There’s a kind of paradox to using a tool to explore itself. It brings to mind “Zen questions” about the eye seeing itself. But what I’m doing is far less grand or confusing. I’ll simply be using a writing app to write about itself. So, as I describe it, I will work with it and be able not only to tell you about its features, but also about the experience of actually working with it.
Thoughts is a very handsome new writing/notebook app from the memorably named green&slimy, an Austrian team of two (which of course raises the question of who is green and who slimy). The hook for readers of Mac.AppStorm will obviously be the app’s styling and design features, but let’s see if it’s actually any good for a working writer.
Thoughts is organised around the idea of multiple notebooks. You could have separate books for particular projects, or perhaps if you used the app as a journal you might have a notebook for each month of the year. A nice visual touch is the Shelf, which displays your various notebooks on a virtual bookshelf.
That’s sweet, though it’s a bit of an odd design choice to have this virtual shelf expand only horizontally – as you add new notebooks, they appear in alphabetical order and the shelf stretches endlessly to accommodate them, so that once you have a few you’re forced to scroll sideways to find what you’re after.
Why not have a grid system and an option for choosing how many notebooks are displayed per line? That’s a niggle, though: the Shelf is a nice idea and it’s good to look at. Just how useful it is as you add multiple notebooks is less clear. For one thing, for those of us who prefer to work with the keyboard, having to use the mouse to navigate to a particular notebook and then double-click to open it is a drag.
When you open a notebook, there’s a nifty animation of the cover opening (of course it’s difficult to get a good screenshot of an animation!):
Once you’re in a notebook, your screen is divided in two: down the left-hand side is a Sidebar with a list of pages. If I was using Thoughts ongoing, this notebook would have a page for each of the articles I’ve written for Mac.AppStorm. If you used it for a journal, you would likely have a page for each day of the month.
At first I was a bit confused by this setup: when I saw a list of pages, I expected these might be a reflection of actual print pages (as in other writing apps). The usage here doesn’t quite match that; rather, it reflects the central organising principle of notebooks and pages – each ‘page’ in the Sidebar might actually take up several print pages.
There is a keyboard shortcut to show/hide the sidebar, so it’s easy to expand the writing space for more focused engagement with your text.
You can also display a mini-calendar in the sidebar, which could be useful for keeping track of when you write – looking back over the previous week and seeing that you managed to get something down each day might be very motivating. As might be seeing that you’ve not written a thing in the past three weeks! Clicking on a date in the calendar takes you to any pages in the open notebook edited on that day.
There are also simple controls for adding or deleting pages in the sidebar, and a searchbar that lets you quickly find anything in the current notebook’s pages.You will notice that there are no font controls or formatting options available in one of the sceenshots above, while there are in others. That’s because Thoughts has view and edit modes. When you open a notebook, you are in view mode, which allows you to read through your pages, but not to make changes. To switch into edit mode, simply double-click the page or click on the pencil icon on the bottom row.
You’re then taken into a WYSIWYG rich text editor, with controls for all the usual text functions: font and colour selection, justification, bold, italics, underline, line-height and various list formats. You also have buttons to insert links, tables or images into your page.
Each of these features is quite simply implemented, but probably enough in most circumstances. You can get a bit more control from the Format menu.
Sharing Your Pages
Exporting your notes from Thoughts is straightforward: just click on ‘File’ and then ‘Export Page’ and a handsome panel drops down for you to choose from four different export options:
Another way to share your notes is by clicking on ‘File’ and then ‘Mail Page’, which will open Mail.app and create a new email message with your page attached as a PDF format. It’s a limitation of the operating system that restricts this to working only with Mail.app and not with other email programs (like Postbox, which is my default).
Thoughts doesn’t set out to be a full-featured word processor. It’s not aiming to replace Pages or Word or Mellel. More accurate comparisons would be with other notebook applications, though I find myself struggling to find quite the right app to compare. Notational Velocity aims to be something different – a quick-entry store for your notes; and Circus Ponies Notebook, though it shares Thoughts’s notebook theme, is much more powerful.
So to whom is Thoughts aimed? It’s a very simple app, though it’s good looking and nicely designed. On first glimpse I thought ‘Coo-uhl!’, but as I’ve used it to write this review, I’ve found it to be finicky. Text entry feels slow (there’s an odd lag in entering text – just a tiny fraction of a second, I’m sure, but noticeable nonetheless), and though at first the design was attractive, the more I use it, the more irrelevant and distracting it feels.
I currently do all my writing with TextMate, and that’s what I’ll be heading back to as soon as I’m finished here. In fact, when I reach the end of the following, final paragraph, I will be selecting all the text, copying it, and pasting it into a new document in TextMate, because I prefer to compose in plain text, and that’s one format that you can’t export from Thoughts.
What comes to mind as a final comparison is different kinds of paper notebooks: to my mind, TextMate (or WriteRoom) is like a Field Notes notebook – simple and functional, and beautiful in and for those qualities. Thoughts, on the other hand, is like one of those posh, embossed, gold-leaf covered artsy notebooks you can buy in art gallery shops. They make pretty gifts, but I don’t know a single writer who would choose to do any real writing in one of them.