Notion, a sophisticated note-taking app with a sleek design, arrives on Android today. The app, which can serve as a powerful replacement for apps like Evernote and Bear, offers a highly flexible interface for taking notes and creating to-do lists, letting you organize your tasks into tables, kanban boards, and calendar views. After initially aiming at the corporate market, Notion also recently introduced a cheaper subscription plan aimed at individuals: $4 per month for unlimited storage.
The most popular note-taking apps will always be the ones that ship free with your phones. To succeed — and get you to pay for them — developers need to create novel, useful features that go well beyond what the system default can do.
Evernote led the way for years on this front, before sputtering into a sad stasis. More recently, Bear won over many fans with a sleek, simplified interface that emphasized speed and organization. But so far, it is available only on iOS and the Mac, limiting its utility for people who don’t work on Apple products.
That creates an opening for a company like Notion, a two-year-old San Francisco startup led by CEO Ivan Zhao. The company focused first on businesses, building tools for teams to track tasks and manage projects in a fashion similar to enterprise software products like Asana and Trello. A free version of the site lets you create 1,000 of what the company calls “blocks” — any item you add to a Notion document, whether it’s a task, an embedded map, or a calendar. After that, teams pay $8 per user per month.
Recently, though, the company introduced a $4 monthly subscription for individuals. That puts the cost in between the premium versions of Bear, which costs $1.49 a month or $15 a year; and Evernote, which costs $70 per year. If you’re looking for a note-taking alternative or you just enjoy putting productivity software through its paces, Notion is well worth a look.
Open the Notion app, and you’ll find an option to add a new page. Tap it, and you’ll see a selection of templates you can use, from simple to-do lists to design specifications, coding guidelines, mission statements, and blog posts. Once a document is created, you can link it to any other document. (A calendar you create once can be added to multiple notes, for example.)
Everything gets organized in a collapsible outline on the left-hand rail beside the page you’re looking at. You can tap and hold to reorganize pages however you like, and the outline gives you a nice, high-level view of your top projects.
When I visited Zhao at the company’s offices, he showed me how Notion’s entire business runs on Notion. On one set of pages, the company tracks its product road map and the bugs it’s in the process of squashing. On another, the team wrote draft blog posts for its website. Zhao and his team also maintain a list of blog posts and other reading material that they believe their colleagues would be interested in.
By now, office workers have a variety of good options to choose from when tracking work like this. The choice often comes down to 1) who’s making the decision, and 2) aesthetics. So it’s worth noting that Notion is a strikingly good-looking piece of software. A simple black-and-white color palette is accented with colorful emoji that you can use to represent any page. Bold page headers draw attention to the content of your pages. And you can dress up your pages in countless ways, from custom header images to embedded photos and videos.
For now, Notion has two key drawbacks. One is its sheer depth: opening Notion for the first time can be intimidating, despite the startup’s ample efforts to hold your hand through the process of creating your first note. Every time you create a note, you’re presented with more than half a dozen templates, making the creation process feel more suited to a minor desktop publishing project than jotting down a few key points at a meeting.
The second, related drawback is Notion’s speed. Individual actions can be quite fast, but navigating the app itself can be slow. Notion has a good list of keyboard shortcuts to help you navigate, but I find myself doing a lot of scrolling as I learn the interface to hunt down the particular tool I’m looking for.
Notion’s power is its selling point, but it can feel like a drawback, too. When it comes to taking notes, speed is paramount, and the feature set is secondary. Testing Notion over the past couple months, it could feel like I was using a Lamborghini to do a task better suited for an electric scooter.
Still, Notion is an impressive piece of work. I can imagine lots of teams — particularly smaller teams — finding it a happy home to organize the bulk of their work. And for individuals who work with lots of embedded documents and files, Notion could be an ideal solution.