Still the Best App for Plain Text Note-taking

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.

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  ↩