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.
As you can see in the video, I also found out how to create stand alone ToDos.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
Table of Contents
Pages in each section
To do sections
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 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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
I used a Tinderbox map when I was trying to make sense of my Markdown Shakedown thread from last summer.
A thread on the outlinersoftware.com forum started out as just an announcement that Tinderbox 8 had been released, but turned into a discussion (in part) about whether or not Tinderbox is worth the investment of money and time. Someone wrote the following:
Tinderbox is too expensive. It looks useful and complex but it is too expensive for what it is… Annual pricing of nearly £100 is ridiculous.
That commenter also compared the price of Tinderbox with that of DevonThink.
I am not going to contend that that opinion is wrong. Everyone should judge the “value” of software based upon her or his needs. But I’ll tell you why that judgment does not fit my perspective.
A simple outline helped me manage the production of a book for our local historical society.
The financial cost
Maybe it is because I started personal computing when most software cost over $200, but I am not shocked that Tinderbox costs $249. What shocks me is that any software only costs $10 or $20. That has always seemed unsustainable to me, which I think has proven true, as attested by the number of apps going to a subscription model. Still, $249 is a lot of money to spend on software that has a reputation of being very difficult to master, and even harder, perhaps, to figure out what in the world you want to use it for.
That $249 only gets you one year of updates. After that, the software keeps on working fine, but if you want updates, you’ll have to pay another $98, which buys you another year of updates.
Justifying the cost
Tinderbox is unlike any other app on the market. It does things no other app does, and it makes possible the manipulation of notes in ways no other single application does. So it is not possible to compare the price of Tinderbox with that of any other application in any way that is logical. If, as the commenter whom I quoted above, you see Tinderbox as just another DevonThink alternative, of course it would not make sense to spend the money for the more expensive app. Choosing DevonThink makes perfect sense for that person.
But that is ignoring all the other things Tinderbox can do. The map view itself could justify the cost. I have written about how I think Tinderbox is the best outliner. You can add custom fields to your notes. There are multiple other views of your information in Tinderbox.
(Yes, there are lots of things Tinderbox fails at: no iOS companion and clunky exporting to name two.)
The decision about whether the initial cost is worth the money should not be made by comparing it to other applications that do less, but whether Tinderbox can help you manage and make sense of your data in ways other applications can’t and whether that is worth it to you.
Tinderbox appears to be the main source of income for the software’s lone developer, Mark Bernstein. If it becomes financialy unfeasible for him to continue to develop the app, it will gradually whither on the vine. For those of us who get great benefit from Tinderbox, that would be a hardship, so we pay the $98 update fee, seeing it as an investment in the continued growth and availability of Tinderbox. Many users may not pay the update fee until a new feature comes a long that they want. Tinderbox keeps working just fine even if you don’t pay the update fee.
The investment in time
The one criticism of Mark Bernstein that may be valid is that he doesn’t provide enough guidance for getting started with the app. He has tried. There is a 111-page “Getting Started with Tinderbox” PDF tutorial that comes with the app. This is helpful. But a series of video tutorials would be even more help — especially since there seems to be a gap between “how Tinderbox works” and “what should I do with it?” I’ve put together my own amateurish videos, and people have commented that they have helped them get started with Tinderbox.
There are a lot of dispirate resources on the website that give informtion about using Tinderbox, but there feels no rhyme nor reason to them. And there is no real user’s manual, though there is a getting started reference on the website. But there turns out to be plenty of help figuring out new features, which is how I managed to figure out a little something about Hyperbolic View in version 8.
But the truth is that all the documentation in the world would barely reduce the amount of effort needed to master all of Tinderbox’s functions. It’s just that complex. If you approach the app at the start with the notion that you need to learn all it does before you use it, you’ll almost certainly become frustrated and give up after a while.
The key to Tinderbox happiness is understanding that you can just start slowly. Almost all my posts and video tutorials are about taking this approach with the app. If you haven’t looked them over, check them out. The short version is that you can do many remarkable things with your information just be mastering the basics of Tinderbox. As you discover the efficacy of Tinderbox, you’ll start to expand your knowledge of its functions, one step at a time.
The bottom line
I am by no means trying to convince anyone they should spend the money and time to start using Tinderbox. Every opinion on this topic, from “it’s crazy expensive and too hard to learn” to “I’d pay twice as much for Tinderbox if I had to,” is valid.
Planning and recording a meeting is a great application for Milanote.
Back in November I wrote about a cloud-based planner called Milanote. I continue to use this app for various purposes, but one I especially like is for planning, recording and reporting on meetings.
With Milanote I create a white board for my meeting. Then I add figures to handle the various planning and recording functions I need. So the skeletal structure of the meeting might look like the following screen capture:
A basic meeting outline.
I can export this basic agenda as a Word document or PDF and send it out to the attendees before the meeting (imagine something more complex than the simple meeting above). (Also, remember I am a solo user of Milanote. You can also share your boards with other Milanote subscribers.)
Then as the meeting is running, I can drag figure elements into the whiteboard as needed to record what is happening. See the screencast below:
When the meeting is over, I can export my notes to a Word document or PDF to distribute to the team. Here is the PDF of those Meeting Notes.
Note: To get the best results when exporting to Word or PDF, remember that Milanote chooses the order of the export going left to right and then down the board. So the top left figure is collated first and the bottom right figure is collated last.
Of course it is possible to do much the same in many different kinds of applications, especially outliners like Dynalist. What I like about using Milanote is that it presents a clean visual overview of the meeting, but provides ample tools for recording what takes place. Additionally, it is flexible. Below is a screen capture of an alternative way to organize the notes of the meeting:
Another optional way to manage your meeting notes using Milanote. (I also added a touch of color so you know you have that option too.)
Milanote costs $120 per year, so you would not choose it solely to take minute notes. But I’ve found the app to be very useful for all kinds of solutions (tracking book development for our nonprofit press, for example). There is a free version, which allows you to create 100 figures, more than enough to manage a few meetings, if you want to give it a try. Learn more here.
As the screencast above shows, you just drag from the existing note you want to link from to an empty spot on the screen and let go of the mouse button. A dialog box opens in which you can provide a name for the new note. And presto: new note.
Being Tinderbox, this isn’t without a little squirrelly drama. First of all, as you drag from the existing note (as you can see in the screencast) a link line appears leading from nowhere. Ignore that or just see it as an indicator the process is working. After creating your new note and switching back to Map View you might be horrified at first to find that all your links have disappeared (again, as you can see in the screencast). But don’t worry. The links are still there. Just select a different note and all the links reappear. (I am using Tinderbox 8.0, so it is possible that these glitches will be erased in future releases.)
As far as I’ve been able to discern, you can’t add text or any other attributes to the new note in Hyperbolic View.
I recently provided a demonstration of the new Hyperbolic View in Tinderbox 8. In this post I want to take a quick look at another new version 8 feature called Filtered Outlines.
From the Tinderbox Help File:
Outlines may be filtered, allowing you to see only those notes that meet a specified criterion. For example, you could show only notes created in the last month, or only notes that mention “Roosevelt”, or only notes that received a grade of A or A-. These notes and their ancestors will appear in the filtered outline; all other notes will be hidden.
It is a simple concept and very easy to implement. Using the same Zombie Entertainment document, I made this screencast of the process:
Of course you have to be in Outline View to use this feature. Just choose Use Filter from the View menu. In the Filter Tab, enter the expression you want to search for. In the screencast, I search for $Prototype==”$Proto:TV”.
Detail from a Tinderbox 8 outline showing the Filtered View tab.
When you invoke a filter only the notes that match the criteria (either themselves or because they are containers with notes that match the criteria) will remain on the screen. Dismiss the Filtered View tab to clear the filter and show all the notes again.
This isn’t unlike selected #Tags in an app like Dynalist, but because Tinderbox notes can have a multitude of attributes to filter on, this is potentially more powerful.
UPDATE: A reader, Paul, who had trouble getting into the comments area, left this comment on the outlinersoftware.com forum:
Nice post, Steve. Thank you. You might want to mention the second half of the filtered view feature: if you click the gear icon to the right of the filter parameter box you can save the filter. Saving is local to the document you are working on. In a different outline tab, or the same, you can then click the gear again and use a saved filter.