[Chorus of voices circling me]: Hi, Jon.
While an avid learner, my brain has a habit of being somewhat teflon-like: Nothing sticks. This is quite undesirable. I want at least some of the things I hear/read/watch to stick around for future use. Therefor note-taking is exceptionally important to me. Over the years, as a computer fan-boy (regardless of OS), I became much faster at typing than at writing, so I started taking notes on a laptop. Initially, I just used Microsoft Word documents, and it was beyond glorious.
Where others had scribble on paper, I had neatly organized outlines with images and links dragged in for details and clarification. Classmates who knew my note-taking style would always ask for a copy if they missed a class. One classmate tried to buy the whole set after attending almost zero classes. My years of frantically flipping through my own horrific handwriting searching for some specific concept were over, and replaced with beautiful and nearly instantaneous search functionality. Even better, by using a search, I find ALL the information about a topic... Not just what I learned on one particular day. No more notes muddied up or destroyed by spilled coffee. No more panic attacks while looking for my lost notebook, that somehow made it's way into the recycle bin. I was in love.
Since my early days of using MS Word for note taking, I have tried out numerous solutions, and my requirements for a note-taking solution have grown as well. Here's what I think is important at present:
- It needs to support all my devices: Mac, Windows, iPhone, Android, and preferably Linux.
- The notes need to be accessible from anywhere (and thereby backed up to the cloud).
- Ideally there should be a web UI, so I can get to my notes from any computer with an internet connection, without installing software on said computer.
- I need lists and basic formatting for the text, at least. The richer the better, but at least things like a few different font sizes, bold, and italics. Plain text will not do.
- If I can't add pictures and links, that's a deal breaker in a huge way.
- The ability to mark up images is gravy, but like real gravy, it's the absolute bomb.
- It should be free... And if not, it better be better than the free options available in a significant way.
What have I tried, and why were they insufficient? I'm glad you asked. What didn't work for me might fit your own needs just perfectly!
- The original: MS Word docs on my local computer. This was a great start, but it required software, wasn't free, wasn't available on the web at the time (and today I find word online to be clunky at best), and more. You're responsible for backing things up. You're responsible for making sure your notes are available on other computers in some way. Sharing notes with others is difficult.
- Circus Ponies Notebook: In my Mac-centric years, I didn't care about running on Windows. This too was great software, but single-platform, and, well, the company has since gone under.
- Personal Brain: Super awesome software that runs on lots of platforms (more and more over the years) with a beautiful UI and mind-mapping sauce for organization. I absolutely LOVE this software, but the bugs were frustrating, and it made me nervous putting so much data in software that felt like it was barely hanging on to its own complexity. Also... Super expensive, and new versions require more expensive upgrades. After a while, I just couldn't trust the software, and the cost for such a feeling was too great.
- EverNote: Loved it, but then they wanted money. I totally sympathize... I code for a living, and I don't really understand why there is so much free software out there. That being said, given finite amounts of cash, I always search for the free tools before bumping up to a paid tool.
- Microsoft OneNote: Mega-loved-it for the past few years, but in the past month(s), the Mac version seems to be suffering greatly. This will almost certainly be fixed in time, but right now, the app will hang... Frequently indefinitely... And I'm at a conference trying to take notes, rendering the situation untenable. This has driven the current personal report and exploration of new options... And I've found a new winner! Stay tuned.
- Google Docs: I gave this a brief look over the past couple of days, and it probably would work well. However, I wanted to keep my notebooks separate from my documents in Google Drive. This might be a mistake... Time will tell.
- Google Keep: The interface was just too minimal for me. Seems great for little notes, but not full on notebooks chock-full of kick-ass content.
My New Note-Taking Love: Dropbox Paper
- It's simple, lightweight, and fast
- Simple, clean interface
- Text formatting is limited, but it's got the things I need most:
- A few different font sizes, bold, italics, and a great bonus: horizontal lines to separate sections
- Ordered and unordered lists
- Web UI, and the data is stored in Dropbox so I never worry about backups, and I can access my notes from anywhere and everywhere, on any platform
- Apps for iOS and Android
- Link to documents
- Work collaboratively with others
- Super-awesome, auto-generated document outline based on the text you format as a header (H1 or H2). It stays out of sight on the left until you mouse-over the area, but it's super handy for navigation when a notebook gets large!