Back to School, Back to Note-taking

Simplenote As mentioned in my post about WorkFlowy, Simplenote is my preferred note-taking app. It was one of the first apps I downloaded on my Mac when I bought it back in 2010. It came as a recommendation from my brother as a “must-have” app, esp. for school.

Simplenote is a minimalist web app. It does a really good job at keeping things simple. There’s a limited amount of formatting (bold, italics, strikethrough). This might concern you. I know it drove me a bit crazy at first, but it’s actually something I’ve come to appreciate because it keeps note-taking plain and simple.

Key Features of Simplenote

Tags. Use tags to help organize your notes. You can also tag people to share with them.

Go back in time! Press the ‘clock’ button to access backup versions of your notes.

Share. Press the ‘send’ button to publish a note for others to see. All changes get synchronized. Share a grocery list with your family or housemates.

Pinning. Got a really important note? Press the ‘i’ button to pin it to the top of the list.

Trash. Deleted notes go in the trash. You can restore them if you want, or empty the trash to get rid of them forever.

Search. Search through your notes by title or content.

Secure. All your notes are synchronized securely via encryption; however, they are stored in plaintext so you can search them.


As of now, Simplenote can be downloaded for iOS devices. I believe they are currently developing for Android and maybe even Windows Phone.

However, there is more than one way to take advantage of Simplenote. A variety of other developers have produced apps to take advantage of Simplenote on Mac and Windows computers. Simply vist the Simplenote downloads page to view the comprehensive list.

In the past I’ve used Notational Velocity (Mac) & ResophNotes (Windows). Both are excellent and take advantage of the features of Simplenote. Notational Velocity is especially minimal. It comes with some extra useful features including:

Spell check. And auto-correction.

URLs. NV automatically recognizes URLs and makes them clickable.

Secure note entry and local storage encryption. Alternatively, instead of enabling local storage encryption, you can store notes as individual files so that they are searchable via Spotlight.

Unordered lists. Simplenote will automatically detect unordered lists if you add a symbol (say a dash “-“) to te beginning of at least two lines in a row and indent in at least one tab stop. Hit enter and it will add your symbol.

It might take a while to get used to the limited functionality. Admittedly, sometimes I really want to make a table or insert an image. But 90% of the time, Simplenote is just what I need. Not to mention, I can take notes anywhere and I always have them with me.

Notational Velocity

Looking for a New Note-taking App?

Last year I tried taking notes with Evernote, but it left me wanting. Evernote has some nice functionality, but it just feels….clunky…and bloated. I like that you can add tables and images, but…I don’t know. It just left a bad taste in my mouth. Since then I’ve realized even more the beauty of simple, basic note-taking. Thus, I switched back to my Simplenote/Notational Velocity combo, which I highly recommend. (Look for a post about Simplenote later this week).

Thanks to a my good friend Riley Jenkins, I found out about a new note-taking app on the block with great potential: WorkFlowy. At this point, WorkFlowy is only web based, but the creators have optimized it to work with mobile devices in web browsers. The web app’s key focus is note-taking and lists.

Key Features

Nested lists. Each item in your list can become the parent of a nested list. Simply click through to see the sub-content.

Indent. By indenting items automatically become part of the parent item’s sublist.

Expand/Collapse lists. Double click the title of the current list to expand/collapse all. Double click individual items to expand/collapse child items. Alternatively use the shortcut Ctrl + Down/Up Arrow or click the “+” or “-” sign to the left of the list.

Mark completed. Since WorkFlowy is task/list oriented you can mark items as completed. You can also toggle completed tasks as hidden/visible.

Tags. Use #tags to mark items for #today or as #important. Use @tags to label items for @Susie or @Dev. Clicking tags filters down items with those tags.

Create notes. Think of it as subtitles for each item. I’ve noticed these are useful as a kind of aside, reminder, description, details or for tags.

Share. Create a “secret” shared link and send it to a friend. You can also choose whether or not you want the viewer(s) to be able to edit or just view the content.

Export notes. In formatted or plain text. FTW!

Duplicate notes. ‘Nuff said.

How It Works

WorkFlowy works from a different perspective than most note-taking apps. Instead of having separate documents, all your lists are grouped in one view. The main view is a list of  all your lists, unless of course it is your only list and none of the items in that list have sub-lists. This is very cool because it keeps things simple and minimal. No extra clutter, no sidebars, no other views. However, your out of luck if you were hoping to organize/view things from the typical note-taking paradigms of OneNote, Evernote or Simplenote where you open a notebook or a group of notes or just one list at a time.

You can reorder your lists by dragging and dropping them. You can search through your lists using words, phrases and tags. It’s easy to navigate through your nested lists by clicking the “Home” link at the top or the name of another parent list. It’s nice to have that built in “complete” functionality so that finished items/tasks won’t show up in the list any more should you toggle them not to.

Sadly, WorkFlowy isn’t available outside the web, which is one thing I really like about the third-party apps developed for Simplenote. I can view my notes even when I don’t have an Internet connection. In my opinion, this is the way it should be since text based files take up so little room. Why not store them locally? The only hassle (from a developer standpoint) is making sure they sync appropriately.

In addition to local storage of notes, I think WorkFlowy could use some more shortcuts for adding notes to list items, completing items, toggling visible/hidden, etc. This would make the app experience much more fluid. I’ve found it a bit painful to go back and add notes to various items in a list(s). It just feels slow and tedious.

The app has a lot of potential and is really well designed overall.


WorkFlowy - Sample List

WorkFlowy - List Menu

WorkFlowy - List Tags

iPad App Review: Notes Plus vs. Notability

Notes Plus App for iPadVS Notability App for iPad

Since I recently acquired an iPad 2 (last October-ish), I decided I wanted to use it to take notes in some of my classes, mostly in ECON 110. We graph supply and demand curves 90% of the time in that class. Taking notes on my computer wasn’t practical; I tried making graphs in PowerPoint. I also tried using the pre-installed Grapher app that comes with OS X Lion. Nothing was really working for me. Drawing with a track pad is very tiresome. So I went ahead an bought a stylus on eBay for about $7.00 and started researching apps. The two apps I ended up trying are Notes Plus and Notability.

(If you don’t want to read about my experience, just skip to the Epilogue: General Features & Screenshots)

Notability: An Impulse Purchase

I first purchased Notability because I saw it was “on sale” for a couple days and bought it for ~$1.99. I was very impressed with most of the functionality.

My greatest disappointment was adding figures and drawing. In order to draw with this app you have to insert a figure. In other words…

While all other functionality was more than satisfactory, I felt like I really needed an easier way to draw straight into my notes. So I spoke with a friend of mine who also has an iPad and who I had seen using it to take notes in some of my classes. He recommended Notes Plus.

Notes Plus: Referred by a Friend

So I give my friend a short demo of Notability and then let him try it out for himself. He seemed reasonably impressed and didn’t have anything really bad to say about it. Then he gave me a short demo of Notes Plus. It seemed pretty comparable. They had some different approaches to the same problem but both were well executed. However, what caught my eye most was that with Notes Plus you can draw straight into your notes. No extra, separate figures. AND it has great options for automatically detecting, smoothing and straightening lines and shapes. I bought it and downloaded it within the hour.

My first fuss with Notes Plus was that the drawing/note-taking space wasn’t big enough. I had to keep adding more pages to my economics notebook. However, that was just a dumb move on my part. There is actually an option for making the pages bigger. So I tried that for a while. It worked great.

My biggest beef came down to this: my hand writing is so sloppy even with a stylus that writing out notes on the iPad was messy and inefficient. Even with the gorgeous character smoothing, it just wasn’t enough. I would write and undo and rewrite and erase and…yeah. And as easy as adding textboxes is in Notes Plus, it just isn’t simple enough or hassle-free. It takes a lot of extra time to move the text boxes around and resize them. In the end, I was getting more and more behind in my notes and I never had time to really focus on what the professor was actually lecturing on. I spent all the time people were asking questions just catching up. Eventually, I decided I would just have to resort to the old graph paper notebook.


So it’s a sad story of how I fought the battle of traditional mediums vs. technology. But if tech just doesn’t do the trick, why bother? Why inconvenience yourself? Besides, my wife still uses the apps to draw, and I’ve found they are great for other things like entertaining children at church or visiting nephews. Though, I’ve found better drawing apps for that too…

Something worth noting about both apps is that they can sync your notes to Dropbox.

For all general purpose note-taking (when I don’t need to draw), I use Evernote or Simplenote because they sync to my existing accounts online where I store all my notes. What has been your experience with note-taking on the iPad? What works for you?

Epilogue: General Features & Screenshots

I’ve included the primary features (as described by the developers on the AppStore) for those of you potentially interested in either of these two apps.

Notes Plus

Hand write comfortably with your big finger, your text will show up as fine as with pen and paper. Auto-advance feature let you write even with your eyes closed. Advanced stroke smoothing algorithm makes your writing look as good as ever; the faster you write, the better it looks.

Lay your palm comfortably down with Palm Pad.

Let you insert keyboard text anywhere on the page with many type faces, font sizes, and colors.

Let you draw a basic shape (ellipse, rectangle, line, polygon, …) with your finger, auto-detect and insert the perfect vector shape, then let you edit it.

Let you record audio while jotting down the note. Perfect for meetings, classes, or conferences. Recordings are linked with pages to provide easy playback.

Let you select handwriting text by just circling around it, then erase or re-arrange it. Erasing a writing is as easy as drawing a line over it. No awkward switching between erase tool, selection tool, and draw tool.

Provide a complete folder structure. Private folders can be password-protected. A folder can have many notebooks; a notebook can have many pages. Pages are listing with thumbnails. Provide ability to move, copy, duplicate and delete notebooks or individual pages.

Full undo/redo support. Yes, it does have REDO function; touch and hold undo button to reveal the undo/redo action sheet. Also let you recover your deleted notebooks or pages.

Many options are provided including: stroke color, thickness, transparency; text font, size, color; paper background, etc.

As you can see from the screenshots below, this app stands out for its clean interface. A great effort was put in to hide controls so that it would not cluster the interface. You should be able to start without a tutorial.

The developer encourages you to email him with any questions concerning features since he has only listed his “top 10.” It might be worth your time since he tries to respond to all emails within 24 hours.


** Full-featured Handwriting **
Amazingly smooth ink makes capturing ideas easy and awesome. Notability’s zoom window helps you quickly and clearly draw every detail and the palm rest protects your notes from unwanted marks. Our scissors let you copy, move and even re-style the color and width of any ink. Reordering notes is a joy: drag-and-drop thumbnails, while adding or removing pages as needed. Your notes should be as unique as you are, so choose a paper to fit your style and use a variety of pen colors and widths to create beautiful notes.

** PDF Annotation **
The same tools that help you take beautiful notes in Notability equip you to annotate PDFs: record, type or handwrite on anything. It’s easy to share your annotations with anyone using email or Dropbox and more.

** Advanced Word-Processing **
Notability’s features like styling, outlining, and spell check are the perfect tools to get the job done quickly and accurately. Other tools like bullets, bold, italic, underline, font presets, cursor controls, and more, seamlessly integrate to help you create rich notes.

** Linked Audio Recording **
Audio recordings automatically link to your notes, so go ahead and take notes with confidence. While reviewing your notes, just tap a word to hear what was said at that moment. Our advanced audio processing features create brilliant recordings in any setting. Use the recording feature to capture your own voice for memos, presentations, or speech practice.

** Auto-sync **
Work with confidence: with Notability’s auto-sync, your notes are always backed up in the cloud. Easily collaborate at work or school sharing ideas and notes on the fly.

** Media Insertion **
Enhance your notes by adding pictures from your photo library or from the iPad camera. Insert web clips, figures, and drawings to compliment your notes. Crop, resize, and draw on images to make them perfect. Your text will automatically flow around them.

** Library Organization **
Your ideas and notes are incredibly important to you, so Notability makes it simple to organize, protect and share this information. Drag and drop notes into a subject and use a password to keep notes secure. Auto-sync makes backing up simple: your notes are automatically uploaded to Dropbox, iDisk or WebDAV. Import notes, PDFs, and RTFs from the cloud or web. And share notes via Email, Dropbox, iTunes File Sharing, and AirPrint.


Notability - Mainscreen

Notability – Mainscreen

Notes Plus - Notebooks

Notes Plus – Notebooks 

Notability - Writing

Notability – Writing

Notes Plus - Writing

Notes Plus – Writing

Notability - Note Taking & Figures

Notability – Note Taking & Figures

Notes Plus - Drawing Figures

Notes Plus – Note Taking & Figures