5 Digital Notebook Applications for Keeping Track of Your Content
- Avalara News
- April 4, 2016 | Seth David
There are many applications for taking notes. As you’ll see below, a search on Google will reveal a ton of them. Which one will work for you? It’s up to you to decide. Maybe I can help narrow it down. Here are 5 Applications for Taking Notes at Your Next Meeting. I have reviewed each one based on criteria I set forth, further below.
I’d love to know what you think and what apps you’ve used and whether you like or dislike them. Please post comments below and share your experience.
It’s 9 am on Monday, and you’re already in your first meeting for the week. You can smell the coffee in the air, along with everyone’s perfume and cologne, as they shuffle into their seats, and get ready for the meeting. As the conference room is filling up, you reach for your note pad, and a pen, so you can take notes. Or do you?
In a recent meeting I had, I was on a video call (Zoom.us) with two colleagues. I was taking notes in Google Keep. One of the other attendees was taking notes with good old old fashioned pen and paper, and I forgot what the other one was using.
If you click here to do a Google search for note taking apps, you’ll see that there’s no shortage of them.
How do you choose?
For me it comes down to a few important criteria:
- Cloud based. I need to be able to take notes on the fly - a good mobile app is high priority.
- Desktop Solution. When I am at my computer I want a good desktop solution to access my notes.
- Organizing, categorizing, and easily referencing information is very important to me.
- Collaboration - I don’t care about this for my own notes, but if I find a great note taking app, that also has great collaboration, I will let you know. I haven’t found it yet, which is why Google Docs is listed here above.
How do YOU prefer to take notes?
Are you looking for a better way?
Evernote fails the “true cloud based” test. It’s a desktop app, with a sync to the cloud, which means you wind up with conflicts. You can work with Evernote directly in the cloud, but I find the web based browser app extremely unwieldy. I would never want to use Evernote that way.
Evernote is the best for taking notes on the fly. Really easy to add a new note from the mobile app, and then follow up later when I am at my desktop, to clean up typo’s etc…
Evernote’s desktop app is amazing. If the cloud sync was more reliable, this would still be my favorite app for note taking purposes. The problem here is that you’re working in a desktop app, with a local datafile. The datafile for your Evernote information is on your computer, where you have the desktop app installed.
I once had a grocery list that I typed in the desktop app. I was all excited to go to the grocery store with my list. I had even included check boxes, so that I could check things off as I found the items. As I walked into the supermarket, I opened my Evernote app, and accessed the note, which I literally watched as it faded from my screen during a sync. My list was gone. Later when I went home, the note I had typed up on my desktop app, was gone.
The grocery list was not real critical, but you can imagine my lack of confidence in keeping important data in Evernote, when it can simply evaporate during a sync. When I do add something into Evernote I sync it 3 times, and check my phone and back to my desktop each time, to make sure I haven’t lost my data. This is not how I want to spend my time. I still use Evernote, but I am working more and more to get away from it, and get into a “true” cloud based app.
Organizing, categorizing, and easily referencing information is very important to me.
Evernote handles this really well, but once again, it works much better on the desktop. When I want to find something on the desktop, using tags it is very easy to find what I am looking for, and I can almost always find something in 30 seconds or less, no matter how long it has been. On the mobile app, this is not the case. I often run searches, and the app returns nothing, when I know there is something there. Then I have to go back into the search and apply filters. After applying the filters, I will get the search. The way it is laid out in the mobile app, it is just difficult to revise and update my searches.
Overall I am not happy at all with the mobile app for Evernote, therefore I am working daily to find a better note taking solution, where I can organize, categorize, and easily reference my information.
Evernote completely fails the collaboration test in my opinion. Last time I tried using it with one of my bookkeepers, he shared notebooks with me, and it made a mess. I inherited his tags, many of which were the same as mine, like “Taxes.” I was immediately concerned that he might be able to see my tax notes - very confidential information. It turns out he couldn’t, but there was nothing in the app, to assure me of that. I could organize my own tags, by creating tags with sub-tags, but his tags showed up in a list, with his account name in parentheses. I had no way of moving them, organizing them, or otherwise getting them out of my way.
Then we have conflicting copy issues. If he and I change the same note before it can sync, it winds up with a copy in the conflicting copies notebooks. No warnings, or notifications. You just have to notice it, and then when you do, you have to decide how to deal with the note.
I have tried on many occasions to look at a note’s revision history, and it has never once given me anything I could use.
If you want a note taking app that allows you to collaborate with others, Evernote is not the answer. If you are only managing and tracking the notes for yourself, then Evernote is great, as long as you can live with limited mobile access, because as I pointed out, I have found it difficult to find what I need, quickly, in the mobile app.
E-mail Forwarding? Yes
This is my new favorite app for taking notes.
I don’t get the feeling Penzu is made for keeping large volumes of notes, but I am hopeful that they will keep building it out. You create Journals (notebooks), and they are very visual. This is important to me, believe it or not. If I am going to make my “digital home” in a product, then I want it to be something that is both highly functional, as well as pleasing to the eye. Penzu accomplishes this really well.
Penzu is a true cloud based solution. You install the mobile app on your device, and you can add your Journals and notes there. You can also log in via browser (which is what I prefer to do when I am at my desk), and the information is all there. You’ll get a message that it’s syncing data, but it’s just syncing from their servers to your app. I have not had any conflicts or issues along those lines. This is the first, and most important thing to me. I need to know that I can rely on my notes being there when I need them.
Desktop Solution. When I am at my computer I want a good desktop solution to access my notes. Penzu’s browser access works perfectly. I can easily access my notes there, and if I’ve just added something via the mobile app, it’s there in my browser as well.
Organizing, categorizing, and easily referencing
The mobile app is great, but on the mobile app you can only search within a notebook. In the browser you can search globally across all notebooks. This is a significant difference, which represents a significant limitation in the mobile app. For now, the inability to search globally in the mobile app is not a big problem, but as I accumulate more information, it will become more important. The mobile app also doesn’t give you much for sorting the notebooks. In both mobile, and browser, it would be great if you could get a list of notebooks as an option. Right now it’s just the larger thumbnails.
If you want to search for something then you better have the search term tagged. That seems to be how Penzu finds things in a search. I can search for a term that is right in the title of a note, and it won’t show up. Use tags liberally, and you should have no trouble finding what you’re looking for.
There is no real collaboration in Penzu. If that changes, I will be a very happy man. You can share a note with a public link. I tried using the share by e-mail option, also only for a single note, and it gave a 404 error on the test account that I shared it with. Then I refreshed, and the notes appeared in my journal. This leads me to believe that there are some bugs that need to be worked out here. The notes were read only, and it’s not clear if, or how you can control where notes go when someone shares them with you.
E-mail Forwarding? Yes, but not great!
This one has to be standing out. It’s not a note taking app. It’s a word processor. Yet when it comes down to all of the criteria combined, it may just be the best option out there.
Google Docs passes the cloud based test for sure. It is TRULY cloud based. In fact I'm typing this very sentence from my mobile, just moments after I was typing at my desk. The access is in the cloud in real time. There is no sync.
You can easily take notes on the fly and organize them better later. Create a shortcut to a location in your Google folders, so you can quickly start a new note. You could even create a folder named notebooks, then a sub folder for any notebooks you need, then as many documents as you need to keep track of things.
Now you also have sheets, and the other doc types to track information in the appropriate format.
Since Google Docs is true cloud based, your desktop solution is in the browser, and it works amazingly well.
Organizing, categorizing, and easily reference
Google has the best search technology out there, so when I am looking for something, it is generally very easy to find. Tags would be a plus, but the key here is organizing your notes well, and making sure that things have appropriate titles.
The other trick, and this goes for all apps, is having naming conventions and being consistent. If I know that all meeting notes are in a doc with a title based on Weekday, Month, Day, and Year, then I can search January 29 and find all of my meeting notes with any clients I met with that day in a single search.
There is no better collaboration than what you have with Google Docs. I can be very specific as to who has access to what. I can allow people view permissions or edit. When it comes to editing documents in Google docs, I have never seen a more seamless experience anywhere. You and I can both be in the document at the same time, and editing in real time. The versioning in Google docs works really well too!
E-mail Forwarding? No
Google Keep (Android) / Turbonote iPad:
Google Keep is purely cloud based. It’s an app available on the Android, and iPhone / iPad users can install Turbonote, and it’s the exact same thing. When you create a note, whether you do it from your mobile device, or in your browser, it’s just there. There is no sync, no waiting. In fact, if you want to do something fun, open Google Keep in your mobile device and your browser at the same time
Google Keep works really well in your browser.
Organizing, categorizing, and easily reference
Google Keep, keeps it pretty simple. I would like it better, and probably use it more, if you could organize your notes in notebooks. As it stands now, you have notes and tags, and that’s pretty much it. You can only filter by one tag at a time. The search option works very well. You can even search by note type, and color, and in this context, you can search my multiple types at once (e.g. all yellow notes with a reminder). The only thing I wish you could do in Google Keep is define the meaning of the colors with some sort of label.
You can share notes with Google Keep, but without any kind of “notebook” each note has to be shared individually. This is a limitation. Also there is no way to tell who made what changes to the note. There is also no way to link to a note within the mobile app. You can send it, but that just makes a copy of the note in whatever form it is, you are sending it. No reference to the note itself.
One of the coolest features that Google Keep has, which I have not seen on any other app, ANYWHERE, is the location based reminder. My wife just texted me a list of things I need to pick up at the local Ralphs supermarket. I logged into my text messages via AirDroid in my browser. Then I copied and pasted the list into a checklist note in Google Keep. The list copied perfectly with each item getting its own checkbox. Then I set a location based reminder. I didn’t need to know the address. I typed Ralphs Burbank, and it found it, just as if I was using Google Maps. This is one of the great advantages of using Google products - the integration across all of their technology.
When my mobile device’s geo location recognizes that I am near Ralphs, I will get a reminder with that note. Then off I go, checking off the items as I place them in my shopping cart in Ralphs.
E-mail Forwarding? No
Trello is not a note taking app per se, but it works really well for notes on the fly.
Trello is completely cloud based. As with any “true” cloud based app, updates are being made in real time on the web. Even when using the mobile app, you can see the updates happening in your browser instantly. It looks as though your mobile device is logged into your browser, but it isn’t. It’s because with ‘true” cloud based tech, you are making your updates directly on the server side, so there is no sync. Everything happens in real time, because everything is referencing the same data point. There is no sync.
Trello works very well in your browser, and if you want an option free from the browser, there is a desktop app for Windows. I don’t use it, I prefer the browser, but you might like it, so I told you about it.
Organizing, categorizing, and easily reference
Trello is rich with features like labels that let you color code and define names for the labels. You can filter the notes within a board by label, due date, and many other criteria. Criterium? This makes it easy to find things on a single board. Where Trello fails this test is in the inability to search or filter notes across more than one board.
You can do a global search with operators as follows, but when you have a lot of notes the search results themselves can be a bit unwieldy - and mind your cases (e.g. when you type Board with a capital ‘B’ you get nothing):
Returns cards assigned to a member. If you start typing @, Trello will suggest members for you. member: also works. @me will include only your cards.
Returns labeled cards. label: also works.
Returns cards within a specific board. If you start typing board:, Trello will suggest boards for you. You can search by board name, too, such as “board:trello” to search only cards on boards with trello in the board name.
Returns cards within the list named “name”. Or whatever you type besides “name”.
Returns cards with attachments. has:description, has:cover, has:members, andhas:stickers also work as you would expect.
Returns cards due within 24 hours. due:week, due:month, and due:overdue also work as expected. You can search for a specific day range. For example, addingdue:14 to search will include cards due in the next 14 days.
Returns cards created in the last 24 hours. created:week and created:month also work as expected. You can search for a specific day range. For example, addingcreated:14 to the search will include cards created in the last 14 days.
Returns cards edited in the last 24 hours. edited:week and edited:month also work as expected. You can search for a specific day range. For example, addingedited:21 to the search will include cards edited in the last 21 days.
description:, checklist:, comment:, and name:
Returns cards matching the text of card descriptions, checklists, comments, or names. For example, comment:"FIX IT" will return cards with “FIX IT” in a comment.
is:open and is:archived
Returns cards that are either open or archived. Trello returns both types by default.
On collaboration, Trello is as good as Google. It’s very easy to share a board with people. Once there, you can comment, and tag people, as well as assign them to cards. This makes it easy to track who’s doing what.
E-mail Forwarding? Yes. Each board gets a unique e-mail address that you can forward e-mails to, but I don’t love this. The headers come in along with everything else, and it’s all in plain text. It isn’t well formatted, which means you’re going to have to spend time cleaning it up.
Trello does have markup options, so you can format the text in a card’s description. The tips for how to use the markup are right there, and it’s pretty simple. You’ve likely seen similar markup before, like * for bold, and _ for italics.
As you can see from the above, none of these options offer a perfect solution. I wish one of them did. For e-mail forwards, Evernote, hands down, does the best job. So even if I go with another solution, I will still likely forward e-mails to Evernote, Then I can copy and paste from Evernote into another application.
As for which ones you should choose? It’s going to come down to which features are most important to you, and be prepared to make some compromises, and use some work arounds.
Seen an app that you would like to have seen on this list? Comment below and let us know about it. I would love to research it.