NotePlan 3: Has my search for the perfect productivity app come to an end?

I only recently started to try out the beta version of NotePlan 3. I’ve been a fan of NotePlan for some time, but I never really used it extensively, and I didn’t know why. All its features really appealled to me, because I have long thought the ideal app would allow you to combine notes, events and tasks.

Side Note: This conviction dates back to an old DOS application called Total Recall that I relied upon in the 1980s. TR allowed me to manage four types of information: Events, Tasks, Notes and Contacts, as if each was an index card, but all had date fields and could be reviewed in a calendar.

NotePlan 2 did this, but just didn’t hold me. I’ve now figured out why… more below. (Note: I am writing this review with the approach that readers will already have some familiarity with version 2. If you don’t, you can see more at the app’s website.)

When I learned that NP3 was going to be a $60/year subscription, I initially wrote it off. Too expensive, I thought, for something I will admire, but not use… like a fine vase on a shelf in my home.

But I did follow development of NP3 and the more I saw, the more interested I became, especially after I had tried out Roam Research and Obsidian. NP has some significant similarities to those two inovative projects even in its earlier versions. As with RR and Obsidian, NP is built around daily notes, and has clever linking and task management. (NotePlan’s task management is far more sophisticated than either RR or Obsidian at this time.)

I decided it wouldn’t hurt to try out the current beta edition of NotePlan 3. I was immediately smitten!

As far as I can tell, there are not a lot of essential functions of NotePlan 3 that you can’t find in version 2. However, the user interface has been completely overhauled, and this has made all the difference (and, yes, there are some new features that are nice, too… more below).

The major improvement

In version 2, a major chunk of the screen is absorbed by the calendar. I thought nothing of this until using version 3, where the daily note editor has become the center of the screen. There is no monthly view, other than the smaller navigation calendar which sits at the top of the right side panel, above the day calendar split into hours.

NotePlan 2
NotePlan 3

I realize now that the monthly calendar in version 2 is a dead zone to me, and one of the reasons I did not fully embrace NotePlan. In version 3 the emphasis is all on the notes, which really resonates with me.

And the editor has been improved, making writing notes better than ever. I would even go so far as to say that the slickness of the editor rivals that of Bear or other markdown-based writing apps. (I would like to see a typewriter mode added to the editor for working with longer notes.) And, of course, all the innovative task management and linking tools are on hand.

Note folders

NotePlan has long had the ability to create and manage undated notes, but this had been rudimentary in version 2. NP3 has made undated note management far more robust with the addition of folders that can be nested for organizing your notes. You can also add tags, of course, if that’s your prefered organizing scheme.

Command Bar

Another nice feature is the Command Bar, which you can initiate with the keystrokes COMMAND-J. This pops up a search function window. Start typing what you are looking for, hit enter and you get a list of the notes (daily and undated) that contain the search string.

The Command Bar with the search string “Hazel.”
After hitting ENTER in the Command Bar, I get a list of the various notes that have the search string. Clicking in any one of the found notes brings me to that note.

Supposedly, you can add tasks using the Command Bar by prefacing the search string with an asterisk, but I haven’t gotten this to work yet. I assume this is a glitch in the beta version, or perhaps I just haven’t done it quite right. I have no doubt this will be worked out.

Update: In an email, the developer gave me the proper instructions for creating a task in the Command Bar. You don’t need to preface the text with an asterisk, but you do need to add a “when.” So typing in “Correct the information about how to create a task with the Command Bar today” (without the quotation marks) will create a task to do that for today.

Weekly Review

One of the features of RR that I especially appreciate is that you can view your daily notes in a rolling editor, so it is easy to review your recent days and weeks. NotePlan 3 has a similar feature called the Week review, which opens up a week’s worth of daily notes in the central screen.

The Week review screen. (I’ve toggled off the calendar sidebar.)

There is a lot more to NotePlan 3 than I’ve written about here, but these are the features that have won me over. The iOS version is also being updated and will be released at the same time, but I have not tested it. Learn more about NotePlan 3 and sign up for the public beta here.

As the app is polished for official release (some time in October I believe), I believe NotePlan 3 will become my number one planning and information application. Yes, $60 is a hefty annual subscription fee, but if it allows me to focus most of my work on one app, this will save me money in the long run.

In coming posts, I want to elaborate on features of NotePlan to provide more depth about how this wonderful app works. And I hope to answer the question posed in the title of this post.

Dynalist is still my most useful productivity app

Well it has been a while since I last posted, but prompted by recent comments from a reader, who is also a fan of Dynalist, I want to post this update.

There have been some newish apps that have vied for the work for which I use Dynalist. I was very intrigued by Roam Research — as most note-builders are. I especially like the daily notes feature, and the fact that you can easily scroll through these automatically generated pages to review your recent history. Another handy feature is the page showing all your outstanding todos no matter which other pages they reside in.

Then there is Obsidian, a nice addition to this category. Superficially, it seems to be a contender with Roam Research, but they are really two different types of apps — which is not to say they can’t each be used similarly for knowledge management. While Roam Research is a cloud-based app, Obsidian lives on and stores your notes on your computer. Where the basic structure of Roam is the outline, text paragraphs are the essence of Obsidian — you can structure outlines in Obsidian with headers, like many other markdown apps.

I am skipping over the more powerful knowledge management functions of each app — the linking and back linking as well as many other features. If you are unfamiliar with either app, you can find far more expert users all over the Internet. But I don’t need these more sophisticated knowledge management functions.* I am not building a knowledge base. I am jotting my thoughts and ideas, managing my day and logging notable events.

Between the two, Roam Research, due to its reliance on outlining, had the best chance to knock me from Dynalist — ironic, since the developers of Obsidian are part of (or were part of, not sure which) the Dynalist team. After using RR for a couple of weeks, however, I decided to go back to Dynalist. I find it far easier to use, especially with my date-based set up. I can run it from my computers or through any browser or on my iPad. And it is much less expensive than Roam… although I would happily pay the fee for Roam if I needed its full functions.

On the other hand, I continue to use Obsidian as a recepticle for my long form note-taking and work diary. In that regard, it is a replacement for Notebooks, although I am still debating which of those two apps works best for me.

I am going to try to post more often now and will be coming back to these topics.

*The Windows app ConnectedText has had these knowledge management features for over a decade. CT is more powerful than either Roam Research or Obsidian, but sadly isn’t being developed at the moment. Still, CT’s developer, Eduardo Mauro, should be applauded for creating the diamond standard of link-based, knowledge management apps. CT is still available to download and purchase.

Homebound Update

I apologize in advance for what I expect to be a somewhat rambling post.

The state of Vermont has confirmed what I’ve long expected: I am not essential. So I am working at home. The theme of this post is how that has changed what software I am relying upon.

Usually I have the dual personality of a Windows user during weekdays at the office, and a Mac user the rest of the time. That has caused me to use applications that are available on both operating systems, such as Notebooks, developed for Apple devices but with a working Windows version, or apps that are cloud-based and accessible through a browser.

But now that I don’t have to think about Windows — at least for the time being — has my software usage changed?

Yes. At least somewhat.

For one thing, I had a lot of my work notes in OneNote, which I didn’t use on the Mac. But since I might need some of that information working from home, I have sync’d several notebooks to my Mac and my iPad. This has been quite convenient, even though I am not entirely comfortable with Microsoft’s cloud service, OneDrive.

Second, I have switched my journaling from Notebooks to Diarly. This might prove to be a silly whim. Notebooks works great for keeping daily notes, but I really like Diarly — available for MacOS and iOS, but not for Windows. So I am using it for now. When it is time to go back to the office — if that day ever arrives! — I will most likely switch back to Notebooks.

In addition to staying at home, I’ve also had my hours cut to a minimum, since there isn’t a lot I can do of my real job at home. So I’ve got time on my hands. I’ve already begun writing more (including this article about the 1776 small pox epidemic on Lake Champlain). Consequently, I decided to subscribe to Ulysses, that — despite my most fervent wishes — really is the best short-form writing app out there.

I’ve also subscribed to Notion, thinking it would be a good way to organize some other personal projects I want to work on. So far I haven’t made a lot of progress on these, but I suspect there is still a lot of time ahead.

But I am still using Dynalist extensively. On the surface, Dynalist is a dull and uninspiring app, but use it an it will quickly become essential. At least that’s my experience.

Speaking of dull and uninspiring, I think it is time to end this post. I hope to be back with more interesting posts.

Be safe and stay well.

Some corrections regarding Notebooks

This is just a quick post to correct a few misperception I had about Notebooks when I previously wrote about the app.

I corresponded with Alfons Schmidt, the primary developer of Notebooks. He read my original post and sent me a few corrections (I’ve already posted them to the original article):

– in Notebooks you *can* search all books at once; while the default is the hierarchy below the current book, you can check the box “search all books” to expand the search scope.

– what may be surprising in this context: as you start typing in the search field, you actually filter the currently displayed list; when you type return you trigger a search. That is the moment when the above mentioned box appears.

– Live preview of rendered Markdown is available in Notebooks as well: you can open the (same) document in a separate window; while you edit the text in one window, the rendered Markdown will update in the other. So users are not “forced” to use the preview, but they can if they want 😉

Tags in Notetaker 4

Tags in Notetaker 4 are inserted in a meta data column.

Back in September, I wrote a review of Notetaker 4. My impression was positive overall, but I had a few reservations. One of these was that I couldn’t figure out how the tag function worked. A second was I thought you could not create stand alone ToDos within your outlines. When a reader recently commented that he couldn’t figure out the tags function either, I decided to reach out to Notetaker’s developer, Scott Love of Aquaminds. We had a very nice email exchange, wherein he gave me the following information about tags:

Any outline entry on a notebook page (not a section page) can be assigned a tag.  Some tags are automatically assigned such as “Web Page” whenever a URL or link is present in an entry.  Tags are indexed in their own section and can be accessed within the Index section for quick lookup.  Additionally, your tags can be used in combination with the Highlight & Summarize command (Advanced menu) to create more powerful, more relevant searches.   For example, you might be using specific tags for names of projects or important milestones.  

With the Toolbar visible, click on the Column button to pull-down a column setting to view.  Select the Tag choice for any of the three columns as you like.  To change or assign an entry’s tag, ctrl-click on the visible column to display the contextual menu.  

Pre-created or system tags can be viewed and assigned or you can create your own tags using the Tools panel.  The Tags… command from the Insert menu will also open the Tools panel for selecting and editing existing tags and obviously for adding your own tags.

I decided to translate this into a video to help people understand the concepts.

Creating and using tags in Notetaker 4

As you can see in the video, I also found out how to create stand alone ToDos.

Using Notebooks as a daily journal

Notebooks main screen shot
Notebooks allows you to organize your notes and journal by “notebook” (left panel). Your entries appear in the notes list (central panel). And the content of the selected note appears in the editor (right panel). In this screen shot the editor is in edit mode.

Notebooks by Alfons Schmidt has been around for over 10 years. It began as an iPhone application. Today there are versions for iOS, MacOS and even Windows. With Notebooks, you can create any number of “notebooks” for storing all kinds of information.

Note: See the update at the end of this post.

In this post, I want to look specifically at using Notebooks as a journaling application. This examination was spurred by a comment and inquiry from a reader of this blog. He had been using MacJournal, but found version 7 to be a bit unreliable so was researching other options. Like me, he admires Diarly, but he wanted an app that allowed for multiple daily entries, whereas Diarly limits you to one a day (although it does allow you to create a number of different topic area diaries). While my correspondent built himself a workaround so that he could continue to use MacJournal, he got me thinking about how Notebooks might serve this purpose.

I am going to focus on Notebooks version 2, which was recently released for MacOS.

General introduction to Notebooks

When you create a “notebook” in Notebooks, the application creates a file folder on you computer. Each entry is just a file that is created and stored in that folder. Nested notebooks are nested folders. You can choose from three types of document: markdown, plain text and formatted. Formatted documents are saved as HTML. You should be able to open and read any of your entries in almost any plain text editor. This is an advantageous process if you wish to avoid format lock-in.

If you want to use your entries on multiple devices, you need to save your files on a service like Dropbox. I’ve been doing so and have had no sync issues as of yet.

Notebooks is intended to be used the way you might use Evernote, as a repository for all your information, so you can store many types of files in your notebooks, including Word formatted documents, PDFs, images and more. You can also set a notebook to display entries as tasks, so you can add due dates. These are not necessarily features you need for journaling, but would be appealing if you want to integrate your notes and your journal in one application.

Notebooks has something called “Smart” books. These are filtered views that show you subsets of your data across all your notebooks. However, they appear static. That is, you can’t edit them or create new ones. You are limited to the default smart books:

  • Due Tasks
  • Recent Items
  • Recently Modified
  • Contexts (quasi tags)

Another feature that I like is the editor uses typewriter mode, so the line you’re working on is always centered vertically in the editor window. What is odd about this implementation is that there is apparently no way to turn it off, though I may simply have not yet found it.

My Notebooks journal

The first issue to be aware of, and it will affect how I set up my journal, is that Notebooks has a search function limited to one “notebook” at a time. This means that I will use a single notebook per yearly journal so I can efficiently search my content.

Note list sorting detail
Select sorting of your entries list by creation date and Notebooks includes the creation date and time in the list.

I then set the entry list to sort my entries by date created. This does two things. First, of course, it puts the entries in proper order. But more importantly it displays the date and time the entry was created. This is how you can easily create multiple entries per day and track them in the note list.

Personally, I prefer one entry per day. I can easily break them into areas with markdown headers, and I can add time stamps as needed.

Notebooks secondary screen shot
Here is Notebooks with the editor in view mode, with the markdown rendered.

Reasons to use Notebooks for your journal

Here is a quick list of reasons you might consider Notebooks for journaling:

  • A rich markdown writing environment
  • Renders handsome documents in markdown
  • Access your journal on all your Apple devices (there is also a Windows edition, but I have not tried it recently)
  • All-in-one note-taking application
  • No subscription

Reasons you may want to look elsewhere

This is a quick list of reasons another application might suit you better:

  • Limited tagging features
  • Search limited to a notebook at a time
  • No saved searches or filters

Notebooks over Bear

Bear is another note-taking application that is well thought out and has proven to be reliable. I briefly thought it might be a contender as my journaling app, but after comparing it to Notebooks, I’m convinced Notebooks is a better choice. There are two reasons:

  1. To keep your journal separate from the rest of your notes, you need to use a tag. This isn’t a deal-killer, by any means, but it just feels to me as sloppier than being able to slot your journal entries into a “Journal” notebook.
  2. This, to me, is the main reason to choose Notebooks over Bear. There appears to be no method of displaying the date and time in the note list in Bear. You can sort your entries by creation or modification date, but you can’t see the date and time it was created. You can, of course, use the date and time as the title of your entries, but that’s not something I want to be forced into doing.

Certainly, if you already use Bear and love it, you can overcome or ignore these deficiencies. At this point, I don’t want to.

The bottom line

Notebooks has a lot of features for note-taking and note-keeping that I haven’t mentioned because I don’t believe they pertain directly to using the application as a journal. I won’t pretend this isn’t a thoroughly subjective review; however, I hope I’ve provided enough information to help you decide if Notebooks is worth trying. It does have a free trial period.

While applications like Bear and Diarly provide a live preview of the rendered markdown as you type, I find I prefer to work in the plain text environment and then switch to view mode when I am done writing. You may feel the exact opposite.

I started out using Notebooks as a temporary exercise to see how it would work as a journal, but I’ve enjoyed journaling in the application enough that I’m going to continue to do so.

Update

After seeing this post, Notebooks developer, Alfons Schmidt, proivded a few welcome corrections:

– in Notebooks you can search all books at once; while the default is the hierarchy below the current book, you can check the box “search all books” to expand the search scope.

– what may be surprising in this context: as you start typing in the search field, you actually filter the currently displayed list; when you type return you trigger a search. That is the moment when the above mentioned box appears.

– Live preview of rendered Markdown is available in Notebooks as well: you can open the (same) document in a separate window; while you edit the text in one window, the rendered Markdown will update in the other. So users are not “forced” to use the preview, but they can if they want 😉

NoteTaker 4 – Initial Thoughts

NoteTaker 4 gives you ample space to build page after page of outlines.
For all intents and purposes, development of NoteTaker 3 ended a half dozen years ago. I assumed it was an abandoned product, but then I got word that version 4 was in the works, probably induced by the demise of its chief competition Circus Ponies Notebook. It has been a long time coming, but the new version hit the App Store recently and I immediately ponied up the $30 for it. Let me say up front that there is no iOS companion app, so if you need your notes to be mobile, this app may not be for you… then again…
I’ve been working with NoteTaker 4 for a few days now, and have decided I’ve spent enough time with it to write up a longer review, so here you go.

Overview

If you are familiar with the earlier versions of NoteTaker or of Notebook, there isn’t anything earthshakingly new in version 4. The developer, Aquaminds, has stated that the first release was mostly a way to modernize the underpinning code to pave the way for future improvements.
If you’re new to this app, it basically allows you to build pages of outlines and impress them into a notebook metaphor, complete with section tabs. I find this appealing, even though in the past I also found it too restrictive. Because I haven’t been overwhelmed by the other outlining apps out there (other than Dynalist), I’m open to giving NoteTaker a chance to win the right to capture and store my brilliant thoughts and words.

The Sum of Its Parts

You can think of each NoteTaker document as a notebook; and in fact that’s what the developer calls it. Your notebook can consist of the follow items:
  • Cover
  • Table of Contents
  • Sections
  • Pages in each section
  • To do sections
  • Index
Each page will be built mostly of text in an outline. But you can insert tables, images, voice memos, hyperlinks and more. You can also search the web from within a page, but more on that later. Some of these insert features are still only half-baked.
If you would like to write long, flowing entries in your outlines (for the sake of this review, I am refering to each node of the outline as an entry), that’s fine in NoteTaker. But if you want to restrict your entries to single lines, you can choose that option.

As an outliner

Since the core of each NoteTaker notebook is the outline, the first step in judging the app is as an outliner. There is mostly good news on this front. NoteTaker is a solid, if not brilliant outliner.
First of all, you can create outlines quickly and reorganize them easily. You can do so using the keyboard only or you can use the trackpad or mouse to drag and drop.
Second, NoteTaker has the familiar disclosure icons that help you expand and contract what you see on the screen, and it provides a variety of styles for those icons.
You can apply labels to your outline, selecting from the standard styles. These can only be applied to the entire outline, and not to individual entries.

You can focus in on an individual entry. Then you can work on that entry’s details without the distraction of the rest of the page.

You can display up to three columns of meta data, though you can only select from a list of built in information. You can’t create your own custom meta data. Because the columns don’t have headings, you need to remember which column displays what information.
You can highlight and flag entries in NoteTaker.
You can flag and/or highlight entries. Flagging adds a check mark in the left margin.

Missing outliner features

Power outliners will miss a few advanced features. For example, there is no cloning of entries. While there is a nifty “Todo Section” feature (more about this below), you can’t individually apply checkmarks or due dates to entries.

Interesting Features

NoteTaker has several special features you won’t find on many other applictions. Some of these help make up the notebook metaphor, such as having sections with section tabs for rapid access. Here are a few others:

Contents page

Every notebook has an automatically generated contents page, which provides an overview of your material and allows you to navigate to the page you want. You can also view your contents in the drawer, which optionally opens on the left side of your main window.

Index page

You can also choose to insert an automatically generated (and updated) index page for each notebook. Circus Ponies Notebook did this as well. This is a wise feature, because larger notebooks can become difficult to navigate. Combine this with the fairly powerful Find feature and locating information in a notebook should never be too difficult.

Todo Section

I haven’t yet put this feature to the test, but here is what it says about To Do Sections in the User Guide:
NoteTaker includes a simple, built-in To Do Section feature. Prioritize your to do lists on daily pages then check them off whenever items are completed. Each day you open your notebook, the To Do Section automatically adds a newly dated page for that day’’s list while rolling over any uncompleted tasks from the most recent To Do page.
If this works as promised, it should be a very handy feature for managing tasks; although having no due dates or recurring tasks does hamper it some as a full task manager. I see this is more useful when creating notebooks for projects.

Other Pros

NoteTaker provides many ways to see the big picture or zoom in on the detail, starting with the Drawer panel that shows a mini version of your contents page, as well as a history of the pages you’ve viewed. You can also open the Libraries panel in the drawer, but I have yet to figure out how to use Libraries, so I can’t comment on this.
You can create clipping services for for individual pages, so you can hoover up data from other apps and push it into the right place.
NoteTaker provides several options for exporting your work, although I feel the Word export could be better. For this review, I exported to plain text and formatted the document in WordPress.

Where NoteTaker needs work

You can’t nest sections or pages. Maybe this is a good thing to maintain the notebook metaphor, but I find it slightly limiting.
The tagging feature is confusing. I couldn’t figure out how to add a new tag or a new group of tags.
Likewise the “Library” feature doesn’t appear to work. At least I couldn’t figure it out.
I’d like to be able to create styles so that they would automatically apply at specific levels. Essentially, I don’t want to have to manually make certain headings bold.
There are still some glitches that need to be ironed out. For instance, full screen mode gets it wrong when you switch to another app and back again. And three times I’ve had NoteTaker freeze up on me, causing me to lose some work.

Summary

I like working in outlines. I find they clarify my thinking and help me organize my work. There are a number of software outliners available for MacOS, but none of them stands out as clearly better than the others, in my view. Thus the door is open for an application like NoteTaker to arise from the ashes and make a comeback. It still has some work to do, however, before it will achieve that goal.
I wrote this review in NoteTaker and found the process enjoyable. That’s the first step.

An old standard skeuomorph is resurrected in Notetaker 4

A skeuomorph is a derivative object that retains nonfunctional ornamental design cues (attributes) from structures that were inherent to the original. Examples include pottery embellished with imitation rivets reminiscent of similar pots made of metal and a software calendar that imitates the appearance of binding on a paper desk calendar. (Wikipedia)

(I knew there was a word that describes Notetaker, which does a good job resembling a paper notebook, but I had to search the web to find that word.)

See the update at the end of this post.

One of the first pieces of software I bought when I switched to a Mac in 2008 was an application called Circus Ponies Notebook. It was very similar to another application called Notetaker. It is my recollection that the two were forks of an earlier application when the developers decided to go their separate ways. I liked the way each mimicked a paper notebook, choosing CPN because it seemed a little flashier.

But I soon found other applications that worked better for me and never put CPN to much use. A few years ago CPN was abandoned by its developer. Now Aquaminds,* the developer of Notetaker, has announced the arrival of a new version.

This new version has been a long time coming. For a while I thought Notetaker was abandoned as well. I first heard version 4 was in the works almost two years ago. I may not be as relieved as the developer that the version 4 is now live, but I am damn glad of it, just so I can stop checking on the status every week or so.

Anyway, this is just a notification that the new version exists. I have bought a copy (reasonably priced at $30). And will put Notetaker through its paces. So far I haven’t stumbled over any problems. It works as advertised. I hope to do a more thorough review in the coming weeks.

*I’ve linked to the website, but there is virtually no substance there as I write this — just a link to the AppStore and a blog.

Update: Twice now I’ve had Notetaker lock up on me as it was trying to save. Both times I lost work as a result. On both occasions, I was on a public wifi network — that probably doesn’t matter, but I thought I’d mention it.

 

 

Diarly Update

I have written before about a journaling application called Diarly (first here, then here). I really like how simple it is. I just find that it invites writing. It lacks a lot of the whistles and bells of an app like DayOne, but that’s a good thing, in my opinion.

With some recent releases, the developer (PureForm Studio) has added some very nice features. They aren’t revolutionary, by any means, but they can be exceedingly useful — and necessary even. Two of these are built-in filters that allow you to sift your entries in a given journal for 1. those with uncompleted tasks listed, and 2. past entries made on the current date. The other feature is typewriter mode, which takes your cursor off the bottom of the screen (when working on texts long enough to reach that far) and moves it to the center of the screen.

I’ve created a three-minute screencast that demonstrates these features. (Alert: I’m not at my most eloquent in this recording.)

 

NotePlan 2.0 for Mac

NotePlan is a terrific productivity app. I’ve posted before about how to use version 1 of NotePlan as a bullet journal. Version 2.0 for MacOS arrived in the App Store last week. Unlike some number-jump upgrades, this upgrade is the real deal. Take a look at the developer’s blog post to see how much NotePlan has significantly improved.

In my view NotePlan is the most successful combination task manager, calendar and note taker. I’ve created this brief video to demonstrate this:

NotePlan 2.0 Demonstration from Stephen Zeoli on Vimeo.