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Note-taking software - Investigation

apastuhov profile image Aleksey Pastuhov Updated on ・8 min read

Originally published on my blog: apastuhov.com


As any other person, who would read that article - I wanted to structure my minds. And the best way to do it - writing notes! Somebody prefers to use a simple notebook with paper and a pen, but I am a software developer and most of my time I spend near my notebook/PC/mobile-phone, also I am not so good in writing by hand. :)

I use notes several years in a row, and I tried different applications to simplify the process. So I want to share my experience about note taking applications and offer some recommendations if you are looking for the best app for your needs.

And I want to warn you that it is my subjective opinion, and all thoughts are based on my personal needs.

Criteria definition

Here I want to describe criteria which I choose to define the best note-taking application.

  • Offline access - I like to travel, and most of all I prefer to write a text in a train, there is no internet access and no way to connect to remote.
  • Offline access from mobile - I separated that point from the previous one because some applications have offline access, but their mobile version is online-only.
  • Cross-platform - There are 3 different platforms I use every day: Android, Linux, and Windows. And I need to have a good cross-platform app with stable data synchronization.
  • Supports markdown - It is the best markup language with plain text formatting syntax!
  • Supports tables and keep images - Some markdown engines do not work with tables or images, actually, it is strange for me, because there is a specification what basic features markdown has.
  • Supports basic folder structure (at least 1-level depth) - In time I found that I need to group notes by folders(groups), and tags don't work here.
  • User-Friendly interface - UI should be clear, understandable, without any overhead and useless buttons/functions.

Nice to have:

  • Encrypt the data - Privacy is good, but I do not keep passwords or some valuable data in my notes, so it is not too critical for me.
  • FOSS - It would be great to contribute and improve the application.
  • Math support (LaTeX as example) - Just because I need it sometimes. ;)

Google Keep

There are a big amount of people who like it, but when I started to use it I found that interface is not so friendly and structured as I expected. It feels a bit chaotic for me. I disliked that panels where font size depends on the amount you wrote on the card.

Google Keep

Dropbox Paper

It is new enough and there was a time when it became too popular in one moment. I want to note that it has the GREAT editor, writing in Dropbox Paper is something I really like, for me, this was the best writing app.

Until I found that navigation between files really awful. It is unable to move to file B while you are editing file A.

Also home page.. - it shows the advertisement for me to connect a Slack (but I do not have any Slack connection on my personal email). I dismissed it but in time - I get the ad back again. And home page shows only Recent viewed files, but wait I have a structured data and I am not wondering about "the latest one". So to open a file in some directory I need to make 3 or 4 clicks and wait for page reloading for several times.

Dropbox Paper

But still - the editor is good.

One Note

Microsoft has a good alternative to most note-taking apps. It has a big amount of hotkeys. And I used it for a long time, but it is good only on windows and mobile platforms. As most of the developers - I have Linux system on my work, and Web version of OneNote is too sloooow. So I cannot say that it is really cross-platform. But if you use only Windows as your main platform - One Note is a good app to use.

One Note

P.S.: I like that OneNote UI is organized as a simple notebook with colored bookmarks.

Evernote

Too complex, and too many features that I do not need also it needs money to support more than 2 devices. If payment is not a problem.. I still do not need next features in the Note-taking app:

  • Reminders
  • Different fonts families, sizes, colors in one note
  • Sharing on LinkedIn/Twitter/Facebook/Email etc.. (really who shares notes on facebook or twitter?))
  • Work chat... okay, but I need personal notes
  • Note from calendar
  • Note presentation
  • Search in PDF? nope.

Evernote

SimpleNote

For a long time, I was a big fan of SimpleNote. It is a good application for taking notes, which supports markdown and great offline access. But time changes and I got new requirements to group some notes, keep images and tables. And here I found that SimpleNote has next issues:

  • No folder structure
  • No internal image or tables in the markdown files
  • Web and Desktop views has not user-friendly Markdown / Preview switcher

SimpleNote

Turtl

Nice and minimal application, but I do not know.. UI and UX a bit awkward for me, also I do not like panels. And I did not find application user-friendly when you have 20 notes in one group. It has same problems as Google Keep.

Turtl

Standard Notes

Oh.. there was a moment when the app made a wow-effect. First of all - it is built by one person. That man is an example to follow. Second - it has good UX + UI and it is open-sourced. But it requires a big amount of money for such primitive feature as markdown. And I am not sure that it will work as I expect.

And from my side - my drafts has several tags and group notes by tags are not something I need.

Standard Notes

Laverna

I give several chances to that app.. but every time I tried it - I had some problems with connection, login via Dropbox and so on, so web version is good, but desktop did not work for me.

Laverna

No single app

When I reviewed a big amount of popular note-taking applications - I found that all of them have some issues. And I started to look at some applications which allows you to keep your notes on your personal storage(Dropbox, GDrive, custom server), and mobile devices will just connect to that storage, download, update the data and upload it back. At least on a desktop, you can use any editor you want.

I tried a big amount of them, I even paid money for some mobile applications, but they failed, all of those:

Mobile note-taking applications

and more ...

Mobile note-taking applications 2

And even more, but I do not want to spam with screenshots. :)

Some of them are useless, some are buggy, offline only, etc. So this is a fail.

Personal application

There was a moment when I decided to create my personal app to take notes, but in time and I started to work on several projects at the same time, so that project is frozen. But it did the basic part I need.

Personal

Boostnote

And the last, but not least, application. I found it a few weeks ago and.. it totally fits my vision of the best note-taking application!!! It does not track any private data. You can choose any data storage you want. It has pretty design, and the repository is alive, every new version is better than previous one. Also, you can fork it or contribute to OpenSource. But also it has some issues. Mobile app(at least Android version) is useless, but as soon as it is open-source - anyone can contribute or create his own vision of mobile app to make it better.

Boostnote

Comparison Table

  • Empty - Does not support/work out of the box
  • + - Supports/work
  • ? - Not sure
Google Keep Dropbox Paper One Note Evernote Simple Note Turtl Standard Notes Laverna Boostnote
Offline desktop access + + + + + + +
Offline mobile access + + + + + + +
Cross-platofrm + + + + + + + +
Markdown + + + + + +
Tables + + + + + +
Attach Images + + + + + +
Folder Structure + + + + + +
UI + + + + +
Security ? ? ? ? ? + + +
FOSS + + + +
Math + + + +
Stable + + + + + + +

Make a choice based on your personal requirements!

Summary

I found that most note-taking applications in time decided to change their vision from "make for people" to "make for teams and companies". And it makes me sad. Everything is moving from B2C to B2B and it may be good for business, but not always good for end users.

If you do not agree with my vision, but still looking for the best app for your needs, here is a list of links with good descriptions, criteria, and votes which helped me to write that article.

And do not forget to tell in comments: What note-taking app are you using?

Update:

Here is a list of other apps which are not listed in that article, but they may be interesting for you.

  • iaWriter - Mobile application is really good, but PC version is available only for Mac. Anyway it has stable synchonization with Dropbox or GDrive and offline mobile mode, so it can be used with any text editor on your desktop.
  • Typora - Good enough and feature reach, but has no mobile app.
  • WizNote - application from Chinna
  • Monospace - Good mobile editor, but GDrive sync (Pro feature) did not worked for me.

Currently, I am using Boostnote, it is not the best, but at least it is better than most of the apps. But also a good point to think about - is to use iaWriter with simple desktop Dropbox sync and custom text editor.

And do not forget to tell in comments: What note-taking app are you using?

Update 2:

For Apple(iOS and Mac) users here is another list:

  • Bear - Several guys recomended it, so it should be on top of that list :)
  • Quiver - Seems to be a briliant app for programmers
  • Apple Notes - Default Apple notes

Non typical way to organize and keep your notes:

Another finding is next application:

Joplin - Has terminal client - but I did not test it!

Also, most from DevTo community using GIT to keep and sync up personal notes. Here is a short description how to do it:

  • Use GitHub/GitLab/BitBucket/etc to keep the repository with notes
  • Use any desktop text editor: Vim, Emacs, VSCode, SublimeText, Notepad, etc and GIT
  • Use some mobile application to clone the repository, edit and then sync the data. For Android I tried Pocket Git and MGit and they worked as I expected.

That approach is interesting enough and can be a good choice for developers!


Originally published on my blog: apastuhov.com

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Aleksey Pastuhov

@apastuhov

Software Developer, open-source fan. On my blog, I write about frontend, backend, testing, and other IT stuff.

Discussion

markdown guide
 

I use emacs org-mode, and then git.
I'm not sure if any of this works for mobile though.

Otherwise, it's got encryption, similar syntax to markdown, lists, tables (spreadsheet-capable tables I might add), calendars. If you're into programming, you can write source code directly in the notes, have it execute, and then the results are output back into your notes. Lastly, github can render it in a nice way that makes it look pretty.

 

I found that people use GIT for keeping their notes and it seems interesting, so I will update the article with that approach soon :)

 

Right now, I'm using the VSCode Journal Extension, configured read and write to a folder in my Dropbox folder. It works really well since you can always take notes right from within your editor, and have those notes within Dropbox whenever you need them. Probably not quite as feature-rich as some of the other options you mentioned though.

 
 

If you are on Mac then download Bear. It's free for the most part with paid features but it's one of my favorites.

 

Thanks! I will add it soon to the list!

 
 

Sweet, thanks for the heads up!

 

You made a really good job on your app! It seems stable and looks nice :)

 

I would like to add.

For Mac / iOS users. (I know these are not cross platform - but they are all over "my" platform)

iOS / Mac = Quiver. Quiver describes itself as a programmers note book. I have to say it is brilliant. In many ways it's very similar to Evernote - but where it really stands out is the ability to mix different mark up formats on a single note. Currently the iOS is read only - hopefully that will change in time.

iOS / Mac / Web = Apple Notes. The Apple Notes app has really improved in the last year or so and I think is now very capable. There is also a web interface - so maybe it can be classed as cross platform.

 

Nice catch, I will update a list with your recommendations for Mac users! Thanks a lot!

 

I had the same problems a year ago. Previously I was using Evernote. Then I found very nice note app "WizNote"(from China). Markdown, windows desktop widgets, unlimited tree structure for "folders" to organize your notes, nice mobile apps and so on.

 

Added your app as an update to the article. I tried it earlier, but there were some bugs with WizNote, and I do remember them.

 

Thanks for this great post with a nice comparative overview of the features of different apps. This is quite familiar to me having been through a similar journey recently with similar requirements - I'd recommend checking out workflowy.com and dynalist.io, because both sport offline apps (Mac, Linux, Windows) and dynalist also has great mobile apps (I have used Android app and it's awesome). The caveat is that, as far as I know, they don't support tables...

 

Thanks a lot! I will add them to the article soon, it seems interesting. I am glad you liked the review!

 

I've been using Tiddlywiki for awhile, like it quite a bit.
A local wiki that saves as a single html file. Supports markup, supports MathML, many available plugins... worth a look.

tiddlywiki.com/

A plugin that allows for using LaTeX mathematical notation:
tiddlywiki.com/plugins/tiddlywiki/...

 

Thanks I will add it to the list!

 

I’m currently using Notion. It has several features that you are looking for and so on. The mainly reason why I changed evernote for notion was code support (Evernote is really bad for developer’s notes).

 

Seems interesting but Apple-oriented :(

 

Great list and I really need to give Boostnote a look.

I've switched many times between note taking apps and in terms of desktop software OneNote is my clear favourite. As I've switched away from Windows it means it's simply not relevant to me anymore, as the web client is - as you pointed out - quite painfully slow.

To add to the list, I think Zim (zim-wiki.org/) ought to be included. Simple, fast, flexible. Doesn't have a great range of features, but for simple note-taking, journaling, and to organize thoughts it's a great choice.

I also recently found joplin.cozic.net/. Seems to be a good cross-platform Evernote alternative (as it sets out to be). Haven't taken it for a spin yet though.

I do like Evernote quite a bit. I don't think the fact that it has many features should speak against it, as it still manages to keep the simple tasks very straight-forward.

 

Thanks, I will update a list with your recommendations! Mostly the problem that Evernote started to concentrate on B2B solution. Also a big amount of features - make the application heavier.

I do not remember who said it, but I like that phrase:

Universal solution is universally bad

 

+1 for Joplin, I'm running it under Linux on my Pixelbook, on Android, and the terminal version in ssh sessions, all using webdav for sync. It's been flawless so far.

 

My note-taking choice of late: plaintext AsciiDoc files in a private Github repo.

Pros:

  • "Cloud" backup
  • Github renders the files so there is no build step
  • AsciiDoc files are also readable as raw text
  • Extremely cross platform
  • Lightweight
  • grep-able
  • Normal version control benefits
  • Can edit via phone (with the right app)
  • Plenty of text editor options (I mostly use vim)
  • Folder structure can be arbitrarily complex
  • Code blocks are well supported

Cons:

  • Harder to include images
  • I'll admit the git workflow can be a bit tedious
  • Not much for math syntax
  • Probably others I can't think of
 

Thanks for writing such list of pros and cons! I will add Github as another tool to keep notes.

 

I've been using Bear, but they openly acknowledge no support for Android in the foreseeable future and no table support yet so that stinks, too bad since it's got a beautiful UI.

edit/update:

After trying vs code journal, all the nested folders it creates was too much for my style. On the plus side, attempting this method I did end up installing some really great markdown extensions!

Then I looked at iaWriter...looks great, but wasn't sure about the price.

Now I'm giving BoostNote a shot, so thanks!

 

Emacs + org mode on desktop (in a Dropbox folder). Orgzly for mobile.

Most of what I do is in one huge text file, making very heavy use of org-mode's outlining features. It satisfies your requirements, I think. The worst part about it is that it doesn't merge conflicts gracefully (if I somehow gasp forgot to save on the desktop or forgot to sync on the mobile).

 

Appreciate it for putting so much effort in looking into alternatives!!

Check it out Notebook from Zoho. It was pretty good. I don't think it supports Markdown yet.

I have used Evernote for years, then they introduced too many features which I don't really use it and limited the sync to 2 devices with free account. I did subscribe for premium account but I started looking for simpler solution with markdown support. I had minimal set of requirements,

  1. Simple to use,
  2. Access to read anywhere (Mobile/Web/PC),
  3. Access to write from any PC/Web.
  4. Markdown support

I was bit lazy to look for alternative apps, so I took much simpler solution. VSCode + Bitbucket private repository. I use VSCode + bunch of markdown support extensions and use 'git' terminal commands to commit & push. It's bit manual process of creating files, typing commands to commit, push. But over the process of doing it for last three months, I learnt a lot more about 'git'. I control the organization structure and I can go back to any versions since I started. I can access my notes from any machine. I did lose the ability to write from mobile devices to a certain extent(I can still open my repo from browser and edit), but it was never a requirement for me.

Thank you Ryan Palo, I haven't used VSCode Journal extension. I will give it a try.

 

I also spent a big amount of time on it, that is why I decided to share my vision about it. Git is also a good solution! Maybe there is some mobile application which allows you to sync and edit files on mobile?

 

I have been there. The hard road of finding the adequate tool for notes.

Used Evernote for long time, but found it useless, specially because they don't update it much and rich-style editing is a pain. Today I only like the OCR features to search for attached images content.

Now I'm pretty happy with Bear, bad thing they don't support tables, and also I'm considering return Apple Notes, it's been updated with great features lately and encrypted individual notes is great.

 

Seems that most of Apple users like Bear and Apple Notes :)

 

Great article. Enjoyed reading it. I've been using Collate these past few months. It will satisfy some of your needs but not all of them (no native support for android, but since they are just text files, they can still be read and updated).

The developer was very responsive to feedback and I thought did a great job. He seems to have taken a break at the moment but the app as it is now is pretty good.

 

Tried Boostnote. Some pros and cons of Collate w.r.t to Boostnote

Pros

  1. Support to add attachments
  2. Exporting markdown content as PDF
  3. The content itself is stored as plain-text and so is readable and searchable by Finder

Cons:

  1. Is not open source. (I didn't think the price itself is of concern - thought the product was more than worth what I paid)
  2. Not as powerful markdown as Boost seems to have
 
 

I use and prefer one note. But like you said the platform you work on is a great factor on what to use.

 

As a Mac user I love Ulysses, with it's deep folder structure and custom icons you can set for folders. It also syncs up really well with the mobile (iOS) version, and lets you customize almost every detail of the look and feel of the editor.

Also, it has one-click Medium publishing, which is awesome for publishing a quick blog post.

 

Thanks for reply, seems good but it is only for Apple users

 

I have the same problem with note app. Your article is cool. I've try boostnote, but when you change locale (alt+shift) in Linux, menu is opening. And they have stop work on Android app. Now I'm trying Joplin

 
 

Typora has spoiled me since there's no need for a markdown preview window. No mobile app, though.

 

Also, I added that app to the update-list.

 

Mac and iOS only but Bear is very clean and supports Markdown.

 

It seems that Bear is popular enough for iOS and Mac :)

 
 
 

So...you have a problem with someone working hard, and then getting paid for it? That's the American way - capitalism. Maybe jealousy? How about this - follow his formula and make your own app ;-) I'm building a SaaS business myself, and in a few years I expect to hit $10K/month. I should write an article on Hacker News and you can hate me, too ;-)

Don't be jealous. Get off your backside and build something you can be proud of!

You didn't get my point. I do not have any problem and I do not hate anyone.

Personally, I pay for a lot of software and services. And I agree with your words: "If someone working hard, he then getting paid for it". But in that particular case - I made a comparison of free or freemium applications.

It's good that you want to build your own business, it is praiseworthy.

 

Wow man thanks for Boostnote, looks awesome. I already have most of my notes in Markdown but now with search, labels and folders.

Thumbs up!

 

I am glad you liked it! :) It has issues with mobile access, but it is fixable)

 

I'm using scrapbox. Scrapbox is a simple but powerful wiki.
No offline support and no markdown.

 

Thanks, their homepage looks nice :)

 

Thanks, man. your comparison was great and helpful ;)

 

Vim is also good :) , but still if you have many devices you need to think about synchronization and offline mode for mobile.

 

If finding your notes by what you remember about them is key for you, and you don't need sync, try Serene Notes: serenenotes.hominidsoftware.com/