OneNote Smack Down IV – Noteliner

Most of the “outliners” I’ve been reviewing in the Great OneNote Smack Down have been hybrid programs. That is, programs designed to do many things, among them the ability to create an outline.

Noteliner is no exception. It may look the most like an outliner if there is such a thing as an outliner look, but there are many features built in for project and task management. In fact, I believe the developer’s original vision was more of an information management application than a straight outliner. There are several great functions threaded into Noteliner, which makes reviewing it a little tricky because I’m not always sure which of these features are appropriate to consider when rating the app as an outliner. Bear with me and feel free to disagree in the comments section.

Noteliner is free, by the way, and available here.

(This is a review of version 3.4 build 8b.)

Noteliner with the navigation pane (left) and legal numbering selected.

Noteliner – Ready for prime time?

Before getting into the review, a few words about how Noteliner “works.” For the purposes of this series of outliner reviews, I’ve been thinking of an outline as one project in which every piece is some how related to the others. Noteliner’s developer, Sam Hawksworth, has taken a different approach with his software. Yes, the hierarchy looks the same, but where Topic A might be about project A, Topic B might be about your to do list. I believe Sam’s view is that you can keep track of multiple, unrelated subjects in Noteliner, so that each note can, in fact, split off like universes in the Multi Universe Theory. One of the manifestations of this approach is that a note and its sub-topics is known as a page. You can focus in (hoist up) on a page and happily work away at it. This kind of hoisting is integrated into how Noteliner works.

Reflecting Notliner’s pedigree as an information manager, you can adjust what type of information each note contains by clicking on the bullet or icon that starts each paragraph. The default state is the bullet. Click on the bullet and it turns into an asterisk and the whole note changes color (blue by default, but customizable), which indicates the note needs attention (it’s a very needy note). Click again, the note is grayed out and a check mark replaces the asterisk, meaning the note is complete. Click again to get a clipboard icon while the text becomes italic to indicate that this note is a comment.

You can also add dates to notes, as well as marking them as urgent. Okay, on to the brilliant review.

Ease of use (40%) = 90 (score of 36)

Noteliner gets a high score for ease of use. It takes a few moments to get used to it, but once you do, you’ll be quickly banging out your outlines. Just start typing. Every time you hit ENTER, a new note is created. I like that you can demote a note with the TAB key from anywhere in the text. Some outliners require you to have the cursor at the front of the note. That is a little disruptive, while Noteliner’s approach works much better in my experience, because if you’re quickly creating notes, you don’t necessarily know when you start writing whether or not the note is a sub topic of the previous note or not. When you realize it is, a quick press of the TAB button gets it there and you can just keep typing the note. Similarly, SHIFT-TAB promotes a note.

You can quickly move notes around with drag and drop. Reveal arrows allow you to show or hide sub-topics or (in the parlance of Noteliner) pages.

In my view, Noteliner is the easiest outliner in the group of applications I’ve reviewed so far.

Noteliner hoisted to a sub-topic (page in Noteliner jargan) with a table inserted.

Outlining features (15%) = 80 (score of 12)

As mentioned above, Noteliner has a strong hoisting feature that is easy and intuitive to use. As noted below, used in conjunction with the navigation pane, you can be simultaneously focussed on one section, while having an overview at hand.

You can show or hide labels, but are limited to legal numbering only (see first screen clip above for an example of the labeling). Noteliner does not support cloning.

The relationship between parents and children is locked in. That is, if you delete the parent, you delete the children; if you move the parent, you move the children.

You can adjust text formatting level-by-level using the Format option under the List menu. This works a little differently than other outliners. The format only affects the notes that are at the same level under the same parent. Notes at the same level, but under different parents, are note affected. Given Noteliner’s open topic policy (i.e. mixed subjects populating the same document), it is logical to treat notes of equal level, but of different parents, as unrelated. This is good for Noteliner’s intended use, but it isn’t ideal behavior for a straight outliner, because when we think of creating an outline, it is usually under the notion that all the topics are related, and therefore, you may want all topics at the same level to have the same formatting. If you do, you’ll have to apply it page by page.

Export power (25%) = 85 (score of 21.25)

There are two ways to get your text out of Noteliner and into other applications. First, you can export it as HTML or plain text. This works as well as you’d expect.

HTML export from Noteliner.
Text export from Noteliner.

The second method is to simply cut and paste, which produces a nice RTF outline in an application like Word. While this feels a little 1995, it is effective and, in fact, faster than the export method.

Text cut from Noteliner and pasted into a Word document.

So, while the options to move your text to other applications are not numerous, they are effective and produce good results.

Bonus features (10%) = 85 (score of 8.5)

Noteliner has a lot of bonus features, and as I mentioned above, I’m not necessarily sure which are appropriate for this review, so I’ll just list some of the ones I think may be most relevant:

  • You can add a tag to each note, and then can run a filter so you can see just those notes with the tag you’re looking for.
  • You can display your information in tables. The table function remains a bit enigmatic to me, as I seem to get different results than I expect. This is related to whether or not sub-notes are revealed or hidden, where the cursor is when you insert a table. When I build information in a table, then remove the table, I find the results a little strange. Nevertheless, the table function is useful — but probably not for outlining.
  • You can create bookmarks for any number of notes. This can be a useful navigation method for large and/or deep outlines. These bookmarks are accessible from a handy pull down menu.
  • You can also open the navigation pane for quickly jumping around in your outline. I do find the navigation pane a little challenging at times. To expand a topic and see its sub-topics you need to double click on it initially, but there is no visual indicator before you do this that the topic even has sub-topics. Still, the combination of the navigation pane and the outline pane makes for a unique view of your outline since you can have the outline drilled down (hoisted) to a deep sub-topic but still have an overview of your entire outline at hand. (See the first screen shot above for an example of the navigation pane.)
A simple view of our Solar System outline in Noteliner.

Overall feel and functionality (10%) = 85 (8.5)

I love the feel of Noteliner when I’m creating my outline. Nevertheless, some of its added features are often stumbling blocks for me, as I don’t always find the commands and menus intuitive. For instance, my first instinct when I want to display the legal numbering labels is to look under the List menu, but it is actually under the Document menu. I often feel temporarily lost with Noteliner — but I can usually figure it out with a little trial and error, and the help manual is in fact helpful.

Total score = 86.25

This is a very respectable score for a free application. While I don’t think developing Noteliner is Sam Hawksworth’s day job, he has been very active refining it. If you haven’t tried it, I suggest you give it a whirl.

5 thoughts on “OneNote Smack Down IV – Noteliner

  1. Within an outline (right pane) one can add a note above using SHIFT-ENTER.
    One can add additional paragraphs to a note by using ALT-ENTER.

  2. Have you considered Emacs Org-mode? Yes, installing Emacs for its outlining features is somewhat like using a semi to go to the corner store, but the W32Emacs comes with org-mode installed.

    1. Hi, Bill,

      I’ve tried Org-mode once or twice and I thought my head would explode. I do read a lot of good things about it, so I’m sure it is worth giving it another go. Perhaps the version of Emacs you refer to will make it easier.

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