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.


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).


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.


Add Yours
  • I have purchased ShoveBox and have to say only 1 thing: “It’s the most amazing Mac app!!!” I use it every second. I just love it ! I did not know they even have an iPhone app. I would love that too! Perhaps, AppStorm can give the iPhone app as a giveaway :)

    Evernote is also cool for longer notes. Have been using it since private beta.

  • I had Shovebox on my Mac for about 2 months, and stopped it launching on boot up when after that time I had put precisely nothing into it. I can’t even see how I’d put it in my workflow, without simply adding another layer for the sake of it. It’s like Fresh. I don’t get that either. Both well written apps, no complaints there, I’ll just never use either of them.

    Evernote’s reading of images is cool, but it’s never read my handwriting yet (most people can’t I expect) so DEVONthink personal it was, now Pro (thanks AppStorm!) is for general storage and Process for project data gathering and progress recording. I might use Evernote a bit in the future, but I must just work in a very unusual way!!

  • I never liked SideNote, but that’s just me. I use MeNote which is awesome. Just a little icon in the Menu Bar that gives you a quick note field you can jot your mad ravings onto.

    it’s not really supported in anyway, but there’s a direct link:

    Anyway it works for me. :D

  • I’ve used xPad for a few years. Free and very basic, but it has become a vital application on my system for jotting down notes and drafting items like emails and forum posts.

    So easy to use. The only thing it lacks is a search function. But that’s a good excuse to keep your number of notes to a minimum!

    • I use Xpad as well. Great program and it’s free. It does what it suppose to do. Take a lot of notes.

  • What about NoteBook?

    I’ve been using it to take notes in my classes all year, and it’s been amazing. Voice recording, the ability to draw simple diagrams, the search features, etc.. Definitely worth the low price.

  • You guys have some great suggestions! See, now I’m going to have to look at these other apps and do some evaluation. That’s really what it’s about- everyone has a different system and the key is to find the one that really works for you.

  • Thank you for this. Evernote is great, using it for a while. Sidenote has some problems with spaces, which is really bad, ’cause it is a nice little app. Trying MeNote now …

  • This isn’t really related to the topic but could you tell me where you could find the wallpaper shown in the first image.


  • ShoveBox is a beautiful app. But like SideNote, it lacks syncing between DESKTOPS. I don’t have an iPhone/iPod Touch – nobody I know has one, and I’ll never pay AT&T’s rates to get one. So it’s basically useless.

    The most useful feature of any of these note apps is the ability to sync the notes between computers. Of these three, Evernote is the only one that does it.

  • Have used all the apps mentioned above but when I tried Together, I immediately bought the program. You can throw ANY type of file at it (unlike Evernote and Shovebox). And it lets you take notes easily (shortcut or otherwise). All files (music, pics, url’s, pdf, …) are stored in categories and you can make your own groups. You should certainly check it out! It’s well worth the low price!

  • Thanks dude, you’r helping me taking notes again! ;)

  • Thanks for the post – If you’re OCD about organization like I am, it’s always great to hear about different ways to use note taking apps.

    I’ve used Evernote in the past, and have been happy with it, but recently gave it up for Things because of the automatic logging of complete items and the ability to handle both quick notes and more complex projects or areas. I also like the printed reports better, and find the sorting by due date or scheduled date easier to manage.

    One drawback is that Things doesn’t automatically back up, but it’s very simple to set up automatic backups via Dropbox. It is iPhone compatible, although I don’t have an iPhone, so I can’t rate how well the app works.

  • Good to see Shovebox getting some love. As a blogger and designer I use it pretty much everyday for saving code snippets, bookmarks for blog posts, images, screenshots, and even dinner recipes. It has became a sort of “hub” for all of the various information I don’t want to forget. The ability to take everything with me on my iPod touch is great as well…I’ve used this feature to easily sync photos of my baby to share with friends among other things.

    I really enjoy Shovebox, but there are two things I think it’s missing: the ability to keyword entries and some sort of web sync. I’d love to be able to access everything that’s in my Shovebox through a web interface.

  • Another option you might want to look at with additional capabilities (including embedding slides in your notes and recording when the slide changes as well as recording video in addition to audio) is my app, Pear Note – .

  • Journler is really cool. I use it to jot things down and organize thoughts and files for projects.

    • Whoo! High five!

    • Second that! It’s a beautiful app. Security feature too if you want it.

  • Hey everyone..

    I just wanted to warn any Cocoa developers that decide to try out Sidenote that it kills the Cmd-Opt-Up Arrow shortcut for switching between interface (.h) and implementation (.m) files in Xcode. It doesn’t matter if the editor has First Responder or not – it’ll intercept the shortcut. Make sure you disable or change the shortcut in Sidenote to avoid this because it’s really, really annoying.

  • There is absolutely one problem with all of these note taking apps – and its the most simple prblem in the world.

    NONE OF THEM remember indents when you press enter to go to a new line (i.e. they all return the curser to the leftmost of the page)

    Now the ONE program that doesnt do that? TEXTMATE! except textmate isnt a note taking application and fails at so many other levels. Voodoo pad provides it as an option – but voodoopad is too hectic for me to use (i.e. too much happening)

    Looking for something SIMPLE like textmate, that supports mutiple notebooks, keyword tagging, and REMEMBERING INDENTATION!

    everyone keeps talking about evernote. I LOVE evernote but its actual TEXT writing capabilities are ridiculously limited.

  • currently resting Evernote, I installed few hours ago. it looks fine so far. but it is not very practical when you need to take a very simple quick note. so now I’m downloading Sidenote :) it looks fine for quick note ;)

  • A few others worth mentioning, yojimbo, together, eaglefiler, and devonthink. Ive used them all and am currently using evernote, love it. Everything from clippings, webpages, quicknotes, and bookmarks that I imported from delicious and am continuing with evernote. The OCR especially comes in handy when storing and viewing my PDFs and DOCs and other articles from school, When I have an assignment on a particular topic I can search all the material for that topic and have it all available in front of me for review.

  • Sidenote is my note-taking weapon.

  • I found a problem with Sidenote. It shows up in Exposé All Windows mode, which is quite irritating, especially when I have many windows open :(

  • I just use the sticky that is standard with OS X in the widgets. I used the terminal code to be able to add stickies to my desktop. This way you don’t have to use a extra program (though I use Shovebox for my sporadic web browsing). One nice ‘feature’ of this method is that the sticky when put on your desktop is kinda getting in the way, which is nice because you wont forget is easily and it helps to get the reason for putting it there in the fist place done.

  • Voodoopad is awesome. There is a function called ‘bucket’ for adding very quick notes. It is excellent. Worth a look. And there is a freeware version. It is a wiki type application with a lot of clever features. I also use Evernote and shovebox but am thinking that Voodoopad may replace Shovebox.

  • Correction: Evernote premium gives you 500mb per month in uploads, not total storage available.

  • The plural of URL doesn’t have an apostrophe. No plural does.

  • I agree. Actually I haven’t found any note taking app (that syncs between devices) that lets me “INDENT” blocks of text? All my IDEs I use for coding have this… I wish I had it in my note taking app.

    • … my last comment was supposed to be a reply to @Salman.