The Best Note-Taking Apps (Private, Safe, and Powerful)

Secure, private, and powerful note-taking apps everyone can use.
Odin Odin (181)

Note-taking apps are a bit like a digital thumbprint, only instead of the whorl on your thumb, it’s the pattern of your thinking that they identify. There are a whole range of different approaches and theories to note-taking, some of which have totally transformed the online article industry, others that have led to grand revolutions in personal development and organization for millions… but none of them are a one-size-fits-all solution.

We need to think about note-taking like an ecosystem, not a machine.

If we are going to think at our best, do our best job synthesizing the information that we encounter in the world, we need to have an effective way of grabbing that information and archiving it for later use. To do this, we need to think about note-taking like an ecosystem, not a machine. It’s not enough to say “this is the best note-taking app” because such claims are inherently false, there’s no “best” of anything! The closest we can ever get is through a systems-thinking approach: a little bit of everything is needed to create a well-functioning system of thinking, it’s just that the prevalence of one type of tool within that system will be higher or lower for you than for someone else (that’s the individual nature of the beast).

What do you use your notes for?

I’m an avid note-taker and passionate advocate for various modified forms of the Zettelkasten method of note-taking, which interlinks notes in such a way that even your old AP highschool notes can become a valuable part of how you think and solve problems far into the future.

Because I love note-taking, I’ve experimented with a wide selection of tools for note-gathering and review, and I’m excited to share some of these with you today. This is a short overview of each, comparing some of their key features and reasons why one or another might work best for you. If you have a note-taking app that you love which wasn’t mentioned on this list, let me know so I can include it in future updates!

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  • Microsoft Windows, MacOS, Linux, iOS, Android.

Obsidian is a powerful newcomer on the note-taking scene. Their team worked diligently on the code for this program during the lull in normal life routines provided by the Covid-19 pandemic, channeling all their vast creative energies into this project. What emerged was both a powerful tool for interlinked note-taking and a vibrant and passionate community that stands behind it.

Obsidian utilizes powerful markdown language to turn ordinary text files into an interlinked compendium of all your knowledge — a true “second brain” that you can feed and eventually interact with through review and exploration of older notes. It contains a number of great features, like plugins for expansion of base features, advanced markdown, a sweet graphical interface (fully customizable), and a (paid) built-in E2E encrypted syncing service. They also offer a paid publishing service that allows you to instantly publish your notes to the Internet, effectively creating your own fully functional online website based on markdown (which you can make public, share with specific people, or protect by a password).

There are a few other important points to consider:

  • Obsidian (for personal use) is free, for life.
  • Obsidian uses markdown and normal text files, meaning your data is never hidden within some weird proprietary format. It’s your data and you should be able to migrate it away from Obsidian as a platform any time you wish.
  • Obsidian’s development team is active and responsive. They’re building a community over there, not just a business.

My only real qualms come when I consider their paid products, and that’s purely due to cost. Access to sync and publish is cheaper by far than a product like Roam Research, but even with their “early bird” discount the cost of syncing is extraordinarily expensive for an ordinary user (and far more expensive than “pro” services provided by other note-taking apps like Bear). That said, the service that’s being offered is probably worth it. I might not have the cash to pay for that, but solid E2EE syncing alongside version control is a good investment for your personal knowledge database.

  • You can also just use your own syncing service because the Obsidian devs are awesome. So it’s possible to link up with Dropbox or another service through an intermediary app. I wish Obsidian would make this feature easier, but since that would be competing with their own I at least understand (even if I don’t agree with) their decision.

The price for having your Obsidian database published is likewise quite high, though again you’re getting something extremely valuable. Obsidian hosts your content, providing all the tech support for that process and making it a breeze to publish. It’s probably not something an ordinary user will go for, again, but I can also see the benefit. If I were to decide to make my note garden public, I’d absolutely do so through their service.

Ultimately, this is the best note-taking application on this list. Yes, it’s still new, and yes, there are pros and cons available, but between a dev team that cares and a really powerful tool (that puts control of your data back in your hands), I really cannot overstate how great this program is.

Standard Notes
Standard Notes
  • iOS, Android, MacOS, Windows, Linux, Web

Standard Notes offers more than just about any other app on this list in terms of bang-for-buck. The highlights are that it is: always free, always uses E2E encryption, is open-source, has automatic sync (with no data cap), can be used on unlimited devices, provides access through both remote and local means. Added to all that, their paid service can be as low as $2.48 per month (for a 5-year plan), and since that extended service offers you things like: unlimited encrypted file attachments, infinite undo (version history for 100 years), multi-editor support from rich-text to Markdown, cloud backups, 2-Factor authentication, and a wide variety of professional themes… well, that’s the right price for me.

I use Obsidian for my knowledge work, but Standard Notes is where my everyday note-taking lives

Of course, the basic version of Standard Notes is extremely minimalistic, and that’s going to put some people off… but there’s more to Standard Notes than meets the eye. While I totally recommend upgrading to the full version if you can, the free version allows for the use of powerful 3rd party extensions, including extensions that add advanced editor functionality!

The basic version of Standard Notes is nothing more than a plain text editor, easy to install 3rd party upgrades that provide things like simple markdown functionality and allow for simple list creation with a nice graphical checkbox to click and unclick. And let’s not forget that exporting your notes is easy and the files live locally-first, meaning that you maintain control of your notes forever.

  • iOS, Android, MacOS, Windows

Joplin has made a lot of waves in the FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) community because it’s so slick that anyone who uses it would be likely to think it the product of a major tech company. It’s essentially an Evernote replacement, with almost all the same functionality as that better-known app, but for free, and with the sort of built-in protections, like E2E encryption, that makes me a very happy tech reviewer indeed.

Joplin’s Cloud service opens up a whole… host (if you’ll pardon the pun) of advanced options, like web publishing, easy sharing, collaborative notebooks, and more. It’s not too pricey at the most basic level, so definitely worth it if those features are important to you.

  • Windows, Android, Linux; iOS coming soon!

Turtl is open-source, secure, and really, really powerful. Considering it’s being developed by a small team and the project is still pretty young, the features that it offers, like controlled collaboration on documents, mathematics rendering, image storage, and all their advanced encryption, makes this one heck of an impressive tool. The major downside is that it is, as I mentioned, still on the younger side, and it doesn’t have an iOS app yet (though one is in the works and will be coming soon). Once it’s out of beta, you can bet that Turtl is going to take off with speed, and as they gather investments and new users I’m certain we’re going to see them expand rapidly as a new hot-ticket on the secure note-taking scene.

Their free service is pretty limited, with only 50mb hosted space... but the project is totally open source and can be easily hosted on your own server, meaning you can at once increase privacy and get as much storage space as you need.

  • Windows, Mac, Web; Android & iOS as a PWA (Progressive Web App) so you'll get it straight from their site, not the app stores.

Cryptee is all about security and privacy, and bills itself as a storage solution replacement for Evernote, Google Photos, and similar. They allow for a large number of import options from other popular note services, though those notes will be placed into Cryptee's simple folder/file structure.

I really like the writing experience using Cryptee docs, it's fast and has all the basic features I'd expect from such a service. Having a good place to store more sensitive information is really nice, and I think that they have huge potential for a future climb through the ranks of privacy-focused cloud-suite companies.

Free memberships come with 100MB of free data space but, for 3 Euro a month (that’s about $3.50), you can upgrade to 10GB of space, and for about $10.50 you can upgrade to… 400GB of storage space. That’s almost half a terabyte of storage for the price of a hamburger a month. Considering that Cryptee offers some of the best security features around this is a really reasonable deal to make.

If there’s a downside, it's that the process of uploading data to Cryptee isn't very easy. Because they're a tiny 2-person team, they've opted to concentrate on their writing application as well as simply maintaining and upgrading the security features of their service. Cryptee will be a good solution when they can offer more. Right now, for instance, they only offer PWApps (basically, it's just an interface wrapped around a web browser that sends you to Cryptee when you open it). This is understandable because of their limited resources, but that limitation also heavily curbs the ease-of-use for their product.

Features I'd like to see: - Native Android and iOS applications - automatic upload options from the phone - Upload option for documents as well as images - Upload option for video files - More levels of payment, including lifetime subscriptions for multiple tiers of data.

Once they start pushing past their introductory phase, though, Cryptee is going to be a company everyone wants to use.

  • MacOS, iOS

Bear is an extremely powerful Apple-ecosystem note app that I’d heartily recommend based on its privacy features. With the paid service you gain the ability to encrypt individual notes, using a password or biometric to unlock them when you need them. As for the price of “pro”, it’s just $15 a year, making it extremely affordable for users like me who don’t have bundles of expendable cash.

Bear concentrates on providing a simple and aesthetically pleasing note-taking experience that automatically syncs across all your Apple devices, something that Apple users are starting to expect as a matter of course from their tightly-controlled ecosystem. The design really is quite lovely and smooth, allowing for a host of powerful features like inline styling that can handle automatic link creation and simple markup for your content. Other built-in features include word count and word targets, various export options that function quite nicely, a read-time estimator, and full version parsing.

Since it’s aiming to be a powerful writing tool as well as a note-taking app, I think Bear might be good for Apple users who are looking for an all-in-one solution. If only Bear could export to .docx format, then it would really rule the roost as a simple Word Processor replacement for basic (yet pro-level) writing. Even without that, though, it’s a powerful tool for those in that ecosystem, and its cost makes it a great choice for everyone.

  • MacOS, iOS

Craft is an Apple-ecosystem product, but its unique take on document formation, combined with powerful publishing and collaboration tools, makes it an interesting option for people who are looking for something different than the standard textual note-taking experience. Notes in Craft can have a lot of depth to them, with layers of blocks providing a lot of power in terms of structuring your content. Other important features, like bi-directional linking and instant syncing, are also handy.

My biggest qualms with this one are what you’d expect, coming from me: it’s not open-source, it’s not as secure and private as it could be, and exporting your notes isn’t easy making your data hostage to Craft’s nearly $50 per month charge. You can do better, even if they do have some cool features.

  • iOS, Android, Mac, Windows

Notion gets a mention here because it’s really advanced, like woah. It basically incorporates everything from card-organizations features like you’d find in Jira, with all the normal note-taking stuff you’d expect in WYSIWYG editor, with a whole host of powerful embedding, publishing, and sharing tools. It’s a great tool for team planning but I can’t give it my general-use recommendation because it doesn’t provide security, privacy, and easy interoperability. While data sent between the Notion server and the user are encrypted, data stored inside the Notion server is not — if their server gets breached, your data is running wild. Likewise, anyone in the company could, if they wanted, snoop on your data (and so could anyone who got access). Finally, it doesn’t appear to be the easiest system to port out of, which makes your data hostage if you ever wanted to move.

All that said, for tasks that are less personal, more functional, and those that are team-orientated, this is a great and inexpensive tool to use. Just don’t store your crypto keys on it.

Roam Research
Roam Research
  • Windows, MacOS, Linux

[Roam Research] made a big name for itself in knowledge work circles and has been used by teams at major tech companies and universities. Its block-based approached to interlinked note-taking and text manipulation is incredible, and it remains a powerful tool for note-takers everywhere. With that said, however, will never be my note-taking application of choice.

Roam utilizes its own custom file system. This may seem like an odd qualm, but ultimately it’s the killer that knocks any note-taking program off my personal list. Why? Because it means I cannot take my data where I want. Sure, Roam has an export feature that allows me to turn my notes into plain text, but it does so haphazardly, and the outcome is rarely something that can be reused without serious editing. And Roam could take away or limit that feature any time, effectively locking me in or forcing me to copy/paste everything elsewhere.

There have also been privacy issues with Roam, suggestions of how they handle user data, and security of that data that made me pause. Since roam doesn’t have any sort of E2EE in place, and since their platform is primarily server-based (their servers, mind), it creates an unsafe environment for your data. This comes back to the idea that your data should remain your data.

  • MacOS, iOS, Windows, Android

Evernote is a classic of the note-taking scene, and one of the most-used note apps in the world. But I don’t recommend using Evernote, and here’s why.

In 2016, Evernote was the focus of a wee bit of a scandal when they tried to force through a change in their privacy policy that would have made it impossible for users to opt-out of having their notes made available to be read by Evernote engineers. The company quickly backpedaled and made this an “opt-in” feature instead of a mandatory one, but therein lies the problem: they get to look at your notes if they want to. Sure, you can manually encrypt portions of your notes, but what lives on their servers isn’t yours. Besides, by supporting Evernote, you’re spending a huge amount of money that could be much better spent elsewhere in your life, so why not just switch to something like the Joplin app which can import Evernote notes and retain almost all Evernote’s advanced note-taking functionality?

Google Keep
Google Keep
  • Android, iOS, Web

Google is a very nearly ubiquitous term for the modern Internet and their applications are some of the most powerful around, with Keep being no exception. Bundled on many Android phones as a basic tool, Keep is used by millions both due to the lack of friction in acquiring it (since it’s often already there) and the simplicity with which the most common features of a note-taking application may be found and used. After all, most people who want a note-taking app are using it at its most basic level: a temporary memory storage area for daily tasks, chores, lists, and reminders. All of these things Keep handles well, though for anything more advanced it loses its appeal.

One of the most exciting features of Keep that often escapes people is the ability to set up geofencing on reminder notes. Simply define a location and Keep can ping you with whatever information you desire once you reach that location. This type of low-level automation is really powerful despite being quite young, and it suggests that truly automatic geofencing might take place in the future (where Keep knows that a “shopping list” is something you might want at any store).

Of course, there are some major downsides to using Keep as well, and these almost all arise in the form of vast privacy issues. By handing over your data to Google, you’re effectively providing them with a treasure-trove of information about how you function in life (even if they’re not looking at the actual content of your notes). Add cool features like geofencing into the mix and the pattern of your life is on display for the highest bidder.

Another big problem I’ve had is with Keep’s lack of version control. If you accidentally delete all the content in a note and then exit the note? Your information is gone, forever. That’s a pretty big problem even if you’re just dealing with minor things like a daily to-do list, let alone a larger and more serious project.

Obsidian is the ultimate note program around, the knowledge-worker's perfect friend.
Odin Odin (181)

Note-taking applications have been all the rage for years, with hits like Evernote striking it big enough to enter the public lexicon, becoming commonplace terms.