There can’t be many iOS or Mac app for note taking that I still haven’t tried. As soon as I’ve reviewed an app, gone through all the setting up process and made a choice to switch, I start looking around for other apps. I have a major fear of missing out on something that could be a better fit. Truth be told it costs me a fortune, subscription services or expensive one off payments seem to be normal now - but not with Zoho Notebook.
Notebook by Zoho is completely free, with a promise for it to always to remain so. There are no adverts, no add ons and nothing to pay - ever. That’s a big promise but the costs of supporting the app are maintained by the developers other projects. They make a lot of other products, but have a huge aim for this one, for it to be the best!
Zoho set their stall out early and advertise themselves as a free Evernote alternative. “Looking for an alternative to Evernote? we can’t blame you” sits proudly on their webpage, indicating very early their intentions. They truly believe Notebook is a much better app, available for free with “roughly 80% of Evernote’s features”. Notebook is available for iOS and Android with a companion Mac app should you wish to work on desktop to. This includes a safari plug in for working with webpages, unfortunately there is no web access as yet.
An app for Windows is also missing, so this can’t be considered truly multi platform and offer everything Evernote does. Although with that said the Mac app is a relatively new addition, missed from several reviews so it may come in the future. The Mac app also support the 2016 MacBook Pro Touch Bar, so you can tap through shortcuts and also secure your notes with Touch ID as you can on an iPhone or iPad.
They also promise that they will never, in contrast to Evernote, look at your notes or information. There is a conflicting back and forth whenever this is discussed, however if that practice is a concern of yours then Zoho is the place to go first. Bare in mind also that sync is provided by their own servers and not iCloud so there is a small compromise to be made.
The Evernote comparisons don’t just end with the applications intentions either. It is clear where they get the inspiration from, but if I’m allowed to be somewhat subjective they do a much better job of it. Notebook is often considered one of the best looking notes apps you will come across, and I couldn’t disagree. The design and layout of every option is well thought through, if a little minimalistic. Great design is something that can become increasingly difficult when your app does as much as this one.
The main display of the app takes its inspiration from physical notebooks. Allowing users to split notes into different books based on whatever you wish. This could be the purpose of the note, or a category of your choosing. You can then customise these with its own front cover from a large selection and display the notebook to your own liking.
This is a design choice I have consciously stayed away from with other apps in the past and much prefer a traditional notes app display. There is no way to tag notes or display them on any other way than one notebook or another. This took a little getting used to, and feels a little strange. It is also worth noting that even on the iPhone 7 plus there is no landscape layout which is more than a little annoying.
Inside the Notebooks are your actual notes, displayed either by date or alphabetically. These are customisable with different background colours, although these can only be defined after creation. You can create simple text notes, but also drawings, voice memos and checklists. The display of the note is tailored for the note type, so audio is playable and images are very visible.
The four options to start a note are a little confusing at first, and it should be questioned if they are really needed. Notebook has the ability for a note to contain multiple note types, but you must start with a text note. So there is no ability to add text to a voice memo. Zoho should consider implementing a similar approach to OneNote and treat all notes the same, this would offer a much more understandable experience.
If you like to scribble down your thoughts handwritten notes are one of the most pleasurable things about Notebook. The developers have taken great care in making sure your quick doodles or jotted notes are taken care of. This works very well with the Apple Pencil, although you can use any stylus or indeed your finger if required.
There is nothing worse than spending ages looking for the note you previously made and Zoho does everything they can to make notes easy to find. There is no OCR on hand written notes unfortunately so search will only include your text notes but will search through all notebooks with perfect results on each version of the app.
You can also snap pictures, clip webpages and even add a full article into here - particularly handy if you read lots of webpages or store ideas all into one notebook.
One of the standout features of Notebook is their web clipper, which is something that every app with at least some enterprise ambitions must include. You’re able to easily clip text, images and also entire articles and save them to your included unlimited storage.
When clipping a webpage there is an inbuilt option to clear the page of everything other than the article. Which removes those pesky ads and videos we all hate. This option could help some eliminate a read it later service or a long list of bookmarks. It works surprisingly well, equal to that of Pocket or Instapaper removing all adverts but also images. Although it lacks some customisation for reading options such as font type so couldn’t completely replace an offline reader for pure functionality.
However Notebook could very easily replace a service such as Pinterest for saving ideas around any subject all in one place.
Zoho Notebook Verdict
The app is missing out on too many features for my personal use, but I do wonder how many people pay for a service such as Evernote and would be perfectly fine with this app. However there are some things missing to truly complete with the large services people use.
Much of my cons with the app are related to my specific use case. I would love to see a tagging and labelling system rather than based on traditional books. There is no way for me to add a note to more than one book, which might seems strange but some of my text needs to be displayed in multiple places.
There is also no collaboration or sharing available within the app with sync only provided by their own servers. Notes are not kept in iCloud or Dropbox so your pretty much locked into the service once started. There is also no URL scheme support available which is detrimental to my Workflow and therefore iPad usage.
With that said this new upstart in an already very crowded area is a welcome addition. If you are looking for something free, easy to use and with simple features there is no point looking anywhere else than here or perhaps Google Keep. The future looks very promising for Zoho Notebook as this is still a new app in development, so I will be keeping an eye on them with interest.