When working from home, I often find myself quickly opening a Notepad window to take notes and then save them on the desktop. Of course, once I switch devices, the note is not present on that device. Also having numerous “New textfile.txt”, “New textfile (1).txt”, “New textfile (2).txt” files on your desktop is not realy helping to organize your thoughts, not to mention the possibility to search and find things. So I set myself of to search for a good, easy but yet powerful program to take and organize those notes.
I’ve been using note apps like Evernote (which kinda worked properly for me for a short amount time) before, so I had a specific sets of requirements, that the app has to fulfill:
- Multi-platform support: My environment is indeed homogenous. In my network you’ll find Windows, MacOS X, Linux, iOS and Android. So support for at least everything but Linux is a must.
- Synchronization: Given I have this afore mentioned environment, the app should allow some kind of synchronization, so I can access my notes easily on every device. Preferably in the cloud, so I can access everything on the road as well (given that we at some point can leave our houses again and go outside). Also a must.
- Encryption: Even though, most of my notes are likely not holding anything very secret, I prefer proper E2E encryption when using cloud services. In case the app does not support this, it should at least support something like Boxcryptor, so I can savely store things encrypted on my Google Drive. Either of those options is a must.
- KISS: I always prefer tools that fulfill a certain task but excel in this task, to tools that try to do a bit of everything but do it poorly.
- Ease of use: The tool should be easy and quick to use. I am a huge fan of good designed interfaces.
- Tagging: Tagging is my way of organizing notes, so that’s a must for the app in question.
- Searching: I am not good in organizing notebooks, so a good search feature is needed.
- Customizability: I am a big fan in terms of customization. I like it, when a piece of software offers me ways to adjust it in a way that works best for me and not in the way that the developer thinks is “best”. So having proper customizability features, is a really nice to have.
- Extendabilty: This adds to the former. Having the option to extend the software via APIs or plugins, is always nice. So that even if you can’t customize something out of the box, you can write your own piece of code, to have it work in the way you prefer.
- Shortcuts/Keybindings: As most of the readers of this blog know, I have a VIM-veteran. Even though I don’t use it that often in my daily work anymore, I really love the way to navigate the “Vim”-way. For that reason I for example use VIM-keybinding in my VSCode or other tools where it is possible. If the notes app offers a vim-keybinding that’s an absolute plus.
- Hand writing support: I recently bought a tablet. Main purpose for that buy was, that I want to take hand-written notes when in the office in meeting rooms or on the road. If the app has support for such, that would be cool.
- Easy formating: I really like to document stuff in Markdown. In fact, I am currently writing this blog post in Markdown. So the ability to write/format notes in Markdown would be a very nice to have feature.
- Pricing: OSS is of course welcome, but when I have to pay for it that’s absolutely fine as well. As long as the price is reasonable.
Given that I just received my new tablet (a Samsung S6 Lite), I first tried the pre-installed “Samsung Notes” app (so a plus in the pricing requirement). It’s handwriting features are great. Especially the handwriting text recognizion impressed very much. Unfortunately everything else pretty much sucks. The UX is poor (as long as you don’t use the S-Pen to write some notes), synchronization with Boxcryptor is not possible. Synchronization to plain Google Drive is possible but requires you to first sync everything to the Samsung cloud and connect that with Google Drive? Nope! Also, why does it need full phone access, when it wants to access local files? There is a dedicated Android permission for that, I am pretty sure. The notebook organization is also poor and I wasn’t able to perform proper tagging. And last but not least, it only works on Android, so I can only use it on one device in my environment. So the Samsung Notes app is out of play. Or is it? More on that later.
My buddy Thomas uses OneNote for his notes. His requirements are different though. He mainly uses it to take handwritten notes and text is secondary. Cool is the OS/device support. OneNote runs on Windows, MacOS, iOS and Android, so that’s a match. I already worked with OneNote some years before and I could never get warm with the UX. The fact that every note is basically an endless piece of virtual paper and the cursor jumps wherever I click, does not match my way of working. Unfortunately the UX didn’t change in the last 2 or 3 years, so that’s a “No-no” on the UX front. Syncing works flawlessly. It uses MS OneDrive to store the notebook files. Even though there is no obvious way to encrypt. I think I would be able to store a notebook “locally” in my local Boxcryptor folder and then sync it via Google Drive, but I am not sure if that would work with mobile devices. The tagging feature of OneNote is a totally different story. I have no idea who at MS thought it would be a great “tagging” feature to have pre-defined text bits with icons and call them “tags”. Whenever you want to add a “tag” it will take this little bit of text and the icon an randomly place it somewhere on the page - WTF Microsoft? OneNotes search feature is also horrible - which might be a combination of their search feature and the horrible UI. Also I wasn’t able to have OneNote find text in one of my handwritten notes - yes my hand writing is not the best, but the Samsung Notes app on the other hand excelled in this, so it must be possible. The stupid tags feature, the horrible UI/UX and the poor search functionality were the death blow for OneNote.
As already mentioned, I already used Evernote some years ago (2010ish to 2014ish), so I already had a good understand of the app. I always liked the search feature and the tags. Unfortunately it seems that Evernote has “optimized” towards being a web client application. The performance of the OS/mobile clients were terrible. Also they changed the UI a lot - guys, why would anyone want to have the tags at the bottom of the page? Why not leave them under the note’s title? What I like about Evernote is the support for multiple file formats. You can insert images, PDFs, etc. But of course everything besides simple “attaching” is a Pro-feature again. The price of 6,99/mo. is still a-ok, but not the smalles amount of money for the given featureset. But worst of all is the pen performance (yes, I know hand writing support is only a “nice to have” in my requirements). There is a huge lag when using the pen to write a note. Like half a second from writing to having it displayed. I searched the web if there is some setting that I might have gotten wrong but apparently it isn’t. I was able to find blog/forum entries from 2017 explaining the exact same behaviour and apparently Evernote had not intention to fix/optimize it - which also speaks: “We optimize the web client, not the native apps” to me. Given the horrible performance of the apps, the lack of support, the not so cool UI and all that for a pretty high amount of money, I decided against Evernote.
I tested a couple of other apps I found on the Google Play store, but most of them were only good for hand writing and lacked most of the requirements above. Yes, most of them were pretty good for handwriting but that’s not the main purpose of the app I was looking for. Here some honorable mentions:
- Squid: Really cool for handwriting notes or anotating PDFs. But mostly lacking of everything else.
- MyScript Nebo: Amazingly good handwriting and diagram drawing recognition. But besides of that, no client for the iPhone, no text notes, no sync.
- Easy Notes: Nice app for text notes but seems to only work on Android
- INKredible: Another one of those “I am really good for handwriting and sketching” apps. Also free it seems, which is cool for such an app. But not what I am looking for.
After a weekend of searching and testing, I stumbled across InkDrop. A simple notes app, written and maintained by Takuya, a developer from Japan. And I immediately noticed that it basically supports everything out of that box, that I was looking for - with one exception: handwritten notes. Inkdrop uses Markdown for all it’s notes features. It provides a rich API and plugin support. It has a built-in plugin manager which already over 100 plugins by the original author and the community. It is themable and it has VIM-keybinding! It uses E2EE for all your notes out of the box and as it stores it’s data in a CouchDB environment, you can even go the extra step and use your own CouchDB server instead of the apps own sync-service. It runs on MacOS, Windows, iOS, Android and Linux and worked immediately worked without any issues. It his proper tagging and search functionality. The UI/UX is awesome - clean, simple to understand and to navigate around but yet powerful. The price for the app is subscription based and costs 4.99/mo. which is reasonable - but the developer also offers a 60-days trial phase with no limitations (which I am currently on). I gave it a proper test drive the last two days during my daily work and I have to say I am already in love. Last night I also watched some devlog videos of Takuya and I really like his attitude and how he approaches things. So, knowing that you are supporting a solo developer like him instead of a big coorporation, by subscribing to his product, is also a plus. All in all I am really happy with Inkdrop so far and hope that the experience will stay the same of the next days/weeks of testing.
Honorable mention II: A worthy contestant?
Today a friend of mine, who saw my tweets from the weekend, contacted me and recommended Joplin to me. At first glance it looks pretty similar to Inkdrop but is OSS. Since I am already all set up with InkDrop for now, I am not considering to switch at this point. But maybe, at some point, I will give it a try. I wanted to at least mention it here, since someone on the same search as I might find it intresting.
A “note” (haha) on handwritten notes
I mentioned before that the Samsung Notes app is out of play. But since it really performs well for handwritten notes, I decided to uncouple that part from my “usual” notes taking and use it only for that purpose. As the main job for the table is to be taken on the road and then having the ability to quickly write down stuff with a pen, I think the Samsung Notes app will do a good job at this.