IOS 11 Notes app: how it works

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Is there a more versatile iOS app than Notes? It was one of the original iPhone apps, and with each iOS update it has become a more capable receptacle for our texts, images, checklists, and just about anything else you can think of. iOS 11, unsurprisingly, continues the trend, with some great new additions that take advantage of the iPhone’s camera and Apple Pencil.

Notes on iOS 11: Scanning documents

For some time now, many iOS applications have used your camera to “scan” paper documents. They work surprisingly well – you might never need to use a document or flatbed scanner again – but of course you have to know that they exist and then buy one of them over on the App Store. With iOS 11, Apple is adding basic document scanning functionality to Notes.

To scan a document, you type a note and tap the plus button at the bottom of the screen (or just above the keyboard), then choose Scan Documents. You will be presented with a camera view, and you will be prompted to position a document in the camera view. Notes will then try to detect the edges of your document, and you can tap to capture the document or wait a few seconds and the app will take the photo for you. Behind the scenes, the app uses the edges of the document to remove all traces of perspective, so the end result looks as flat as a piece of paper. (You can also change the automatic crop points if you think the final document looks too skewed.)

You can scan multiple pages into one document, so if you have a five-page document to scan, you can scan each page. When you’re done, tap Save to save the document in a note. From there, you can tap to open the full-size document, save it as a PDF, share it with someone, or use iOS’s markup feature to annotate it. Yes, that means you can now scan a document, sign it (with your finger via markup), and then share the resulting signed PDF. It’s pretty awesome.

I didn’t find Apple’s edge detection features to be as good as third-party scanning apps, but they worked perfectly. I was, however, disappointed that Notes didn’t offer any OCR functionality like third-party apps. This means that your scanned documents are not searchable. It’s awfully nice to be able to find text in a scanned document, but Apple chose not to support it.

Notes is a great app, but not everyone uses it and the document scanning feature is hidden behind that plus button. I’m surprised Apple hasn’t integrated document scanning right into the Camera app itself. It would surely be easier to find.

New Notes features for iPad Pro and Apple Pencil

Most of the other big new features in Notes are aimed at iPad Pro and Apple Pencil users. The best one is called Instant Notes, which lets you immediately start writing a note by hand on your iPad screen when you tap it with the Apple Pencil on the lock screen. If you’re sitting in a class or meeting and need to jot something down, you no longer need to unlock your iPad and launch the right app. Instead, a new note is created and you immediately write inside. (Because your iPad is locked, you only have access to this one sheet – you need to unlock the iPad to get full access.)

As much as I love this feature, I’m just as disappointed that every time you come back to it you had to start on a new page. From a security standpoint this makes sense, but from a practical standpoint, it might be better to let the newer Instant Notes item remain accessible for a bit longer, at least as an option.

Another new pencil-focused feature is Instant Markup, which eliminates the need to switch to markup mode when trying to write on a PDF or a screenshot with the Apple Pencil. For some file types, starting to markup on a document with Apple Pencil goes straight to markup, saving a step. It makes sense.

iOS 11 also introduces inline drawing in Notes and Mail, so you can take a document that has regular text and start writing underneath, and that writing will be included in the existing text document.

Finally, although Notes does not use OCR on scanned documents, it does do handwriting recognition. This means that you can search for text in your handwritten documents. This feature has been available on note-taking apps for a long time, but it’s never been available in the iOS kernel before, and it’s welcome. Notes will even try to use the first line you write as the title of that note, in order to display it in the notes list. (You can edit it later if your handwriting is as bad as mine.)


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