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.

More than 60 Tips from Brett Terpstra, and David Sparks

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I had the privilege of reviewing both volumes of the recently released 60 Mac tips, from David Sparks and Brett Terpstra. I have done my fair share of reviews. They are not always this enjoyable. To be fair, this is the first time I have ever reviewed something like this.

This a project that has been picked up again after the first volume was produced back in 2012. I can only imagine how many ‘we should’ conversations happened between then and now to cross this promise off. With the shiny new collection in Volume two, the first volume has been upgraded. This is great news for owners of that book. Much of the digital kung-fu uncovered for Mountain Lion remains relevant in the heady days of High Sierra. But like all good updates, any obsolescence has been cleaned out. The remaining good stuff is applied to its new context. Welcome to digital publishing. Nobody is going to sneak into your house at night to replace your old paper books with new dust-jackets, and bonus material. At least I hope not.

60 Mac Tips Review

Three Kinds of People

In a subset of macOS enthusiasts, I can think of three kinds of people this will interest. First, the new Mac user who is still peeling the onion, not yet aware of how much more they can do with it. Second, the honest Mac user who knows they can get more from their robot, and would like to cut to the chase. Without sifting through user forums, dated blog posts, and amateur youtube footage. And third, the self-appointed power user with an itch that can’t be scratched. You know who you are. One who must know everything, who can’t stand the idea there might something they have missed. The hoarder of tricks.

What I’m trying to say is this. Whether you consider yourself a bit of a Mac gun, or you’re still in therapy as a former Windows user. I guarantee there is still something in these guides for you. I think of erstwhile Apple Automation Yogi, Sal Soghoian, who is quoted saying something like ‘The power of the computer should reside in the hands of the one using it.’ I couldn’t agree more. And yet, it is also true that it can take a long time to gain control of that power, and even more time to know how to use it. That’s where your favourite nerds come in.

At the risk of repeating myself — again. 1 Even if the tip is something you already know, don't be so sure you won't learn something. Different ways to do the same thing? That might sound like a variation on the old insanity idiom. But, ultimately we all have our preferences for how we manage process. Nerds are often very particular about how they do things. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a better way. I’m not ashamed to admit I have banged my head against the wall in an effort to deal with the revelation I have been doing something the long way.

An Unlisted Bonus

When I was making terrible music with awful bands as a teenager in the nineties, it was a thing to add a secret track at the end of a demo. After a long period of silence. It was a thing that hipsters picked up 70s Bands who would stash songs in the pregap. For those bands it was a way of adding something extra that you wouldn’t know was there if you weren’t paying attention. I’m not suggesting David and Brett have added a secret soundtrack, not that I have found yet anyway. 2 No, I’m employing a tenuous analogy to suggest sometimes you get more than what is listed in the contents.

In this case, observing the idiosyncratic way that somebody uses their Mac can be enlightening in itself. For example, getting a peek at a complex tagging system in action is a tip in itself. But here’s the twist. These guys have done something with these two volumes that I know, from experience, is not easy. They have made potentially dry material fun 3. They have paced the tips nicely, presented them neatly, and provided a valuable, interactive resource. Ok, so there exists a subset of people who would get a kick out of geeking it up regardless, but nobody who wants in is being left behind here.

The screencast method makes its utility obvious. If I were too offer one criticism of the books however, is they really don’t have much bookness at all. 4 I’m kidding really, using iBooks to distribute what is essentially a collection videos demonstrating neat tricks, is clever in my book 5. If you want to set it up like I did, put the book on your iPad. Set your iPad next to your Mac, and start your learning. Take on a new trick. Come back tomorrow, and repeat. Introducing things to your workflow slowly helps them stick.

Value Proposition

60 Mac Tips ReviewAcross the two volumes, all but a small handful of tips are native to macOS. In fact, the second volume is native all the way down. Volume One introduces a small collection of third-party utilities. A thoughtful collection , they are great recommendations. The point is you get some ideas for how to get started with the chosen apps. Trust me, getting started is always the biggest obstacle to knowing how to integrate utilities into your workflow. So far so good, but stay with me.

Working my way through the second volume I realised there are a lot of tips throughout both books that mitigate the need for enlisting more third-party apps. For example, in the past couple of iterations of macOS, Apple have implemented a lot of features for keeping things running smoothly. Let’s call them maintenance utilities. These features can take on tasks that once could only have been handled easily with the help of specialist apps. Such tasks are no longer as difficult, or obscure as they once were. These books provide evidence of that. In some cases Apple have developed there own versions of popular ideas. In other cases, the influence of iOS on macOS has given users granular control they understand. With 120 tips up for grabs, that leads to a couple of value propositions.

The first concerns the books themselves, and the second concerns the third-party apps I mentioned from volume one. What I’m trying to say is, I feel there is more to be gained from these two volumes 6 than there is from loading up on third-party apps. Learning how to better use the tools your already have, like Automator and Terminal, means you can make better decisions about the apps you strictly need. This is where the second proposition comes in. Which is to say, I’m also suggesting that what you save on some apps might allow you to throw down on the suggestions from volume one. Capisce?

A Final Disclaimer

If you’re wondering why I’m not naming the apps alluded to above, or being more specific about the material. Consider it my effort to avoid spoilers. I don’t want to blow it for you. Of course, you can check out the contents and synopsis of both books in the iBooks Store. If you made it too the bottom of this post, I suspect you’re in the target audience.

Pick up a copy of one, or both volumes through iBooks.

60 Mac Tips, Volume 1

60 Mac Tips, Volume 2

  1. Ok, forgive me if you’re keeping track of these dad jokes. But if you run through these books you will see I’m just getting with the program.
  2. Fun fact. David Sparks is a big jazz fan, so he probably knows that Coltrane added some hidden outtakes to the pregap of Mars, in the reissue of Interstellar Space
  3. Right down to the corny jokes
  4. Speaking of idiosyncrasies, this is a typical philosophical objection. Apparently I haven’t quite purged my own cache of Plato is still rattling around in there.
  5. Again, sorry. Once you get started, it’s hard to stop.
  6. Or even just one of them