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iPhone note-taking apps (Part 2)

I’m still using Evernote as my note-taking app on the iPhone, but I have become increasingly disgruntled with it. Sadly, I’ve yet to find a significantly better note-taking solution, although Simplenote and Take A Note might have potential in the future.

I’ve also come to the conclusion that I need only a note-taking application. Having checkboxes and to-do lists would be a plus, but not really necessary for my own needs. I still don’t need a GTD tool, either. Because notes can be lists for my purposes, this entry focuses more on notes compared with my previous entry (nearly two years ago!).

While using Evernote, I’ve noticed some features I’ve become dependent upon:

  • Offline (a.k.a., local) access to my notes and lists. Useful when there’s no network or WiFi access.
  • Being able to categorize or tag notes for sorting and searching is important. I have more than a couple dozen notes, so I need some way of organizing them instead of one big list. Tagging has the advantage of allowing more than one tag per note, but even categorizing (e.g., into labeled folders) helps. The big limitation with categories is that typically a note can be in only one category.
  • Desktop access to edit my notes and lists. Or, at the very least, desktop access through a web interface. Why? When I’m in front of my computer, it’s much easier for me to type with a hardware keyboard. Another reason: If I change note-taking apps in the future, I want some way to migrate them, even if it’s as basic as copying and pasting text.
  • Web access is good only if it’s a secure (https / SSL) connection.
  • Nice to have: The ability to either photograph or record notes and lists. Voice transcription would be swell, but not really required.
  • Free or low cost.

I didn’t spend equally extensive periods of time using each app, so these reviews are summarized in places. I spent more time with apps which felt easier to use, with features that interested me more. I’m sure there are other note-taking apps I’m unaware of. If there’s one you highly recommend using, feel free to suggest it, although I cannot guarantee I’ll have time to look at it.

So how is Evernote working out?

It ain’t. Allow me to enumerate the issues I’ve had with Evernote (free | iTunes link) that’ve been accumulating for over a year:

  • Offline access has been implemented as a feature called Favorites. It has always been problematic, especially with an issue where Favorites couldn’t be accessed while in Airplane mode (offline). That hasn’t been a problem for me recently, but with the advent of version 3.2.x, the order of my Favorites (which are manually sortable by drag and drop) went haywire. It was no longer sorted according to all the dragging and dropping I had done over the months. And no matter how I tried to sort them again, the order was suddenly forgotten. Sometimes I’d pass by a duplicate of a note while dragging it during manual sort mode. Quitting and restarting the app did not help, nor did clearing the app’s cache, nor did restarting the iPhone. Upon filing a support request, I was told to remove and reinstall the app. Which would erase settings for my Favorites. 🙁 But since I’ve got Premium service, I was told that Favorites aren’t necessary anyhow: Why not just make my own offline Notebook, a folder containing notes? But I went through all that effort to create and maintain my Favorites. I have to do it all over again? A solution that effectively requires data loss seems so wrong.
  • Crashy crashy crashy. I access Evernote on the iPhone several times a day. It crashes at least once a week. If I’m editing a note and a crash occurs, the changes are lost; such data loss not too surprising, but remains very annoying.
  • Too many steps to edit and save a note. 1. Open a note. 2. Hit Edit button. 3. Tap in textarea to start editing, i.e., bring up the keyboard. 4. Tap Save button. Steps 2 and 3 do distinguish between viewing and editing modes, but it’s more effective for me if they were merged as a single step — like the built-in Notes app.
  • At some point, iirc, Evernote used to remember where in the app I was between sessions. i.e., whether I was viewing or editing a note, viewing a list of notes, etc. Not anymore, the New Note page is always displayed on startup. It makes the previous issue even more aggravating — especially if I suddenly crash, or quit while editing a note. I admit, though, that with iOS 4, this is less of an issue, since Evernote continues running in the background; but of course the state is forgotten if I completely quit the app (or when it crashes).
  • I thought that having rich text would be nice (especially allowing URLs to launch Safari), but it’s more of a hassle. Why? Rich text cannot be edited on the iPhone. Evernote works around this by offering to append changes or make a copy of the original. Too complicated; I’ve found I’d rather stick with plaintext, to allow changes where I want them.
  • The Evernote Mac desktop app never allowed conversion rich text into plaintext. The web UI used to, but no longer does. Great, now both tools are consistent with each other. But now I’m stuck with the aggravation of dealing with Evernote’s clumsy handling of rich text editing on the iPhone. Ugh.

Noisy UIs: Awesome Note Lite, Note Master Lite, SmartNotes Lite

Skimming the long feature lists of these apps at first made me eager to try them out. But they all had something painfully in common: Cluttered interfaces. I might think Evernote is turning into a Microsoft Office-like kitchen sink morass, but at least on the surface its iPhone UI is clear and straightforward.

Awesome Note Lite

Awesome Note Lite (free | iTunes link) is the same as the paid version ($3.99 | iTunes link), but limits you to seven notes.

Allows memos, lists and to-do tasks. You can even attach photos. Syncs with either Google Docs or Evernote, which requires web access. The app is very colorful, and has so many tabs, buttons and popups that it makes me dizzy. For example, you have to dig into a popup to delete an item. Popup menus in an iPhone app? Eh? Trying to squish the windowing UI metaphor into a small display feels awkward.

SmartNotes Lite

Lite version (free | iTunes link), paid version ($2.99 | iTunes link). This app includes both text note and todo list features, with a bafflingly colorful UI: many backgrounds to chose from, many ways to sort, multiple setting screens, a couple ways of viewing items. The overabundance of choices gets in the way of dealing with notes and tasks. For example, on an iPhone, why would I want to differentiate between the Desktop and Cascade, and why not simply call those icon and list views? Most of the time reinventing the wheel is just not needed.

Mental Note Lite

Mental Note Lite (free | iTunes link) is the same as the paid version ($2.99 | iTunes link), but limits you to two notes. Mental Note allows text, audio, photo and sketch (finger-drawn) notes, and has some nifty features:

  • Always remembers where I was in the app between sessions.
  • Not only can I mail a note, I can also save it as a screenshot to the iPhone’s Photos app.
  • I can tag with both color and text labels.
  • I can easily undo and redo sketch movements by tapping the Pencil button.
  • I can easily append (but not insert) multiple media in a single note.
  • I can crop and resize photos within the app.
  • I can delete individual sections in a note.

However, this app suffers from some UI complication. How do I get a simple list of my notes? Oh, hit the tab button (eh?). Why does flagging have such low contrast that I can’t tell what’s going on?

NoteMaster Lite

NoteMaster Lite (free | iTunes link) is the same as the paid version ($3.99 | iTunes link), but limits you to seven notes. NoteMaster Lite allows both text notes and notes with photos, but like other apps I’ve seen, its UI feels heavy handed.

It also syncs with Google Docs. I could email notes, too, but I’d need to setup the email account from which I’d send, which feels kludgy. Why not use what’s already setup in iPhone Mail? Even Evernote handles that gracefully.

reQall

reQall’s (free | iTunes link) strengths lie in voice recognition and transcription, and tracking time-dependent tasks. With these services reQall for iPhone competes with Jott. So far its service and iPhone application remain free; Jott’s free service terminated on 3 February 2009. At first I thought reQall required a network/WiFi connection, but both audio recordings and transcribed notes seem to be accessible while offline — an improvement over Evernote’s flaky offline access.

Sadly, reQall’s iPhone interface is only somewhat less maddening than Jott’s:

  • Transcription seems to take somewhat longer than Jott’s service. However, a copy is always mailed, which is handy.
  • Searching is available (string search), but cannot tag or categorize anything.
  • I cannot create my own labeled categories or tags — unless I pay for the Pro service to add custom folders.
  • Once created, you cannot change the type of Thing (Note, To-do or Shopping item). This drives me nuts, since you must remember to pull down a menu to select the type when you create it. (Another reason against adding menus to mobile apps.)
  • Each voice recording is limited to 30 seconds, even with the paid Pro service.
  • Lists are called Shopping Lists, which for a list-y person like me isn’t a useful name since I don’t consider all lists to be shopping lists.

Overall, reQall has more time dependency features than I need or care to use. In addition, I doubt I’d use the People aspect, as that depends on contacts actually using the reQall service.

SyncBook

I had purchased SyncBook for $3.99 (free | iTunes link) some time ago; its price went down to $1.99, then ultimately became free. It handles plaintext notes, desktop syncing (via Bonjour) is available through a free Mac client application, not requiring any web-based registration.

Syncing requires a bit of effort, though. On the Mac side I can use any editor which will save .txt files; pop the files into ~/Library/Application Support/NotesSync/, then sync. No mobile network access needed, but WiFi needs to be enabled for both your Macintosh and iPhone. I can also use the desktop app to import HTML and RTF files, but I need to convert them to plaintext in order to view them on the iPhone.

Some other features that SyncBook has:

  • Very easy to edit and save notes, in fewer steps than Evernote.
  • The app uses categories, not tags.
  • Notes are organized by category, and you can sort within those by name or date modified. There is no manual sorting.
  • I can add a colored label (as a dot) to a note for extra emphasis.
  • All note names must be unique, even across categories.
  • Notes are searchable.

Unfortunately, it looks like this app has been orphaned, as it hasn’t been updated for over a year.

Take A Note

Take A Note ($4.99 | iTunes link) by Readdle has a layout very similar to Evernote, but a style reminding me of Classics. As a paid app, how does it compare? I can have text, audio and photo notes, like Evernote, but I can also have drawings as notes.

In spite of the beautiful appearance, the WiFi Access Help page contains typos and has a completely different style from the rest of the app. (Reminds me of the pulpy English-roughly-translated-from-elsewhere leaflets that come with small household appliances.) The information there does help setup syncing, but to be consistent that content really ought to be cleaned up.

There is no online access, so syncing limited between a computer and the iPhone via WiFi. This is done via WebDAV, rather than by Bonjour. Readdle doesn’t have a desktop application like Evernote or SyncBook. I just mount the iPhone with the IP address given in Take A Note’s WiFi Access page, copy whatever files I want to and from that virtual drive, et voilà. The disadvantage, however, is that there’s no obvious backup of your notes to your desktop machine, other than in the hidden manner when you sync via iTunes. To have an easily accessible copy of my notes, I’d need to create another folder on my desktop computer, then manually copy them through WebDAV.

Take A Note uses categories, not tags, so a given note can be in only one category. Audio, drawing and photo notes have an additional Comment tab, which contains creation date info and any additional notes I might wish to add. Notes are also searchable.

Take A Note has some other nice features not found in the Evernote iPhone app:

  • It remembers whether I was viewing a note or in the Add Note page, rather than always starting at the Notes page. However, I wish it would remember if I were viewing a folder listing, rather than always going to the toplevel Notes page. This is less of an issue when running in the background under iOS 4, but crops up when I fully quit the app.
  • I can change the font size and font family settings; even though text itself cannot be styled, it’s a nice way to customize the interface.
  • A password lock for the app.

By default, photo, audio and drawing notes use a timestamp as the title, but I can change a title by editing the Comment field. Take A Note seems a bit slow overall, though, so I’m not sure how well it could handle my 100+ notes.

YouNote Lite

YouNote Lite (free | iTunes link) offers several note formats. The app’s quirky, cute icons come in flavors of TextNote, PictNote, AudioNote, DrawNote, and WebNote. A note containing a mix of these media becomes a MultiNote. Sounds like a good candidate, but YouNote Lite remains quite limited:

  • Although button bar items do sort — alpha (“T”), date (calendar icon with “1”), and note type (odd diamond thing) — I cannot categorize or tag notes.
  • It took me a while to go through the app and SophiaCom’s website to finally realize that I can enter data only onto the iPhone. Because there’s no web or desktop editing, there’s no way for me to import notes from elsewhere.
  • Even though the developers offer the free YouNote Desktop application, it offers only barebones functions of backing up and restoring notes in an all-or-nothing manner. You might as well stick with Time Machine.
  • I cannot email notes unless I get the paid version of the app.

I didn’t bother testing the paid version of YouNote ($2.99 | iTunes link), because I’d still be unable to transfer existing notes into the app. From what I can tell, their navigator would only allow read-only viewing of notes within YouNote.

Some apps not tested

Notebook by Appigo

Notebook ($4.99 | iTunes link) by Appigo allows HTML notes in addition to plaintext notes. Notebook has a rich set of features, and even offers a way to import Palm Memos from the Mac Desktop. I haven’t bothered testing it yet because in order to sync I’d have to sign up with yet another web service — in this case Toodledo.com. It also doesn’t support photo or audio notes.

Notebooks by Alfons Schmid

Notebooks ($5.99 | iTunes link) by Alfons Schmid, like Notebook, offers many features including Palm Memo importing. Notebooks also offers syncing through WebDAV, or Bonjour via SyncDocs. I’m holding off on testing Notebooks, though — not just because there’s no way to create and maintain audio and photo notes, but because I don’t wish to spend time now to go through the sheer number and complexity of its features. (Awesome Note et al. burned my attention span in that respect.)

SplashShopper

SplashShopper has apps for both the iPhone ($4.99 | iTunes link) and the Mac OS X desktop. These apps do lists, and only lists, in text, with no options for photo or voice entries. The desktop app is $19.95, but includes a free 30-day trial period. Fortunately, SplashShopper is no longer the only app offering offline access to data, so I decided to spend my time testing other apps.

SplashShopper also looks is a dead-ringer for HandyShopper, which I had loved using in Palm OS. Except that HandyShopper is freeware. :-/

Noter & Noter2

Noter is a free web app, whereas Noter2 is a paid ($1.99 | iTunes link) native app. Unfortunately, online account access for either appears to go over a non-secure connection, so I didn’t spend much time with either of these.

So how about Simplenote?

Simplenote (free | iTunes link) used to cost $1.99, but is now available for free, so I downloaded it even though I know it’s limited to plaintext notes. It has one big shortcoming for me: I can neither tag nor categorize the notes. The good news, though, is that a future version will include tags. If I can handle not needing audio or image notes within the same note-taking app, I just might move to Simplenote.

I did manage to crash Simplenote twice while going between editing a note and the list of notes. I haven’t been able to dependably reproduce it, sadly; their support team responded saying the crash might be resolved in the next release, a big update currently in Apple’s review queue. In addition, I wish tapping to edit a note places the caret where I had tapped, not at the beginning or end of the note.

On a related tangent, I recommend reading John Gruber’s compelling article on Simplenote. If you’re interested on how note-taking apps behave, his article clearly differentiates between online and desktop syncing, which I found informative.

Nevertheless, if a lack of taxonomy doesn’t bother you, this app might still work for you. Simplenote is indeed refreshingly simple, and easy to use. For example:

  • I can sort notes alphabetically (first line serves as title), by last modified, or by last created.
  • Simplenote has provided developers a means of extending the app, which includes JustNotes (free) and Nottingham ($19.95; free demo available), two Mac OS X applications for maintaining and syncing notes locally.
  • It remembers where I last was, even after quitting the app.
  • Search is a simple textfield appearing at the top of the note list.
  • Even though notes are plaintext, there’s an option to activate URLs. When on, tap-holding will bring up the option to open in Safari, or to copy it. Nice!
  • Simple services: a free web service for online syncing (the connection and login forms are secure, but the signup form oddly is not), a $4.99 one-time fee to get rid of the ads, and an annual $8.99 premium service.

One comment

  1. Dineth wrote:

    Hey, check out another note taking app that you may like! It is about to come out on the app store. We didn’t really like alot of the stuff we saw around the app store so we created one.

    Website: http://www.m2d2apps.com.

    Wednesday, 26 January 2011 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

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