Note-taking Applications for the iPad: Part 2

In Part 1 of my posts on the topic of notetaking apps for the iPad, Note-taking Applications for the iPad: Part 1, I discussed two available iOS apps, PDF Expert and Noteshelf 2, and described the ways in which students can use these apps to complete, organize, and submit assignments and decrease the amount of paper copies they have to manage. I also presented a checklist template for progress monitoring of notetaking skills.

In Part 2, I will discuss some of the differences between the two apps and present some pros and cons of each. I use both apps on a regular basis, and I do not endorse one or the other; each has its advantages and disadvantages. There are also other notetaking apps out there, but these are the two with which I am most familiar. Hopefully this information will spark some ideas for teachers and students about how to use notetaking apps to improve organizational skills and productivity (for both the students and the teachers!).

One of the biggest differences between the two apps is that the Noteshelf 2 app has a built-in scanning feature, so there is no need to use two separate apps to complete a scan and open the document directly in Noteshelf. PDF Expert requires that the document be scanned in a separate scanning app, such as the Notes app (as shown in the blog post, Notes and PDF Expert; Scanning, Editing, and Graphing) or ScannerPro, which is an app which can be purchased in a bundle with PDF Expert by Readdle. The document is then opened in PDF Expert. The ScannerPro app is a very powerful scanning app on its own, but it is slightly more expensive to purchase the bundle than to purchase PDF Expert alone (although the App Store often offers a discounted price for the bundle). At the time of this writing the price of Noteshelf 2 and PDF Expert by itself was the same; each cost $10.00. In any case, it requires one less step for students to scan and work with documents in Noteshelf 2, which is an advantage, but it is also a very fast process to use the Notes app or a scanning app to scan a document and then open it in PDF Expert, as shown in the blog post mentioned above.

Here are some other pros and cons of each app:

PDF Expert


  • One of the best features of PDF Expert is that it offers a text-to-speech option for downloaded PDF text files. This can be very helpful, because when using VoiceOver with either PDF Expert or Noteshelf, VoiceOver will not read the text of the PDF; it will only speak the buttons for the app itself. The text-to-speech voice is fairly natural-sounding, and the rate can be adjusted. As with all PDF files, however, the speech-to-text feature can only be used with a text PDF file, not a scanned file or a “picture” file. The text-to-speech option is working beautifully with some online articles that I recently downloaded as PDF files.
  • In the scanning function the app has both auto-scan and manual scan options. With the auto-scan option, it is not as critical that the student hold the iPad level with the document, and they do not have to have a finger free to touch the shutter button.
  • The app allows the student to format a file as a regular document or a “flattened copy.” In most cases students will save it as a regular document; a flattened copy can be useful if the PDF file has form fields, lists, or dropdowns, because it prevents editing of the values in those fields.
  • When a document is opened in PDF Expert, it is automatically in reading mode as opposed to annotation mode. That means that the student can first adjust the text as needed with scrolling and pinch-and-zoom magnification before making any markings on the document. It is very easy to enter annotation mode when the student is ready by clicking on the Annotate button at the top of the screen.
  • The app offers wrist protection, which allows you to rest your wrist on the iPad screen while handwriting without making unnecessary marks with the wrist. You can also customize the app for left- or right-handed writing.


  • You can view many types of files in PDF Expert, but in order to annotate them you have to convert them to PDF files before opening them in the app.
  • The app does not offer options for creating covers for notebooks or any other customization besides the choice of the color of the “paper” or background of a note.

Noteshelf 2


  • You can open picture files and Microsoft Office files in Noteshelf and annotate them immediately, without having to convert them first to PDF format. As I am an Orientation & Mobility Specialist as well as a vision teacher, I often use the notetaking apps for marking up screenshots of maps with routes and landmarks.
  • Students can choose and customize covers for their notebooks, which they enjoy, and color-coding can help with organizing the notebooks.
  • In addition to wrist protection and the ability to customize the app for left- or right-handed writing, the app allows the user to select from several different writing styles (that is, the angle at which you normally hold a stylus while handwriting).
  • While PDF Expert allows the user to view documents in different color settings ("Day", which is black-on-white text, "Night", which is white-on-black text, and "Sepia," which is black-on-sepia text), Noteshelf also offers the option of choosing from eight different background colors for the app itself. This background includes the toolbar at the top of the screen, and choosing a darker color scheme really improves the contrast of the items on the toolbar from the teal color that is the default color when the app is loaded.  


  • The app offers manual scanning only. The student must be able to hold the iPad at the correct angle and touch the shutter button to start the scan.
  • When a document is opened, it opens automatically in annotation mode. If the student wants to first scroll the text or use pinch-and-zoom to enlarge the image, the student must remember to touch the “x” button on the toolbar to exit annotation mode. After making the necessary adjustments, the student must go back and click on the pen or highligher button to begin annotating again.
  • The app does not offer as many advanced features as PDF Expert, but in my opinion most of these features were probably designed for professionals in the business world. Most students would have all of the features they need for their schoolwork in either app.

As presented in Part 1 of this topic, the following links will take you to the support guides for each app, which provide information on all of the features available in each app:

Noteshelf 2 user guide link

This guide is in the form of individual articles which you can open by clicking on the links for the articles. You can also access the “Knowledge Base” from within Settings in the app to find tutorials and “What’s New” documentation.

PDF Expert user guide link (link to download the PDF file of the entire user guide)

In Note-taking Applications for the iPad: Part 3 I discuss various types of styluses that are available for use with tablet devices. Although many of my students tend to lose styluses at an alarming rate and end up using their finger to interact with note-taking apps, I find that a good stylus makes it possible to use the various pens and highlighters with much greater precision.