Simplenote vs. iCloud Notes

While recently reviewing Justnotes, a minimal Simplenote client for Mac, I remembered that I still had some data stored in Notes for iOS. Those notes have been around since iOS 4 and sync with email accounts that are set up on the device. However, Apple has now added a native Notes app in Mountain Lion. It syncs with iCloud and will one day be available on the web version of this celestial service as well.

Hopping back and forth between the two note services, I wondered which one I should keep around for daily use. While Apple’s solution does well for basic noting, it’s not the best app out there for more advanced users that avail features like Markdown formatting. On the other hand, iCloud Notes does have well designed native apps, the area that Simplenote falls short in with third-party clients similar to the aforementioned Justnotes. In the end, which one wins me as a steady user? The two services go head-to-head after the break.

Simplenote is Accessible Nearly Everywhere, but iCloud Notes isn’t Yet


For people who simply must have their notes with them everywhere they go, Simplenote is currently the best solution. There are apps for a wide variety of mobile platforms, from BlackBerry and Symbian to Windows Phone 7 iOS, and Android. If you’re without a computer or smartphone for a while, there’s no reason to worry about losing access to your precious data.

Right now, you can read your iCloud notes, but you can’t edit them. The beta version of iCloud’s website actually shows that there will be a Notes web app coming soon, possibly this autumn along with the release of iOS 6. Having read-only access is fine if you need to look something up, but there’s no way to write anything down when you’re away from an Apple device. Such a system, in my opinion, seems too restricted.

Collaboration and Exporting

I've shared this note with a friend.

I’ve shared this note with a friend.

Hypothetically, let’s say that you’re busy working on a summer project with some friends. Whenever an idea pops into your mind, you can jot it down in Simplenote and add your friends’ email addresses as tags to let them view it. You can then keep a journal, per se, that tracks every idea you’ve went over regarding the project. All the people you shared it with can edit it in real time, just like Google Docs.

iCloud doesn’t offer anything near this productive for group projects. There is a sharing feature that lets you send a note via iMessage or email, but nothing beyond that. It’d actually be great to see something similar to Simplenote’s export feature that allows you to publish a note as a live webpage. Apple could even use something like – which will be discontinued on the 31st of this month – to let people collaborate.

Advanced Formatting with Markdown

The preview of a note that's been formatted with Markdown.

The preview of a note that’s been formatted with Markdown.

This minor feature isn’t used by most people, but it should be. If you’re one for keeping documents formatted, Markdown is the key. It lets you quickly compose a note with simple syntax and later converts to beautiful HTML. I’ll admit that it sounded nerdy and hard to learn at first, but after I used it for a while, almost all the code became natural to type. It’s a lot easier than writing plain HMTL too.

iCloud Notes does have rich text support in the Mountain Lion app, but you wouldn’t know it. Apple hides this functionality behind shortcuts and menus that you typically wouldn’t be using. If you want to make some text bold, for instance, you can select it and then press CMD + B. A list of the available formatting options is available in the “Format” menu. The only problem with formatting stuff here is that there’s no way to do so in the iOS apps. I’m not sure why Apple included it in one and not the other, but hopefully they’ll add support for this in iOS 6.


A note open in nvALT (left) and another in Notes (right).

A note open in nvALT (left) and another in Notes (right).

The major downside of using Simplenote is the lack of apps. There are some decent ones, but if you prefer beautiful design over functionality, you’re probably going to resort to iCloud. In all honesty, the web version of Simplenote is far better than any Mac apps out there. Justnotes brought nothing new to the table, in both user interface and features.

If you do want some sort of native experience similar to Notes in Mountain Lion, I’d recommend trying out nvALT. It’s free and does the job. The layout is nearly identical to Notes, save for the search function and more graphical experience with buttons. No, nvALT is not pretty, but that shouldn’t matter if you only care about functionality.

Keep Things Organized

For some people, organization is a minor detail that doesn’t matter. I use it extensively though and Simplenote’s tags combined with search helps to keep things where you want them. iCloud Notes does have one form of customization: folders. You can actually use this as an alternative to tags, but it’s rather limited. You can’t move something to multiple folders unless you have the same number of copies. With tags, however, you can control exactly where a note appears.

The Simple Time Machine

I can see previous revisions of this note.

I can see previous revisions of this note.

Last up is my most used feature in Simplenote. It’s undo to infinity or, as Mac users would refer to it, “Time Machine for notes”. I’ve been able to go back more than 150 days before, grabbing some information that I left behind. One thing about backup versions of notes is that you can only have 10 per note in Simplenote’s free plan. Upgrade to premium, though, and you’ll get 30 backups with an RSS feed, Dropbox sync, and more.

There’s no doubt that backup versions is the most nifty of features to include in a noting service and I’m surprised that Apple didn’t add it to iCloud Notes. After all, they were the ones who introduced “auto save” and “versions” for documents. Why not have something like the latter for notes as well?

In the End, I Choose Simplenote

Beautiful native apps are nice, but I personally need something more than a quick jot-down service. iCloud works well for anything basic that doesn’t call for formatted text, while Simplenote excels here and everywhere else. I like the fact that I can access it from any modern web browser, that there’s added customization, and it’s always nice to see lots of room for expansion in the API.

After reading a comparison of features, which service do you choose?