The State of Digital Notes

No matter who you are, there is a certainty that at some point there is going to be a piece of information that you will need to capture for use later. We all take notes. We do not all take notes the same way. There are no doubt countless ways to get ideas onto paper or into a text file.

Shawn Blanc recently wrote an article about his foray into an alternative system. He uses Simplenote, but wanted to see what else there was out there. A couple of weeks ago, I set out to do the same.

I wanted to evaluate my current system for digital note-taking and see if there was something better. The problem was that I didn’t have a real system in place. I have never taken the time to really think about my solution for capturing and saving information.

Shawn’s post helped me to realize that even when it comes to text files, setups can vary greatly. What might work for one person may not work for another.

This post is basically me outlining my system, identifying its problem, analyzing it, and then implementing a solution. I thought it would be easier to do this by putting my thoughts down onto paper1. Also, I personally love reading things like this. I find them entertaining and informative, and so I really love writing them.

The Flawed Former Setup

Before this experiment, all of my notes lived in Evernote. I love Evernote, and it is a great way to organize your life. However, it has its flaws as a quick capture note system.

Evernote has a very complex organizational system. When you have hundreds of notes, it’s features like notebooks and tags are extremely useful. Also, being able to attach photos and files is great for archiving information. But where Evernote fails is its ability to provide a quick and simple method for collecting notes and storing them. This is especially true on mobile devices, where most of this activity takes place.

Being that I keep my life organized inside of Evernote, it contains a lot of stuff. This stuff is all important to have, but it may not be relevant. For example, any email that I receive contains the word “receipt” gets automatically archived into a receipts folder in Evernote. These receipts are important pieces of information that I do not want to completed get rid of, but they are not relevant to me unless I specifically go searching for a particular one.

All of these receipts and other things that fit into the important-but-not-relevant category cause a problem when I need to find something that is relevant. The archival type notes get in the way of quickly accessing the more temporary, relevant notes. That is why I went searching for a dedicated system to handle these two very different use cases.

The Solution

The solution was obvious once I had identified the problem. I needed a system that allowed me to capture and access information as quickly as possible. Just like Shawn, I looked at two options: Simplenote and Dropbox.

I have used Simplenote in the past. It is a great app with some useful features. I decided against Simplenote because it was not as ubiquitous as Dropbox. I wanted to be able to store text files so that I could use any of the various Dropbox enabled text editors to edit them.

Another reason I didn’t choose Simplenote was that it has some various syncing issues with clients that I use. Shawn goes deeper into that issue in his post if you want to read more about it.

Mac App

Once I had decided to keep my notes in Dropbox, I had to decide which apps I would use to edit them. On the Mac, it came down to nvALT and Justnotes.

Personally, I prefer Justnotes over nvALT. I think it looks a lot better. However, I am not able to use Justnotes because of the way it handles note titles. Most of the notes I have are created on my iPhone. The app I use names notes based on the actual file name. Justnotes names them based on the first line of the note. So if I edit a note I made on my iPhone in Justnotes, I will end up unintentionally changing my note title.

This behavior makes sense when syncing Justnotes with Simplenote, because Simplenote uses the first line as the title as well. However, this simply doesn’t behave correctly when syncing with Dropbox. My other option, nvALT, became my Mac notes app.

nvALT is a great app with some equally great features. I don’t like its design as much as Justnotes, but with a little customizing I was able to make it a little better. The point is, it works great. It makes capture and search extremely easy.

iOS App

Next, I had to choose how I would access and edit my notes on my iOS devices. I did some searching, and also used Brett Terpstra’s2 amazing iTextEditors chart, and the popular answer was Notesy. Notesy is a simple text editor that works really well. It looks a little rough, but the customization features help a lot.

The best part about Notesy, and the reason I chose it, was that it has amazing URL scheme support. My favorite URL action is the ability to append text to a note.

Almost every note I create in Notesy is done through Launch Center Pro using the append URL. Nick Wynja has a great post about this. Basically, this URL:

notesy://x-callback-url/append?name=[prompt]&text=[prompt]

will open a dialog box asking for the name of the note. If you enter a note name that already exists, then the text you enter in the second dialog box will be added to the end of the note. If the note you enter doesn’t exist, a new one will be created with that name.

This implementation of URL schemes makes Notesy a great way to capture information on the iPhone. It fits right into my workflow.

The New Setup

My new setup now involves Evernote and Dropbox working together to organize everything. To help understand the distinction I am making between Evernote and Dropbox, I made this nifty table:

Dropbox Notes Evernote
Quick reference Long term, archival notes
Text only Rich text, photos, files
Flat organization Tags, notebooks

I am really happy with my new system and the way everything works together. I originally thought that it would be silly to have two different sets of notes, but separating them has been one of the best things I have done to improve the convenience of my notes.

My system for notes is now completely trustworthy. I feel confident in the tools that I am using and the way that I am using them. For me, that is a very important thing.


  1. And by paper, I mean a note in nvALT.  ↩

  2. The creator of nvALT, and a genius. Seriously, how does he do it? ↩

Posted in: Nerdy