How to choose a notes application

A note taking application is an essential part of any good system for getting things done. At it’s most basic a pad of paper or notebook with a solid work horse pen is a note taking application. But, let’s assume that you want to go digital. To choose an app, there are certain criteria to consider. I’m looking at these under the areas of functionality and technical considerations.

Functional Criteria

A notes app has 4 basic functions, and against these we look to measure any contenders:

  1. Capturing notes — getting stuff into it
  2. Editing and formatting — actually writing, formatting and laying things out
  3. Organisation — how things get sorted within the app
  4. Retrieval — finding things again down the line

In certain situations you may want to add 5. Collaberation, but for a personal notes app we will leave that out.

Technical Criteria

In addition to the functionality of an application there are some key technical things of these applications that can be the making or the breaking of them:

  1. Accessibility — where is it accessible and what limitiations are there on portable devices like phones etc
  2. Privacy & Security — How secure is your data and are there any issues with privacy
  3. Speed of the application — load times for the application and notes etc, sync speed between devices
  4. Offline support
  5. Export options — how easy is it to get data out of the app and in what format
  6. Bugginess — are there any bugs or issues that are either frustrating or risky

Using the criteria

It won’t be controversial to say that for everyone, how to apply these criteria will be different as our preferences will be different but here are some guidelines:

First — Apply technical considerations as pass/fail

Technical Considerations are largely pass/fail issues and should be applied as such.

  • So for me, I cannot use Apple notes as whilst I have a Macbook, I have an Android phone & tablet. So no Apple applications. For privacy and security, we may have a differing threshholds which we are prepared to accept, but even then, it will largely be pass/fail.
  • If there are any bugs that risk the integrity of either individual notes or the safety of your data — run far away!
  • If you cannot export your notes in a format that can be easily read by other applications, back away slowly. The one exception here — Evernote’s predominant export is a .enex file. You can do others but they are really not straightforward. So that’s bad. BUT, because Evernote is the grandaddy here, most other apps can import .enex files in some form so that’s good.

Next — Apply functionality criteria by comparing an app to other apps

Capture

This is all to do with the speed of getting things in and the different methods available. So are there widgets availble? How quickly can you go from having a thought to note down to actually typing it? On a laptop or desktop or on mobile? Can you e-mail into the app? How good is the web clipper? These are questions to ask.

Editing & Formatting

This will be impacted by how visual you are. Some people need a canvas editor or to have things in columns. Can you do tables? Can you have different colours — how vivid are they? What different formatting options are there (code blocks, quotes, banners, headings etc? How easy and quick & easy is it to change formatting style (both on a computer and a mobile or tablet)

Organisation

This is where things like folders, notebooks, tags, and note links come into play. A vast spectrum of preferences here. Do you prefer manual organisation or more automatic? Do you like heirarchical structures or do you prefer an ever growing web of links and back links? How easy and fast is it to implement whatever organisation system you have?

Retrieval

Again, there will be a spectrum here but the two big considerations will be intentional retrieval, which is largely to do with search capabilities and prompted retrieval which will be things like highlighting unlinked mentions or notes that link to tags that you are currently using etc etc.

Finally, if you have a few apps left to consider, rank all the technical and functional criteria in order of preference and decide your winner!

However there is one other consideration — price. I haven’t really known where to put this. I’m not sure it should be the first consideration, nor should it be the last thing you look at. My hunch is, as you assess the relative functional benefits, always have the price in mind. Some apps, though good — aren’t worth it.

What makes a good note taking application — for me at least

Here are my deal breakers:

  1. It needs to be accessible on all of my devices
  2. There needs to be a high degree of feature and function parity between different devices
  3. No bugs that could compromise the integrity of my data
  4. I would like the app to load quickly and sync quickly with some good offline support
  5. I am content with a standard privacy and security policy — but the safer the better.

In terms of functionality:

  1. I want to be able to capture thoughts and ideas quickly, no matter where I am or what I am working so capturing doesn’t distract me from what I am doing.
  2. I want the search to be useful so there is limited need for me to manually search through a long list of notes.
  3. I want the editor to allow me some visual aspects to my notes. So different colours and tables or columns
  4. I want the organisation options to be simple and quick to implement.
  5. I would like the sense that I know, at least roughly, where everything is, so notes don’t get lost in the aether.

In the next few weeks I will apply this thinking to review the following applications — all of which I have used, to greater and lesser extents:

  • Onenote
  • Evernote
  • UpNote
  • Obsidian
  • Notesnook
  • Nimbus Notes
  • Notejoy
  • Notion
  • Mem.ai

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