Friday, August 31, 2012

Digital note taking

Since about 2003 when I got my first PDA (remember these) I've gone all in on paperless (with the exception of proof reading and doing Maths). Mobile computing has been the key to me being organised and able to take legible notes. I've gone through many gadgets. With my iPad and Galaxy Nexus, I've never had it better when it comes to paperless productivity.

One of the most important uses I have for my iPad, phone and laptop is note taking. Depending on the situation, I'll use one or the other (sometimes two at the same time) to take notes in a meeting, or just when I'm out and about and have a thought I want to capture.

I've experimented with many different services and apps for note taking. Over time I've come up with the following criteria that I need in a note taking app:
  • Platform agnostic: It's not locked in to any particular operating system and is available on any device I want to use. In my case, it needs be on iOS, Android and the web.
  • Syncs to the cloud: If I make changes on one device it'll show up on another without any effort on my part.
  • Data portable: It's my information so I should have complete control over it, and be able to leave the service easily.
  • Simple (plain text - at most basic formatting): I've used note taking apps with a fair bit of formatting. What I've found is they tend to be slower and you end up spending too much time mucking about with the formatting. If I need a formatted document, I'll use a word processor or a markdown text editor.
  • "Photo notes": Taking a photo of some information and having it in your notebook is really handy. In the last month I've taken photo notes for the following reasons:
    • where I parked at a multistory car park at the airport
    • my hotel room number
    • the odometer reading on a car for recording in a log book
    • record of receipts
    • whiteboard diagrams
    • someone else's hand written meeting notes (my favourite use...).
  • "Voice notes": Sometimes you can't type a note. Just click the little microphone icon and speak the note.
  • Fast: If you have to pause before capturing an idea, the idea might be gone before you're typing the note in the app. It's essential that whatever app you use, it's as fast as the main competitor - pen and paper.
  • Searchable and easy to organise: Here's one thing that digital is indisputably better at than analogue - categorising and organising information. Search by keyword, tag, title, folder, date, the list goes on... Finding relevant notes is very simple and accurate.
  • Reliable: All of the above is moot if you can't trust your note taking system. It shouldn't ever cause sync conflicts and you definitely do not ever want to lose a note.
  • Looks good: This might seem somewhat trivial, but you're in the app using it all the time. If it's not decent looking the experience won't be enjoyable and you won't take as many notes. I can't stand the faux analogue Apple seems to employ (skeuomorphic design). I prefer my digital apps to look "authentically digital". Each to their own, but this is something to consider.
On reading the above, it should be pretty clear I don't use the default note app on my iPad.

The note taking app/service I use is Catch Notes. It fulfills all the above criteria. There are excellent apps for Android and iOS, and a web app too. It doesn't lock you in. They haven't yet implemented a way of exporting all your notes in one go, but it is in development. You can export them one at a time.

I can be taking notes in a meeting on my iPad, snap a picture of the whiteboard on my Galaxy Nexus, append the picture to the same note using Catch Notes on my phone, have that re-sync and the note on my iPad now includes the picture. I can then go back to my laptop and open up the Catch Notes web app, and have it all there. It's seamless.

Other note taking apps/services I've used and liked are Simple Note and Evernote:
  • Simple Note is great for plain text. It's very quick to open, runs smoothly, the search function is excellent. Catch Notes I'd argue is just as fast and seamless in its syncing, but it also allows you to make audio notes and photo notes.
  • Evernote also does images and audio. However, you can't have complete offline access to your notes on your mobile device with the Evernote free account. Being a cheapskate, I don't want to pay for my note taking solution. Catch Notes also has a paid plan, but you're fine on the free account unless you need to sync 70 MB a month or attach PDFs to a note. One thing Evernote has going for it over Catch is it will OCR images that you upload. I rarely need this, and on the occasion I do, I just use Google Googles.
There are a bunch of other note taking apps/services out there. Microsoft OneNote has a powerful set of features, is now cross-platform and syncs with SkyDrive. It's worth a look too.

My advice is to play around with a few of them for month or two before settling. There will be nuances in the different ways in which they work that won't be immediately obvious. Once you have found something that works, try to stick with it and not do what I've done over the last two years (change between about 6 different methods/apps/services).