May 19, 2017
Note Taking App
Time for yet another post wishing I had an app to do a certain thing...
Over the past few months I've been waffling between written (with a pen) note-taking and taking notes via a computer. These options both have their trade-offs.
Analog note-taking requires a notebook to take notes in. I've been using a Classic Squared Moleskine with grid paper for note taking, and I'm not a fan. I was previously using a notebook that worked with my Livescribe pen, which had a much better feel to it than the Moleskine, but now that I've started in this Moleskine notebook, I feel like I have to finish it out.
I've given up on the Livescribe pen, not because it's not useful, but because the software support isn't great. I have a whole notebook of stuff stored in my pen, both written and audio, and the only way I can get it out currently is by using the notebook and the pen together, which is cool, but doesn't acheive the goal of getting my notes digitized.
My favorite physical notebook right now is the Rocketbook. The Rocketbook is designed to be used with Pilot Frixion pens, whose ink can be erased. The whole Rocketbook can be placed in the microwave with a mug of water, and after a minute or two, the whole notebook is cleaned out of ink. The Rocketbook has a grid design on the pages and a QR code that is used with their app to digitize the notes and send them to any note-recording application they connect with. It's an interesting feature, but one that I haven't been able to make good use of. My favorite characteristic of the notebook, however, is one that is provided by the notebook's need to be safely placed in the microwave: The binding is a plastic, snap-together set of rings that allows the notebook to be laid perfectly flat (take that, Moleskine!) or be folded back onto itselff without the typical problems of spiral-bound notebooks. I have not yet opened my Rocketbook Everlast (a Rocketbook made with plastic pages that feel like paper) shipment, but I think they've changed the binding to a standard metal one, which is rather disappointing.
Regardless, it's pretty useful to be able to take notes on the computer. Last week, work issued me a new Mac, so I've been reevaluating my position (again) on what app I want to use to take notes. I primarily use my note-taking app to record meeting notes and to plan out actions.
Previously my go-to app has been FoldingText. I love this app, and wish that they'd keep supporting it. Alas, they've basically abandoned it for work on some other task-based app, rather than focusing on their outliner. FoldingText is neat because you can use markdown to write notes, and while you're typing them, they are properly formatted. Links turn into links, and heading font sizes get big. You can also fold the text at any heading, which makes taking notes all onto th same file reasonable, since you can focus on only the section that you want at one time. The todo-list features and tagging are pretty useful as well.
FoldingText doesn't work so well these days, though. Since I've had to reinstall, I need to re-register the app, and finding the registration code that works with the useful beta version is proving difficult. Plus, like I said, they're not really supporting the app, and the features I was using were largely provided by custom-written plugins that, since I lost my old Mac to battery issues, are now gone.
I've considered using a few note-taking-specific apps. Evernote is always a top suggestion, but I simply can't stand its interface. Combined with its yearly price to do some of the useful things it does (text recognition), I'd really like to stop using it at all.
I've considered nvALT, which seems a capable note-taker. What I dislike about nvALT is that although it lets you take notes in Markdown, they're not presented in a formatted way. You can always run the markdown processor, but this defeats the purpose. The value is that I can see the text differences while I'm taking notes; I have no need to format the notes after I've taken them. This holds true for many, many note-taking apps that I've tried based on wanting to have my notes stored in a text file, but organized and searchable together inside of an app.
If I give up on file-based storage, which isn't too unattractive since it would be cool to do things like include images or drawings in my notes, I have a few other options. I've tried Notability, which is neat because it works on the Mac and iPad and has a mode that lets you easily interleave text, image, and drawing. But for a pure note-taking app, Notability is pretty lacking in terms of organization and just raw text note ability. I find myself fiddling with the settings a lot before I can even start writing text, and that's just a no-go.
I tried Together, which isn't a terrible app on the whole. It lets you take notes into templates, which can be (at least) either markdown or rich text. The markdown side again doesn't have formatting, but the rich text isn't too bad. The organization tools in the app are fiddly, though. I'm not sure how to explain it, but it just feels wrong. nvALT may not do the realtime formatting I want, but at least the UI isn't filled with a ton of taggy/colory cruft.
The latest app I've acquired is Bear. Bear is interesting because it does do live formatting in markdown style, although it doesn't seem to save the individual notes as separate files. (It may actually do this in its own storage, but I haven't looked yet.) It does have the interesting ability to embed files and images into a note, and it imported my old FoldingText note without much trouble, sans the special formatting I used from my custom-coded plugins. The interface is quite light, and has easily-accessed modes to reduce the screen clutter. Organization can be done by marking a note with hashtags inline, which is nice. The built-in task list feature reminds me a lot of Evernote's; not great, but present. Linking between notes is very, very cool.
If I could improve Bear, I would make a few changes. I would make it possible to fold notes at the headings. Checkboxes should be completely markdown-like, rather than graphical, so that you could add empty brackets to the beginning of each item in a list, and clicking on them would fill them with an X, something like on Github. It would also use @-tag labeling on some things, like marking completed tasks automatically with something like "@done:2017-05-11", and allowing you to search on these with more complex search options. And of course, saving each note as a separate file (with any supporting embedded files) that could be shared would be great.
It would be great to get some integration between the Rocketbook app and Bear. If I could get my written notes into Bear easily (and OCR'ed!), that would bridge that gap in a very useful way.
For now, I think I will try Bear. There is at least one other note app like Bear that I want to give a shot, and having the name of the kind of applicaton I want will make it easier to perform seaches for applications like it. I am enthusiastic about using these new tools, and hope they make a diffference to my daily operation.