How to replace a paper notebook with your iPad


lock screen notes
The iPad might finally be better than paper.
Photo: Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac

The iPad has replaced many things — it’s a TV, it’s a games console, it’s a book, it’s a (huge) camera, and it’s even a typewriter. But until recently, it hasn’t made a very good alternative to paper. But thanks to the Apple Pencil, and to iOS 11, that has changed. Now you can write and draw a note without even unlocking your iPad, and you can search for anything you write, just as if it were text. Let’s check out lock-screen notes.

The Apple Pencil is essential

If you tried to take notes on the iPad in the past, you will have come across a few problems. One was that, if you used a stylus, then your hand would always smear your ink. That is, whenever you rested your hand on the screen to write, it would register a touch. You’d end up trying to write with your hand craned over the page to stop it touching the paper, just like left-handers have had to do ever since we invented left-to-right lettering.

The Apple Pencil cures this completely. Whenever you use thr Pencil, the iPad ignores input from your hand. This lets you use the iPad just like a sheet of paper, laying your hand down however you like, with no chance of errant marks. Even better, the iPad can tell the difference between your fingers and your Pencil, so that it can trigger different actions. The iOS drawing app Linea Sketch, for example, lets you erase the drawing with a finger, without having to select an eraser tool first.

Then, the Apple Pencil is pressure sensitive, to better mimic the feel of pen on paper, and can even make different marks based on the angle you hold it at. In short, the Apple Pencil is a pretty good computer version of a wood-and-graphite pencil. Together with the Notes app, it’s a killer tool.

Lock-screen notes

The other part of the equation is lock-screen notes. This feature (new in iOS 11) lets you create or open a note just by tapping the Apple Pencil pencil on the iPad’s lock screen. You have to wake it first, by pressing the sleep/wake button, or the Home button, but then you just tap Pencil to screen and a new note opens on the screen.

This makes a huge difference to note-taking with the iPad. The old worst-case scenario was that you’d have to wake your iPad, find and open the Notes app, and then tap to create a new note, or navigate to the one you were using. Even in the best case, you had to futz with waking the iPad and unlocking it, just to get to the note you were writing a moment before.

This was annoying when used alone, but if you were in a meeting, or a class, then it would be distracting for you, and for others.

The new behavior is almost as good as pen and paper. The gimmick is that the iPad will open up a note even if the iPad is locked with a passcode. That means that you never have to think about unlocking before you get writing.

If that doesn’t sound so secure, it’s not. Although in reality anyone wanting to steal your shopping list, or your doodles, would have to get access to your iPad, and also to your Apple Pencil, so it’s not really a big deal. Also you can only access the lock-screen note. To open other notes, you’ll have to authenticate yourself as usual.

There are several settings to customize for lock-screen notes.

Lock-screen note settings

Choose how often new notes are created.
Choose how often new notes are created.
Photo: Cult of Mac

The settings for lock-screen notes are found in Settings > Notes > Access Notes from Lock Screen. You have two options that can be changed. One is what happens when you tap the lock-screen with your Apple Pencil. Off is self-explanatory. Always Create New Note will create a new, blank note every time you access the lock screen notes. Resume Last Note Created on Lock Screen keeps the same note hanging around for a little longer (you can choose how long), so you can keep working on it.

And Resume Last Note Viewed in Notes App will show you the last note you created, whether it was made in the Notes app, or created from the lock screen. This could be a security risk, so you can choose whether to require a password after a set time period.

The second section of the lock-screen note settings is to do with time. You can either set how long you have before a note is locked, or you can set how long before a new note will be created from the lock screen. I have mine set to After Today. This gives me one new note each day, which I can use for to-dos, shopping lists, or anything else I need to jot down.

Searching your notes

Ever since iOS 11, you have been able to search the handwritten text in your notes. This is a fantastic feature, because it means you can write and draw as if on paper, but have your handwriting automatically recognized. It isn’t turned into editable text, but everything you write is indexed, so you can find it later. You can search your notes from inside the Notes app, or you can search using the system-wide Spotlight search.

Search is probably the iPad Notes app’s biggest advantage over paper. The iPad might not survive a dunk in water, or being sat on, but a paper notebook won’t instantly find that note you wrote five years ago.

If you have an Apple Pencil and an iPad Pro, then you should really check out lock-screen notes. It’s a killer feature, and once you get used to it, you really will be less inclined to use paper.


Daily round-ups or a weekly refresher, straight from Cult of Mac to your inbox.

  • The Weekender

    The week's best Apple news, reviews and how-tos from Cult of Mac, every Saturday morning. Our readers say: "Thank you guys for always posting cool stuff" -- Vaughn Nevins. "Very informative" -- Kenly Xavier.