Easy Note Taking — Evernote, OneNote, Pages and SimpleNote

He lis­tens well who takes notes. — Dante (Canto XV)

Note tak­ing can often seem like some­thing of a bur­den, that gets in the way of learn­ing stuff, or get­ting things done. However, unless we have a robust eidet­ic mem­o­ry, then we are going to need to take notes. Thankfully there are a pletho­ra of note tak­ing options that can make your life eas­i­er. Or they can actu­al­ly make it hard­er, as we will see. Thankfully they are all eas­i­er than using scraps of paper every­where, and then try­ing to fit pages into a 3 ring binder with only a 2 hole punch (thanks Tom for the salient example).


However, what apps and tools should be in your toolk­it? Well this is where it gets a bit nasty, as there are so many tools that pur­port to do every­thing but make you cups of tea, and wash the dish­es. But when you dis­till it down they may tidy up and take the trash out, but they have a few warts, plus all these bloat­ed bits on the side, and no-one real­ly knows what do do with all the guff that they leave around. So here are my four top tools, and why I only real­ly use two of them.


2000px-EvernoteEvernote has become some­thing of the big dad­dy of note tak­ing sys­tems with most peo­ple at least hav­ing heard of it, if not used it before. It has cer­tain­ly earned that rep­u­ta­tion as well, with most fea­tures of the app being easy to use, and the con­ve­nience of cloud synced notes is invalu­able. Plus it has a rel­a­tive­ly good search­ing sys­tem, with notes being indexed and decent­ly easy to access. It is on the bloat­ed side, with it try­ing to man­age your notes, research, life, girlfriend/wife, and it would like to hold your hand on dates if it could. In that regard it essen­tial­ly dupli­cates a bunch of oth­er tasks, and sev­er­al of them not par­tic­u­lar­ly well. Nevertheless, this isn’t the crit­i­cal flaw that some would like to believe. Think of it as a Swiss Army note pad. You are nev­er going to use that funky skew­er­ing thingy, and rarely will you use all three of the bot­tle open­ers, but it does the core tasks quite well. You do have to pay for a bunch of fea­tures though. Want to use the iOS app offline: Premium, want to col­lab­o­rate bet­ter: Premium, want to upload more: Premium, want to anno­tate your PDFs: Premium… etc. That just makes me annoyed real­ly, but if you want to live in their ecosys­tem and use its advan­tages then it is only fair that they want you to pay for it. After all that love­ly con­do over­look­ing Central Park doesn’t come for free.

However, there is one big caveat with Evernote, and it isn’t that it has such a close nam­ing sim­i­lar­i­ty to Endnote that it makes me shud­der. When you are using Evernote you are in their sys­tem, and it is a pro­pri­etary one. It is a les­son I have learnt the hard way over a cou­ple of oth­er plat­forms (*cough* Springpad and oth­ers), and it involves los­ing all your notes and infor­ma­tion if the sys­tem goes down. Evernote here is a bit more friend­ly, with the user­base being large enough that it shouldn’t go down sud­den­ly, and if it does look like a sink­ing ship it does allow you to export your notes. Still, this ecosys­tem deal makes me feel a lit­tle queasy.


microsoft-onenote-2013-06-535x535The next option is OneNote, from the Microsoft behe­moth. OneNote does much the same as Evernote, with its own cloud sync­ing thingy, and giv­en the size of the Micro$oft jug­ger­naut it should be sync­ing, rather than sink­ing. Being linked in with the Office envi­ron­ment here makes it a fair­ly use­ful lit­tle tool, although you give up all of the nice archiv­ing and index­ing algo­rithms from Evernote. But on the flip­side, you only have to pay through the nose once for the priv­i­lege of using the tool, rather than the pesky sub­scrip­tion mod­el. However, the caveat here is the same as the one for Evernote. Indeed, OneNote is one of the plat­forms that I have lost data with before. Although in this case I have all my notes still jammed into the lit­tle .one files, duti­ful­ly backed up. I can do almost noth­ing with them. The ver­sion of OneNote that last opened them didn’t sup­port easy export, and so short of copy­ing and past­ing them all it’s a bit of a lost cause. But hey, on the bright side at least I have the files (*hums* Always look on the bright side of life). This con­signs OneNote to the same draw­er as Evernote.


mzl.nnnyqswm.175x175-75The fourth option here is Pages, or Word if you are on PC/Android/WinMo, or Google Apps if you swing that way. These aren’t real­ly ded­i­cat­ed note tak­ing sys­tems, although they can be pressed into ser­vice in a pinch. They all come with a vari­ety of mobile apps, and you can cloud sync your notes via Dropbox (see the last post) so you can get at your notes any­where. However, they are quite gran­u­lar and don’t real­ly sup­port tag­ging or any oth­er organ­i­sa­tion­al fea­tures. So you need to keep your direc­to­ry struc­tures clean and clear. File for­mat wise they are both pro­pri­etary but wide­spread enough that they can be opened on mul­ti­ple plat­forms and by mul­ti­ple apps.  Plus they can all be export­ed to PDF for archival. Quite nice real­ly, but seri­ous­ly bloat­ed for a note tak­ing app. That said, I still use Pages and Word for note tak­ing in con­fer­ences (depend­ing if I’m on the iPad or lap­top), and then just export to PDF for archival at the end of the conference.

SimpleNote/nvALT (simplenote.com & brettterpstra.com/projects/nvalt/)

nvALT2.0ScreenshotNone of the above solu­tions have real­ly whet­ted my appetite for a note tak­ing app, until this one: SimpleNote. If Evernote and OneNote are your full fea­tured, slight­ly bloat­ed and bulging note tak­ing apps, then SimpleNote is the polar oppo­site. SimpleNote does exact­ly what it says, and is a basic text based note tak­ing app. It sup­ports one form of organ­i­sa­tion: tag­ging; and that is about it. It is sole­ly text and MultiMarkDown com­pat­i­ble, which means no fan­cy fonts or for­mat­ting, just plain text with some basic ital­ics, bold and oth­er sim­ple for­mat­ting fea­tures. Where it excels is that it does this with­out any fuss and mess, and is eas­i­ly exportable and cross com­pat­i­ble. For a start, giv­en that every­thing is in text, and sev­er­al helper apps can reach into the cloud to extract your notes and store them in .txt for­mat on your machine, means that you don’t have to wor­ry about being stuck in a pro­pri­etary sys­tem. Plus with every­thing being indexed in text for­mat, apps such as DEVONthink or Spotlight can quick­ly read them and find your data. You can tag your notes with OpenMeta tags so you can find them eas­i­ly, and being cloud based you can access your notes any­where. As they are fair­ly open with their inter­face there are oth­er good desk­top helper apps to use as well. Personally here I use ResophNotes if I’m on Windows, and a fork from Notational Velocity called nvALT on the Mac. nvALT is my go to for quick note tak­ing and it syncs eas­i­ly with SimpleNote. That way I can have all the quick notes I need on my phone, and any­where. From paper ideas, to pithy quotes, it is all here. I quite like this primer on text notes over on the ‘A Better Mess’ blog, he cov­ers the range of uses bet­ter than I can in this short form now: Plain Text Primer : nvALT 101.

Finally I will end this post by high­light­ing one use of this sys­tem. When I find par­tic­u­lar­ly salient quotes from arti­cles and books, I tend to store them in a lit­tle file on my SimpleNote, that I nick­name my quote bank. Some of it is humor­ous anec­dotes while oth­ers are seri­ous trea­tis­es. But they are all there for ease of find­ing and rapid application.

Well there it is, my note tak­ing post, and why I don’t use Evernote, or OneNote. In this case sim­ple wins out, with SimpleNote just hav­ing the ease and stick­ing pow­er. Tell me why I’m a fool not to use Evernote, or your favourite note tak­ing app, in the com­ments below.

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