DEVONthink and Notebooks: Alternatives to Evernote

Alternatives To Evernote Logos

Rumours of Evernote’s demise come around ever so often, but the recent ones appear to have more to them than usual. It seems a bunch of senior staff are heading out the door. If privacy concerns, and proprietary database weren’t concern enough, the future of your data should be. I would be especially concerned for academic research. If you are looking for the alternatives to Evernote for Mac and iOS, I humbly submit a couple of options I have written about on this site, DEVONthink, and Notebooks. You may even find room in your workflow for both.

DEVONthink, the Power User’s Alternative to Evernote

I have written at length about DEVONthink for iOS, but DEVONthink's real power still lies on the Mac. In fact, it is one of the remaining reasons I still use macOS. There are rumours of a major overhaul to DEVONthink on the Mac. I certainly hope to see those rumours come to fruition. For all its wonderful power, the interface has aged. Nonetheless, beneath that interface you will find the most powerful software available for information management and research. The AI heuristics and advanced search are some of the best study and research tools you will find in any form.

If aesthetic reasons have stopped you using DEVONthink in the past, I would urge you to download a trial and see if you can’t get over that. I wish had earlier than I did.

OCR and Web Clipping with DEVONthink

I know many users come to rely on Evernote’s OCR and web clipper. Both of those abilities can be found in DEVONthink. 1 The OCR engine in DEVONthink Pro Office is as good as it gets. Between that, and the peerless AI engine you can see why DEVONthink has become the endpoint for all my research materials. The web clipper can clean a web page, and save multiple formats. It might be stripped back compared with the Evernote clipper, but it does an admirable job at capturing what you need. The best part is, it speaks Markdown.

Alternatives To Evernote Webclipper
The DEVONthink web clipper is a capable alternative to Evernote

As far as alternatives to Evernote go, DEVONthink is a significant upgrade. Not only is it smarter, but your data remains private and secure. Moreover, you have options for how you use DEVONthink. In short, where Evernote imperils your data, DEVONthink keeps it safe.

Migrating your data to DEVONthink is trivial, as it can connect to Evernote directly to pull everything across with a single click. What’s more, with the DEVONthink Education Discount you can buy DEVONthink Pro Office outright for the cost of one year of Evernote.

 Alternatives to Evernote
DEVONthink can import data directly from Evernote

If you happen to be an iOS only user, DEVONthink to Go is also an excellent app. And, with the help of Workflow migrating you data on an iPad is not as difficult as many would have you believe. I have even setup some workflow shortcuts to help with the process. See my post on migrating Evernote data.

Notebooks: A Plain Text Alternative to Evernote

 Alternatives to Evernote

In many ways, Alfons Schmid’s Notebooks App is the antithesis of Evernote. It avoids all the pitfalls of a web based, proprietary system by building a stack on plain text. Not only is Notebooks a clever app, it is lean and your data remains future proof. If you want to avoid ever falling into the Evernote trap again, I would give this a serious look.

I recently did a deep dive on Notebooks, but I'm still uncovering some of its tricks. I have just started putting the ability to extract tasks automatically to good use. Notebooks can be set to extract tasks from a line in any note, by nominating a special character or phrase to indicate a line as a task. In practice, this means I don’t need to interrupt my own work when I have something to follow up. I have set Notebooks to extract tasks from any line that begins with two asterisk, so while writing I simply type a new line with ** followed by whatever I need to be reminded of. 2 Like so,

** follow up on citations for Science of Logic

That's it, I'm done. Notebooks will now extract the task from the text, and set a reminder. This is ingenious. It also opens up all kinds of possibilities with Siri Shortcuts,  using Notebooks  Siri integration.

Mac and iOS users have options for alternatives to Evernote. Apple’s own Notes app has developed into a solid solution. It has everything an everyday user might need, right down to document scanning and shared notes. I can also understand why Bear has become so popular, the interface is a delight. At the same time, both of those apps are built on a database that ultimately obscures the notes themselves. 3 With Notebooks, you can avoid that problem altogether, and you get an app that is much better suited to an academic workflow. For more on Notebooks, see links to my recent posts below.

Notebooks Coverage

Note Taking Automation with Notebooks, Workflow etc

Note Taking, Research and Organisation with Notebooks iOS

Elements of a Note Taking and Research Workflow

If you’re wondering how these apps might work together, it is straightforward enough. I keep all my current notes and project materials in Notebooks, but archive everything in DEVONthink. DEVONthink can mange note taking well enough, but it doesn’t have the greatest interface for composing notes — or for writing in general.

On the other hand, something DEVONthink excels at is indexing data. This means you don’t need to store data in a DEVONthink database to make use of its intelligence. Instead, you can index any folder, anywhere on your Mac. Because Notebooks stores data in native file formats, which are accessible directly from the file system, DEVONthink and Notebooks are very compatible.

As Notebooks files are stored in the native file system, I can easily keep my notebooks indexed and make use of DEVONthink’s search super powers. This works well for the simple fact that both these apps work with the files system, instead of against it. Believe it or not, this means I can even use my old favourite plain text utility, nvALT, alongside both these apps. I will leave that workflow, however, for another time.

What about handwriting? On iOS, I use GoodNotes for handwritten notes. And like everything else, those notes pass through Notebooks and eventually end up archived in DEVONthink.  While wither one of these apps is a wise investment, they play well together.  Notebooks is available on the App Store for both macOS and iOS, and DEVONthink is available directly.

DEVONthink Education Discount

Notebooks on the iOS App Store

Notebooks on the Mac App Store

  1. You will need the pro version for OCR
  2. You can set the task indicator to anything you like 
  3. I’m talking about Notebooks. But yes, I understand DEVONthink keeps material in a database. It doesn’t have to though.

Note Taking Automation with Notebooks, Workflow etc

Ipad Note Taking Automation

This is the second of a two part feature on Notebooks, for part one see here

Notebooks Part II: URL schemes and iOS Note Taking Automation

Aside from being an excellent general purpose notes taking app, Notebooks has a host of features uniquely suited to academic work and study — or any kind of research for that matter. Where the previous post outlined some of the feature highlights, this one has some examples for how to use the Notebooks URL scheme with Workflow, Drafts 5 and Launch Center Pro.

URL Scheme Automation Workflows

Automation on iOS is finally growing up. The impending release of iOS 12 will make user automation more accessible than ever, while apps such as Drafts 5, Pythonista, and the Omni Group’s suite include powerful scripting tools. At the same time, URL schemes remain the enduring staple of iOS automation. Any serious productivity app will include a URL scheme; they provide an ideal entry point for automation.

Notebooks comes loaded with a number of helpful URLs. It could potentially do more, but the bases are covered for common workflows. The scheme is both simple to understand, and well documented. I have various workflows, and launchers setup using the Notebooks sche

Here are some examples for download. Some will work as they are, while some require minor tweaks for your own purposes.

Workflow Shortcuts

You can set these up as action extensions, or invoke them from a widget in the today view. If you hold any concerns about workflows in the new Shortcuts app. Fear not, the following workflows will still be valid when iOS 12 comes along, and Notebooks includes support for Siri 

Reading List Workflow

This simple workflow was published in a post with a couple of other tips recently. To summarise, it is a way of archiving links, articles, or PDFs into a Notebooks task list. You can do the same thing using drag and drop. Check out that earlier post for more, or download the workflow below.

Download: Reading List Workflow

nb. To make this work you either need to create a Notebook called Reading List and set it as a task list in Notebooks. Or, you need to adjust URL in workflow to include a notebook of your own. This workflow can also be adjusted to choose from multiple task list. Again, you will need to change the list to suit your own needs

Download: Notebooks Add to List

Notebooks Markdown Web Clipper

How to take web clippings is usually the first question from Evernote users. There are a couple of ways to address that. If you simply want to import web pages, then Notebooks is thoroughly integrated with iOS system APIs. The Safari extension works perfectly. The same is true of the Notebooks Bookmarklet, which can also be used in third-party browsers. Notebooks settings can also be tweaked for the grab function to save either web archives, or flat HTML files.

If you’re only grabbing text, and you want something cleaner, I have created a Notebooks MD Clipper using Brett’s Marky Markdown API. This approach also has the advantage of being more judicious. As excellent as the Evernote web clipper is, I find it to be a blunt tool that makes it too easy to fill up a database with nonsense. Nowadays I keep my bookmarks at Pinboard.in, and DEVONthink, and only import what I need into Notebooks. This workflow is ideal for the job.

Download:  Notebooks MD Clipper Workflow

Notebooks Wiki Style Links

Notebooks internal linking makes for detailed internal note structure. I have done something similar with DEVONthink in the past, but it works particularly well in Notebooks. The first step is to copy the internal link of the note you want to link to, you do that by swiping gently left on the appropriate title in document tree. From there you can use the workflow in one of two ways, either run it from the today view widget, or type and select your anchor text to run the workflow inline — see the screenshot below.

Ios Note Taking Automation Internal Linking
Swiping left on the document tree, you can copy an internal link to the clipboard.
Ios Note Taking Automation Inline Workflow
To run this workflow inline, select the text you want to to use for the link and hit share. You can also run it from the widget in the today view

Download Workflow:  Notebooks Wiki Links

Notebooks Launcher

If you have a lot of workflows accumulating, it can be useful to setup a launcher to act as a kind of folder. As you will see below, I prefer to use Launch Center Pro myself. But for anyone wanting to keep it all in one app, this can help organise things. You can also use an app like Launcher or Magic Launcher, both are very good at what they do.

Download: Notebooks Launcher Workflow

Launch Center Pro

Ios Note Taking Automation
Setup launchers for common workflows in Launch Center Pro

It seems strange to suggest it, but Launch Center Pro (LCP) is something of a forgotten entity these days. You don’t hear much about it in the age of Workflow. Yet it remains an incredibly useful tool, and has always been an effective way to learn URL scheme automation. Even more useful is the integration with Textexpander. Snippets can be expanded in URLs directly, or via your abbreviations in a prompt. For example, I have a launcher setup to search my notes, along with numerous abbreviations for common names and subjects in my thesis. The launcher presents a search window, where I can type an abbreviation to quickly find notes. I have another that adds a new note, and uses Textexpander to set the current date as title.

Download Launch Center Pro actions:

Append to Notes — This launcher presents a list of pre-existing notes to append text to. To make it work you will need to edit the URL to include the names of your own notes.

Notebooks Search — Presents a search prompt

Add New Note with Date — Adds a new note with the current date as title. Requires Textexpander

Drafts 5 Actions

If you’re a Drafts 5 user, the Notebooks URL scheme makes it simple to setup your own Drafts Actions. If you’re just getting started, I have uploaded some actions to the Drafts 5 Action Directory:

Drafts 5: Notebooks Select — To use this for your own purposes, you will need to change the button prompts in the first step to include titles for your own notes.

Drafts 5: Add New Note to Notebooks — Adds a new note to your default notebook with the first line as title, and the body of the draft as the note. This will work without changes.

Wish List

As you can see, the Notebooks URL scheme includes everything you need to built automation into your common note taking workflows. It is not quite as deep as the URL scheme you find in Bear, or Ulysses. To be fair, I can’t see much use for automating visual elements like fonts and theme changes, but I would like to see a few things added.

Adding support for the x-callback protocol would open Notebooks up to bidirectional automation. At present the URL scheme is focused inward. If Notebooks were able to return data via URL, it would allow users to pull data out for all kinds of inventions. There are no doubt more pressing features on the road map, but putting these things out there is how we see our favourite apps improve over time.

 

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.

Giveaway: Notebooks iOS for Writing and Research

best note taking app for study

For more detailed content on Notebooks:


Notebooks Giveaway *

I have spent more trying out note taking apps that I would like to admit. You could say I’m picky. Through all the trialing and testing, one app stands out for combining almost everything I want in a note taking app with a number of features I hadn’t even thought of. That app is Notebooks. The more I use it, the more I am convinced Notebooks is the best note taking app for study, research and academic work.

My enthusiasm for Notebooks is its own reward, so it’s a huge bonus to have that enthusiasm met with generosity. The developer of Notebooks, Alfons Schmid, is kindly offering readers of The Appademic the chance to pick up one of ten free copies of Notebooks for iOS.

Notebooks Best Note Taking App For Study
Notebooks has the ability to view and edit two documents at once

Aside from being an excellent general purpose notebook, Notebooks has a host of features uniquely suited to academic work and study — or any kind of research for that matter. I recently highlighted the way I use Notebooks’ task management, and URL scheme features to collect material, and organise reading lists. I have a more detailed review on the way, which will include more worklows that make use of Notebooks' unique features. In the meantime, if you are unfamiliar with the app here are some of the highlights.

  • Markdown support
  • Deep URL scheme automation
  • Internal linking for wiki notes or zettelkasten
  • Support for almost any document type you can think of
  • Private Wifi syncing, WebDAV or Dropbox
  • Future proofed by plain text and html
  • Document processor, ebook compiler and PDF converter
  • Task Management, including GTD contexts
  • Integration with OmniFocus, Things 3, Todoist, 2Do and more
  • TextExpander
  • Customisable keyboard
  • Customisable style sheets
  • PDF annotation and sketching
  • Voice memos

Notebooks is a powerful tool with a clean, and slick interface. It is easily one of my favourite apps on the iPad. It is the best note taking app I have found for my own purposes.  If you want a chance to pick up a copy, signup for the Appademic Mailing list below. If you are already a subscriber, you’re in the draw already. The draw will close on Friday 24th of August, and winners notified via email.  There are 10 copies to be won.

nb. *Sorry this giveaway has now ended. However, developers occasionally donate promotional licenses to The Appademic, and subscribers to the mailing list are automatically included in all future giveaways. You can signup for the mailing under the menu on the left,   ⟵ That Way

Creating Smart Reading Lists on iOS with Notebooks

Ios Workflow Notebooks Tasklist Reading

If Notebooks isn’t best note taking app for iPad, it is definitely the most underrated.  If you're looking for a markdown notes app, a writing app, or a document storage container with a few unique tricks, you won’t find many better. Part notebook, part storage locker, and part GTD task management system. That might sound like a janky combination, but not only does it work well, it looks pretty too. It has been around for a while, so in lieu of a comprehensive review, I want to highlight a particular feature I haven’t seen anywhere else. The ability to turn notes into tasks.

If you have a lot of reading to keep up with from a variety of sources, this is very handy. For planning and tracking big reading projects I still use TaskPaper on macOS, with its counterpart TaskMator on iOS. That system works well, with the outliner style lists making it easy to break up books, journals and so on with due dates. Using Notebooks has a distant advantage over that system, as it can collect the reading material itself. Web pages, notes, PDF documents, Word files, you can read them all directly in Notebooks. It will even let you index epub files to open in a third-party reader, like Marvin. Remember, at its core this is note taking app, while reading you can highlight text, make annotations, take clippings, and more. You can also take notes.

Notebooks Reading List Workflow

Ios Workflow Notebooks Reading List
The Notebooks URL scheme is simple to use, and does a great job of importing multiple data types

This is a simple idea that in practice will help keep track of reading lists, note revisions, or really anything text based. It’s true you can fashion a similar system by chaining apps like DEVONthink and Things 3 together. To my mind this is more elegant, or at least less confusing.

It works like this. As I collect reading material, I drop it into a Notebook that has been setup as a task list. When I’m on the clock I can setup due dates, reminders and so on. More importantly, I can tick items off as I go, meaning a quick visual guide is available to measure progress. It’s easy enough to use Notebooks’ share extension for this — or bookmarklets on the Mac — but there are two alternative methods I prefer. First, Notebooks has a very hand URL scheme which is clever about capturing all kinds of data, which makes setting up a custom action extension for Workflow trivial.

You can download the workflow here

Notebooks Drag and Drop

Notebooks Best Note Taking Ipad
Multitasking with drag and drop makes collecting articles trivial

The Workflow action above is especially handy on the iPhone, but the iPad has another option that is easier still. Notebooks has excellent support for the drag and drop feature of iOS 11. So if you don’t fancy using Workflow, you can use multitasking to simply drag links and files directly into a reading list. Or, you can use something like the excellent shelf app Gladys to hold the material you collect before dropping it into Notebooks later. Gladys now has a Mac version too, which adds some continuity to the workflow.

Best note taking apps for college
Using a shelf app like Gladys gives you a chance to triage material before it is adding to the list

Among the Best Note Taking Apps

If you follow this site, you probably know by now that all my data ends up in DEVONthink, one way, or another. Whatever passes through Notebooks still ends up there, but DEVONthink’s super power is search. It has passable editing and annotation tools, but I prefer doing the interactive work before it ends up in what is essentially a personal research database. For a lot of users Notebooks might even be enough. While the task management features were no doubt conceived for GTD nerds, they end up making Notebooks among the best note taking apps for college, or university users. The caveat being it's not a handwriting app. In fact if anything holds it back, that would be it. I would get around that by using Nebo as a capture tool myself, they complement each other well.

If DEVONthink’s not your jam, or you’re looking to replace Evernote with something private and local, Notebooks is a handsome and feature rich app. It has relative feature parity across macOS, and iOS, and a lot of unexpected touches. GTD purists could configure tickler files, and contexts until their head is sufficiently empty of all that arduous, excess thought. 1. It can even run its own local WebDAV server for private local sync. It sounds strange, but it’s really not.

  1. I’m joking, you beautiful nerd you.

Nebo: Handwriting Recognition on iPad Pro

iPad Handwriting Recogniton

Not too long ago, I wrote about handwritten note taking on the iPad. At the time I hadn’t yet spent much time with Myscript Nebo, but having since addressed that I feel it is appropriate to update the ledger. One of the caveats I put in front of that previous effort was the ability to take long form notes without the need of an Apple Pencil, so if you are looking at options for taking notes on the standard iPad, or you simply want to avoid the further cost of the Pencil, then what I the previous post still holds. For handwriting without the Apple Pencil, to my mind the best two options are still GoodNotes and Notability, and I have briefly covered the various tradeoffs users face with both apps. Both of those apps also have excellent Apple Pencil support, but having played with Nebo some more, to my mind there is no contest when it comes to handwriting recognition.

The Future of Handwriting

 

Handwriting Recognition iOS
Even the sketchiest of handwriting is no problem for Nebo’s handwriting recognition engine

People like to talk about killer apps, personally I don’t much like the phrase, but where Nebo is concerned, it really does seem like a killer for the competition. Apps like Notes Plus have been available in the App Store for some time, but while that might have led to advancements in the inking engines and textual recognition, those improvements are more often than not accompanied by either feature bloat, user interface baggage, or both. This is one of the areas that Nebo excels, the interface is minimalist without being too sparse, and rather than holding to the now dated skeuomorphic design philosophy that once ruled the iOS-sphere, Myscript have managed to tastefully incorporate hybrid analogue elements that remain necessary for a successful handwriting workflow. Writing between the lines is as helpful to your wonky adult scribbles as it was to your long-forgetten spelling homework.

It is not only the user interface that benefits from such careful balance, but the user experience is characterised by clever gestures that complement a natural writing workflow. With Pencil gestures a user can delete a word by scribbling it out, insert line breaks, join and seperate words with simple upward and downward strokes. Framing words, highlighting, underlining and a variety of bullets enable simple but effective formatting that not only stops short of overkill, but is simple to learn. The most impressive aspect of these formatting gestures is the resulting seamless workflow that avoids interrupting one’s note-taking on input.

Handwriting Recognition iPad
Editing text, like input, is managed with the Apple Pencil

The one area that the Pencil-centric interface can get a little tricky is in editing text after capture. Nebo’s handwriting recognition works in real-time, so if necessary you can make corrections on the fly [1]. If you happen to overlook a mistake until you have confirmed the conversion from handwriting into text, editing is still managed with the Apple Pencil. This is a reversal of the analogue to digital workflow, so while it is not difficult as such, I have to admit it takes a little getting used to. Regardless, Nebo still manages to capture the fine balance between a digital tool and an analogue workflow, something I feel other apps have come close to doing without quite getting there.

Nothing is Perfect

iOS 11 Nebo Notes App
Multitasking in iOS 11 with Nebo

At the risk of being hypocritical, there are things that Nebo cannot do that I like to have in a notes app. I confess to hypocrisy for a couple of reasons, for one I have something of an old-skool reverence for what is known as the Unix philosophy, which simply stated is ‘do one thing and do it well’. It seems to me that – whether intentional or not – by design, iOS is almost the ideal realisation of this modular approach. Nebo is exactly this kind of app, it does one thing, and it does it exceptionally well. However, defining the boundaries of that one thing is what developers have to contend with in balancing the features they include, and support in their apps. The decision that I find most confounding in Nebo is the inability to annotate PDF documents, which I feel is made more conspicuous in its absence by the fact that you can import images for markup, and you can export text as PDF. This is no more than a minor quibble, and as I say, a somewhat hypocritical one at that.

The Little Things

To be honest, I often force myself to handwrite, knowing full well the proven benefits. Fortunately, Nebo has some tricks that take advantage of the relative speed of analogue input, making it a more obvious choice for certain tasks. For example, the ability to export text to HTML means a quick and dirty blog post is only a few scribbles away. Dedicated math objects can perform solvable operations – and the resultant text can be converted for further editing in any LaTeX editor [2]. I would ordinarily open up Soulver for simple calculations, but that is not always necessary now. Nebo will also turn your ropey diagrams into congruent shapes for flow charts and mind maps. And, of course, optical character recognition means all of your text is searchable.

Nebo is not perfect, but there is no doubt that Myscript have pushed the envelope with handwriting recognition. If you have an iPad Pro, I would almost go as far to say that Nebo is enough to make picking up an Apple Pencil worth your while.


  1. Again, the handwriting recognition is remarkable, so you hardly ever need to do this  ↩

  2. Trust me, this is candy for math nerds  ↩

Whink Notes App Offering 60% Back to School Discount

Whink Notes is a relatively new app —at least compared with similar, more well known apps — that I haven't had the chance to dive into properly yet. For a cursory introduction I would call it direct competition for Notability, as it has almost the exact same feature set, right down to the the inclusion of audio recording — albeit for some subte differences. Like Notability, the most glaring ommision to my mind is OCR for searchable handwriting. From the brief play around I have had with the app so far I can say it is a very tidy app with everything you would expect from a modern, mobile notes app, making it a viable alternative to the more well known apps in the handwritten notes category, such as Notability, GoodNotes and Notes Plus. The current discount is available until the 13th of September

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  ↩

Working with Drafts for iOS

Gabe Weatherhead oover at Macdrifter.com has a nice post on how to setup the excellent iOS note-taking and automation app, Drafts. If you haven't ever come across Drafts, there really is nothing quite like it when it comes to capturing and processing text on iOS. The JavaScript engine that drives it allows for endless automationpossibiliies, from the mundane, to the borderline riduclous.

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