GoodNotes 5 OCR function on handwriting - exporting notes to PDF

Some of us are keen on handwritten notes, and GoodNotes is mentioned sometimes as a great app for this (and I agree, it is a great partner for a pencil and iPad workflow), but I know we often wonder about the OCR on handwritten notes. I thought I’d whip up a test document to see how good it is, as I’ve started keeping some meeting notes by hand in GoodNotes and wondered how searchable the content was.

You can export individual pages from a GoodNotes doc, which is great for meeting notes (when you’re on the page, click the share button on the top left then choose “export this page”).

Here’s how the OCR stacks up - this is the default OCR that GoodNotes seems to apply when you export a page as PDF via iPadOS. For fun I did run an exported PDF through some ABBYY OCR to see if it’s any better. The answer is don’t do it, it produces gobbledegook. GoodNotes’ native function seems best for this.

Top image is different handwriting samples in GoodNotes. The second image is a copy and paste of the recognised text in the PDF of this page, pasted to Apple Notes (that’s not important, but I thought I’d say what you’re looking at!).

As you can see, the match isn’t too bad. Unsurprisingly it struggled the most with an inconsistent cursive script (the first line), but it will pick up a proper cursive script which I’m impressed with (nerd sidenote: many people have strange quirks in their own cursive writing - the informal writing they scribble with during the day - so it’s not surprising that OCR could struggle with this. We tend not to follow formal writing rules we were taught when we’re in a rush. E.g. because of my dual nationality and dual education I mix the English letter R and the French letter R in my quick handwriting, and I can see that GoodNotes couldn’t pick up this variation in the first line).

For me, this OCR suffices. I want to store these PDFs in DevonThink, and I know their search algorithm will be able to pick up enough from the OCR to find my search terms when I’m looking for things. I would probably hesitate before writing handwritten notes that I intend to copy and paste into a document, but then GoodNotes (and other Apple apps that support scribble) can turn handwriting into typed text so if you know that’s your end use for handwritten notes you should probably just do that in app anyway.

Anyway I thought this was interesting and wanted to share it with someone, so here you go!

EDITED to add: it makes no difference to the handwriting samples here but just to add for my fellow lefties: I’m left-handed so this is how OCR performs for lefties. For right-handed people, who often have a clearer script, the results should be even better!


I switched to Nebo a while ago because I OCR a lot of handwritten notes, and GoodNotes was not working well at all with my writing. I was spending a lot of time correcting and often missed the errors, which meant searching my notes was often frustrating as keywords were picked up wrong. I also found the workflow to be very poor. Having to open the app, select the area, and right-click sucks big time if you do this a lot. In Nebo, I can export to Drafts in two taps on iOS and the OCR is much more accurate (I rarely have to correct anything).

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What were you doing with these steps?

Exporting a page from GoodNotes on iPad takes 4 taps: Share > Export this page > Export (there’s a menu here to choose format, it defaults to your previous choice) > Choose location (this is the iOS share sheet so your options here are the same system-wide menu)

I don’t do this on a Mac, but the menu is exactly the same and the share button is even in the same place (top left) - and it remembers the settings you used on iPad, e.g. flattened PDF, so even if you’re swapping devices the export is the same.

(Exporting a whole notebook is also 4 taps, but is a separate menu and not relevant to this conversation. I rarely use it myself.)

Actually, it’s worth noting one of the reasons I rarely export an entire notebook (aside from the fact that I don’t need to), is that I have the back-up function turned on in GoodNotes. This can be found in Settings > Automatic backup. This writes the latest version of my notebooks to Dropbox as a PDF.

GoodNotes doesn’t store its notebooks natively (they’re stored in-app), so having automatic backup switched on means I have a PDF copy stored outside their system in case of failure.

I prefer Nebo to goodnotes. I think my handwriting looks better and I really like scratching out text without activating the eraser. I like to shoot a note off to drafts and share the tasks automatically with OF. I switched to goodnotes because I found that Nebo wasn’t syncing between my iPads (mini and 12.9 ). Have you had issues?

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I should have explained better. I want plain text, not a PDF, when I export. I always export to Drafts and I have no need for the handwriting itself. The iOS workflow involves tapping the selection tool, drawing round the text with the pencil then choosing convert, then sharing the text, which is too many steps for me. I count 7 taps to export as text.

It is especially frustrating when the OCR is poor and I have to then fix lots of errors for each note

Luckily (touch wood) I’ve not had any sync issues with Nebo. I use it on two different sized iPads also.

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Nebo’s text recognition is the best I’ve found. Use it all the time to take ‘items’ for Obsidian, Reminders, …almost everything. But, they’re sync leaves a little to be desired. I too use the app on 2 iPads, Air and Mini. Not a good solution, but I have (mostly) trained myself to visually look to see if the app is reminding me there are items that need to be synced. It’s a visual juxtaposition of the cloud icon on the Home screen that’s saying essentially ….‘You’ve got to Sync’! I’ve filed both a FR and BR that this is NOT ideal. CS has replied that they’re working on a better method of syncing. I hope it comes soon!

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A couple of observations:

  1. In this sample it does really badly at spotting spaces.
  2. Words like “cunsive” ought to be autocorrected to “cursive” if Item 1 (spaces) were solved.

I’m detecting that this is not Apple’s own handwriting support and that there is no “intelligence” applied.

If it were me I think I’d rely on Apple’s take on this. (Probably in Drafts rather than, say, Notes.)

But then I rarely do handwriting on screen. I might if it were better.