn on the On My iPhone account.

Either way, once you have On My iPhone with a Notes folder underneath it, tap Notes to go into that folder, where you can tap the new note button in the lower-right corner.

The third annoyance is that you can attach only one photo or video at a time, even though a note can hold multiple photos and videos. Also, unlike in Mail in iOS 9, it’s somewhat fussy to insert other types of attachments in a note — I’ll explain how you can do that in a moment.

Making Checklists and Formatting — To check out the new features in Notes, create or open a note, tap in it to start editing, and then tap the plus button above the keyboard on the iPhone and iPod touch to reveal their buttons. The iPad has new QuickType buttons for each of the new features, so there is no plus button.

To create a checklist, tap the checkmark button. A checkbox appears to the left of your cursor. Enter your first item, and tap Return to create the next one; tap Return again to remove the checkbox from that line. To work with the list, tap a checkbox to toggle its checked state. That state is purely visual; Notes doesn’t delete or move checked items or do anything else with them.

To format text, tap the Aa button. Each formatting option applies to the entire line that the cursor is in, so there’s no need to select text first. Here are the formatting choices you can apply:

  • Title
  • Heading
  • Body
  • Bulleted List
  • Dashed List
  • Numbered List

Unfortunately, you can’t nest lists to create proper outlines, but between Title, Heading, and the different lists, you can create a working approximation.

Adding Links and Attachments — The most obvious way to add an attachment is to tap the camera button, which lets you insert a photo or video in your note.

What about other types of documents? You have two choices here: a link or an attachment. With a link, all that shows up in your note is a box that, when tapped, opens the original document in its original app (or as close as Notes can get; a linked story from the News app opens in the News app on an iOS device, but in a Web browser on the Mac). An attachment, in contrast, is actually embedded in the note itself, and tapping it opens it within a viewer in Notes.

The trick is that you don’t initiate embedding a link or an attachment (other than a photo or video) from within Notes, but instead by tapping the Share icon in another app, while viewing the document you want to embed. If you tap Notes in the middle bar of the Share sheet, you’ll get a link to the original; if you instead tap Open In (sometimes called Open In Another App), and then specify Notes as the destination, you’ll get an attachment. If Notes doesn’t appear in either the middle bar (for a link) or the bottom bar (for an attachment) that presumably means that the original app can’t share data with Notes in either way.

For example, if I have a PDF open in Dropbox, I can tap the Share icon, and then tap Notes in the middle bar to insert a link to the PDF into a note. If I instead tap Open In, and then select Notes, the PDF itself will be embedded in the note. Sharing a pass in Wallet, however, doesn’t offer Notes as an option at all.

Of course, you can also send links from Safari to Notes, which I use to make a daily list of potential links for ExtraBITS. I’ve found a variety of other creative uses for link sharing in Notes. For instance, if I’m listening to a great song on Beats 1 that hasn’t yet been released, there’s no way to add it to my Apple Music collection. But I can link to that song in a note, so I can look it up later.

Either way, when sharing an item to a note, you can either make a new note or tap next to Choose Note to add the item to an existing note. Confusingly, if you have multiple accounts enabled, you’ll be able to share only to the account that’s defined in Settings > Notes > Default Account for Siri.

To delete any kind of attachment, bring up the keyboard, place the cursor to the right of it and tap the Delete key on the keyboard twice, once to select the attachment and a second time to remove it. Alternatively, you can tap and hold the attachment, and then tap Delete in the popover.

Sketching — Last, but certainly not least, you can tap the sketch button to make a drawing inside a note (sketching requires at least an iPhone 5, fourth-generation iPad, or a sixth-generation iPod touch). Here are the available tools, from left to right:

  • Pen: draws a medium-sized line
  • Marker: draws a thick line
  • Pencil: draws a thin line
  • Ruler: assists in drawing straight lines
  • Eraser: erases what you’ve drawn
  • Color Picker: lets you select the color to draw in

Most of the tools are self-explanatory, but I’d like to touch on the ruler tool a bit. When you tap its icon, a ruler is placed on the page. You can drag it around and adjust its angle by placing two fingers on it and rotating it. Once the ruler is in position, use it just like a real-life straightedge: draw alongside either edge to make a straight line. To hide the ruler, pinch it with two fingers until it shrinks to oblivion.

Undo and redo buttons let you fix mistakes. You can rotate the canvas by tapping the rotate button in the upper right, in case you started drawing in one orientation but wish to switch to another. You can also tap the Share button to save or share just the sketch separately from the note.

Inside the note, your sketch acts like an attachment. Tap it to edit it, or place the cursor to the right of it and tap the Delete key to remove it.

Sketching inside notes is neat on any iOS device, but I imagine that the best experience will come on the new iPad Pro paired with an Apple Pencil. Also, the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus can reportedly both take advantage of 3D Touch in sketches, so if you press harder on the screen with the pen tool, you’ll get a thicker line; the marker and pencil tools draw darker lines when you press harder.

Organizing Notes — If you’re considering switching to Notes as your main notebook app, you’ll want to know how to organize your notes. Unfortunately, Apple doesn’t offer any advanced capabilities here, just folders and search. But those two together can meet most needs.

First, if you’re wondering how to title a note, the Notes view displays whatever the first line of text says. So to name a note, just enter the name you want on the first line. To ensure that the first line is always formatted as a title, go to Settings > Notes and set the New Notes Start With option to Title.

To create a folder, tap the back button until you’re in the Folders view, and then tap New Folder. Choose an account — unless you have a reason to keep notes on your device, I recommend keeping them in iCloud or another cloud-based account so they sync to other devices and aren’t lost if you want to restore the device from scratch.

The downside to folders is that they haven’t yet been implemented in the iCloud Web app, where all of your notes are instead just dumped into one view.

If you want to move existing notes to your new folder, enter the folder that the notes are in, tap Edit, select the notes you wish to move, and then tap Move To.

To search notes, pull down on the screen until you see the search box, tap in it, enter your search term, and tap Search. While Notes doesn’t have separate tagging functionality, searching finds any words you insert into a note, so you can add your own “tags” to the end of a note if you wish.

Search is more powerful than you might think, since it searches within attachments too. For instance, I inserted an entire copy of “iOS 9: A Take Control Crash Course” into a note, and searching for words in the book caused it to appear in the search results (give Notes a few minutes to process the PDF before this works). Unfortunately, you can’t find a specific location within a PDF in Notes, but that’s what iBooks is for.

Notes can’t compare to a power-user tool like Evernote — which offers power-user features like tagging, voice notes, adding notes via email, Google Web search integration, Web clipping, and more. While Notes may not offer enough features to lure away users of other note-taking apps, in iOS 9 it’s now sufficiently capable for many users, while remaining simple to use. As a bonus, since Notes and iCloud are built into both iOS and OS X, you won’t have anything else to download or configure when you set up a new Apple device.

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