Google Keep

Google Keep is a fine note-taking app if you use it the way Google intends. This free app captures ideas quickly via mobile apps, a web app, and a web clipper. Google assumes, however, that when you’re ready to work with those thoughts, you’ll move the notes to a more capable app, such as Google Docs. If you’re more inclined to develop your notes in the note-taking app, Keep isn’t built to serve you. It doesn’t have rich text formatting or any real tools for organizing notes, other than labels. There are no folders or notebooks, either. Google Keep does have some handy features that may make it worth using, as long as you have clear expectations about what this app does and does not do. We’re happy to see that Google has made usability improvements throughout since our last review, for which we have raised Keep’s rating by a half star.

The note-taking app space is ripe for improvement and innovation. The two leaders, Microsoft OneNote and Evernote, continue to be the most powerful options with nothing else coming close. For that reason, they are both Editors’ Choice winners for note-taking apps. But they aren’t perfect. Evernote disappointed otherwise loyal users in late 2020 with a terribly buggy release, and OneNote has plenty of room for improvement in its layout and structure. Joplin wins another Editors’ Choice award; while it doesn’t support collaboration, it is among the best free and open-source alternatives to OneNote and Evernote.

How Much Does Google Keep Cost? Nothing!

Google Keep is 100% free—there are no upsells or premium plans—although you need a Google account to use it. There are free apps for Android and Apple mobile devices, plus a web app, but no desktop apps, according to a Google Keep support page. Watch out for knockoff apps on macOS and Windows. We strongly advise against downloading them.

The amount of storage you get for Google Keep depends on your Google Drive storage. Everyone gets 15GB to start for free. You can get more by paying $1.99 per month for 100GB total, $2.99 per month for 200GB, or $9.99 per month for 2TB. Be aware that other Google apps you use may eat into your storage space, including Gmail. The max file upload size is 10MB or 25 megapixels, and the supported file types are GIF, JPEG, JPG, PNG, and WEBP. You cannot attach PDFs or any other file type to notes.

Google Keep isn’t the only free note-taking app. Microsoft OneNote, Joplin, Zoho Notebook, and others are free, too.

OneNote doles out storage in a similar way to Keep, using OneDrive instead of Google Drive. Everyone gets 5GB to start. Microsoft 365 subscribers get at least 1TB, depending on their subscription type. It’s a huge amount of space, but it’s shared among other apps. Microsoft 365 accounts start at $6.99 per month and come with Office apps, too, so you get a lot of value for that price—a lot more than just extra storage for notes. There are a few special features in OneNote that you only get if you have a paid account, such as the ability to write math equations by hand and have the app compute them. That’s nifty, but it’s a pretty niche feature, too.

Joplin is also free, and it’s open-source. While some open-source software has the reputation of being difficult to use unless you’re a programmer, that’s not true of Joplin. It’s simple and straightforward, with an interface similar to Evernote’s—though it has fewer features. With Joplin, you have to bring your own storage, however, so you may end up having to pay for that depending on how much you need.

Evernote has a free tier of service, but it’s too limited for us to recommend. The other tiers are Premium ($69.99 per year) and Business ($14.99 per person per month). These paid Evernote accounts have a wealth of features, including search using optical character recognition (OCR) on images and PDFs, the ability to collaborate and coauthor notes, mobile scanning, and much more. In late 2020, however, Evernote released a big update to its apps which resulted in the loss of some features, buggy apps, and great frustration among its users.

Zoho Notebook is good for taking notes but not great when it comes to organizing and sorting them—a complaint we also have about Google Keep.

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Google Keep 4

Getting Acquainted With Google Keep

Google Keep is quite different from Evernote and OneNote, the two most powerful note-taking apps. That’s not a complaint; rather, it’s a way to set expectations. While Keep has some useful and interesting features, it’s not a place to meticulously organize notes into hierarchical folder structures or stylize text with bold, italic, font sizes, and typefaces. It’s much more pared down in those regards.

So what does Google Keep do well? You can use it capture notes quickly, thanks to its mobile apps and home screen widgets on Android. If something comes to mind, you’re never more than a few taps away from writing it down, recording a voice memo, snapping a picture, or scanning a document. You can also make text notes, lists, reminders, sketches, and the like. Going from thought to note is fast.

You can add a background color to any note, upload images and files, and even extract text from images. You can also mark up images, although you can’t mark up PDFs because they aren’t supported for upload in the first place. There’s only one way to categorize notes, and that’s to add labels. Labels are essentially tags, and they can be whatever you like. At any time, you can access your list of labels in a left side rail. Click on a label, and only notes with that label appear. Ta-da!

What’s missing is any sort of folder organization for your notes. You can’t sort or file notes. You can’t put them into a particular order, or even filter them by date created, date updated, or title. There’s no rich text formatting at all, nor is there support for Markdown Language—a popular alternative for adding styling to text. You can add checkboxes and paragraph returns, but that’s about it. 

The idea with Google Keep is if you ever need rich text formatting, folders, and other tools for organizing and sorting notes, you’ll turn those notes into Google Docs, which you can do easily from Keep. That’s all well and good, unless you don’t want to move between two apps. Some people prefer to stick with one app. Google Keep takes the approach that you use it to write down an idea quickly and then move the note to a more appropriate app when you’re ready to do more with it. That’s entirely doable, but it means that you have choose two apps for this kind of activity, and you have to set up your own workflows, too. Many users will want to have a single productivity app take care of it all for them, though some may enjoy tinkering with their own processes.

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Google Keep 5

Design and Interface

Simplicity is the word that best describes Google Keep’s interface. The largest part of the screen holds your notes. You can switch between List and Grid views, but neither is conducive to finding the information you need quickly or easily. For that, you have three choices: You can filter by label, show only pinned items, or use the search bar.

The List view often only shows one note at a time, depending on the length of your notes, until you scroll. The Grid view aligns all your rectangular notes into columns of sticky notes, but each note’s length varies depending on how much content is in it, so it’s not in a perfect grid. The layout is reminiscent of Pinterest with an array of differently sized cards that requires endless scrolling. It feels more like flipping through a magazine to see what might pop up than quickly zeroing in on specific notes. 

Labels do come in handy for sorting and organizing, and it’s helpful that you can see them at any time. Really, though, they are the only tool at your disposal for sorting and organizing notes, and they don’t always help narrow down a search adequately. Perhaps if you follow Google’s lead and only use Keep to capture notes and swiftly move them into Google Docs or Sheets or some other app, then maybe notes won’t accumulate in the first place. If you use the app the way Google intended, the limited tools for organizing and categorizing your notes may not be a problem. If you have other intentions, however, the app may come up short on the tools you need to stay organized and productive.

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Google Keep 6

Note-Taking Features

Google Keep’s web app and mobile apps work well and sync without you having to think about it. The mobile apps have a few features that you don’t get with the web app, namely, the ability to record an audio note and scan a document.

Earlier we mentioned that Evernote’s search function uses OCR on images and PDFs, meaning when you search a word, Evernote will scan these file types to see if it’s there. Google Keep has a different and more advanced OCR. With this tool, you can extract text from images and paste it as actual text elsewhere. Microsoft OneNote offers this text-extraction capability, too, but Evernote does not.

Reminders are tightly integrated into Google Keep, and they’re worth exploring, but you don’t need Keep to use them. Reminders are also calendar entries for Google Calendar. They’re treated differently from appointments but are still included alongside all your meetings and such in the Calendar app. Reminders can be time-dependent, whether at a specific time or a generalized time, like “morning.” In the settings, you choose when “morning” is. Reminders can also be location-based.

As for sharing and collaborating, notes may have coauthors who edit simultaneously. You don’t see as much detail about who is editing what as you do in a shared Google Doc, but you do see people’s changes appear on the note in near real time. With Google Keep, there’s no such thing as sharing a note with read-only access, however. If you give someone access to a note, they can edit it to their heart’s content.

With Google Keep, you must share notes one at a time, adding collaborators to each note. With OneNote, you can share a whole notebook, but you can’t control access note by note. Evernote gives you the most collaboration options.

Web Clipper

Keep has a Web clipper, as do OneNote, Evernote, Zoho Notebook, Joplin, and many other note-taking apps. Keep’s is the worst of them, though. It’s a browser extension that’s supposed to help you save Web content to your account with one click. Say you find a recipe online and want to save it to Google Keep. The idea is that the clipper grabs the whole recipe so you don’t have to cut and paste the content. 

The problem is that Keep’s clipper only saves the URL! It doesn’t actually save any content. Evernote and OneNote both do a much better job with their Web clippers, letting you save an entire page, a simplified article stripped of ads and extra Web page junk, or just a screenshot of an area you select. Most other note-taking apps can clip video, too. Keep doesn’t.

A Keeper?

Google Keep could be a fine note-taking app if you use it as Google wants you to. That is to say, it’s a place to take notes quickly and then move those ideas out of note format and into another app to better organize, stylize, share, and so forth. If you think of your note-taking app as a primary place to both capture ideas and work with them, then Google Keep won’t give you as rich of an experience as OneNote, Evernote, or Joplin, our top picks in the category.

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