Warning: I have no conclusions in this blog post. These are just my somewhat-rambling thoughts on a topic that I spend way too much time thinking about.
Introduction Link to heading
I have a love/hate relationship with note-taking apps. I’ve been trying out different solutions for over a decade at this point, but have yet to ever feel perfectly at home with any system I’ve tried, which leaves me constantly looking for improvements instead of just settling in and using my system.
I feel like I don’t have particularly complex requirements, at least conceptually. However, unless I’ve completely missed a solution somewhere (in which case, PLEASE let me know!), no single solution is capable of everything I want.
My (Ideal) Requirements Link to heading
- Cross-platform support (can be native apps or Electron, I don’t care, as long as they are responsive), for desktop and mobile
- Website access, for cases where I don’t want to sync my entire notes database to the machine
- Reasonable backup options, preferably in a format that is readable by other tools if needed (such as Markdown)
- Good export/share options (at least Markdown and PDF)
- Inline image support
- File attachment support, preferably with inline previews
- OCR of images/files (for search ability)
- Markdown support
- Code block support with syntax highlighting
- Offline access
- Web clipper option
- End to end encrypted
Options I’ve Tried Link to heading
Evernote Link to heading
There is really only one app that comes close to meeting most of those requirements: Evernote. But, it’s an app that I don’t enjoy using, has a whole host of privacy concerns, and as of late has some reliability issues. And I’ve used it off and on for nearly a decade (being somewhat pragmatic), but I really want a better solution. I’ve spent the last few weeks doing in depth testing, and still haven’t found anything that checks all of the boxes.
Bear Link to heading
Bear is by far my favorite note taking app in recent years. In fact, I’m using it to author this blog post, because it supports Markdown natively, and is legitimately an overall great experience. It’s free to use on a single device, or it can sync seamlessly across Apple devices using iCloud (with a Pro subscription, but that’s $15/year, which is totally worth it for good software).
But therein lies the problem: I don’t use only Apple devices. I’ve very seriously considered sacrificing using notes on every other platform because I enjoy using Bear so much, especially since the creators are working on a web version, along with improved search/OCR. With those two features, it would be almost a no-brainer for my purposes, lacking only in E2E encryption.
Joplin Link to heading
Joplin is a pretty close competitor to Bear in my rankings, and actually has some features already that Bear does not. However, it has two fatal flaws for me presently: no web app (and no plans to add one), and I don’t like it. I find the app clunky to use. I strongly prefer Markdown editors that include a live preview mode, which Bear and other apps have. Split-pane editing annoys me.
Obsidian Link to heading
Obsidian is also a semi-close competitor to Bear and Joplin, and has some things I like over Joplin, namely the editor options. It also has a better mobile client than Joplin, but falls flat when it comes to how enjoyable it is to use, and it also lacks a web client. Obsidian is really, really popular right now in the linked-notes community, and I understand most of the reasons, but to me it feels too much like an IDE. I don’t want to keep notes inside of a developer tool.
Standard Notes Link to heading
Standard Notes is actually the only option on this list that has both E2E encryption and a web app. Perfect, right?
Unfortunately, no. I highly dislike the app itself, it’s glitchy, lacks inline image support, exports Markdown files that are weirdly formatted, and in general feels like a tool that isn’t quite ready for production yet. Of all of the solutions I’ve looked at, outside of Bear, I think Standard Notes is most likely reach a stage where it would be a good option for me.
Notion Link to heading
I tried to love Notion. Really I did. Notion is very popular in the productivity community, but I just don’t get the database concepts its built upon. I end up spending all of my time trying to figure out how to store and arrange my data. Additionally, it lacks offline support, end to end encryption, and has very weird image/attachment support. It does actually have good Markdown support, as well as good export and backup options, but I can’t get past my issues with it.
NextCloud Notes Link to heading
NextCloud has support for Markdown notes, and on the desktop I could use QOwnNotes for a client. If I could get a good mobile app, this might be reasonable, but I very much dislike the entire user experience presently (outside of the cross-device syncing - that’s stellar). I spent very little time investigating this option.
TiddlyWiki Link to heading
I actually thought for a few moments that TiddlyWiki might do what I needed. I could sync my notes in a single file, work online or offline, and be reasonably sure my notes would be accessible for years to come. And in my time testing TiddlyWiki, I very quickly began to enjoy the design ideas the creator has. Unfortunately, inline images and attachments are virtually impossible in the single-file approach, so I somewhat quickly gave up on it as well.
Craft Link to heading
Craft is gorgeous. And I hate it. The UI is just not something I enjoy using - not when dealing with 100s of notes. I quit testing Craft within an hour.
Notesnook Link to heading
Notesnook looked interesting, but again, I couldn’t work with the UI. Note filing was unintuitive to me, and I very quickly gave up. Since it’s fairly young, it is on my list to check back in on though.
Nota Link to heading
Nota is the last option I ran across in my recent testing. It shows a lot of promise, as it borrows the Obsidian “just a collection of files” concept, but has a better UI, and is much more pleasing to use. However, it’s still in beta, has some weird behavior when adding attachments, and is Mac only, with no great mobile app recommendations. Because it can sync to any cloud storage, Nota would actually have a web view available (either through iCloud or NextCloud for me, I think).
Others Link to heading
And there are a whole host of other apps that I have looked at, but never actually tried: OneNote (I don’t want a Microsoft app, sorry, and I hate their UI too), Google Keep (doesn’t work for the number of notes I want, don’t like the UI), Apple Notes (pretty good, but again, not great for the number of notes I want), etc.
(Lack of) Conclusion Link to heading
And so right now, I’m writing this blog post in Bear. Earlier this week, I just finished exporting my notes for the umpteenth time from Evernote and importing them into Bear, but did not delete anything, because I’m afraid I’ll be back.