I’m a sucker for notebooks. Paper or digital it doesn’t matter. I’ve got a stack of Moleskines right next to my Field Notes notebooks. And you don’t even want to know how many different journaling-type applications I have on my MacBook. Most of these digital notebooks don’t try to mimic a “real” notebook. The few applications that do try to look and feel like a paper notebook have always failed in that regard (though they often have other redeeming qualities).
But along comes Per Se, the new digital journal from Sprouted Software. It’s the first application that actually feels like a three-dimensional, paper journal. Too good to be true? Let’s take a closer look.
Per Se is the work of Philip Dow of Sprouted Software. He’s the coder responsible for the still-popular Journler application, which he abandoned a couple of years ago, and is now releasing for open source development.
Journler is a full-featured information manager with strong journaling features. Per Se appears to be taking the opposite approach, with a clean, almost minimalist interface. But appearances can be deceiving, because there is a little more going on with Per Se than meets the eye. But let’s talk first about what does meet the eye.
Per Se is not yet available through the App Store, so you’ll have to download and mount the disk the old-fashioned way. It costs a reasonable $19.95.
After it is installed and you fire it up for the first time, you’ll be asked to pick a theme for your new notebook. As of this writing, there are three themes available, but more options are in the works.
Once you’ve selected your theme, your new notebook opens to a two-page spread with that day’s date, and you can start writing your journal.
The interface is very simple. The date and page numbering appear at the top of the left-hand page, nine icons providing access to various functions appear at the top of the right-hand page. The screenshot above describes each of these functions, but we’ll look a little more closely at each of these.
Navigating Your Journal
The first three icons provide various methods for navigating and searching your journal.
Bookmarks & Tags
The first icon opens the Bookmarks & Tags dialog window. As the name implies, you set tags and bookmarks for individual entries within this dialog, and you search and select those tags and bookmarks when searching for specific entries.
The screenshot below shows the tags option opened, and I have selected the “Per Se” tag. As you can see, two entries are so tagged, and we can see the date and the first few words of each of these entries. Clicking on either of them opens that entry.
How efficient this will be with a year’s worth of entries and 40 or 50 matching tags is a question I can’t answer yet.
Search & Browse
The second icon opens the Search & Browse dialog window, which is a pretty straight-forward procedure. Just type the word or phrase you’re looking for and a listing of all matching entries appears.
The Browse option is handy for allowing you to look over your entries in a chronologic list. You can select what time ranges to display: before a certain date, after a certain date, or within a specified period of days.
The third icon opens the Calendar for hopping quickly to a specific date.
Adding More Than Text
The next five icons access tools for embedding other types of information and media into your journal.
Add a Quick Note
First up is the quick note icon. Open it, select a note style, and it is dropped onto the page. Quick notes are handy for keeping key information easily visible. You can drag the note around your journal page, and the text on the page wraps around it automatically.
As of now, at least, you can’t adjust the font or add formatting to the text of a quick note, but you can resize them by selecting the note and dragging one of the handles to the size that works best for you.
If you type a longer note, the text will scroll, but there is no scroll bar to indicate this, not something that should be an issue, as quick notes are not really intended for more than a handful of words.
Add a Flourish
You can decorate your journal with floral flourishes and emoticons by clicking on the floral design icon next to the quick note icon. Just like quick notes, you can move these around your journal page and the text on the page will adjust itself. There is also an option for adding your own custom images, but I did not try this.
Add Audio-Visual Stimula
The next three icons open tools for embedding a home movie — direct from the built in computer camera — a voice recording, or a still picture — also from the built in computer camera. While I can see the possible value in adding a voice recording to my journal, the movie and the photo options seem a bit useless.
That’s not to say that you might not want to add a photo — you can, just by dragging it in, but I can’t see how taking my own picture at the computer would be of much use, unless I was tracking the development of a beard, or the tide going out on my receding hairline. Others may, of course, come up with great ways to use these features.
Per Se does very nicely handle photos, auto-sizing them and giving them a “polaroid” look.
Full Screen Mode? Maybe.
The final icon toggles between full-screen mode and normal viewing. But Per Se’s full-screen mode is a little different. Instead of enlarging the writing area to encompass the whole screen, the background expands, covering all the other distractions, while leaving the writing area — that is, the notebook — the same size.
I suppose this is the only real option if you want your application to feel like a notebook. And, truthfully, I kind of like it. But it may not be your cup of tea, especially if you’re used to applications like WriteRoom. As of now, the notebook stays the same size no matter how large your display, but the developer is working on providing an expanded notebook option for larger displays.
Acts Like a Notebook
In the introduction I said that Per Se feels like a real notebook. As you can see from what we’ve explored about the application so far is that it indeed “looks” like a real notebook. It has “pages” and can combine sticky notes and photos with your text, as if you pasted them into a scrapbook or journal.
But there is one other key function of Per Se that is the true beauty of the application. As you type and reach the bottom of the page, your writing automatically spills onto the next page. Sounds trivial, right? But I can’t think of one other piece of software using a notebook metaphor that actually provides this natural notebook feel.
With most of these applications (see Circus Ponies Notebook, Aquaminds NoteTaker, and Thoughts, for examples) the writing space just grows longer and scrolls downward as you fill up the “page.” This is standard word processor action, which most of us are used to. But I found something refreshing in Per Se’s approach. Just keep typing and the pages fill up. When you get to the end of one spread, the page automatically flips to the next spread, and you can just keep writing, as you would in a real notebook.
And when you want to review past entries, just flip through the pages — again, as you would a paper notebook. There is no having to handle the scroll bar to hunt out text deep down on the page.
Basic, But Serviceable Text Editor
Per Se has a lovely environment for writing, but how is it as a text editor? Not bad, not great. It uses the same text engine as Apple’s TextEdit utility, so you can do all the basic formatting. You get spell check, auto-correction and smart quotes. You can even include a table, although I found the table control a little finicky. I didn’t always get the result I was expecting, but it is possible this is pilot error.
The bottom line is the text editor is as capable as it needs to be.
Not Quite the Right Mix of Features
If there is a problem with Per Se, it’s that the purpose is a little confused. The developer says the emphasis is on writing, but then adds functions for dropping in movies and audio into the journal. I find this useless functionality. I also don’t understand the point of the flourish decorations. Even the emoticons are a bit of a gimmick, although I can see how it might be helpful to provide a quick key to my mood on any day.
Per Se is currently missing some of the functions you might expect from a journaling application. There is no Spotlight support as of now, but that is in the works. Export is limited to simple RTF documents, though more options are coming, as is password protection. But there is no support for uploading to weblogs.
Also in the works is an iOS version and support for multiple entries per day.
Summing it Up
Is Per Se a substitute for a fully functioned information management application like Circus Ponies Notebook, MacJournal or even Journler? Probably not. But it is not intended to be. The application still feels a little raw. The intended improvements will make Per Se a more serious journaling application.
The bottom line is that Per Se is a handsome place to write down your thoughts. And it gives the closest experience I’ve found to writing in a genuine paper journal — with, of course, a lot of the advantages of a digital notebook. Writing in Per Se is fun. If that sounds appealing to you, then give Per Se a try.