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
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.
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.
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.
A few days back I posted a fairly detailed introduction to DEVONthink to Go for iOS. To follow that up, I promised some options for iOS users wanting to leave Evernote, and bring their data with them. Whether you want to go all in with DEVONthink, or you have in mind another app, the question is how to migrate Evernote data to another iOS app.
On macOS, you have a number of options. The most simple and clean being a direct transfer within DEVONthink Pro itself. Managing this process without a Mac, on the other hand, requires more creative thinking. What follows are some options for iOS only users wanting to export all Evernote data. DEVONthink is the endpoint in this case, but the process can easily be adapted for apps like Notebooks, Bear, or even Apple Notes.
Some of the Gotchas
I’ll admit I’m fortunate I could use a Mac to do this, but it’s not quite as difficult on iOS as it once was. Some advice out there will have you believe otherwise, but you can migrate your data without having to do it one note at a time. It is worth considering these potential stumbling blocks before you do it. I would pay special attention to the data you consider most important in Evernote, either tag it as such, or place it in a specific notebook. Reading on, you might also want to delimit different data types, such as text, PDFs, and images.
The arrival of drag and drop had me wondering if we could simply drag the notes across to another app. I will come back to this below. You can bring drag and drop come into play, it just won’t solve the problem on its own. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as dragging all your notes from one place to another. If you try to transfer directly from Evernote, these are some of the frustrations you will encounter:
Notes in Evernote are stored in a proprietary rich text format. If you try to drag notes, some apps like Apple Notes, will refuse the transfer when you try to drop them. Others, like DEVONthink, will allow you to drop the note, but will strip all the formatting. That might be fine for text only notes, but everything else is lost. The worst part is losing all your links.
If you try dragging a note with an attachment, you will get the title and nothing else.
If you can open the note and drag the attachment itself, it will come across no problem. Which is fine if you only want to drag a couple of items. I have hundreds of PDF attachments in Evernote.
When drag and drop doesn’t work, you might think you could use the share sheet. You’d be right, if you want to choose between exporting web links for notes, or sending each individual note via email in Apple Mail.
Evernote is mired to a functionality issue that, until recently, has bloodied the foreheads of iOS users. It doesn’t do multiple files.
Yep, it’s painful. Which is why so many people hit these walls and keep the status quo. 1 Thankfully, we now have tools that can help overcome these problems. If you really want to migrate your Evernote data to another iOS app, you can.
The Workflow route is straightforward enough. As alluded to above, depending on how precious you are about the data, it might require some preparation in Evernote. Whether you want to do this could come down to the number of notes you have, but discriminating by notebook or tag can help get better results. Tedious work on iOS, I know. You can always go nuts, and deal with the consequences later, whatever your destination. I’ll confess, that’s how I roll.
I have played around with this for long enough to feel confident advising a uniform approach to importing notes, whether you choose to bring them across as text, or PDFs. Technically Workflow, and DEVONthink can both handle the rich media that Evernote stores. Setting up a complex workflow with IF conditionals is possible, but you can end up with a lot of wacky results in amongst the ones that transfer properly. Likewise, encoding the rich text itself via URL isn’t as consistent I’d like.
Bear in mind, you’re not deleting the data in Evernote through this process. Even if you proceed after testing, and you’re still not happy with the results, you can try the other method below. 2 The best results I get via Workflow are from encoding all the data as a PDFs. That won’t suit everyone.
Alternatively, you can do the same thing using Markdown, but any PDFs in Evernote won’t be encoded, they’ll come across blank. This is where that preparation comes in. If you have separated data types by tag, or notebook, you can run the different workflows individually. You can apply the same logic for images if you wish, although I haven’t set that up myself as I never stored any in Evernote.
No doubt somebody is reading this thinking the workflows don’t need to be separated. That’s true, or at least it should be. As I mentioned earlier, my efforts at combining them turned out some garbage. If you’ve had more success, I would love to hear about it. Read on, and you will see the workflows can be combined more easily when taking a different route.
The workflow will make you specify the number of notes you want to export/import. This is a limitation of the API, you have to specify a number. It’s a good idea to test this anyway, so set the number low to start with.
These workflows also leave the ‘title’ parameter blank, as there seems to be a bug in one of the apps along the chain that interrupts the URL encoding — or decoding. 3 I will update the workflows when I’m certain the bug is squashed, but read on as there are better options below.
You can adapt this workflow for you own needs, of course. If you want to know more about the DEVONthink URL scheme, the documentation is included with the app. Or you can get it here
Optional: Organise your Evernote data by data types using tags, or notebooks for Text and PDF 4. This is a giant pain, so before you go ahead and do it, make sure you have checked out the alternatives below. Either way, the process is as follows:
Download the Workflows above
If you don’t want to distinguish the data types, just run the PDF workflow for everything to come across as PDFs.
If you have separated the data types, run each workflow separately.
Using a Cloud Service with Workflow
This route adds more complexity, but it gives you more flexibility as a result. There are some concessions with the form the data is transferred in, but that is true of all these methods. I have played around with a few different services, the main prerequisite being ease of use on iOS. A lot of web apps have awkward UI for touch control.
Google cloud transfer for Evernote, and you will most likely find results dominated by MultCloud. I can’t recommend it for this job, to start it’s a poster candidate for shitty web UI for a touch interface. But, the real reason is MultCloud transfers without conversion, so you end up with a bunch of ENML documents. 5 Outside Evernote they’re all but useless. At best, MultCloud is a backup option.
CloudHQ is also awful to look at, but it has much more granular options for the transfer, and the real kicker, it will actually work. You can use a free account with CloudHQ to export your notes in PDF, plain-text format, or both. It will export everything to Dropbox, or your pick of service. If anyone is wondering how this fits with my thoughts on cloud storage, data in Evernote is already insecure. This is about changing your ways.
Once you have everything transferred, you will do the same thing as above. However, there is some good news. The DropBox API will expose a lot more information to workflow from the initial call, so it is easier to set conditions in the workflow to combine the actions. In other words, if you transfer the data to a storage service first, you can run a single workflow from there.
Dropbox to DEVONthink Workflow
This workflow is setup to import PDFs, and Plain text files. Migrate your data from Evernote to Dropbox via CloudHQ
Drag and has made a lot of tasks on iOS much easier than ever before, with transferring data among them. With the help of the files, you can forget workflow altogether, and use drag and drop to manage the last part of the migration. The first step is the same as above, prepare and transfer your data from Evernote to cloud storage.
You can do this with with Dropbox, or Box. I haven’t tested it with any other cloud services, so your mileage may vary elsewhere. If you’re using free plans, it’s worth knowing the box free plan gives your 10gb of storage – the maximum file size is 250mb, but that won’t be a problem here, in fact unless you are storing large video files it is unlikely to be a problem ever. 6
The key is how you set the apps up. You probably know by now that integration with the Files app can be hit and miss. This process exemplifies the difference between Files, and the more traditional Finder on macOS. You might expect you can open up Files and drag documents from one service to another, like you would between folders on macOS, but if that works it all it is very limited.
For example, if you try to drag multiple files after selected them via the select function, you won’t be able to drop them anywhere. However, if you collect the files together by taping on them one at a time, then the files will stack together and you can drop them no problem. Then there is the matter of how folders must be setup to accept dragged items; the inbound folder accepting the files has to be added to the favourites section of the Files sidebar, to make it available as a drop destination. When you do get it to work with the files app exclusively, other strange things can happen. Like the metadata being out of whack.
The point I’m making is the process is more complicated than it seems. Illustrative of how much room for improvement remains in the brave new world of iOS Files. But, this is only true if you are trying to manage the entire process in the Files app itself. The story is completely different if you you start in the Files app, and drop your notes in the third-party app itself.
You can skip organising your Evernote data type for this method, it will make no difference
Open up the files app. Select the notes your want to transfer, and dry them into the new app.
Other Apps as a Destination
Using DEVONthink as a destination, the results have been gapped doing things this way. The beauty of this method, however, is any app that accepts compatible data — and supports drag and drop — can be setup to receive the notes. She of the more popular note-taking apps on iOS will make the process even easier by providing an import function. Both GoodNotes, and Notability will let you import directly from cloud storage, without any further rigmarole. You can use drag and drop with both apps too, but you don’t need to.
If you want to migrate data from Evernote to alternate notes apps, all you need to do is transfer it via the CloudHQ method above, then import the notes via the import function of the app in question. If the app is only using iCloud, you should still be able to use the Files app to mitigate that problem. If not, I have setup a quick and dirty workflow to transfer from Dropbox to iCloud, you can get it here7
Evernote’s API offers potential for users migrating data. Like most folks, I’m a little light on time to do this sort of thing right now. I’m not making any promises, but I’m half thinking I will play around with both Workflow, and Pythonista over the holidays to see what can be done. 8Anyone familiar with this site will also know how much I admire the Notebook app. It also has an excellent custom URL scheme. I intend to use it for setting up more workflows.
Even though I have already transferred the bejesus out of data from Evernote, I will still mess around with these workflows some more. If you’re interested in how any of this this progresses, signup to the mailing list. Or, I will post it here at a later date.
I should point out here that my leaving Evernote had nothing to do with the price of a subscription. ↩
This is something that appears to confuse a lot of people. Box don’t do themselves any favours by wording it strangely either. The site says 250mb maximum upload. What it means is file size, not transfer limit. ↩
If you just want to archive your Evernote data in iCloud, this will work for that too. ↩
There are some existing scripts, but Evernote has moved to a new API. I haven’t yet found any in current working condition. Then again, I haven’t looked too closely yet. ↩
Call it a lack of imagination, but the first time I got hold of the Workflow app I was a little disappointed. The gallery made it look like a lot of fun, but most of the automations seemed a bit gimmicky. I didn’t have much need for a local area, pizza speed dial. There were automations I latched on to, but the app's power lay dormant on my devices. Fast Forward, and among the things I have figured out with Workflow is how to automate citation formatting.
I was something of a late comer to iOS. I wasn’t trying to do much serious work on the iPad when I started playing with Workflow. That meant I still had a lot of walls to hit where limitations of the platform were concerned. It soon became apparent that not only could Workflow do incredible things, it could do many things I needed, that I couldn’t otherwise do on and iPad, or an iPhone. Workflow is both a means for overcoming shortcomings of iOS, 1and for automating tasks that are repetitive, time consuming or difficult. For a novice, I would suggest the visual programming design of workflow makes it much easier to automate tasks than it does on the Mac.
Getting to Know Workflow
There is a surfeit of ‘getting started with Workflow’ type posts about the internet. For the most I have found they fall into two categories. You have the listicles of workflows that can either be found in the Workflow Gallery itself, or are similar in kind. Basic, but fun. Don’t get me wrong, some of the uses cases you find on those lists are pretty neat. My feeling is they don’t do a lot to help somebody trying to get the most out of the app.
Then you have serious Workflow aficionados. The best known known is no doubt Federico Viticci of Macstories, but there are others. I posted appreciation for Jordan Merrick’s Workflow Directory recently. Another blog I like for iOS automation is One Tap Less. Although, It hasn’t been updated much lately. If you want to get a head start with Workflow, I would suggest listening to series the Viticci and Frasier Speirs put together for their podcast, Canvas. A podcast might seem like a strange medium for learning something like this, but following along will help with the general concepts.
If you have never done any kind of programming. Despite the relative ease of the Workflow approach, there might be a couple of things that catch you out. Variables are a good example. Somewhere in the deep recess of my mind I have the fragments of what I learned as a school child in the eighties. At least knew what a variable was when I came across it in Workflow. I know that for a lot of people , it is exactly that concept that stopped them grokking the building blocks that make up Workflow automation. Workflow has gotten more clever about the need for variables, and the way that you can use them. But knowing what they are, and how important they are to the flow of information in a program is still a crucial piece of the puzzle. Thankfully, it’s not a difficult concept to pick up.
Getting deeper into Workflow, the developers have done a great job of abstracting concepts like flow. There is another powerful automation app on iOS called Alloy hasn’t enjoyed anything like the success of Workflow. That app has taken the opposite approach, negating the visual programming language by littering the app with esoteric terms. Understanding the flow of input and output is ultimately what makes the workflow applets you build operate as you intend. Which is to say, the further you go, the more likely you will need to understand more of the mechanics beneath the interface. Thankfully, the official Workflow documentation is very good. Then there is a thriving Reddit community of helpful, Workflow nerds.
A Range of Use Cases
To dial it back a little, you don’t necessarily need the most powerful features of Workflow for it to be useful. I have a range of workflow applets, recipes, scripts, or workflows.2Call them what you will, they range from the most basic, to complicated enough that I’m not confident I could recreate them should I ever need to. 3 Then I have workflows built by other people that hurt my brain. Trying to reverse engineer them has been one of the best ways to learn how to use the app. That is the reason I subscribe to Club Macstories, for the workflows.
As an example of a most simple use case. On the Mac I use a couple of different utilities to turn websites into either single purpose browsers, or something close to a native macOS app. For somebody with their dopamine wires crossed like I have, it can be a real nuisance working with web apps when you tend to have a million tabs open. On iOS, when I need a single purpose browser I create it with Workflow. I then place the shortcut on my home screen. Problem solved.
Easier with Web APIs
One area I feel the app provides an advantage over automation tools on the Mac, is how it guides you through using web APIs. 4 Even using a powerful tool like Keyboard Maestro on macOS, you will still need to build and encode URLs to interact with an API. In Workflow, you build the contents of the URL with a form. In turn the App will encode the URL for you. The consequence of this approach is you start to get a picture of what the structure of an API request looks like. I had never worked with JSON before I started experimenting with citation workflows, and yet I didn’t have much trouble putting a request together. If the API has good enough documentation, it isn’t too hard to work out which fields go where. There might be a little trial and error, but that is half the fun.
The upshot of all this fun with APIs is I have workflows to share. I’m going to post the first one here. If you want to keep up with how the effort to add to this, sign up for the mailing list over on the side bar there. 5 The first newsletter will go out in a couple of weeks, I intend for it to include this and some other study and research type tech-fu.
A Remaining Frustration
For academic writing on the iPad, managing citations can still be a pain. Decent citation management is the last remaining frustration for iOS users and academic writing. If I were to code an app for academic users on the iPad, that would be it. You can manage various parts of a bibliographic workflow on the iPad. I use Papers 3 for that job. But on the whole, it remains messy and awkward. 6 This is where Workflow comes in. It can equip you with the tools to build a citation workflow that can solve at least some of the problems for this kind of work on the iPad. If you’re inventive enough, you could put the entire workflow together using Workflow and a text editor. Adding Ulysses , or Editorial into the mix, and you have the tools for an iPad first writing system.
The whole way through my undergraduate studies I never committed a single citation style to memory. With citation managers available, why bother? At worst I could use an online generator. I claim it wasn’t really laziness though. It is an admission of fallibility. As a tutor, and as lecturer I had to take on marking work. Eventually I learned enough about which citation styles were set for the class, so that I could satisfy the requisite pedantry of one who wields a red pen. I just as easily forget the conventions the moment school is out. In the end I would rather automate this particular task and save that precious mind space for something more worthy. Like learning how to use Workflow, for example.
Automate Citation Formatting on iOS
Workflow’s powerful API interactions opens up all kinds of possibilities. It just so happens there are a lot of bibliographic web tools with public APIs. The idea is to start out simple here.7To provide both the utility for automatically formatting citations, and an example of a workflow for anyone starting out with the app. Something I hear ad nauseam — because it is true — is learning any kind of automation, scripting, or even coding, will be much easier if you have an end goal in mind. If you start out with a blank canvas, not knowing what you want to automate, you will have trouble learning automation. If you have a use case in mind, or an example to work with, it is going to work out better.
This workflow uses the Easybib Developer API to format a citation in the style that you need. You will need an API key to make it work. They are free to obtain for personal use. It will be easiest to signup for an API key before you download the workflow, as it will ask you for that key when you install it. I have set it up to chose between the MLA, APA, and the Chicago B reference styles. If you need a different style, the API supports more than 6000 of them, so no problem. Just add the style to the list in the workflow itself, it should be obvious.
A couple of quick points for using the workflow. This example is only setup for citing books with a single author. If you have the inclination, Easybib has quite comprehensive documentation so you can builds upon the workflow to suit your own needs, or replicated it for different sources. When entering an author name, use a comma between the first and last names. To suit my own writing preferences, I have also set it up to format the citation using Markdown. If you would rather it used rich text, simply remove the second to last action called ‘make markdown from rich text’. The workflow will then copy a full formatted reference to your clipboard.
If you have no inclination to commit a reference style to memory, this workflow is for you. You can download it here
Any questions, drop me a line. If you want to keep up with my efforts to use workflow for citation management on iOS, signup for the mailing list. 8 The first edition will be out soon, time willing it will include updates to this workflow to cite different sources, multiple authors, and so on
I don’t have the capacity or the inclination to spam you. Next year I will get the newsletter happening properly ↩
The lack of iPad multitasking is making it harder to recommend that app to new users. Even on the Mac, the acquisition by Read Cube is making me nervous. The most useful support articles from the Papers site seem to have disappeared? ↩
Not that I have chops to make the most complex workflows. But I’m getting there, slowly. ↩
Eventually this site will have a membership component. It will never be costly, but I intend to make the first 50 subscribers free members. Permanently ↩
As usual, MacStories has the full scoop on updates to Workflow. This is timely. I needed a prompt to write up some citation workflows for students I have been playing with. Writing any detail about the release itself is redundant. Viticci has that completely covered,
The marquee addition of this release is full support for drag and drop in iOS 11, which is especially impressive on the iPad as it allows you to trigger actions based on content you drop into a workflow. In the original Workflow, if you wanted to feed external content (text, images, links, videos, etc.) to actions, you had to manually select an item from a native picker, use the iOS clipboard, or use Workflow's action extension in other apps. The system worked well, but it was neither fast nor intuitive.
Until Workflow created its own, Jordan Merrick was host to one of the best curated collections of Workflows one could hope to find. The directory was understandably taken down with the advent of an official version, which briefly included a mechanism for sharing workflows among the community of users. Apple’s acquisition of the Workflow team scuppered that initiative, insofar as they have kept open the official gallery within the app, but closed down the community aspect. Thankfully, generous users like Merrick have once again filled the breach. From JordanMerrick.com
In December 2016, I announced that I’d no longer be updating Workflow Directory. The Workflow team had made some great improvements to the gallery, the biggest of which was user submissions. At the time, it didn’t make sense to continue working on the site when the built-in feature was so much better.
Fast forward to March 2017 and the news broke that Apple had acquired Workflow. While the app continues to be updated, the gallery is not accepting user submissions. Since then, I had often wondered if it’d make sense to reopen Workflow Directory.
So I’ve decided to do just that, but in the process I’ve made a fundamental change. After testing the waters last week with a similar endeavor, Workflow Directory into a GitHub repository. Existing workflows have been migrated (with the exception of a few that are non-functional) and I’ve added a few new ones too. Each workflow has an accompanying README containing a description.
Workflow remains a glaring gap on this site. To be fair, I’ve not been at this too long, but the real reason is the art to doing the app justice. There are some ingenious users around creating incredibly inventive workflows. By way of qualification for the link to Jordan Merrick.com consider that every image posted on this site that is framed with an iPad or iPhone mockup has been created with either this Workflow, or its predecessor. Not only is it one of the best uses of the app I have come across, but it has saved me epic amounts of time.
There has been a lot of conjecture around the future of the Workflow app, but not only has the app continued to receive updates, the signs are good for some form of future integration into iOS [^ Perhaps even beyond, one can only hope]. The design language of visual automation hits the sweet spot between the über nerd and curious tinkerer, lowering the bar for entry by a remarkable degree. If you are worried that you might pour a lot of energy into something that is fated to disappear, I truly doubt that will happen in such a way that will render your learnings obsolete. The visual programming paradigm that has its roots in Automator has been so well refined for touch interaction by Workflow, that it is here to stay in one form or another. On the flip side, with initiatives like the Workflow Directory, if you swish to do so, you can get a fair amount of mileage out of the app without building any workflows of your own, or at least by adapting some to your own purposes. Of course, if you already have the chops, there is plenty of karma to be gained by pitching in to the directory with a contribution.
On the growing list of topics I intend to cover in detail is the indepensible automation app Workflow, which these days is owned by Apple. To dispell the ever-present rumours of Workflow's impending death, the latest in a steady schedule of updates has been released. This time focusing in on a long list of bugs with third-party app and API interactions. If you haven't already tried this incredible peice of software, the is no time like the present.