Note taking apps
It’s all about me
I’ve made these notes to clarify for myself which apps I most need. It’s not an unbiased opinion. Your mileage may vary. Some people love OneNote for instance; I don’t get it at all.
I’ve evolved into an Apple ecosystem fanatic, so this is biased. Having said that, the choice of note-taking apps for Windows isn’t great and is one of the reasons I’m an Apple nut. Typora for Windows is the only one I’ve found that comes close to Ulysses or Bear Notes.
In case you don’t know:
A lot of writing apps use Markdown. Many writers love it. It’s a shorthand way of formatting text styles. Its advantages:
- When a Markdown document is exported to—for instance—Word format, or HTML, or PDF, or all of the above, the formatting is automagically converted to suit the new document.
- Proponents point out that you can apply formatting without your fingers leaving the keyboard.
- OK, true; but if you know your formatting keyboard shortcuts you can do that in almost any text editor or word processor.
This screenshot shows the markdown formatting symbols on a heading and an italicised word in Bear Notes:
Some writing apps, like most web browsers, allow you to switch to “dark mode”; i.e. light coloured text on a dark background. Many writers find it easy on the eyes and that it reduces eye strain.
When I first tried it I couldn’t see what the fuss was about, but I started using it in Safari browser, it grew on me and I love it. Especially after the sun goes down.
Distraction free mode
Most long form writing apps have a “distraction free mode”. This usually means switching to full screen view and getting rid of toolbars and other distractions so that the writer can concentrate on writing.
It often includes a typewriter mode option in which your text entry point remains in the middle of the screen while the document automatically scrolls up and down the screen as you type.
- Hides markdown formatting symbols
- Looks beautiful
- Good tables
- Mac, Windows, and Linux!
- Excellent for coders
- No apps for tablets. That’s a big omission.
- It’s in Beta, and no word yet on the final pricing.
I’m a bit annoyed with Dropbox’s current pricing, but you can’t argue with the free basic service, and their note-taking app Dropbox Paper is excellent.
Dropbox Paper screenshot:
- Access from any computer
- Excellent for team collaboration
- The Beta service is free to all Dropbox users
- Excellent design
- Good iOS app
- Very good image layout choices
- Markdown is hidden
- Neat keyboard shortcut for moving the current line or selected text line or section up or down. ⌃+⌘+up or down arrow, or by dragging.
- Excellent document outline facility in the web version
- Autogenerate a table of contents: move your cursor to left margin.
- Links: just type + and you can install a link to any other Dropbox Paper note
- Extracts, and separately lists, all your checkboxed to do items from all documents. Unfortunately, this doesn’t appear to be working in iOS.
- Search for emojis by typing “:<term>” or just type a colon.
- Click and drag: hover your cursor on the left side of a task, list item, or table row/column, and a move icon appears
- Restore earlier versions.
- Insert gifs. On a new line type: /gif cat
- No offline access for MacOS or Windows. You must use it online in a browser window. I suspect that this is because it’s easier to set up collaboration for business customers in a browser.
- Update: Dropbox just announced that an app is in the works.
- No tags so far. But you can simulate them using ‘#hashtags’ of your own design.
- No themes. Black text on white is what you get. Some may see this as a distraction-freeing plus.
- Only exports to .docx and markdown.
- Can’t easily open more than one document at a time.
To use Dropbox Paper you need a Dropbox account.
Here’s the deal:
- Basic Dropbox is free. You get 2GB of free cloud storage for your data, but you can gain up to 18GB free with referrals.
- Dropbox Paper is included.
- If you need more data capacity than the free service provides, 1TB of data cost $US99 pa. Its a pity they removed the intermediate paid account facility of 50GB. I suspect that Dropbox are more interested in business customers than individuals. Most individuals probably don’t pay.
- Full offline access for your files in Windows, Linux, and MacOS.
- Offline access only for individually selected files in iOS.
- When you factor in the other services from Apple and Microsoft, Apple’s iCloud and Microsoft’s OneDrive give more value for your money, but Dropbox is intuitive and less clunky. It just works.
Evernote is really powerful. It’s the best app for almost any type of information storage and retrieval.
- Evernote’s file search facility is outstanding. It searches text files and even finds text in images.
- Excellent note tagging system.
- Evernote Basic, free – but no offline access.
- Evernote Plus, US$44.99 p.a. for 10GB/month of new data with full syncing. That’s less than a dollar a week; get over it. https://evernote.com/pricing/(https://evernote.com/pricing/)
- Full offline access in Windows and MacOS, offline access for selected files in iOS.
- It’s not an elegant looking application. Some won’t care, but I’m not alone in preferring the program I’m writing in to be visually attractive.
- It’s not great for writing, just for information storage and retrieval. For that there’s nothing better.
- Limited and awkward text and note formatting options.
- Gradually becoming feature bloated.
OneDrive with OneNote
- Free when you sign up for a Microsoft account, and it comes with 5GB of free OneDrive cloud storage.
- Elegant. It’s a really nice design.
- Excellent formatting.
- If you want more cloud space, 50GB of storage is just US$1.99 or NZ$3 per month.
- With a full Microsoft Office 365 Home subscription: US$99.99 or NZ$165 for 5 users,
- 1TB of cloud storage for each user.
- Some people find it clunky. I’m one of them. It’s a paper notebook metaphor and I just don’t get it. If you have a lot of notes it’s much harder to manage than Evernote. Other people love it.
- OneNote has tags which are limited to such an extent that they’re useless. All they are is labels.
- I want to like OneNote, it’s a beautifully designed and powerful program, but I just can’t. Evernote destroys it in every area except appearance.
- Uses your iCloud storage, but iCloud is inexpensive.
- It’s touted as an Evernote replacement. It’s not. For text notes it’s great, but when it comes to document and pdf files it doesn’t display them.
- Good tags.
- Easy links creation
- Free, but not really. $15 p.a. for Bear Pro if you wish to synchronise your devices. Peanuts 🥜
- Move lines or selected paragraphs with the keyboard shortcut ⌥+⌘+arrow
- Doesn’t hide header or formatting Markdown symbols. I find this annoying, but I’ll get over it.
- MacOS and iOS only. No Windows or Android apps.
- You can only arrange images in a single column.
- No tables.
- Only single word search.
- Theme choices are good, but not user modifiable.
Fully fledged word processors
A word processor which was indispensable when everything needed to be printed. Now more of a niche product outside commercial use.
- The long-time industry standard
- Unmatched for commercial office work.
- Good outlining.
- Good distraction-free mode.
- Microsoft Office 365 is excellent value for money if you need its extensive powerful features. Most of us don’t.
- Very good for compiling manuscripts for publishing.
- Compatible with Windows, iOS, and macOS.
- If you use proper heading formatting, it provides an excellent way of rearranging your sections, just like Scrivener and Ulysses. Sadly, not in the iOS version. This facility is usually overlooked when reviewers are comparing Word with Scrivener or Ulysses.
- Expensive if a user doesn’t need the full powerhouse Microsoft Office suite and the associated generous OneDrive cloud storage.
- Long form writing in Word produces very big files.
- No dark mode.
If you need a powerful office suite, this will do everything that 99% of users will ever want.
- Did I mention free? Although they do request a donation. Justifiably.
- 99% compatible with Microsoft Office file types.
- Available for Windows, MacOs, iOS, Android, and Linux.
- Dated and unattractive interface.
- No tablet app.
- Free for all recent purchasers of Macs.
- Powerful word processing and image handling.
- Accessible online in iCloud from any computer.
- Uses your iCloud storage, but that’s very reasonably priced.
- Good for people like me, who need a full-on word processor rarely.
- Doesn’t support the industry standard .docx format. You must save files in Apple’s Pages format and then export them to a .docx file for Word users if required.
- No native Windows application, but, as noted above, you can use it online.
- The current MacOS version has been “dumbed down” to achieve compatibility with the iOS app. Unsurprisingly, this has infuriated many previous power users.
Almost an exact ripoff replica of Microsoft Office.
- Free, but with ads at startup, very reasonable subscription to go ad-free.
- 15GB free storage. Google Docs and Gmail storage don’t count toward your total.
- Online only. No app for Mac or Windows.
- US$1.99 per month for 100GB, US$6.99 for 1TB.
- Very good for teams who need to collaborate on documents.
Long form writing apps specifically for authors
- Good distraction free mode.
- Like Ulysses, it has an excellent facility for easily rearranging your chapters or sections on-the-fly.
- Most suitable for long-form writing: novels or screenplays. I’m not convinced about non-fiction.
- No dreaded subscription model. The MacOS, iOS, and Windows apps are very reasonably priced and you only have to pay for upgrades.
- Even with the recent major update which was supposed to be an improved visual design, the appearance is dated and unattractive.
- It is verging on overwhelmingly complex. A 700+ page manual!
- Eventually, you still need Microsoft Word to format your work for publication.
- I’ve found it infuriating, but many users love it.
US$40 or NZ$60 for an annual subscription.
- Excellent distraction free writing mode, and dark mode.
- Good for writers who use Markdown.
- As with Scrivener, it has an excellent facility for easily rearranging chapters/sections.
- The iOS app is really easy to use because it’s almost indistinguishable from the MacOS parent.
- For pro writers, the subscription model is reasonably priced.
- Continually being refined and upgraded.
- For a professional writer it’s a bargain, nevertheless it’s comparatively expensive when you consider what gets bundled with, for instance, Microsoft Office 365 or Dropbox, and when you compare the one-off price of Scrivener.
- Apple’s ecosystem only.
Bonus apps useful for writers
- Excellent for saving interesting web pages for your writing reference.
- Free, but for $US30 p.a. you can text search all your saved pages.
Flipboard (useful in conjunction with Pocket)
- Good news source.
- Save interesting articles to Pocket or post to social media.
- Stick with Evernote as a digital filing cabinet for searchable data: photos, text documents, PDFs, etc., because nothing else can match its tagging and search capability.
- Use Dropbox Paper for notes needing good image handling. Live with the lack of a desktop app.
- Ulysses for longer form writing.
- Use Pages (and its companion spreadsheet Numbers) for my undemanding word processing requirements. Maybe one letter a decade.
Main hitches for each app
- Dropbox Paper: no tags, no offline app for MacOS or Windows.
- Bear: Apple only. Headings, and bold and italic markdown tags are intrusive.
- Ulysses: the new subscription model, while worth the money for me, is expensive compared to other options. No Windows app.
- Pages: Good Apple ecosystem apps, but online only for Windows and not .doc or .docx file friendly.