Saxophonist Blog


The Best Free Note Taking App.

Over the last few years I've noticed software seems to be getting more complicated for no apparent good reason. Software that used to focus on doing one thing really well falls prey to the 'it's updated and everything is better' curse, which I usually find means a watering down of its purpose and loads of add-ons that I didn't know I didn't want. The curse of betterment struck my note taking software, so I began a journey looking for the perfect app.

I've tried quite a number of apps, each one the answer to niggles with a previous app. I take notes on my Mac and an iPad pro, not on my phone. I've used Notability, Microsoft OneNote, Apple Notes, and taking notes in DevonThink amongst numerous other apps. All of them good in their particular way, but I still needed work-arounds to do what I wanted.

So I took some time and looked at what I did with text and what I actually needed:

  • a simple text editor without an 'in your face' user interface
  • able to use Markdown formatting
  • syncing across devices
  • export to PDF
  • WRITE IT ONCE!

Why Markdown support?

I resisted using Markdown for a while because I was used to rich text. In case you haven't come across Markdown, it's a way of writing text that incorporates simple symbols to indicate formatting. That means blogs and websites etc. can parse the text and show the formatting (bold, italic, different headings etc.). Seems a bit of a faff at first, but now I'm a huge fan, and it helps meet my last requirement.

Here's a section of this blog entry in Markdown format:

Markdown edit

Before Markdown, I'd use whatever note taking app and write something, perhaps including a bullet list, bold text, a few headings, all the usual. I might want to use the same text on a website. That would entail taking the existing text and stripping the formatting so that non-HTML language didn't get copied to the website, and then adding back the formatting in HTML form. Same with a blog entry: some online editors allow rich text editing, others want HTML or Markdown editing. I soon got weary of keeping different formats of the same article, and having to update each version if there was an edit. By using Markdown I'd write once, and copy or export to any format I needed.

Many iPad users (including myself) scribble notes with Apple pencils, which is a great method. Although it can be done, it's not as easy to take those notes and insert them into other structures such as websites, and the conversion process would inavalidate my 'write once' requirement.

Joplin

Joplin

Enter Joplin, an open source app that is completely free. I'd read about it a few times but never actually got around to trying it, more fool me... It's available on all devices from joplinapp.org.

So what can I say about Joplin and how does it fit my requirement list?

The interface is a joy to behold, so simple and straightforward. Type on the left hand side, preview on the right. Or turn off preview and just write. There is a narrow window on the left that contains your notebooks, inside which reside your various notes. Perfect simplicity. If you're a taggy person you can add tags to notes which show in a list in the same window. It is a Markdown editor, but you can ignore that and write plain text should you wish. It seems a good fit for the 'just write' sessions that are all the rage in university departments, just sit down and write in a simple non-distracting piece of software.

If your library of notes gets huge Joplin has a search function, with filters allowing single, multiple or phrase word searches. There's a great manual on the website.

Synchronisation works perfectly and seems pretty instant. Except for Apple iCloud you can use most cloud services to sync across devices. I use OneDrive, but there's also DropBox. You can set automatic sync times to save as you write.

You can export to a markdown file, HTML or PDF (amongst other formats). You can import from markdown files (and a few others I will never use). But, apart from the PDF export, I would usually cut and paste the Markdown text into wherever it needs to go. The formatting is parsed by the target and all is good. So my write once requirement is fulfilled, and I can edit the original markdown file in Joplin and cut and paste again. No need to reformat.

So there you go, my current favourite note taking app.
Give it a try.