Best note-taking app for serious note-takers?
May 14, 2018 8:48 PM   Subscribe

I'm constantly writing notes, lots of notes, on lots of different projects, both on my iPhone and MacBook. Apple's Notes app was my main go-to, because it's easy, but I've got several thousand notes in there and it's frozen up (also there's no simple export function, also it's too easy to delete notes by accident, also I hate iCloud). What's the best alternative? If there was some sort of stress-free tagging system (or AI-based predictive or automated classification) that would be great too, but I'm mainly just looking for a cross-platform workhorse that is easy to add to, and won't let me down.
posted by dontjumplarry to Writing & Language (31 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Notational Velocity/nvALT is my choice for Mac. Lightweight, powerful, secure, syncs across multiple platforms, and free. Super easy tagging, and full text instant search is a big selling point so you don’t even have to tag much.

I use SimpleNote on iOS to mesh with my nv note database.
posted by SaltySalticid at 8:54 PM on May 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

Evernote is probably the most popular tool in this category at the moment.
posted by Paragon at 8:55 PM on May 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

Check out Workflowy.
posted by armoir from antproof case at 9:05 PM on May 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

I use Evernote for this.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:39 PM on May 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm another Evernote user.
posted by whitelotus at 9:44 PM on May 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

posted by karizma at 10:01 PM on May 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

I loved the speed and ease with which I could take notes with OmniOutliner. The only reason I'm not using it every day anymore is that I'm not using MacOS or iOS. Not a problem for you, so could be worth trying.

Nowadays I'm in OneNote constantly. It's good, but with more layout options than I need, and too much clutter generally. It works better than Evernote for me, in that it isn't completely befuddled by tables.
posted by asperity at 11:08 PM on May 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

A previous question from February might have some useful info too.
posted by humph at 12:50 AM on May 15, 2018

I've used OneNote for years—I have many thousands of pages in several subject notebooks—and I love it.

However, OneNote 2010 is the last version that can be installed as a freestanding program on your computer. I hate all of the newer versions, which are tied to cloud accounts. After my last computer crash, I bought 2010 on ebay for $10.
posted by she's not there at 1:50 AM on May 15, 2018

Tried a few of these. Eventually settled on Evernote.
posted by jacobean at 3:02 AM on May 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

After more than a decade using Simplenote / Notational Velocity, I gave up on it because it ended up duplicating items, sometimes three or four times.

Evernote has a limit of two devices. You may or may not be willing to accept that.

Paper is iOS only.

DynaList is a supercharged Workflowy, and without the silly name. That one would be my suggestion.
posted by yclipse at 4:45 AM on May 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

I use Penultimate which automatically saves and sends my notes to Evernote as pdfs. It's a free app, and lets me get around the Evernote device limitation.

My supervisor, which is more of an Appleverse power user than I am, uses Notability.

(We both use these with an apple pencil to take freehand notes rather than typing. If you're looking for apps to type notes with, these would not be good choices.)
posted by rabbitrabbit at 7:21 AM on May 15, 2018

Bear and Ulysses have been rocking the MacOS and iOS notes game the past year or two. Please just avoid Evernote forever.

Feel free to reference this too.
posted by Baphomet's Prime at 7:40 AM on May 15, 2018

Up until last week, I would have recommended Evernote. I was one of their first users, paid for it annually, and finally just got tired of the bloat and the bells and whistles that honestly, I didn't really need.
I tagged everything, exported everything and loaded them up into Bear last week, and I have been ridiculously happy. Syncing costs $14.99 a year, and well worth supporting.
It's simple. It's beautiful. It's easy to use. It has nested tagging, and I can access it on my desktop and my iPhone.

Main website.
posted by Major Matt Mason Dixon at 7:53 AM on May 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

It might be overkill for you, but check out the various DevonThink versions. They can sync using Dropbox, WiFi, and WebDAV with the iOS version, and they have AI classification. I use Notational Velocity and Simplenote for grocery lists and the like, but my serious research notes are in DevonThink Pro Office.
posted by brianogilvie at 8:22 AM on May 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

posted by jeffamaphone at 8:38 AM on May 15, 2018

I have fought this battle and tried most of the tools in this list. Let me share a few points.

Even if you don't care about this yet, you probably WILL eventually care about both multi-device sync AND the ability to open the notes in programs other than the one that generated them.

To satisfy both these needs, I ended up looking ONLY at tools that worked with plain text files in some way. My own answer is only for crazy nerdy people (emacs and org mode), but there are plenty of other ways you can approach this while staying in plain text.

Tools like Bear and Ulysses, though, aren't the answer IF you care about long term use and access. Evernote in particular isn't, and neither is OneNote. (And I think DevonThink is effectively dead, isn't it?)

There's a whole host of text editors that will do clever things with text-only files, either through adoption of Markdown or their own approach. FoldingText and TaskPaper are good places to start; they're both great apps.
posted by uberchet at 9:56 AM on May 15, 2018 [3 favorites]

NValt on my Mac, synced via Dropbox to Editorial on iOS.

Also, I echo everything uberchet said.
posted by adamrice at 10:13 AM on May 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

(I should add that I actually used nvAlt, too, until my emacs conversion -- it's SUPER POWERFUL to have all your notes hand and only a quick search away. The simplicity of nvAlt is REALLY great, and you can easily sync its folder of notes via Dropbox to your phone or tablet or another computer, etc.)
posted by uberchet at 1:14 PM on May 15, 2018

> (And I think DevonThink is effectively dead, isn't it?)

Not at all.
posted by megatherium at 1:30 PM on May 15, 2018

>Tools like Bear and Ulysses, though, aren't the answer IF you care about long term use and access.

Can you please clarify? Both Bear and Ulysses have complete export features, even in non-purchased/read-only mode.

If anything, your two recommended tools, FoldingText and TaskPaper are more effectively dead than DevonThink (FT 2.2 was released 5/2016 & TP 3.7.6 was released in 11/2017).

How did that post get the most likes on this question with such inaccurate information??
posted by Baphomet's Prime at 1:38 PM on May 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

Because of this:
Even if you don't care about this yet, you probably WILL eventually care about both multi-device sync AND the ability to open the notes in programs other than the one that generated them.

To satisfy both these needs, I ended up looking ONLY at tools that worked with plain text files in some way.
I don't use any note-taking software yet so can't really vouch for any particular solution other than having heard nothing but praise for org-mode, but the above quote is pretty good advice for computing in general.
posted by Bangaioh at 2:17 PM on May 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

The first post I made in this thread provided a link to evaluate damn near 80+ iOS plain text editors across 30 attributes of price, devices, syncing methods, exporting methods, and general features.

It's nice advice, but even the proprietary tools (Evernote, OneNote, Workflowy, Devonthink, etc.) have ways to export the data to plain text or some equivalent (barring the multimedia you can plop in a few of these tools). What apps nowadays, notably those we recommended here, don't have multi-device sync?
posted by Baphomet's Prime at 2:49 PM on May 15, 2018

I'm sorry I kicked your puppy, Baphomet & megatherium, but I'm also not sure what I posted was entirely inaccurate. If DT is still truly under slow-but-active dev, I stand corrected, but the balance of my post is correct.

As for DT itself, development has been very, very slow for a very, very long time. It's one reason I quit using the tool -- the app landscape was opening up and including tools that supported things like multi-device sync far more readily. DT is a good tool for a pretty narrow use case (serious research, with lots of sources and tagging and whatnot -- think academia), but it didn't seem to be evolving super well, and still doesn't seem to be a great fit for someone seeking a good notetaking platform.

I quit using DT years ago as a result. (REALLY LONG gaps between releases were one reason.) As an "everything bucket," my takeaway was that it wasn't materially more useful than "a whole bunch of files in a folder hierarchy".

But reasonable people can differ, and if it works great for YOU TWO, that's awesome. Go with God.

In my experience, though, it's way too complex, and people want simple and straightforward in this category. So:

* Find a great plaintext option
* That syncs easily
* and find something like it that can read the data from your Android or iOS devices

I use emacs on the Mac, and Editorial on iOS. Another great and simple approach is nvAlt on the Mac, and Editorial/Drafts/Byword/whatever editor you like on iOS. I know nothing about Android, but I'm sure there's great editors that will search a dropbox folder there, too.
posted by uberchet at 3:03 PM on May 15, 2018

(I'll note also that "has ways to export" isn't the same as "easy export that's meaningful." Tools like OneNote activtely encourage the use of formatting, graphics, etc, that won't export well. OneNote in particular allows you to place text blocks all over the page, and that won't export well either. If you want your data to be useful beyond the life of your current toolset, avoid tools that encourage hard-to-export proprietary behavior.)
posted by uberchet at 3:05 PM on May 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

I'm totally agreeing with the approach to plain text editing and have provided plain text editor suggestions and additional resources to find what should work for almost any user. I just mentioned the same caveats you have about exporting and didn't even recommend OneNote but am aware of what it does when exporting.

Can you still provide clarification on this line please?
>Tools like Bear and Ulysses, though, aren't the answer IF you care about long term use and access.
Both Bear and Ulysses have complete export features, even in non-purchased/read-only mode.

I wasn't recommending DevonThink either, but it's still more actively developed than the original suggestions you made of FoldingText and TaskPaper.

The puppy kicking line wasn't needed nor appropriate.
posted by Baphomet's Prime at 3:22 PM on May 15, 2018

I didn't mean it in a disrespectful way; if it landed that way it's still my responsibility, though, so I apologize.
posted by uberchet at 3:32 PM on May 15, 2018

Seconding humph's suggestion to take a look at the thread from February. As a result of that thread, I took a long look at Standard Notes, using it for a month, and a brief look at Bear. My situation was that I was managing what is now about 2500 notes in Evernote for quite a few years and then migrated to OneNote. Also as a result of the February thread, I made a painful transition back to Evernote. No regrets now that I've done that work of getting everything back into Evernote and have groomed/curated the tags. My main reasoning for going back was the tagging system. I feel like this is the one area that Evernote has really nailed: tagging and search. The part of your question that resonates for me is the comment about, "I've got several thousand notes in there"; I think you are going to find that volume is going to really separate the different tools.
posted by kovacs at 6:38 PM on May 15, 2018

The difficulty level for me is that I can’t link any cloud accounts to my work computer. The only thing that works across all platforms and works on my work PC is Google Keep. It leaves a lot to be desired...but the best note taking app is the one you can actually use.
posted by lhauser at 8:14 PM on May 15, 2018

Response by poster: Thanks for all these suggestions. As per kovacs' comment, I'm checking out Standard Notes which has a fantastically impressive philosophy, agreeable pricing with a generous free tier that delivers all the core services intact, and an artlessly beautiful interface does simple right. (Unlike Bear, whose UX is simple in a glossy, Gwyneth Paltrow-approved, certified organic sprouted kombucha smoothie sorta way).

But like kovacs said, tag search is crucial and Standard Notes seems less-than-amazing at this. Plus there's no support for multimedia, even in the paid tier, and the developers have only the vaguest time frame for adding it. Plain text notes didn't cut it in the Middle Ages, or the Renaissance, and seem even less fit for purpose in 2018.
posted by dontjumplarry at 9:09 AM on May 24, 2018

I'd like to belatedly stick in another strong vote for Bear. It supports images and other attachments, which none of the other markdown-based tools do, and along with two way sync to plain text files on disk, WITH IMAGES.
posted by dmd at 6:09 AM on August 14, 2018

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