Looking for a Notebook replacement

As noted in a previous post, Circus Ponies ceased to exist and its Notebook runs the risk of dying with the next OS X update. I have more than 10 years of notes in my notebooks and am looking for an alternative.

I currently use Notebook mainly to develop my ideas. I keep daily notes of conversations I had, things I read, questions I have, ideas that occur to me, information I have collected and their interconnections.

Essential features are:

  • available on and sync between two Macs and an iPad
  • support for rich text (or markdown)
  • a multi-level hierarchy of notes,
  • the possibility to view several notes beside each other
  • support for lists, tables, ​and images,
  • advanced in-note outlining (including features such as promote & demote and split & combine, in addition to basic features as add sibling (below and above) & add child, upgrade & downgrade and expand & collapse)
  • internal hyperlinks (between and within notes)
  • web links and file links1
  • text clipping services
  • excellent search facilities
  • support for external keyboard on the iPad

Audio-recording linked to the notes would be a useful feature for note taking during lectures and meetings, but I could use Notability for that purpose and convert the notes to the notebook program after working them up.

Notebook also provides features for task management, drawing, sketching, ​and handwriting. I use some of them, but it wouldn’t be a serious setback if they were lacking (either because I have other programs for this purpose or because I use them only occasionally or both).

A few weeks ago, Adam Engst from TidBITS asked his readers to rate the personal information managers they use and to comment on what they like and don’t like about them. A week later he posted the results of this survey: Your Favorite Mac Personal Information Managers. In addition to the weighted averages of all apps that received votes, the post contains rating graphs and commentary on the ten apps that received most votes.

As Adam notes, ‘Personal Information Manager’ is a wide category that includes programs that vary quite widely in features, approach and intended use.

I tend to distinguish four types, depending on the way I use them:

  • Note managers (for quick or short notes, e.g. Apple Notes, Notational Velocity, nvALT, Simplenote)
  • Document managers (e.g. DEVONThink, Evernote, Yojimbo)
  • Notebooks (e.g. Circus Ponies Notebook)
  • Journaling programs (e.g. Day One, MacJournal)

TidBITS’ survey doesn’t include journaling programs, but includes some programs of a type I wouldn’t call ‘information manager’ (although they could be used as such):

  • Dedicated outliners (e.g. NeO, OmniOutliner)
  • Taskmanagers (e.g. OmniFocus, TaskPaper)

The only notebook program that made it into TidBITS’ top ten is Microsoft’s OneNote. Adam notes that ‘despite garnering a large number of votes and being free to use it didn’t fare well in the ratings.’ However, ‘OneNote appears to have a decent feature set in that you can style notes however you like, add pictures or other files to a note, clip Web articles, send email into your notebook, tag your notes for later finding, and share notes with friends.’2

Jeffery Battersby from MacWorld grants OneNote 3½ out of 5 mice. He uses OneNote 2016 “to create large text documents with disparate but linked bits of information” that he wants “to be easily shared and simple to navigate.” For him “OneNote, while imperfect, is a perfect solution.”

Two similar programs that did not make it into the top ten are Outline ($40 for Mac, $10 for iPad) and Growly Notes ($5 for Mac, $5 for iPad).

I understand that all three offer a multilevel outline of notes, internal hyperlinks and web links, features that are essential to my use of notebooks. OneNote, however, seems not to support file links, while Outline and Growly Notes do. This is a deal breaker for OneNote.

Growly Notes has a number of features, both Outline and OneNote lack:

  • Growly Notes supports audio and video recording and the recordings are linked to the text notes taken during the recording.
  • Growly Notes has drawing tools and tools for PDF annotation
  • Growly Notes allows you to float notes to view and edit them while working in another application
  • The Send to Growly Notes service allows you to send whatever is selected in another application to Growly Notes

However, all three lack a feature I heavily use and fear I cannot live without, namely in-note outlining.

The only program, aside from Notebook, that seems to offer in-note outlining is AquaMinds’ NoteTaker. Notebook and NoteTaker are very similar and, in fact, have a​ common ancestor in Millennium Software Labs’ NoteBook, written for the NeXTSTEP operating system.

I compared NoteTaker and Notebook back in 2003 and decided in favor of NoteTaker because, unlike Notebook, it provided internal hyperlinks. I switched to Notebook in 2009, shortly after it introduced internal hyperlinks, because it looks cleaner and neater, has better outlining features, and an unsurpassed ‘clip and annotate’ service.

Notebook notebooks can be easily converted to NoteTaker notebooks and the other way round.3 However, NoteTaker does not have an iPad companion and it is not clear whether it is still under development. AquaMinds’ website has not been updated since 2011, and the most recent version of NoteTaker dates back from 2013. Scott Love from AquaMinds told Adam Engst that NoteTaker works fine on El Capitan and that AquaMinds is actively supporting their users. Still, I don’t want to spend $45 just to discover that NoteTaker follows Notebook’s steps.

  1. File attachments do not suffice (and are not needed) because very often I need to be able to access the files to which I link from other applications. 
  2. He adds to this that ‘one notable criticism in the Mac App Store notes that the Mac version lacks a number of features in the Windows version of OneNote, including such basics as offline access to notes.’ OneNote for Mac surely misses features of the Windows version (e.g. drawing tools). However, I don’t think offline access is missing from the Mac version. According to Microsoft’s OneNote FAQ, although you need a OneDrive account to use OneNote, you can work temporarily offline. OneNote will automatically sync your changes as​ soon as you reconnect to the internet. 
  3. (Added 8 October 2017) In order to convert a Notebook notebook to Notetaker you need to export it in NTML format and open the resulting .ntml file in NoteTaker. Unfortunately, it turns out that this works only with Notebook 3. Notebook 4 no longer offers the option to convert to NTML. Even worse, Notebook 4 cannot export or save notebooks in Notebook 3 format and Notebook 3 cannot handle notebooks in Notebook 4 format. So, it is not possible to use Notebook 3 to convert Notebook 4 notebooks to NTML. 

5 thoughts on “Looking for a Notebook replacement

  1. Pingback: Importing Circus Ponies notes into Outline | Arno's tech blog

  2. Willem Smelik

    Quick note: I replaced Notebook by Tinderbox. This is very powerful software, more than an outliner, essentially a note taking tool. I heavily rely on it, but it does not come cheap. Yet it is highly customisable (creation of attributes and agents to find stuff) and well-supported. There is no iPad version but it does sync with SimpleNote.

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  4. NechamaB (@NechamaB)

    Re: “Notebook notebooks can be easily converted to NoteTaker notebooks and the other way round:”
    Can you please share the workflow for that? I’ve exported a CP Notebook notebook into NBML and OPML and imported both of those files into NoteTaker. However, both imports are lacking much content relative to the original CPN notebook.

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