How to use the Files app to replace your lame notes app

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After trying the millionth notes / scrapbooking app for iPad, I realized I had to ditch the apps altogether and just use the built-in Files app. It can be very limited as a true file browser, but Files has big advantages over scrapbooking apps. It makes everything available for Spotlight searches, for example, and it doesn’t create duplicates of your files because you’re still working with the originals.

Another huge benefit is that PDF tagging with Apple Pencil is instantaneous. With every other PDF editor I’ve tried, you have to tap to enter markup mode. In Files, you just start writing to the PDF. And that’s just the beginning.

Let’s see how it all works.

All other scrapbooking and note-taking apps

Here’s what I’m using an Evernote-like app for:

  • Keep and annotate PDFs of musical scores.
  • Keep PDFs of user manuals.
  • Storing video tutorials I downloaded from YouTube using shortcuts.
  • Creation and visualization of textual notes.
  • Storage and annotation of photos.

When I realized that I could do most of these tasks in Files, I was elated. Then I realized that I could easily add other features using shortcuts, and I was into it.

Tags in the form of notebooks

I have never really managed to get the beacons to work until now. I always found stuff by researching it, and if something had to be in a particular location, I would put it in a folder, like Jobs wanted. But this time around, the tags just clicked.

In this setup, I am using tags as a kind of super flexible notebook. Whenever you create a tag in the Files app, it appears in the Files sidebar. Just tap the tag to view all files with that tag. It has a few limitations – only files marked in iCloud Drive appear. If they’re stored in the file silo of another app, like Dropbox, they don’t appear when you press the sidebar tag button.

To add a tag to a file or folder, you just need to long press on it and choose the tags in the pop-up bubble. This opens the Edit Tags panel. You can create and assign tags here, or just drag a file to a tag in the sidebar.

Tags vs folders

The advantage of tags over folders is that you can add multiple tags to the same file, so that it can appear in multiple places at once. For example, I keep a tag for music notes, and also one for work In progress. This way I can see all of my scores in one place, as if they were in a folder, but I can also mark something I’m currently learning as In progress. Later, I can remove this tag, but keep the Notes label. It’s no different than tagging on any other platform, but it works so well on iOS. This is because tapping a tag in the sidebar acts just like tapping a folder. It’s instant and you can sort the view however you want.

Instant markup

The other thing I love about the Files app is the instant markup. It doesn’t sound like much, but on a daily basis it makes a big difference. You just start drawing on a PDF (or an image), and the pencil works. Just like a real pen and paper. These are also standard annotations, so they stay with the PDF if you open it in another application.

The actual PDF file viewer is limited. You cannot search in a PDF, and you cannot preview the page grid. But for that, you can just use PDF Viewer Pro, which will open PDF files from Files app without duplicating them.

Shortcuts for advanced users

I quickly realized that there were a few things I needed to do in an Evernote-style app that couldn’t be done natively in Files. These are:

  • Merge multiple PDFs into one.
  • Creation of a new blank text file.

It took me ten minutes to fix this, using a few shortcuts. The first one allows you to select multiple files, combine them into one PDF. It’s not limited to PDFs either. You can also add images. It’s here:

This shortcut combines multiple files into one PDF.

Just select a few files and share them with this shortcut. You can give the resulting file a name and choose where to save it. The following is just as simple:

Create a blank text file in the iOS Files app. Create a blank text file in the iOS Files app.

This creates a new, blank text file with the name of your choice. Once it’s created you can just tap on it in the Files app and it should open in the text editor you have on your iPad. I am using Textor, which supports opening in place. That is, it opens the file, lets you edit it, and then saves the original, just like it works on a Mac. Textor has disappeared from the App Store, but something like Pretext should do the trick. For this shortcut, I save the icon on the action-based home screen of my iPad so that I can create a new text file with one click.

Also works on Mac!

The advantage of this setup is that it also works on Mac. All of those Files tags sync to become Finder tags, so you can continue where you left off.

Now, I’m not trying to sell this method as a replacement for all Evernote-style apps, but for me it’s more than enough. And because it’s so simple, anyone can use it. I used to be into all kinds of crazy do-it-yourself solutions that required shell scripts and other nonsense, but these days it has to be simple. I also like to use built-in tools, so if a third-party app dies I’m not left behind.

Give it a try and let me know if you have any cool tips to use with it.


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