Notebooks: A Flexible and Powerful Note App in Beta

I know what many of you are probably thinking. Another notes app? Really? But Notebooks is truly a unique take on a notes app, enough to pay attention to. Notebooks started out as a powerful note taking / task management / file storage app on iOS. Demand for a desktop version with similar features prompted the Notebooks team to put out beta versions of Notebooks for Mac and PC.

I have had my eye on the iOS version of this app for a while now and jumped at the chance to test out the beta version for Mac. Comparing Notebooks to two of its main competitors, Evernote and Simplenote, I would say it is more Evernote than Simplenote, but still very distinct. Read on to find out more about this compelling note app.

Rich or Plain Text Notes

Notebooks lets you choose if you want to create rich text or plain text notes. This is one thing I found very appealing about Notebooks as I tend to take notes in both formats.

You can set the default note type in Preferences.

Rich Text Notes

I have to say I thouroughly enjoyed taking rich text notes in Notebooks. All of the basic formatting you would expect from a rich text editor are present: bold, italics, underline, font color, ordered and unordered lists etc. Other features are more characteristic of a full blown word processor, including: predefined styles for titles and headings, text alignment, linking text, and support for inserting images. Inserting html code into a note is also supported (the notes are actual html files). The default font, font size, and background color for rich text notes are set in the preferences.

An example of a rich text note.

Text from rich text documents can be copied as plain text, just right click the note and you will see the copy as plain text option.

Plain Text Notes

Prefer straight up plain text notes? Notebooks supports that. Prefer Markdown? Notebooks can handle that too. Here is a rundown of the Markdown workflow.

  1. Simply write your plain text with Markdown syntax.
  2. When you are ready to view the formatting, click on the gear at the bottom. You will have three options here:
    1. Preview as Rich Text.
    2. Always view as Rich Text. This will change the file to a .md file that shows formatting, but can still be edited in plain text.
    3. Make Rich Text. This will change the file to HTML and give it all the formatting options of a rich text note.

Alternatively, right click the note and choose Copy as Markdown or Copy as Rich Text to paste into WordPress or wherever you need it. The combination of rich text notes and Markdown is a major draw for Notebooks.

An example of a plain text note

Managing Notes

Each “notebook” is basically a folder, so notes can be organized in a hierarchal structure. Moving notes around is as simple as dragging and dropping between notebooks. Dragging and dropping iWorks files, PDFs, and Microsoft Office files into Notebooks is supported, but only for viewing.

Uncheck the Save System Files option in Preferences to avoid the accumulation of .plist files from rearranging notes.

The most recent beta release is the first to include a search function. Searching for a word brings up a new window with a list of all the files that contain the word. Right now, the search function is still fairly weak—no searching as you type, no preview of where the word appears in the note, no searching within notes, and no shortcut.

Searching brings up a new window with a list of notes containing the search terms.

The Interface

Notebooks has a tree style interface with three viewing options—from three panes to an editor only view. One gripe I had with the current interface is that notes cannot be opened in separate windows. Right-clicking on a note and then selecting the Open option will open in your default app for html files. This is TextEdit for me. While you can edit rich text notes in TextEdit, the formatting is often jumbled.

This view shows all three window columns—the notebooks, the notes within the selected notebook, and the note editor.

Fullscreen viewing is also supported by Notebooks. This feature does not use the OS X fullscreen mode, which means the app will not move into its own space. I am annoyed by apps that do set a page width in fullscreen view (e.g. Evernote)—causing text to spread across the whole screen making it difficult to read or edit. Thankfully, Notebooks does not do this.

Fullscreen viewing puts a limit on the page width so that text does not stretch across the entire screen.

Task Manager

Turning any notebook into a task list is as easy as right clicking on it and selecting Show as Task list. Right click on a note to set the due date. Tasks are automatically sorted by due date. The iOS version of Notebooks has an automatic folder for viewing tasks by due date regardless of notebook, this feature has yet to be included in the Mac app. You can, however, see the number of tasks in a task list and the number of tasks due today and overdue. The ability to assign contexts to tasks is another iOS task management feature not yet available on the Mac desktop version.

This shows a notebook as a tasklist. Notice that the number of tasks and the number of due tasks denoted by the additional icon in the notebook column.

Integration With the iOS Version

Syncing with the iOS version occurs through a Dropbox folder. I tested many syncing scenarios and never ran into a syncing error. However, several features available the iOS version are yet to be implemented into the Mac app including:

  • Voice memos
  • Creating a note from the clipboard
  • A website clipper for OS X browsers. Pasting from a website does render correctly with
  • An automatic folder for recent items (although recent items are available through the File menu)

The Context and Due Tasks folders from the iOS app are not yet available on the Mac app.

Final Thoughts

A few features I hope to see in future versions—hopefully before initial release—include adding the features available in the iOS version listed above, a system wide quick add feature, improved search, the ability to change bullet list levels using the tab key (rather than having to using increase and decrease indent), opening notes in separate windows, and more up to date OS X features (such as OS X fullscreen mode). The design also needs an overhaul, it does not have an OS X look and feel, particularly the toolbar.

Apps that try to combine features from several different types of apps often fail. The app tries to be too many things at once. I did not get that feeling with Notebooks. The past couple of weeks I have been using Notebooks solely to take notes, and the other features did not get in the way. The app’s beta status made rating it in its current form a little difficult. The developer’s track record with support and documentation make me fairly confident this app will continue to get better. I ended up giving the app a high rating because it is very functional, if unrefined, and full of promise.


Summary

Notebooks is a beta Mac version of the popular iOS note app. The app is very flexible app and deftly combines note taking, task management, and file management.

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  • rtfy

    Nice review. Thanks. I use Notebooks and like its basic design. I learned about it from Don McAlister’s video tutorial at Screencast Online (I’m a subscriber of SCO, but unaffiliated).

  • http://pauladupont.com Paula DuPont

    This looks really cool. Thanks for reviewing!

    • Reid Leamaster

      I have high hopes for this app! I will definitely be keeping an eye on it.

  • Bryan Gibson

    Maybe I’m just cynical, but exactly how many note taking apps do we need on the Mac (and to-do apps on the iPhone et al)? Are developers out of ideas?

    • http://techzoom.org Tushar

      I will have to agree with Bryan.. there are way too many Note apps available. I hope the hunt and wide-development gets to halt some day sooner. May be after this app!

      Hope so…

      Thanks for sharing detailed information :)

  • Bill

    Okay, but really, enough with the note taking apps now!

  • Dash

    how to do a webclipping like you do?

    and is there any webclipping apps better than Evernote or voila? (w/ OCR)

    • Reid Leamaster

      Hey Dash,

      The web clippings are copy and paste.

  • http://thedunahoos.com Paul Dunahoo

    It has a neat feature set, but that UI isn’t very good. Looks almost like a port.

  • Thiago A.

    There are some advantages to this app: The only markdown compatible note taking app with integrated note managing (not filesystem centric) I know is nvAlt, which is buggy and outdated, not reliable for day to day work (at least in my own experience).

    “Notebooks” supports markdown, but I haven’t completely tested its markdown implementation and feature set. Also, it doesn’t use a proprietary database, files are stored in plain text and folders. These two are big pluses for me. I currently use Alfred + ia Writer or Markdown Pro to manage my notes, but an integrated approach is a lot nicer.

    I will look forward to Notebooks, it just needs to revamp the UI and add some features described in “Final thoughts” (which I agree).

  • JD

    Notebooks is one of the most under rated apps I can think of. I use it on both my iPhone and iPad and recently started using the beta on my Mac. Sure, it’s not perfect and there are a few bugs, but then no app is perfect. The combination of non-proprietory format(s), Dropbox sync, folder support, full text search and Markdown/html support sets it apart from most other “note taking apps”.

    If they can sort out some of the issues mentioned in the conclusion, especially making the search more powerful (bulleted lists aren’t a priority for me and I like the UI – it matches the iPhone and iPad), then this could become a serious competitor to Evernote, which doesn’t translate as well to iOS as Notebooks and has started to lose its way with its recent more-chrome-less-functionality updates. Or indeed for nvALT, which only reads 1 notebook as opposed to Notebooks which allows more structure.

  • Andreas

    In the respective app for the iPad, you can create a special bookmark in a way that once you click on the bookmark while serving on an open website, it will transport this website to Notebooks. Notebooks opens automatically.

    It is a great App, much better than anything else out there, and worth supporting it. It is worth much more than any penny you pay with outstanding support. Yes, there are many Notebook Apps out there but wow, if you really want something really good, get it.

  • Dan

    I use the iPad version for BOTH my to-do lists and information storage. I like this over Evernote because notebooks can be nested as deep as you like! In other words, a notebook inside of a notebook inside of another notebook and so on. You can only put notebooks into a single stack with Evernote. Also, having to-do lists and information in one app is nice. I am looking forward to trying the Mac version and keeping the info synced between it and the iPad.

  • Dan

    There is another thing I really like about this app. You can have multiple to-do lists and items due today are all gather in one smart list. A great way to make sure you don’t miss any tasks.

  • May Sheppard

    Like your thoughts on your notebook software – simple and straight forward.

    Here are some of my thoughts for some years using this sort of software.

    I have been an Evernotes user for some time and after it fell to a security breach last week I was most disturbed. I started looking for another option that would enable backup to any other device I CHOOSE. (unlike Evernote) to be able to backup to your computer (to keep it very local) OR a network device OR iCloud.

    The interface – keep it simple like what you’ve got so far – be careful Evernote don’t say you are copying them!.

    Indexing – very important nice to have thumbnail graphics but not entirely necessary

    Flexible width viewing window – love it on the left or right might be good – for both handed users – in the preferences

    Shortcuts along the top bar – might be exactly like those you have in your file drop menu, and the choice to change background here too – nice to have as an alternate option to do things.

    I change my mind about the name of a notebook, double click it to change (so I think) and it pops up into the top bar? A bit odd. I wanted to change the name and couldn’t that way only by going up to the file menu could I do it, only discovered that later – wrong way I feel.

    I store multiples of graphic formats, web pages and pdfs – you’ll need to do that as well to make it saleable. I suggest that you have drag and drop a graphic from the desktop or another app OR copy and paste from a JPEG or PNG file. Need to be able to store PDFs too. But at least text can be copied and pasted. But I can do that with Notes – my free by Mac software and with numerous other notebook apps available.

    The background choices are nice but it isn’t evident when you first setup that there is a plain background option. Like that users can choose to have different backgrounds for different pages – good one.

    One last suggestion – don’t try to be everything to everyone

    Keep it going though lookin’ good!

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