My Unhealthy Obsession with Note Taking Apps

And why I’m still not satisfied

For the past year or so, I have been trying to find the right note taking solution to fit my needs. As a freshman in college, taking notes should be one of the most important things that I do. Notes are an imperative part of being able to study and gain as much knowledge possible from a lecture or class. There are so many different note taking solutions that it can be pretty overwhelming trying to decide which one is the right fit for me. I’ve tried seemingly every solution out there. But none of them have made me happy.

As an engineering student, I take really different notes than many other students. My notes are super varied in type and complexity. Sometimes I use plain text. Sometimes I need to input math equations. Sometimes I need to input really complicated diagrams. This presents a problem for me because there are zero apps that are good at all three of these things. I need a note taking platform that adapts to my usage, not one that forces me to adapt to its workflow.

But Sam, why don't you just use pen and paper like a normal person?

Because I’m not a fucking caveman thats why.

Technology has become such an integral part of my life, and it should be advanced enough to replace a shredded tree and some ink. The benefits of using a pen and paper are that there are zero restrictions. You can write anything you want. You can draw anything you want. You can organize your notes any way you want. That’s really powerful. It allows me to input whatever I want however I want. The fact that no one has figured out how to implement this sort of freedom into a note taking app baffles me.

Technology also enables a lot of features that aren’t available with pen and paper. For one, you have the entire internet right next to your notes. I frequently want to search and add images to my notes, or add links to external information that might be useful for my notes. The other important thing that technology could better enable is note review. Many people forget that it’s just as important to review your notes as it is to take them. While physically taking the notes will help to learn and memorize information. Its important to review that information at a later date. Thats the whole point of taking notes. But I rarely look at my notes besides right before a test. Technology should be able to improve this.

There are tons of note taking apps out there, and many of them do a particular thing really great. But I have come to grow dissatisfied with basically all of them. Lets look at the options.

Evernote

Alternote, a better Evernote client for the Mac (Screenshot curtesy of Cooper Pellaton)

Alternote, a better Evernote client for the Mac (Screenshot curtesy of Cooper Pellaton)

Ahh yes, the old favorite. 

Everyone seems to use Evernote for one thing or another, and it does some things really well. As the name implies, Evernote is meant to be your “Digital Brain”, somewhere where you can dump all of your digital information for later retrieval. This means that it is everywhere. There is an app on basically every platform, and I have yet to encounter a syncing problem.It’s also stupid easy to get stuff into Evernote. Their web clipper is second to none, and most digital scanners have direct plugins into Evernote. Their iOS app and Mac apps are pretty usable as well. 

However, Evernote does its downsides. It seems that no one is happy or hopeful with the future direction of the company. They have strayed away from the core service in an attempt to add features that people aren’t asking for. Their core product has stayed the same over the past 6 years or so.

Evernote iOS app

Evernote iOS app

For me, the value of Evernote is how easy it is to get things into it. I can easily clip articles and other things from the web into Evernote. The app also does not support easily inputting drawings and math equations, which is basically a deal breaker for me. 

OneNote

OneNote is currently the note taking app that I use most often. They make it very easy to input drawing and other non-text elements. This is really the only note taking app that easily allows for hand written notes and the type of organization that I need. OneNote supports notebooks, and within each notebook there are tabs. This is really helpful for school because you can setup each notebook like you would a paper notebook, with each tab being for a new chapter or section.

OneNote Mac client

OneNote Mac client

Speaking of organization, OneNote’s tagging system is significantly less powerful that Evernote’s implementation. OneNote’s tags are meant to be used to separate different parts of a note. For example, you can tag different parts of a note as a phone number or address. This means that you can’t really search or sort by tags, which makes it harder to find what I want. OneNote also does not allow you to search within PDF’s and other documents like Evernote does.

Quiver

Quiver is a fairly new note taking app that is primarily designed for programers. While I might not be a programmer(but I do sometimes need to write down some code), there are certain aspects of the app that suite my workflow very well. 

Quiver is unique in that it allows you to sort your notes into cells. Each cell can be formatted for a different type of content, such as code with syntax highlighting, markdown, and a few other formats. I really like this style of organization as it allows me to rapidly change between the type of content I am writing and separate them in a logical way.

Quiver Mac app

Quiver Mac app

In many ways, Quiver is a less robust version of Evernote. I like how easily I can export these notes into a variety of formats that can be shared and sent with anyone. I can also control where I keep my notes, whether it be locally or in a cloud storage provider like Google Drive. 

There are a few big features missing that are really preventing me from using Quiver full time. There is no web clipper of any sort. Quiver is meant to be used as more of a static note taking app, and not a repository where you can dump all the content you want to save. There is also no way for me to draw right within the app, which makes it hard to draw diagrams and pictures. Hopefully in the future they will provide a drawing cell that would allow this. Finally, there are no mobile apps that let me use it while I’m on the go. There is an iOS version currently in very early beta, but its super beta and is read only for the moment, so I can’t really use it.

Quiver for iOS beta

Quiver for iOS beta

OmniOutliner

I’m including this because I just started to play around with this after a recommendation from a friend. Meh. Its a fantastic app, but it doesn’t really suit my style of note taking. I don’t want to be forced to conform my thinking process to a template, as many times classes won’t be that linear. And blah blah blah I can’t draw in it blah blah.

A plethora of web apps

There are tons of web app that are meant for note taking. Evernote and OneNote both have web apps (although I find them far worse than the native apps). Every week there seems to be a new startup that is meant to revolutionize note taking, but none of them have really done it for me. They are never as robust as I need them to be.

My dream note taking app

All of the apps listed above have features that I really like about them. Here’s how I’d like to see them brought together to form one perfect note taking app. 

  • Apps on every platform- I need to be able to access my notes from anywhere I am. That means a solid experience on desktop, tablet, and mobile platforms is required. While for me it could be iOS and OS X only, it really should have clients on Android and Windows as well. 
  • Open format and hosting- With a normal notebook, you can rip out a page and distribute it however you like. You can copy it, hand it to someone, mail it off to someone, ect. The format that notes are created in should not be proprietary. It should be very easy to export your notes out and do with them whatever you wish. Additionally, you should be able to keep your notes wherever you want, not just tied to one service. 
  • Cell based note formatting- Quiver has it basically right. All that would need to be added is a drawing cell format that would easily allow me to input diagrams and drawings. 
  • Robust tagging and notebook system- Take the tagging feature of Evernote and combine it with the tabbed notebooks in OneNote. Done. 
  • Fantastic web clipper- Evernote’s web clipper is already really great, but it could be improved even further. I’d love to be able to clip a web page into a specific note instead of just creating a new note for that webpage. Also embedding video into the note would be great as well. 
  • Some way to easily review and look at my notes after I take them-  Currently, none of the major note taking apps does this really well. Evernote kind of does this by embedding similar notes inside of your Google Searches, but I’d love to see a different sort of system for reviewing your notes. I’m not really sure how this would be implemented though. 

So those are my thoughts on the current state of digital note taking. Am I missing any great note taking apps?