It is rare to find a note taking tool that incorporates task management. That’s why proNotes first caught my attention a few years ago, but then development seemed to wane and I lost track of the application. That is until a few months ago, when I stumbled upon the proNotes website and found that version 2.0 was in development.
I’ve been testing the new version, which is now available to the public. Let’s take a look at the new proNotes 2.0 and see if my early intrigue was warranted.
The developer, SoftRaph, intends to make proNotes 2.0 available through the Mac App Store, but as of this writing it must be purchased through the web site for $39.95.
If you want to give proNotes a try, you can download a trial version which is fully functional, but limited to just 10 notes. While that is enough to try out all the features, it feels a bit skimpy to me, as I want to know how an application will function when I have a lot of data in it. Does it feel overwhelming, or is it still easy to navigate to the note I need at any particular time?
The first versions of proNotes were written in REALBasic, in part to allow the developer to compile applications for OSX, Windows and Linux. Version 2.0 has has been rewritten from the ground up to be a 100% Mac Cocoa application, which means there will likely be a few growing pains as small kinks are being worked out, something I experienced during my testing.
At first glance, proNotes can appear somewhat lightweight. But that is deceptive, as there is a lot more power here than meets the eye. It begins with the unique interface, different from most note management applications, which tend to have one, two or three panes. proNotes has four:
- The preview pane section resides on the right side of the screen by default, but can be moved to the left side.
- The categories pane, where you select which categories of notes to view.
- The titles pane, where you can narrow down your selection. More on titles below.
- The details pane, which displays details of the selected notes.
This may put some users off, but we’ll see how it all works together. Before that, however, let’s look a little more closely at what makes up a proNotes note.
Anatomy of the proNotes Note
A proNotes note is composed of several parts:
- The note’s text (i.e. the “note”).
- Creation date
In addition, you can add attachments and a list of to-dos, which I’ll be exploring in more depth below.
The note editor is pretty standard, with the exception that you can’t yet create a table, though you can copy a table from a word processing document into a proNotes note.
A row of buttons along the bottom edge of the preview pane allows you to switch your view from the text of the note, to the list view or the attachments view.
You can also open a note in its own window (see the screen shot below for an example).
To-dos Associated with Notes
One of the features that makes proNotes interesting to review is its ability to associate to-do items with specific notes. Each to-do has a due date, priority and a status check box.
The to-do lists in proNotes will not make anyone forget a robust task manager like Things or OmniFocus, but it is a handy feature especially for people who find those more sophisticated programs get in the way of planning, rather than facilitating it.
How might you put this feature to use? Imagine a note that contains the minutes from a meeting. You can then use the to-dos to create a list of action items resulting from the meeting.
When in to-do view, you have the option of sorting your tasks by priority or due date. You can also choose to only show open (incomplete) items. And as we’ll see, you can also get various overviews of all your to-dos.
ProNotes has a unique approach to changing the priority or status of a to-do item, by dragging it onto one of the three drop bars at the top of the list. This is a reasonable approach for changing the due date, but since you can change the priority by simply clicking on the required value (indicated by one, two or three stars) in the item itself, there seems no good reason to take up space with the drop bar for priority.
Switching to attachments view makes it easy to add all types of files to any single note. You can even create nested folders for organizing those attachments. When you create folders and add attachments, you are adding folders and attachments to the proNotes document bundle.
An option accessible through the context menu allows you view an attachment or folder in the Finder, which may or may note be useful, but at least it is reassuring to quickly see where your attached files are stored.
If you change the file or folder name in the Finder, you will need to run an attachment view refresh, the command for which is found under the proNotes View menu.
Getting Data In and Out
ProNotes features a simple, but handy ability to create a new note from clipped text via the Dock Icon. You can also drag and drop text from any application into an existing note. It does not take advantage of services, nor can you print a PDF directly to proNotes as you can with many other information managers.
You can import RTF files into proNotes. This feature works well. I was able to quickly import a dozen documents. However, it would be nice if you could set the category and title for imported notes as they come in, rather than have to do it manually for all your new imports.
The ProNotes printing operation is sensitive to which part of your note currently has focus. If you’ve got a to-do item selected, it will print the to-do list. If the note itself is selected (or its details selected in the detail pane), proNotes will print the note and all its meta-data.
You can also share your notes via e-mail, with options to send note contents as a PDF attachment, or as text in the body of the message.
One of proNotes biggest deficiencies is its lack of export of any kind (though, of course, you can copy text from a note and paste it into any editor). I’d like to see, at the very minimum, an RTF export. A mass export of a selection of notes would also be nice. Being able to somehow import a list as to-dos for any given note would be helpful, as well.
A Title By Any Other Name
We’ve looked at the kind of information you can store in proNotes. Let’s now look at how proNotes helps you manage your information.
As I stated above, the main screen consists of four panes. In the Category pane, you can select which categories of notes to view. In the Titles pane, you can narrow your note selection further. One of the concepts about proNotes that took me a little while to get used to is how titles are to be used. I am used to thinking of note titles as unique, but in proNotes you may end up with many notes with exactly the same title.
While there is no reason you can’t give each note a unique title, the intent of the developer is that titles actually function as sub-categories. If you think of them that way, you’ll make better use of the interface.
For example, say you’re working with a client called Acme. You might give each related note the title of “Acme” and a category of “Client.”
In the screen shot above I’ve narrowed the selection to the category “Clients” with the title “Acme,” of which there are three notes.
The detail pane displays the first line of the note, so it will be helpful to use that top line to put a description of the note’s content.
Strong Search and Filtering
Maybe proNotes biggest strength is the ability it gives you to zero in on the information you need. First of all, you can restrict the view based on status of OPEN, CLOSED or OTHER using the buttons along the tool bar.
Type a word into the search box and proNotes incrementally displays matching results as you type. In the screen shot below, I searched on the word “meeting” and got hits on three notes.
But if I want to restrict the search to just to do items, I select the appropriate filter button just below the tool bar, as in the screen shot below.
If you find yourself continually performing the same search with the same set of filters, you can save this as a “snapshot,” which creates a button in the snapshot bar, so that you can quickly re-navigate to this selection of notes.
Another nice feature is that you can toggle the details pane to show all the to-do items from all your notes, so you can get an overview of all your tasks.
If you want to keep sensitive information in proNotes, you’ll find the EES-256 bit encryption welcome. You can also encrypt attachments, independently of whether or not the note itself is encrypted.
A Few Bumps in the Road
I encountered several small issues as I was putting it through its paces. But the developer is very responsive, correcting those issues quickly. He also added text highlighting in the release following my suggestion. So I expect that the rough spots will be worked out and that the application will continue to improve with user feedback.
It is difficult to rate a product like proNotes. It still needs some work, though I found it very stable. And its unique approach to note-taking and task management won’t appeal to everyone. Yet I appreciate that proNotes has been developed with a specific vision. I tend to like developers who think outside the box. Most task managers allow you to associate a note (or notes) with a task. But proNotes reverses this paradigm, making to-dos part of the meta-data for a note. Yet it also allows you to get an overview of all your to-dos from all your notes (or filtered subsets). This feels more natural to me.
proNotes will not replace a full-featured information manager the likes of DevonThink for serious researchers. And its task management isn’t likely to make an adherent of David Allen’s GTD approach switch apps. But anyone looking for a software that combines reasonable power for both managing notes and to-dos would do well to give proNotes a try. On this basis I give proNotes a reserved 8 out of 10, with the caveat that it is still a work in progress.