The Note Taking Trio that Trumps the Rest

Note taking is not one of my strong areas, and I’m pretty sure no-one who knows me will argue this point. However, if you’re like me, the need to jot down something down often occurs with a computer in easy reach. Typing in a few things eliminates the need to try to decipher scrawled hieroglyphics or find that crumpled up napkin you scribbled on 3 days ago.

There’s no need to be high tech about it; let’s face it, put Text Edit in the dock, click it, and type out your note. You wouldn’t be alone as this a commonly used method for saving bits of data. However, there are some great tools out there for taking and keeping any kind of note you want to track. A huge variety of apps are available, but I’m going to focus on three – the three that just plain work for me.

Sidenote

The first is a drop-dead simple freebie which I use all the time. It’s called Sidenote. The simplicity of this app is only exceeded by its usefulness – when running, you’ll notice a very small white line on one side of the screen (you choose which side).

When you want to type your note, just move your mouse over and after a second or so (you can adjust this delay if you like), the window slides out from the side of the screen. From here you can just type in your note – put in a quick phone number, random idea for the newest iPhone app, paste in an email address, or whatever you need to notate. Then move your mouse pointer away and the “drawer” slides back out of the way.

Sidenote in Action

Sidenote in Action

Simple and easy, but that’s not all. Drag an image to the side of screen where Sidenote is docked, and the image is placed in a note. Similarly, you can drag a URL or other file and Sidenote treats it as a live link. This gives you the ability to add content to what would be a simple text file, but in an easily accessible way that is always just a drag of the mouse away. You can have as many notes as you like and color code them as you see fit. You can also email or print your note when the time comes.

Before we go any further, I know what you’re asking – does it sync? I’m afraid not, but actually I don’t see that as a negative. Sidenote is what it is, a note taking application for your desktop. For me that means I have a “main” note that is always the active note where I scribble down ideas and reminders. At times, I’ve used this area for temporarily storing passwords or a credit card number – since it doesn’t sync with the cloud or other device/computer, I don’t have to worry about what I put in it.

Although Sidenote gives you the ability to have any number of notes available, I just stick with a few. Larger note-taking requires something a little more substantial.

Just shove it!

If I have a note that I want to use somewhere else or keep long term, then I use the second app in my note-taking-trifecta. Wonderwarp’s Shovebox is a native OS X app that does just what the name implies – it gives you a place to shove stuff. With Shovebox running (and like Sidenote, I leave it on all the time) you’ll have a small “box” icon in the menubar at the top of the screen. All you have to do to add something to Shovebox is drag it onto the icon. You can move files, images, URL’s, or copied text onto the icon to be automatically stored within Shovebox (with URL’s you can either include a web archive of the page or a bookmark to the page).

shovebox-menubar

Not only limited to files and links, Shovebox also offers a very nifty “quickjot” window that can respond to a shortcut key. Invoke quickjot and you are presented with a HUD window where you can type a quick note.

Shovebox Quickjot

Shovebox Quickjot

You can either open the main Shovebox window by clicking on the box in the menu bar or via a shortcut key. From the main window, you can also add to the Shovebox by typing a text note, importing your clipboard, or even taking a picture with your iSight camera.

The Main Shovebox Window

The Main Shovebox Window

Once you have the window open, you have a variety of options to organize the information you have “shoved” in this virtual Shoebox. All the information and files you import into Shovebox by default go into an Inbox. From here, you can add folders, flags, and labels to keep your data in a manner that suits your needs. This is Shovebox’s real strength – the flexibility to let the user organize and setup the saved data in many different ways.

You also have the option of taking your information with you, as your iPhone/iPod touch can now be a virtual Shoebox as well.

Shovebox for iPhone

Shovebox for iPhone

The iPhone version of Shovebox syncs via Wi-Fi with Shovebox on the Mac and allows for zapping notes to-and-from both locations. You can type notes, add bookmarks, or take pictures with your iPhone and add them to your list, syncing them back to your Mac.

Like Sidenote, the ease of use and simplicity of Shovebox make it a strong compliment to other applications. For me, sliding my mouse to the side of the screen still has an appeal over invoking Shovebox (or some other app). Similar to “Stickies,” the notes are always there, but out of sight.

Evernote – The Big Green Elephant

It’s difficult to have a notes discussion without acknowledging the elephant in the room- literally. Evernote has graced my desktop since early betas and was an app that I installed on my iPhone. Evernote is everywhere – Mac, Windows, iPhone, even (gasp!) Windows Mobile, which makes it an attractive notekeeping app if you need information to be available pretty much anywhere.

The Main Evernote Window

The Main Evernote Window

The power of Evernote is the connection to the web – the data is constantly synced on all devices from text notes to audio recordings (the iPhone gives you the option of having audio and picture notes, the Mac version uses the iSight camera). The magic of Evernote is the automatic OCR for making images searchable. So, if you’ve taken a picture of something like a menu, advertisement, or other document, just search for that information!

Searching for the word 'Webelos' brings up this scanned brochure, even though the text is embedded.

Searching for the word 'Webelos' brings up this scanned brochure, even though the text is embedded.

In the same vein as Sidenote and Shovebox, you can keep Evernote running and simply open the window with a keyboard shortcut or from the dock. Organization is straightforward and there are three different views to chose from when viewing your list of notes: vertically, horizontally, or by thumbnail. You can set up different notebooks, saved searches (think ‘smart folders’), and tags. There is also an attributes options, which allows you to drill down your list by creation date, contents, source, etc.

Why All Three?

noteiconsYes, there are gaping overlaps in the three software programs, from syncing to note taking to how they store information. However, each one of them has their own strengths and advantages over the other. Using them together gives you a more feature-rich solution for keeping up with the mass of information thrown your way.

For instance, I think of Evernote as being an email program while Sidenote is more akin to IM or Twitter. The interface and text input in Sidenote and Shovebox are better suited to quick and short bits of data while Evernote is better for dealing with longer content. I often use Evernote to keep notes in meetings, something that would not be as appropriate for the other apps (you could do it, but it would not seem to ‘fit’). However, if I need to scratch down a color value or an address, I use Sidenote and then, if I need to keep it long term, I may place that information into Shovebox or Evernote. When I find an online article that I want to read later, I drag the URL to the Shovebox icon and I can save it either as a bookmark or a web archive.

Evernote is free for the basic edition and $5/month (or $45/year) for added storage up to 500MB. Sidenote is free, while Shovebox is $25 ($4 for the iPhone app). Although you can work fine with only Evernote and Sidenote, I think that the addition of Shovebox just completes the picture so well.

There are many different note taking apps out there, most of which are really well done. My preference is to use these three in combination but your needs may vary. No matter which system feels most comfortable, it is great to have so many options to allow you to forgo the crumpled napkin and pen. Embrace the tool that helps take your note data to an environment that’s searchable, sync-able, and ubiquitous.