Notetaking and Reference Applications

Notes taken when I was testing notetaking and reference applications.

Criteria

Must have

  • Works on Android and Linux.
  • Syncs across Android and Linux.
  • Works offline.

Nice to have (in no particular order)

  • Voice dictation.
  • Linux application. A web app that works on Chromium/Linux would be an acceptable second best.
  • Checklist mode, with the ability to easily clear completed items.
  • Lets you attach images to notes.
  • Lets you link from one note to another.
  • Open source.
  • Encryption both in transit and at rest, and developers who seem to take security and privacy seriously.
  • Notes can be printed and data can be exported to a common open format.
  • Notes can be hierarchically ordered in directories to any depth.
  • Notes can be tagged.
  • Complex searches for multiple tags, e.g. travel AND action_support.
  • 2FA with TOTP app support.
  • A note can be associated with an Remember the Milk task.
  • Sync is built in (doesn’t require me to set it up via third parties), automatic (doesn’t require me to remember to do it), and unlimited (isn’t throttled to a few times per hour or day).

The contenders

Evernote

The one all others are compared to. Far and away the top recommended solution. Common descriptions: steep learning curve, overkill, blank slate, unstructured, full featured.

Android app, but offline access requires a paid account. On Linux, web access (not offline). There’s at least one 3rd party open source unofficial Linux client which I haven’t tested. So far I’m using the web client on Linux.

Evernote reminders can be synced with RTM, though it’s not clear why an RTM user would use Evernote rather than RTM for reminders.

You can create “Notebooks”, like folders but apparently can’t be nested. Has tags, and complex searches on tags are possible:

  • tag:software OR tag:education will return all those notes tagged either software or education
  • any: tag:hardware tag:software will return only those notes tagged both hardware and software

Photos, images, and handwriting can be added to notes, and OCR lets text on them be searchable.

There is a David Allen Co. setup guide (paid) to Evernote, and being popular with the GTD crowd the GTD forum has lots of user tips.

2FA available and appears to work with Duo’s TOTP app.

Security overview. Data is encrypted in transit but not at rest. Employees can and sometimes do read your data.

Some formatting is available, though oddly not hierarchical headings. Checkboxes are available line-by-line and checked items don’t disappear. URLs are automatically formatted as links but following them wastes your time with a silly “you are leaving evernote.com” intermediate screen.

The most frequently it syncs is every 15 minutes and there is apparently no way to manually force a sync, boo.

GNote

Began as a port of Tomboy. Linux, and apparently Android. Wiki-like, so can easily link from one note to another. Not investigated.

Keep

On Android, app. On Linux, web access (so not offline).

Review and description.

Searching “google keep getting things done” got no useful hits.

Has “labels” (tags) but no way to do complex searches on them, nor can you do hierarchical organization of notes. I’m not impressed.

Can attach photos and other files to notes, which is very handy.

A note can be in checklist mode, and it is possible to un-check all items with a single click, which is handy. Checklist mode is note-wide: you can’t give one line a checkbox but another line in the note no box. Checked items move to the bottom of the list.

Cannot select the entire text of a note, making it hard to copy.

Note Everything

To access notes on a computer, (1) install a plugin that (2) syncs my notes to Google Docs, then (3) access the notes there. No, no, no.

OneNote

Android app. Unknown if there’s a Linux application.

Microsoft scans your data for disallowed content and will either remove it or delete your entire account without warning. No.

Simplenote

The tool I have happily settled on. From Automattic. Android, Linux (yay!), and more. Open source and no cost. Cleanest nicest interface I’ve seen.

For Linux, it is available as a .deb and a .tar.gz. Sorry, no .rpm, not even in openSUSE package search. I take the .deb and turn it into an RPM with alien. If that’s not your cup of tea there’s a PCLinuxOS RPM repository that has a recent version of Simplenote as an RPM. When I tried that I edited the .desktop file to readCategories=Office; so that it appeared as desired in my applications menu.

The application will notify you with a popup that there is a new version available.

Tags don’t allow spaces. Apparently no way to perform complex searches of tags.

Apparently can’t attach images or other files to notes.

Apparently can’t create checklists.

Note export available.

In applications, notes are searchable offline. Obviously the web app needs to be online.

Data encrypted in transit but not at rest, to accommodate text search in the web app.

Markdown is available. You have to toggle between edit and preview modes.

URLs aren’t made clickable automatically. Using Markdown you have to code them. Using plain text, sorry, no clickable links for you.

Turtl

Open source! Linux and Android! NK! Privacy and security minded lead dev! No user docs, but there is a user forum and a Reddit board. No cost but accepts donations.

Apparently no one’s made an RPM of the Linux tarball. I was going to make my own but the tarball is full of .pkg packages I can’t open so I decided to just install it using the installer script. Next time certainly try to use Checkinstall. The installer gives me a .desktop file and a menu entry.

No user documentation. It’s easy to figure out, but still.

Product dev done in the open on a Trello boardhttps://trello.com/b/yIQGkHia/turtl-product-dev including roadmap.

Full URLs (e.g. http://example.com/) are automatically made into links but incomplete ones (e.g. example.com) are not. This is relevant because URLs copied from Chrome for Android are incomplete.

Uses Markdown. Markdown doesn’t support checkboxes, so can’t create checkable checklists.

Cannot print notes, huh? This is all the odder given that it’s an HTML5 app and uses your default browser’s rendering engine. Cannot import or export data.

Requires signing in to the server, so you need to be online for that. Once signed in, you can work offline. This has been a problem when I needed a note while offline, and would be a problem if the server were to ever go down. It’s also a pain to have to sign in all the time. On Android, there is an option to stay signed in, but I’m sometimes logged out automatically. On desktop, there isn’t even that, so I am slowed down by constantly entering my credentials.

On some Android phones including mine, the text entry/edit field is unusably small. The problem has been reported but the developer response wasn’t promising. For that reason I’ve left Turtl for Simplenote.

References

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About Warren Post

So far: Customer support guy, jungle guide, IT consultant, beach bum, entrepreneur, teacher, diplomat, over-enthusiastic cyclist. Tomorrow: who knows?
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