Why you should take another look at Google Keep, the best free organizational tool on Android

google keep android
Credit: Derek Walter
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Google Keep started out as little more than a digital stack of Post-It notes. It was suitable for quick thoughts and reminders, but not much else.

But Google has been plugging away at strengthening its capabilities, making it a real contender for your home screen in a crowded field of productivity apps. It’s great not only for taking notes, but also saving articles and images, sharing lists, and setting reminders. 

It has become an essential part of my workflow, and if you gave it a pass after trying it long ago, you may benefit by giving it a second look. It doesn’t have the same litany of features as software like Evernote, but that’s partly the point: There is great power in its simplicity. 

Creating and saving notes with Keep on Android

If you have a newer Android device, odds are that Google Keep is pre-installed. If not, grab if from the Play Store.

If nothing else, it’s a great app for rapid notetaking. You just open it up, tap the empty note box and start typing. Giving it a name or selecting one of the eight colors can all come later.

The same goes for voice or image notes. Just tap the corresponding icon and you can take a photo, import one, or speak your message. It’s instantly saved, just like files in Google Drive.

You can turn a note into a list with checkboxes - or eliminate them with one tap. Tick the box and a line goes through your item. You will forever want to banish hand-written notes once you experience this, especially since they won’t get lost in the office.

google keep android widget

Get your notes right on the home screen with Google Keep’s widgets.

I like to loosely categorize notes by color—Greenbot-related thoughts on a green note, red for PCWorld items, personal stuff like grocery lists are yellow. Keep is flexible enough that you can create such a system but you’re not bound by it, as there aren’t formal divisions between categories. If you just want to alternate colors to get a nice mix, go for it. 

You can lay out your notes in a single-column or multi-column view. If you just want to focus on one note at a time and scroll through them, then go with the single column. If you like the mashup of different notes, where you can see more on screen at a time, then go with the default look.

Google Keep offers a few pretty cool widgets—you can expand them to fill up an entire screen, or choose a smaller palette that only shows the action buttons. It’s great to be able to unlock the phone and glance at a note right away without needing to open the app. Sadly, with the demise of lock screen widgets in Lollipop, you can no longer easily see a note without even unlocking your phone.

google keep android wear Derek Walter

Google Keep will send reminders to your Android Wear smartwatch.

Keep also connects to an Android Wear smartwatch. If you set a time or location-based reminder (sometimes the latter is hit and miss) you’ll get an alert on your watch. It gives you a snippet of the note, which you can then swipe away, archive, or open on your phone.

With a voice command you can also tell your watch to take a note, which will then be saved in Keep. I would like to see even deeper Wear integration, with the ability to see more contents from a single note on a watch. Launching Keep on the watch is as clunky as launching any Android Wear app: you have to go through the clunky process of double tapping the home screen, scrolling to the Start button, then finding Keep, only to find you may just see a snippet of a note. 

Go beyond basic note taking

Keep has become my all-in-one place for random thoughts, reminders, notes, and other essentials I need to hold on to but don’t want to save in an email or yet another Google Doc.

A key piece of this is collaboration. Sometimes you just want to brainstorm ideas or share a shopping list with someone. 

Interestingly, Google hasn’t built an iOS app for Keep, unlike many of its other services. It’s unclear if it’s holding this back to give Android a leg up on iOS, or if one is in the works. 

google keep share

Collaborate with others over a shared note, which is helpful for work tasks or everyday things like grocery lists.

I have also started to save important webpages to Keep. To do so from Android, just tap the share icon in Chrome and select Keep. Now a link to the article is saved inside a note for safekeeping.

This solution isn’t totally elegant. The main image often gets blotched on the top side of the note. But you can archive it and find it later, giving you the peace of mind that it’s there if you need it, but not cluttering up the main note page.

Searching works like most products on Google: start typing and let the algorithmic power go to work for you. If you want to hone it down further you can search by a specific category or type of note (pictured).

google keep search android

Refine your search by color or the type of note.

My hope is that we will get the ability to further customize these categories with more colors, names, or even sub-categories. Part of the beauty of Keep is that it doesn’t force you to waste too much time on endless organizational tasks, so any trek down this road should maintain the balance between increased functionality and the simplicity of a digital scratchpad.

Extend Keep to the desktop

Keep is far more effective as a life organizer when used in tandem with its Chrome app. You can just head to keep.google.com in the browser to get a blown-up version of what’s on your phone or tablet. Or install the Keep Chrome app, which separates it from the browser and makes it function more like a desktop app.

There are a couple of clever extensions out there that add features to Keep, too.

A simple solution for one-click access is GKeep. It puts the Google Keep icon right next to the Omnibar, taking you directly to the web interface.

Another is Category Tabs. It lets you assign names to the category colors, and displays them in a tabbed interface across the top of the Keep website (it doesn’t work on the Chrome or Android app).

google keep plugin chrome

The Category Tabs extension for Google Keep gives you one-click access to the different groups of notes.

If you stick to an each-color-is-a-strict-category system it may work well for you. It adds the categorization choices to the slide-out panel, where you can always rename or reset them back to the default if necessary.

Safe keeping for all your ideas

In the Harry Potter series, the ever-wise Dumbledore deposits his memories into a magic basin called a Pensieve. It gives him peace of mind that all his memories are stored away safely; he doesn't have to stress over constantly trying to remember so many details. 

That's how I view Google Keep. Every note and idea is stored away for easy retrieval, resting safely until it's needed. It's just a few touches or keystrokes away. Just like any sufficiently advanced technology, it's very much like magic.

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