After having more clarity on what I want from a notes system I decided to start looking for Apps out there that could satisfy my needs.
Needless to say that there is a lot of beautiful and great Apps that come close to what I want. As the golden age of the App Store showed us, there can be many different apps for the same necessity, and each one will satisfy a different kind of person. We all have different opinions and requirements.
In this post I want to share some notes (no pun intended) that I've been collecting while comparing many different applications. These notes are not an exhaustive review of the apps, just some important points that caught my attention while reviewing the apps.
While doing the review I filled a spreadsheet with each of the requirements. You can find the original Numbers file or an online version at the end of the post. Let me insist, some of the features analysed are quite subjective and their purpose is to help me clarify what's the best app for me. A bunch of negative points on this list don't mean that the app is not good, it just means is not exactly what I'm looking for.
Also, thanks to everybody that has given me suggestions and commented on Twitter.
I have a dilema: I've been using https://t.co/WUTMuHSmCD for notes and I love it, but the way I work I related Tasks (in Todoist) to my notes. I don't like having them separated cause then I don't know where to look for things. I would like to unify this.— Alejandro Martinez (@alexito4) 11 de febrero de 2019
- Apple Notes
This is what I've been using until now and is a great application for a system stock app. Apple revamped the app with iCloud sync some years ago and since then it has become a great competitor in the Notes space.
That said, the lack of some features, like not supporting Markdown or the limited organisation based on folders, have always made me keep an eye for alternatives. Believe it or not the only annoying bit that has triggered all this desire for change has been the lack of ability to manipulate tasks (checklists). Something as simple as not being able to drag and drop.
That's the reason why having a nice system that brings together notes and tasks is so important to me and is gonna be reflected across all the following sections.
The first contender is not a Notes app, but one of the best Markdown editors for Mac. I've been using Typora for a long time now. This words and the rest of this blog are written in it.
The way that Typora lives renders in place the Markdown styles is something I haven't seen anywhere else. The fact that you can write Markdown that immediacy converts into rich text, hiding the "marks" but letting you modify it in place when you move the cursor to them. It's gorgeous.
That said is not a Notes app. It just opens a file, so is not an ideal replacement for what I'm looking for. But it gives a good example of what an amazing editor can do, and ideally a good notes app should include such an amazing feature.
Evernote has been the goto Notes application for many people for years. I was a tremendous fan of it in the beginning, but when they started changing the app to make more profit (something understandable when you need to feed so many mouths) I started looking in another direction. Not because I don't want to pay, but because the way they did things and the things they made premium changes the view I had of the company.
Many years after, Evernote still lacks basic things like Markdown support and it doesn't add anything in terms of tasks management.
That said, Evernote still has the best Web clipper out there by far. All the features it has and how well it does it it's amazing. No other app out there has such an amazing clipper. I wish there was an open solution for web clipping that could work with other apps.
Bear is one of the biggest contenders here. Even if it doesn't have a 100% of the features I want, it's so beautiful and well done that I can't resist giving it a try.
The tag system with nested tags is something I've wanted for a while to organise my notes. Its Markdown support is really good, as Typora renders the style inline and live, although it doesn't hide the marks is still good enough.
One of the nice things that it has it that allows you to drag and drop pieces of the note in a semantic manner. So I can drag and drop a task and it knows that it needs to move the entire line without breaking the text. That makes such a difference when you're managing notes in text format.
One of the big missing parts is a way to see the tasks without the notes. For a second I was so excited because it has an item in the sidebar called "Todo", but that's just a filter for notes that include todos. Which is a good first step but, to facilitate workflows with tasks, it should have a dedicated UI that showed just the tasks without the surrounding text of the notes. Nothing fancy, but just enough to let you manage your tasks.
It lacks other important features but honestly, I'm really close to give it a try because is the one that makes me more comfortable while using it. And that's a feature that is hard to quantify.
When you look at Notion website you see so many good things that makes you immediately excited. Seriously take a look, it replaces many apps in a single solution!
But it has so many of this features that I don't need, and the simple things I need doesn't seem to support them in a nice way. I think is a great app if your needs match their feature-set, and I really want it to make it work for me because it has such a huge potential, but I don't think is for me.
Furthermore, I find the pricing model weird and not cheap (Evernote is even more expensive but still). But most importantly, while using it I really don't feel comfortable, and I think is because I notice too much alien behaviours for a Mac app. Again, that's not something that can be easily quantified, but is there.
That's why even if it could have potential I don't think I can justify that expense for something I don't really enjoy using.
An open source native app written in the language I love! This project is really exciting. In terms of management and plain text storage it's exactly what I want. It even support tags in plain text using macOS extended file attributes! Smart!
I think the app will have a great future if it continues to improve, but right now I don't feel is quite there for me yet. The lack of Markdown live support is quite annoying when I'm so used to it. And it still doesn't have dedicated UI for tasks.
The good thing is that being open source I could think about contributing and tailoring it to my needs, but I'm not sure I have the time or energy to dedicate to this, but who knows, maybe this is the answer I'm looking for!
Many people has moved to this from Evernote, and is a quite good replacement and open source.
But being an Evernote replacement doesn't solve my issues. It doesn't improve on any of the points mentioned for Evernote, except the price and the lock-in (although is not plain text based).
TaskPaper has been surprisingly one of the biggest contenders on the list. As Typora, this is not a notes app, and it just open plain text files, so it doesn't do a lot of the things I need, but is the best app for task management in plain text, with no doubt.
TaskPaper is the personification of what I'm looking for when I list tons of advanced features but backed with plain text storage: the augmentation of plain text.
There are not many apps using similar techniques (some IDE have some features) and I think is where the future of text editors and apps based on plain text should go. I'm not an expert of the field but I think TaskPaper is one of the ones that does it the best.
The fact that you can manipulate the lists as an outline, that you can click the text to mark it as done or to collapse projects is amazing. Furthermore it gives you specific views and filters that show you just pieces of content based on tags and contexts, all from a simple text file.
Ultimately, TaskPaper is not a notes app, but the way it deals with tasks is exactly what I wish note apps did!
Agenda is another big contender, and an amazing Mac application that even won an Apple Design Awards.
You can see on the spreadsheet how it ticks a lot of the requirements, and is beautiful, so what else can you ask for?
The main inconvenience for me is in the task department. Agenda is focused around dates and a calendar, and that is exactly the problem. I don't really need my notes to relate to a calendar. I see how a lot of people can use this, specially for meetings and managing teams and projects, and it looks like an amazing solution for that!
But another aspect I'm not fond of is the way it displays the notes. The UI is basically a 2 panel layout, when you select a project you see all the notes together. That's something I find really weird, I prefer a 3 panel layout where I can select a specific note and just see the content of that one. It's just personal preference.
But in terms of UI, Agenda has something that opened my eyes in terms of how to solve the tasks UI issue: a right sidebar. They use this to show recent notes and a calendar. I think is a great idea that could be used to display a TODO list without showing the notes content.
On April last year the developers mentioned some features that could solve this.
Notebooks 2 (beta)
There is not much to say about this App. I've taken a quick look and even if it seems to work as I want in terms of plain text storage, it lacks some other important features. But it is still in Beta so we can complain that much :)
As you can see there is not a clear answer for me. It's really frustrating, specially when you think that as a developer I have the abilities to build my own solution, but I don't have the energy, time or resources to do it.
I wish I could mashup Bear + TaskPaper + Agenda and make the perfect notes app.
I still need to take a final decision, but I can't spend more time on this! Remember that the whole point of it was to increase my productivity, and wasting so much time on taking a decision doesn't seem really productive to me 😂
As I write this looks like the I'm gonna use Bear for now and see how that goes. Hopefully the app makes some improvements around tasks or I can find some good workaround for it.