Note Taking, Research and Organisation with Notebooks iOS

Best Ipad Note Taking App For Students And Academics

* This is part one of a two part feature on Alfons Schmid's Notebooks app.  Part two covers automation using the Notebooks URL Scheme

Unique Features in Notebooks App For Students And Academics

Alfons Schmid's Notebooks app has been on my list of essential apps since I started this site. I’ve since written about it a number of times, and included it among the highlights of last year.  I consider it one of the best note taking apps for iPad,  especially for students and academics.  The combination of writing and organisational tools make Notebooks uniquely suited to research. It has features you won't find in other note taking apps.  The following highlights some of the functionality in Notebooks that make it so useful.  1 For expediency sake I have broken this in two parts, with the first covering features suited to academic workflows, and a followup post covering automating Notebooks with Workflow and Drafts 5.

I recently highlighted the way I use the task management feature of Notebooks, along with its URL scheme to organise reading lists. Notebooks has numerous other features suited to academic work,  here are some of the highlights.

Dual Document Viewer

The minimalism of the iOS operating system is one of the iPad’s strengths. Whether by design, or by accident it encourages focused work. However, from time to time it can lead you to a dead end. One such problem is the inability to run multiple instances of any given app. In practice that usually means finding a workaround for a common research and writing workflow. I’m talking about viewing and editing two discreet documents at the same time.

The ability to view two documents concurrently is often necessary for academic work. Studying the contents of one document for comparison or analysis, while writing in another. Incorporating comments and feedback, or simple proofing. If you do any serious research based writing, eventually you will want a solution for this. This has become a notorious pain point on the iPad that very few apps address. Multitasking has soothed the pain somewhat. Opening documents in two different apps has become the de facto workaround, but you shouldn’t need to.

 

Notebooks Best Note Taking App For Study
Notebooks is one of only few apps available on iPad that can view and edit two documents at the same time

 

Notebooks has an elegant solution via the 2up button. A swipe gesture on any given file from the document tree will open a second document in split screen. Even more useful is the long list of document types supported, including plain text documents, Markdown, PDF, iWork, Office, RTF and HTML documents as well as images, movies, web archives or email messages. Scrivener is the only other app I know of that does this, from experience Notebooks does a better job by affording both documents equal screen real estate. 2

Customisable Keyboard Navigation

Best Ipad Note Taking App For Students And Academic

Notebooks has extensive keyboard shortcuts for everything from document creation and navigation, to time stamping and revealing word counts. I recently heard it suggested one of the qualifiers for a professional app on iPad is keyboard control. Notebooks has this covered, and then some. The pro touch for me is the ability to edit your own keys in the iOS shortcuts bar. Keys can be edited to insert practically anything, including a special function that adds whitespace where the cursor will land. Any matched punctuation pair can be setup using the same function.

 

Note Taking App For Students And Academic
Notebooks comes with predefined sets of keyboard shortcuts, and users can define their own custom keys

This is one of those little touches that are more useful that you even realise at first. For example, I use standard Biblatex citation keys for use with Zotero, so I setup a shortcut key that places an @ symbol between square brackets, using an ellipsis 3 in the middle. Tapping the key types the characters, while placing the cursor in the middle. I can then type my memorised key to signify the text I am working with. The keyboard shortcut looks like this: [@…]. I have further keys set for markup with various HTML tags. I could go on, the keyboard functionality extends much further than this.

Audio and Video Recordings

Audio notes are huge if you’re studying or researching. Whether its lectures, or dictated memos 4, cataloguing them in your general notebook gives them a frame of reference. If you use a separate app for recording audio, the files are often stored without context. If you’re conscientious about naming files this can work, but nothing is more irritating than listening through the start of multiple recordings to find what you need. The same is true of video, which is rightly becoming a more recognised reference material.

Best Ipad Note Taking App For Students
Notebooks can display visual files in its dual document viewer, making it possible to review recording while taking notes

 

Note taking from Audio Visual material is another way to make good use of Notebooks dual document support. Invoking the spit view is not limited to text, so reviewing material while taking notes can be done without needing to open another app.

Structure Content with Contexts and Smart Books

Something that drew me immediately to Notebooks was the flexibility for organising data. There are powerful tools for creating structure without locking users into any predetermined method. The notebook metaphor can be maintained or subverted if you want to use the app as a file manager.

Contexts are a concept taken from the popular GTD method for organisation. I’m not big on the idea of totalising one’s life as a productivity machine, but the idea of contexts can provide a useful way to delineate different areas of work. In practice contexts are uniquely useful for structuring notes and other content. When used with Notebooks smart lists, contexts can provide the basis for compiling a finished project.

Document Processor and Compiler:

Notebooks can process text in a number of ways. Individual texts, and books can form the basis of sections for much larger documents. I have extolled the virtues of plain text enough on this site, but it bares repeating. Plain text is future proof, adaptable and resilient. The underlying engine of Notebooks is built on these foundations.

The plain text philosophy means Notebooks uses HTML for formatting, so with a little CSS, users can create custom styles from which Notebooks can compile PDF documents and ebooks. If that sounds difficult, it’s really not. It comes with a selection of style sheets to get you started, including one with MathJax support. 5 Using HTML means granular control over the finished product,

There is also a kind of neat symmetry here for anyone who knows the history HTML. The original Hypertext Markup Language was built for exactly this reason, as a standard for sharing research documents. This appeals to me as both an academic, and an unashamed geek.

PDF Annotations

The Notebooks app has the popular PSPDFKit framework available for PDF reading and annotation. This is the same framework used by Evernote, and DEVONthink, and includes thorough pencil support. On top of the deep annotation capabilities, the PSPDFkit framework provides nice page turning animations that give the app a more natural feel when working with PDF documents.

This particular feature s available via an in-app purchase, which like the app itself is inexpensive. The PDF viewer costs US$4.49. 6

Bonus Features

Windows version

This might not seem a big deal for iOS and Mac users, but Windows is everywhere. Apple users tend to forget this. Microsoft devices have improved dramatically recently, and there are plenty of other reasons for cross pollinating platforms.

Private Wifi Syncing and WebDAV support

I would like to see Notebooks add iCloud, and support for the iOS Files App, but the existing syncing options work well. Particularly pleasing is the consideration for privacy coded into the app via the Wifi option. If you have good reason for avoiding Dropbox, syncing can be managed across a local network. WebDAV support means Notebooks can also be synced via Synology and other private cloud solutions.

The Question of Handwriting

Handwriting Companion For Notebooks App
Until Notebooks has handwriting support, GoodNotes' on the fly OCR and excellent drag and drop support make it the ideal handwriting companion

Devices like the iPad Pro are finally delivering on the long promise of matching the cognitive advantages of handwriting to digital convenience. At the same time, where handwriting recognition and inking engines have improved out of sight, the apps that deliver these tools can be limited. As such, I have come to think of handwriting apps as an interface for capturing notes. Notes ultimately end up elsewhere, in Notebooks, DEVONthink, or Keep-It.

I have flipped between Notability, MyScript Nebo, and GoodNotes for handwriting. Nebo unquestionably has the best handwriting recognition, but the app hasn’t had much attention 7. Notability is a good self contained app if you can work with its limitations. However, I have returned to GoodNotes since it started generating searchable notes on the fly. Between the now instant OCR, and one of the best drag and drop implementations, GoodNotes is currently my favourite handwriting companion for Notebooks. Once a note is written, I open Notebooks and drag it from GoodNotes in slide over. The notes are preserved perfectly with the searchable layer.

Handwriting is the most obvious missing feature of Notebooks at present, but it’s likely to be added in a future version. If and when that happens, this already excellent tool will become a bonafide killer app. Until then, I still recommend it as a better place to store handwritten notes, and GoodNotes has the most compatible feature set right now.

Final Remarks

I say final, there is another post following with Workflow and url scheme automation. Despite this relatively lengthy post, there remains a lot I haven’t covered. Nonetheless, I believe these highlights make Notebooks, in my opinion, the best general purpose note taking app on iPad for academic use. There is room for improvement, no doubt. I expect that handwriting will arrive at some point, and while the hooks are already deep in iOS further integration

I have a final superficial qualifier. If I am going to spend any amount of time working in an app, I want it to look good. No problems here, the understated minimalism and use of whitespace make Notebooks a handsome app.

 

 

  1. The scope of the article covers iOS. However, Notebooks is cross platform, with excellent versions on macOS and Windows.
  2. Liquid Text has function for working with two documents, but it work vertically. Besides, Liquid Text is a world unto itself, so a subject for another time,
  3. As opposed to dictating notes to text
  4. If you know what MathJax is, chances are you have no problem with editing a few lines of HTML
  5. I’ll be honest, I wish the app cost more since I have come to reply on it. Given what it can do, I feel it is seriously under priced.
  6. It seems to get more buggy as iOS is incrementally updated.

Create Smarter Presentations with Deckset for macOS

Deckset Macos Presentation Software

Presenting complex ideas in a clear, and simple way is as undervalued as it is difficult to master. It doesn’t help that established presentation software is mostly dated, awkward, and time-consuming. Just as we have with writing apps, we have painted ourselves into a corner with presentation tools. Keynote can standalone as an alternative to Powerpoint. And yet, if you pressed me for a list of cool presentation tools, you wouldn't find either of those. It would be a short list, but you would definitely find Deckset 2.0 there.

Deckset is a presentation making app with an entirely different user experience. Especially if you’ve only ever used Powerpoint or Keynote. It seems Focus has become common currency in creative software of late, but Deckset delivers it in an unexpected way. Taking all the fuss, and fiddle out of presentation design by creating slick presentations from text files. With Deckset you can get back to what you should be doing, focusing on ideas.

Presentation Software or Powerpoint by default

In 2013, Microsoft estimated there were 30 million Powerpoint presentations given per day. That figure is likely to have moved on considerably. Everywhere there are presentations, there is Powerpoint. Just as Word has become synonymous with writing, and other text-based productivity, Powerpoint is the de facto byword for slide deck presentations. At the same time, Powerpoint is time-consuming, confusing and frustrating. Despite efforts to trim the product, it carries the compound baggage of an ageing codebase, run through with compromise. Like most users of Word, I strongly suspect Powerpoint users are in the application by default.

Deckset has the pedigree to follow the recent success of writing apps like Ulysses, which continue to popularise a previously niche medium. A similar user base will find in Deckset an ideal alternative to Powerpoint, or Keynote. Even if you’re a wizard with one of those apps, I’d wager you could save yourself time, and get to the point quicker if honing the words, and not tweaking transition animations.

I expect Deckset users will be largely self-selecting. Then again, I’m confident that many potential users don’t yet realise they should be part of that group. If the point is communicating ideas, then eliminating friction in the design of a presentation is paramount.Deckset’s neat trick, is to build polished slide decks from the raw material of your content, the text itself. You create the presentations from Markdown files, in a text editor. The slide deck itself literally gets out of your way while you concentrate on the message.

Plain Text is Simply Plain, Text

Cool Presentation Tools
With Deckset, you create presentations in Markdown. It comes with pre-loaded with example based tutorials like this to get your started

Despite the growing popularity alluded to above, there still exists a curious irony around the uptake of plain text utilities. Many prospective users seem concerned that plain text software will be difficult to use. In reality, the program left behind is often more complicated. Applications built around Markdown are some of the most simple and effective apps you will find for any purpose.

I was latecomer to the joys of plain text. If only I could reclaim all the years flushed by grappling with rich text, word processors, and bloated slide-deck programs. A small amount of time learning to write in Markdown can save you hours upon hours. The obvious gains are from time spent dealing with constantly shifting design elements, configuring and adjusting styles over and again. But then, there are the more intangible gains from working with words in their raw form.

Everything written about the focus of writing in plain text applies to slide deck presentations with Deckset. This is what makes it such an ingenious app. Just the same, if you’re still unsure about creating in Markdown, nothing can make this point better than a quick demonstration. The beauty of learning Markdown is you only have to see it to know how it works. It’s not code, it’s a clever markup language that translates into code. With an app like Deckset, you can simply open up the template files, and you’re away. If you want a primer this is everything you need to know to get started using plain text productivity apps like iA Writer, Ulysses, or Deckset.

Markdown in a Minute

Create headings with the hash symbol (#): 1

# Big Heading
## Slightly Smaller Heading
### And so on...

Use two asterisks on either side of words, or either side of a sentence to emphasise words in bold, like so:

**bold type**

Likewise, place an underscore on either side of a word, or sentence to emphasise in italics, like so: 2

_italics_ 

Unordered, and ordered lists are intuitive. Each line starts with a hyphen, or numeral + period, like this:


- Something
- And, something else
- Make up an unordered list


1. First item
2. Second item
3. Item number three

If you want to turn a word into a clickable link, place it in square brackets, followed by the link itself in parentheses:

[Anchor Word](www.yourlink.com)

Explaining how to format a footnote is more complicated than making one, so it looks like this:

[^1]: This is a footnote

Or, you can do the same with a name

[^Bentley-Payne, 2018]: Something Completely Different

With this, you have everything you need to get started with Markdown. There is more you can do with it, of course. There also exists a few variations on the original syntax, with flavours that support additional elements. The differences are always minimal, but the foundations always remain the same.

User Experience, and Careful Decisions

Cool Presentation Tools
Deckset has everything you need for ecuational presentations

Enthusiasts and geeks like to talk about responsive developers. By all accounts the builders of Deckset, Unsigned Integer, have taken a user-centric approach to developing their app. There is nothing more responsive than improving an app with user feedback. Much requested customisation features in the new release allow users to create and share themes, or tweak existing one to suit their needs. And, it’s not just about the nerds.

For a seemingly geeky app, Deckset is welcome respite, either as a Powerpoint and Keynote alternative, or as a first slide deck app. The user experience scales from simple automated layout based workflows to more bespoke, and sophisticated presentations — and all without sacrificing itself to complexity. One gets the impression that behind every feature lies a careful decision.

The considered approach is evident beyond the interface itself, with clarity a feature of the product on the whole. For instance, clearly Unsigned Interger recognise the relevance of Deckset to education. Among the documentation there is a deck outlining features inherently important for teaching presentations. Tabular information, equation formatting, captioned images and videos, it’s all there. As is rehearsal mode, speaker notes, and a PDF export function for class handouts. Taking the decision to leave the Mac App Store, means more flexibility in pricing. Deckset 2.0 is now available to education users for a discount.

Goldilocks and the Slide Presentation Tool

Deckset Macos Presentation App.png

Having run Deckset 2.0 through its paces, I almost wish I had more presentations to give. It would easily make my lists of current favourite macOS apps.  The revelation that slideshow software had become a sinkhole into which ideas themselves could easily fall persuaded me to all but give up on slide decks. Powerpoint is especially guilty. Although I find Keynote still has its uses, they’re mostly off-label, and fewer all the time. For the past couple conferences, I’ve gone analogue, delivering from a piece of paper to the room. Deckset has turned my head back the other way, by finally providing a happy medium.

If you want to take a look, Deckset offers a free trial. A single license is available for a one-time cost of USD $29. Or, if you’re an education user, you can request a generous 50% discount.

  1. Octothorp
  2. Sometimes a single asterisk on each side

Managing the Mac Menu Bar with Bartender

If you're the kind of person who has gone all in with OS X utilities — now macOS — , then you may have met with the problem of menu bar overload. Menu bar apps are one of the many ingenious aspects of macOS, so much so that it’s far too easy to go overboard with them. If you get too crazy, the menu bar can become so overloaded that icons start disappearing behind the actual menus of other apps. It end up looking something like this:

macOS Menu Bar Apps

Enter Bartender, a long time favourite of the mac geek community. Bartender 2 was already a neat solution for app addicts, offering the option of shifting less used apps to a secondary bar that acted as a dropdown shelf bellow the main menu bar. On top of which, apps whose presence in the menu bar was merely cosmetic could be hidden altogether, and apps that only require visibility while active could be configure to be so. Do a simple search for must have mac utilities and you will find Bartender on practically every list — with good reason.

In recent times, Bartender developer Surtees Studio has been busy getting ready to release version 3. The update takes an already tidy solution and builds in a touch of subtlety. Instead of adding a secondary menu bar — the Bartender Bar — Bartender 3 simply acts as a toggle, allowing the user to switch between frequently and lesser used apps. This is an an elegant, and supremely effective change to the user interface, making the new version seem much more integrated with macOS. For current users at first, it can seem a little strange not having that familiar Bartender bar appear on command, but it doesn’t take long to see this is an improvement. In the developer’s own words,

Initially we missed the below menu Bartender Bar too, but once your muscle memory gets used to the new setup and you have organised your items to suit your workflow in Bartender Preferences, and by ⌘+dragging items to a good position. We think you, like us, will start to feel Bartender now feels even more part of macOS.

If you are already a user of Bartender 2, the update is free. If it hasn’t happened already, simply activate it within the app preferences. If you are yet to become a user, you can download a 4-week trial from the website.

Update 23-03-2018: Bartender has become part of Setapp, making it yet another reason to pick up a subscription. You read more about Setapp here.

Essential iOS Apps for Research and Study

MindNode.png

When I started this, earlier this year, I had in mind a friend who was heading back to school and setting up an iPad for the first time. That was at the start of the first semester in the Southern Hemisphere, so it is fair to say I have been a little remiss in getting this more substantial collection together. Nonetheless, it is finally here – and in time for a new school year for that other hemisphere, no less. To my mind, these are the best iOS apps for both students and academics.

Most of the apps on this list are universal – i.e., they work on both iPhone and iPad, and come as a single purchase. That said, certain workflows tend to suit one device over the other. For example, it is a good idea to use the device with the better camera for scanning and applying OCR to documents. I would also add that like everything on this site, what follows might be pitched in the direction of study and research, but most of these recommendations hold well for all manner of creative and project work. So, fill your boots nerds.

Communication, Administration and Planning

Airmail
Airmail has unrivalled integration with third-party apps and services

Airmail – My preferred email client, for the simple reason that it includes an unrivalled list of integrations. Adding tasks to any major task manager, clipping emails to DEVONthink, managing attachments, adding notes and so on, it’s all trivial with Airmail. A sound alternative is Spark by Readdle.

 

iOS Natural Language Calendar
Fantastical's unrivalled Natural Language Processing

Fantastical – My favourite calendar app across all platforms. Fantastical has the best natural language engine of any app that I have come across. Even though I love the design of Timepage, I can’t give up Fantastical for the utility and ease of use when it comes to adding events.

Todoist – I have covered task-management here. I use Todoist for a few reasons. The clean, minimal design is easy to work with, and like Fantastical Todoist operates on natural language input. Todoist’s web API also means powerful automation options – for example, with Zapier and IFTT.

 

Due Reminders – Because sometimes it is not enough to have the singular reminders of a task manager or calendar. If there is truly something you cannot forget, Due is designed to pester you until you do it.

Taskmator – An iOS version of the excellent lightweight, plain text planning app Task Paper. The unique blend of outlining and task management is particularly helpful for planning writing projects. Being plain text, getting information in and out of it is a cinch.

 

 

PDF Annotation on iOS
PDF Expert is from the suite of exemplary apps by Readdle

PDF Expert – There are a number of excellent options for PDF viewers on iOS, including the free PDF Viewer that will be enough for many people. PDF Expert remains the standard for the fact that you can go further than annotation and actually edit PDF files. I am yet to find fault with its search capabilities, and unlike many apps that create document copies, PDF Expert will edit your files in place.

Documents by Readdle – It is possible that iOS 11 will make this app almost redundant, but I suspect it will retain a certain amount of utility. Fo awhile it has been the de facto file management app on iOS, but it also includes local sync services, a Wi-Fi drive, and a download manager that have made it something of a problem solver.

Scanner Pro – The last of a Readdle triumvirate. The OCR functionality of mobile scanning apps has improved steadily with the advancement in camera technology to the point where actual hardware scanners are unnecessary for most people now. Scanner Pro is not only one of the most accurate scanning apps, but includes some light automation features. Between scanning articles or books, and digitising forms, either this or Scanbot are very handy.

Focus – Productivity Timer – When I first heard of the Pomodoro Technique, I thought it was daft. I have come to realise it continues to gain in popularity for a reason. If you have a dopamine deficit, are easily distracted or given to procrastination when the pressure is on, this is something than can bring a little order to your endeavours. I’m skeptical of anyone who claims to use it to order an entire day, but intermittent use can be helpful. I settled on Focus as the app for the job for its clean layout, and timer synchronisation with macOS. There are many other apps that will do just as a good a job, just don’t go drinking the productivity guru Kool Aid.


Research

DEVONthink to Go is meant as a companion app, but iOS only users will still get a lot of mileage from it for data management DEVONthink to Go is meant as a companion app, but iOS only users will still get a lot of mileage from it for data management

DEVONthink To Go – There are a lot of people who ditched the iOS version of DEVONthink after the release of the first version – which was a bit of a mess – but the app has come along way. Although technically a companion app, even if you don’t use the Mac apps this is an excellent means for data management.

Papers 3 – My choice of citation managers on the Mac is also the place that houses my largest reading database. It includes a sound compliment of markup tools, and with a little help from an Editorial workflow makes adding reference material to written work almost as straightforward as it is on a Mac. I also tend to do most of my PDF markup work in Papers, as it does a decent job of holding annotations together. The markup tools are not as comprehensive as something like PDF

Oxford Dictionary – This should be self explanatory, but there are choices to make here. In terms of functionality, Terminology is a much better dictionary app, giving users access to URL based automation and spotlight integration. Unfortunately, non American users might struggle with spelling. It is also worth pointing out that the native iOS dictionary has come a long way, and could well be all you need.

Pinner is the best iOS app for Pinboard.in Pinner is the best iOS app for Pinboard.in

Pinner for Pinboard.in – One of the subscription services I have no hesitation recommending is Pinboard.in. If you have never heard of it, it may look like much, but it is unmatched for archiving bookmarks. Pinboard saves a copy of everything I bookmark as a complete archive, so even if sites disappear I will never lose important content I wish to keep a hold of. Pinner is the third-party app I use as a front end to the service on iOS

Pocket – Eagle-eyed readers will probably notice I have both Instapaper and Pocket on this list, it is true that you only really need one of these apps. My reason for using both is simple, I like to bookmark multimedia content seperate to online reading. I find Pocket best for audio and video.

Notebooks – This is one of those apps thats almost hard to categorise. I’m putting it under research, because ultimately that is how I use it, but it is really a note-taking app first and foremost. Notebooks allows me to set the content it contains as tasks, so if I have a project that requires a specific reading list I will add the documents to Notebooks and setup a reminder schedule. It obviously means I can mark material off as I have gone through it, this feature makes it a unique app for research and study. I covered it briefly here


Reading

The Kindle App is one of the best reading experiences on iOS The Kindle App is one of the best reading experiences on iOS

Kindle – If you are a Kindle user, the iOS app is surprisingly good. I still find the Kindle itself a better reading experience for long sessions than reading on the

Marvin – It is true that iBooks has come a long way, it still can’t rival the customisation of Marvin. If you use Calibre on the Mac, Marvin can sync with it too. My ebook collection is split between epub and mobi formats, so even though I prefer to read on the Kindle, I have a lot of books that the Kindle can’t decipher. Anything I can’t read on Kindle, I entrust to Marvin.

Zinio – If you’re a magazine reader, this is the app you want. If your library has newsstand access, you may be able to access untold free titles via what used to be Zinio for Libraries, but has recently become Rbdigital. The new app doesn’t have the polish of Zinio for discovery, but the reading experience is comparable.

Instapaper – I use Pinboard.in to archive everything I want to keep [1], but Instapaper for more immediate reading. Pinboard can automatically archive Instapaper articles too, if you want to set that up. Apple’s Reading List is getting better all the time, so that might be enough for many people. For research purposes, Instapaper gives you a log more control and a better reading experience.

I find Feedly’s RSS service to be the most user friendly I find Feedly’s RSS service to be the most user friendly

Feedly – A little while ago I went on a misguided quest looking for the best RSS tools. Ultimately, I ended up back where I started. To my mind, Feedly has the best user experience of all the services and apps I have tried. The free service is great, but you can hook into all kinds of automation and filtering if you want to part with some spare change. A more powerful option is Inoreader, but their apps leave a little to be desired so you would be best served by using it with a third-party client. My pick of clients is the excellent Reeder app that is available on both iOS and macOS.

Nuzzel – If you want the links and articles from twitter and/or Facebook, but don’t want all the noise, then this is for you. It has some annoyances of its own, but I find it to be a valuable source of material.


Writing

Outlinely is one of the best available outlining apps for the iPadI recently covered writing on iOS, in terms of word processors and text editors, but as you know there is much more to writing than where you put the words. Along with my preferred text editor, what follows are utilities that help with the process – whether that be thinking, planning or editing.

Editorial – As I write most often in Markdown, Editorial is ideal not only as a text editor, but for its powerful automation engine. For academic writing, Editorial allows me to format citations as universal citekeys.

Outlinely is one of the best available outlining apps for the iPad

Outlinely – A purpose built outliner creates structured documents, and by design helps in the organisation and planning of writing. An outliner is useful for all kinds of sequential planning, but shines in the structuring of academic papers. The opinionated, minimalist design makes Outlinely my preferred app for this on both iOS and macOS, but there are other options. At the high end, OmniOutliner tends to get most votes – it is hard to argue with that.

 

Mindmapping on iPad
Mindnode’s intuitive and lean interface is a pleasure to work with

MindNode or iThoughts – For mind mapping on iOS, I find it hard to choose between these two. I once read that iThoughts is for ‘power-users’ [2], but aesthetics is probably the most crucial factor here. Mind mapping is an entirely visual thought process, so you have to like what you are looking at. Mindnode is a very clean, slick app – iThoughts is more customisable. A third option is the very tidy Lighten.

 

Day One – I am a late comer to this, but I have come to accept the value of journalling on the development of a writing practice. Writing as close to everyday as possible is one of the best things you can do to improve your writing, and the journal format is liberating. I am yet to find a better app for keeping a digital journal than this. Day One has balanced all the necessary features with nice interface design, but the Markdown support clinches it for me. This one of many apps to take up a subscription model lately, but you can access all the functionality you need to get started without throwing down more coin.


Notes

This is another area I have already covered in relative detail. Despite that being a fairly recent post I have made some changes since it went up. I’m, holding out hope that Brett Terpstra’s Bitwriter is not only forthcoming, but will include an iOS app. There are also interesting changes on the horizon with Appple Notes in iOS 11, most notably with searchable handwriting. Otherwise, the following options remain worthy alternatives.

Goodnotes
Goodnotes on the iPad Mini 4

GoodNotes – For a straight up handwriting app that works well no matter what kind of iPad you are running – pro, standard, or mini – GoodNotes is going to be up there. I prefer the design of Notability on the whole, but functionality matters when your notes are as crucial as they are for academic work, and GoodNotes has the killer feature for handwriting – searchable notes.

 

Nebo – If you have an iPad Pro and Apple Pencil, Nebo’s handwriting recognition and ink engine is next level. Not only does Nebo use a contextual engine to correct word choice and spelling on the fly, but it will render diagrams, manage LaTex calculations, and even export text as HTML. The MySCript folks who make the app are the masters of handwriting recognotion, and the app can read 59 different languages. This is a truly remarkable app – all the more so when you consider it costs less that USD$3

 

Drafts – Keeping with the plain text rule, Drafts is usually my first point of capture for text, especially on the iPhone. If you are an Apple Watch user, Drafts has an excellent complication for dictation. The real utility of drafts, however, lies in its automation engine – something I couldn’t do justice to here. The screencasts on the Agile Tortoise website can get you started.

 

 


Audio Recording

Just Press Record

Just Press Record – The native iPhone Voice Memos app does a great job of capturing audio on the fly, but accessing it on other devices can be a nuisance [3]. Just press record solves that problem with an added bonus. It can also do some on-the-fly audio to text transcription. The results are better than expected, although I wouldn’t rely on it to transcribe entire lectures – we are not quite there yet.

Notability – If it had optical character recognition for searching your handwriting, Notability would be the killer app for lecture notes. It gets pretty close with the ability to capture audio while note-taking; thus its appearance in this section. For students especially, the utility you can get from this one app will make it easier to bump a couple of others of your list. Handritten and typewritten notes, PDF annotation, and audio recording all rolled into one. Last I check it was still pretty cheap too.

 

Ferrite iOS Digital Audio Workstation
Ferrite stands alone as a full featured digital audio workstation for voice work.

Ferrite – If you ever need to record interviews, this is hands down the best, most feature rich app available on iOS for the job. Designed specifically for voice recording and editing, it can manage anything from capturing audio presentations to producing podcasts and other broadcasts. There are some truly excellent audio recording tools on iOS these days, but most of them are aimed at musicians. With features like ducking, and silence removal Ferrite stands out as the singular app for audio voice work.


Visual

VLC Player – A lot of people seem to prefer the more polished Infuse, but VLC for iOS is just as good as its desktop counterpart. There is nothing it cannot play, and unlike its aforementioned rival, it is free.

Easy Image Editing on iPad
Pixelmator is both powerful and easy to use

Pixelmator – If you need photo editing software, the iPhone’s camera technology has encouraged a huge amount of development in this area. Pixelmator has stood out for some time as an app that goes beyond many of the filter and fix apps designed as mobile only utilities. If your needs are modest in this area, and you want an easy to learn, no nonsense app, this is it – and it is cheap.

Affinity Photo – If you have more serious needs, there is only one app that can claim to be a truly professional photo editing tool to rival desktop applications. Affinity is next level stuff.

Affinity Photo iOS
Affinity Photo is one of the first truly professional applications on iOS to rival the power of desktop software.

Utilities

Workflow is the singular automation utility for iPhone and iPad Workflow is the singular automation utility for iPhone and iPad

Workflow – Acquired by Apple, Workflow is not only the singular automation utility on iOS, but one of the biggest leaps forward in the evolution of iOS as an operating system for serious productivity. If there is anything you can’t already do on your iPad or iPhone, chances are Workflow can help you out. No programming required. Stay tuned for more on this app in future.

 

TextExpander Keyboard – The sandboxing design of the operating system means TextExpander is not quite as useful on iOS as it is on the Mac. Yet, the Text Expander Keyboard is still well worth installing. The real value to installing TextExpander on iOS is to be found in the apps that include built-in support[4]. Smile maintains a list of TextExpander enhanced apps here. Elsewhere snippets can still be expanded with the third-party keyboard.

1Password – Still my preferred password manager. Not only is it the best user experience, but features like Travel Mode make it an ideal choice for travelling researchers. Password management should be a no-brainer for anyone working on a university network, really it should be a no-brainer for for anyone period.

Soulver is part scratchpad part calculator Soulver is part scratchpad part calculator

Soulver – Part scratch pad, part calculator, Soulver is a uniquely useful utility. The interface operates is a text editor that parses numbers for multiple mathematical operations, including currency conversion. This means you can work things out like you might on the back of a napkin. Adding notation to my scatterbrain calculations helps me make sense of numbers in a way that a traditional calculator can’t. If you need a powerful, more traditional calculator that includes scientific notation, then Pcalc is what you need

 

 

Copied – Advanced, cross platform, clipboard management. Copied can do all kinds of neat things, including customisable text transformation, and synchronised clipboard history across devices. A comprehensive URL scheme opens up all kinds of automation possibilities, and a keyboard extension provides easy access to media rich clippings. Other clipboard managers exist, but nothing comes close to Copied for functionality.

 

Prizmo to Go – There are times when you need to grab a section of text from a book, a journal article, or some random document. There are two apps that I know of that do this well, the other is Textgrabber. While they won’t capture the text perfectly every time, they come pretty close. It can seem like magic when they save you serious time.

Who doesn’t need accurate weather data? Who doesn’t need accurate weather data?

Weather Underground – Weather apps are something of an iOS playground for user interface design, but where the actual weather data comes from is another story. The majority of weather apps on the App Store hook into the Darksky API, which can be hit and miss for accuracy. Weather Underground’s unique selling point is a vast network of local weather stations providing accurate real-time data. I also know of at least one sea captain who uses Weather Underground, so it must be good, right?


That’s a wrap…for now

I decided not to get too crazy here by starting into categories like entertainment, although I may revisit that at some point. One area I intend to delve into is audio production on iOS, but that can wait. For now, I would wager you will find on this list everything you need, and more to get serious work done. I have already said I believe there is no question the iPad can be a primary device for study or research, this should serve as sufficient evidence to support that claim. As ever, if you have any questions, if I can help in any way, hit me up via the contact details over on the left.


  1. Pinboard has a basic bookmarking service, or for a little more it can save web archives of the pages you bookmark. This means you are never in danger of losing material to dead links  ↩

  2. Whatever that means  ↩

  3. But yes, you can easily share it from the iPhone  ↩

  4. Native support makes the previous comment moot. Snippets expand just as they would on a Mac  ↩

Still the Best App for Plain Text Note-taking

Update 10-01-2019:  For an update on plain text note taking for macOS:  Thoughtful Plain Text Note Taking with The Archive and Zettelkasten

In Praise of Plain Text

If you happened to have read any of the posts I have made about note-taking, you might think I have a problem. The real problem is not so much being torn between numerous different tools, but being torn between waiting on an old favourite to be reincarnated, so to speak, and moving on to something new. There are trade offs no matter which way you look at it. Apple Notes, for example, has some hard to overlook advantages – native integration means an unparalleled user experience when it comes to sharing material with the system-wide share extension on both the macOS and iOS. The Apple Notes share extension captures URLs in a form it calls rich links, which includes a thumbnail and text snippet to make captured links that much easier to recall. This rich text approach is both the major strength and weakness of Apple Notes, at least now that iCloud syncing has become so reliable and fast. Rich text relies on a proprietary database, meaning portability and future-proofing are open questions for notes kept in a system that relies on them. For that reason, I find myself only using Apple Notes as a kind of place holder for links I will use immediately, or when very basic collaboration is in order.

Apple Notes

A plain text system is the antithesis of proprietary, it is as open as you can get for storing text. Plain text also has one more significant advantage, the speed at which you can work with it. Which brings me back to the aforementioned problem. Where haste is concerned, for a long time there was a pretty clear favourite among the mac community. nvALT was tool of choice for quick text capture where keyboard ninjas were concerned. Nerds might roll their eyes – a detour through the history and utility of nvALT would be an undertaking of its own – but nvALT remains as useful as ever, despite being eclipsed by a new wave of notes apps in the past couple of years [1]. Brett Terpstra is promising a commercial replacement to nvALT, with an app called BitWriter apparently close to beta release. You can use nvALT wit any iOS text editor you choose as a companion, just set the default folder inside nvALT to your favourite cloud service and sync between the two apps. The official stamp of approval for an iOS companion was given to 1Writer, another app I have no hesitation recommending, and one that includes a Javascript automation enginE. OR if you would prefer you can synchronise it with another stalwart app, the minimalist and reliable Simplenote.

Nvalt Plain Text Notes

When it comes to capturing text as quickly as possible on the Mac, I have a hotkey set for nvALT, so it has become so ingrained that it just happens. You might wonder why I would recommend an app kept in the barest of maintenance cycles while the developer openly builds its replacement. To which I would suggest that first, I can’t imagine Bitwriter will depart from the nvALT workflow much at all [2] – the user base for Bitwriter are nvALT users, so moving to the new app will be trivial when it happens. Second, even if there were significant changes, this is the beauty of plain text, moving to another app will not break your system. Having said all that, I have recently been made aware of another Notational Velocity [3] clone out there that is in active development. So if you are looking for an a lightweight plain text, open source, note-taking app, then FSNotes is worth a peek.


  1. I should probably add that nvALT can also handle rich text, but I believe most people use it to work with plain text  ↩

  2. Although I do hope there is a native iOS app too  ↩

  3. The app original app that nvALT was forked from  ↩

Setapp: Accessing the Apps Necessary for Study and Research

Talk to anyone who knows anything about the software economy and you will soon find out this is a strange time. Developers are trying to find ways to stay afloat, while coping with a user base conditioned by the so-called freemuim model. I know a lot of normally rational and generous people who balk at paying for software. I have been there myself. There are some legitimate historical reasons for that, it would be easy to implicate some of the biggest software names in the stratification between obscene rents for virtual necessities, and the meagre sums people will pay for the lesser known. These days I feel I have a better grip on the cognitive dissonance between stumping a fiver for a coffee and paying a fairer price for apps. For example, making music on the iPad allows me to purchase incredibly powerful apps that cost a fraction of the price demanded by their desktop counterparts, let alone purchasing the equivalent hardware. And yet, I still know folks who will wince at paying $10 for an app that took a developer years to make, despite this massive difference in cost versus utility from desktop to mobile devices. I can’t imagine how disheartening this must be for the people who make such apps.

While I am primarily referring to iPhone and iPad apps, if you will excuse the pun, these developments have had a tangible impact on the Mac App situation too. Apple hasn’t done much at all to mitigate the difficulties facing developers – something all but the most benighted of Apple fans have started to acknowledge – especially given the 30% tax they claim for access to their walled garden. For independent developers, the situation can be pretty dire. Which is why, along with some of the reasons above, and more besides, I feel relatively positive about the service offered by Settapp. To my mind, the collective nature of it makes sense – just as the single license model of old is unsustainable, so tool is the idea of having an individual subscription to every single app you use.

macOS Study Research Apps
Setapp already has some of the best apps available on Mac, including numerous education and research focused tools.

I have already mentioned a number of the apps available on Settapp. Many of them are available for purchase individually on the App Store, and for a lot of people that may well remain the best option if you only need the likes of Marked, Uylsses or Taskpaper. On the other hand, a Settapp subscription will give you all of these apps, and a whole lot more for ten US dollars per month. It will also mean you never have to worry about purchasing new versions, or dealing with in-ap purchases for monetised features.

As far as students, academics, and other researchers are concerned, Setapp is ideally stocked with a number of apps I would recommend outright. To mention just a few, it includes one of my very favourite writing apps, Uylsses [1]. Both iThoughts and X-Mind are excellent mind mapping tools. Then there is the Findings research notebook, the Studies flash card app, a unique and really promising academic writing app called Manuscripts. Timelines, outliners, task management tools; the list goes on. They are adding to the collection all the time, and better still the service is not loaded with junk. It is an invite only, curated collection; they are banking their reputation on some of the best software available on the Mac.

If you are looking to graduate from piracy, or this appeals to you for any other reason, you can check it out and signup for a free month at Setapp


  1. Which is technically a Markdown editor, but to call it that simply doesn’t do it justice  ↩

Note-taking Part II: Handwritten Notes

There is still a lot to say for keeping it old school with note-taking.  Handwriting after all is a key tool for comprehension and retention. Although, judging by the wall of glowing Apples one sees in lecture halls these days, that does not appear particularly persuasive with regard to note-taking. Still, this intersection between technological trend and learning technique is, I believe, just one among many things that make the iPad such an excellent device for study. While you can get pretty serious about handwriting on glass with an iPad pro and Apple Pencil, even with the standard model you can benefit from some of the great handwriting apps on iOS.

It is true that there are clear advantages to maintaining typewritten notes. Combining lecture notes, PDF annotations and other general research materials into a searchable database is hugely advantageous for both writing and revision. Luckily, none of this necessarily means handwriting should be excluded from a note-taking workflow. The only question is how integrated you want it to be. As ever, there are options.

Goodnotes

Goodnotes iOS
Goodnotes is considered the go-to app for handwriting recognition

 

For a lot of people, Goodnotes is the standout app for handwriting on the iPad, and with good reason. Although, it still holds to somewhat dated skeuomorphic design elements, that is a bit of a double-edged sword, as much of the app’s appeal lies with the convincing replication of an analogue writing workflow. Its real killer feature though, is handwriting recognition and text conversion. This means you have the choice between searchable handwritten notes, or converting your handwritten notes to text for use in the app itself, or for export if you keep your notes elsewhere. Possibly the most underrated aspect of Goodnotes is its PDF annotation, which I find to be smoother and more intuitive than any of the myriad specialty PDF apps I have owned and used. If handwritten notes and document markup are the extent of your workflow, then Goodnotes may even be all you need; especially now that it has a solid macOS companion app.

Notability

Notability’s audio capture feature makes it an ideal choice for lecture notes
Notability’s audio capture feature makes it an ideal choice for lecture notes

Notability is another sound writing app, although one that comes as something of a tradeoff. Notability does not have handwriting recognition, so handwritten notes can neither be searched, nor converted to text. Nonetheless, it does have its own marque feature with its ability to capture audio. The appealing simplicity of recording a lecture and taking notes in the same app can account for much of Notability’s popularity among students. Furthermore, Notability is a nicely designed software, and many will find its interface to be much more appealing than other similar apps. Moreover, its palm rejection is frankly much better than Goodnotes, the PDF markup tools are again very good, and its own macOS app is more fully featured and polished. The lack of handwriting recognition is a little disappointing, but you don’t have to go far to find people, students especially, who see audio recording as a more significant feature. Again, there is enough in this app that it may even be the one to rule them all for you.

Handwriting Hacks

If you're an EverNote  user, then Penultimate is a free app that will integrate your written notes with the rest of your Evernote database, including search-ability. I’m not a big fan of the app, but it works as advertised, so if you are deep in the Evernote ecosystem then you will no doubt get at least some of the requisite mileage from Penultimate. There was a time I was all in with Evernote. A combination of becoming wise to the problematic nature of proprietary databases, and my increasing discomfort with their privacy policy fumbles has driven me away. In saying all that, I’m not churlish enough for absolute dismissal of its utility. Ease of use, and impressive integration with practically everything remain its strengths. One example of its enduring usefulness is a hybrid workflow using Carbo for digitising paper notes. And, while we are on this track, both Evernote and One Note allow you to scan handwritten notes directly into the app for searchable text with OCR.

MyScript Handwriting Keyboard
The MyScript Handwriting Keyboard makes long-form note-taking an option in almost any text editor

The MyScript Handwriting Keyboard makes long-form note-taking an option in almost any text editor

Finally, if you want the cognitive benefits of deliberate long form note-taking, but you don’t care for the end result, there is something of a hack you might like to try. The MyScript Stylus Handwriting Keyboard allows direct, handwritten input into any app that you can use with a third-party keyboard. It hasn’t had any updates for a little while now, but it still works well. In fact, the handwriting recognition is impressive. You can use it as an input device with any text-editor or notes app that allows a third-party keyboard.

Honourable Mentions

  • Notes Plus is very similar to Goodnotes, with even more features. It even has audio recording. I find the interface to be a little too cluttered for my liking, and the user experience can be awkward at times. I suspect these relatively small quirks are what keeps it lagging a little behind Goodnotes in the popularity stakes, as the handwriting recognition engine is excellent.

  • Nebo is renown for handwriting recognition excellence. Underwritten by the my MyScript Ink engine, it has been winning awards and slowly gaining acclaim. The only problem is it requires an Apple Pencil to work, unless you are working on a Surface device that is, then your active pen will do fine.

Handwriting Without Apple Pencil

The 2018 iPad is a big deal for bringing Apple Pencil support to the cheaper model. There remain a lot of reasons to upgrade to one of the iPad Pro models, but Apple Pencil support is no longer one of them. However, if you're still rocking an iPad Air, or iPad Mini, you don't have to give up on handwriting altogether. A good old dumb, capacitive stylus can still work better than you might expect.

In my experience, the results from a capacitive stylus are just as good as any of the so-called Apple Pencil alternatives. When I was using the iPad Mini 4 as my main capture device for notes, I would come across all manner of claims around magic smart, bluetooth styli that make them Apple Pencil competitors. The truth is, they pretty much never work as advertised. None that I have tried work any better than a plain, dumb capacitive stylus. Why? Well, the Apple Pencil is not a third-party hardware device, it is an integrated input interface designed as part of the iPad itself. It is part of a system that works together. That said, there is good news, all modern iPads are fast enough now that, where handwriting is concerned, a capacitive stylus will give you a convincing writing experience. I have two that I particularly like, both from Adonit

For writing, the Adonit Jot Pro

 

And for marking up PDFs, or drawing the Adonit Mark.

If you only want one, get the Jot Pro