If there is anything like an addiction to taking notes, I’m right up there in the list of addicts. There are at least 10 different things I regularly use to jot down everything from names & phone numbers to quick snippets to file later, to todo lists and all sorts of random thoughts. Although I’ve been using the good old pen-and-paper to do this for years now, it has always fallen short of what the my ideal workflow should have been. As has become a yearly ritual now, I recently embarked on a hunt for the best minimalistic note taking app that does everything I need and fits perfectly in my workflow.
It’s probably no surprise that the stock Notepad app in Windows falls awefully short of my expectations. There are the high-profile alternatives like OneNote and Evernote, but they are better suited for longer term, heavier duty knowledge archival than for quick and dirty note-taking. I needed something that was lightening fast and has just the right mix of features to allow me to jump in and out of it at the spur of the moment. What followed was a battle of five free Windows apps that came closest to what I was looking for, with a winner that I am committed to skicking with for at least the next year.
Here are the apps that I chose from a whole host of options, with each providing at least one thing that great value in line with my expectations:
Given the minimalistic approach of these apps, they all take a more-or-less similar approach to the interface, focusing predominantly on the list of notes. Although they all make up for it by sitting in the system tray and providing system-wide hotkeys for opening the interface as well as creating new notes. Flashnote is the only one of the lot that does not have a shortcut for creating a new note without opening the app interface.
Quotepad is the most minimalistic of the lot with nothing but the list of notes with excerpts visible till you open a note. No toolbars, sidebars of anything else. The creation date of the note takes center stage with prominent in the title bar of each note.
Tomboy Notes on the other hand go all out with a taskbar only interface, letting you see a list of notes and categories from the context menu of the system tray icon as well as the ability to create new apps and search for new ones. Interestingly, the search interface is more a full-fledged browing interface with a two-pane interface for categories and notes.
ResophNotes and Flashnote take a similar approach with a list of notes on the left and contents of the selected note on the right. ResophNotes goes a step further by letting you easily filter the list of notes by tags.
For me, CintaNotes provides the perfect combination interface with the list of tags on the left and notes with excerpts on the right. The “All” filter is selected by default, but clicking a tag name filters the list to only those with the tag.
Now I’m not really looking at a lot of features per-se, but rather a well-rounded set that makes it easy for me to use the app to get in, add or retrieve a note and get out as easily as possible. Things like keyboard shortcuts, categorization and powerful search are paramount.
Of the five apps, Flashnote and QuotePad take the most minimalistic approaches with no categorization whatsoever. Every note is stored in a single list in chronologial order. Both provide the ability to search through notes, but I prefer QuotePad’s search-as-you-type option rather than Flashnote’s more traditional search interface. What FlashNotes lacks in other departments though, it makes up for by being the only app that supports hierarchial notes, allowing any note to have multiple levels of child notes.
Tomboy Notes let’s you create categories for notes and the search interface lets you filter notes by category and search for specific terms at the same time. CintaNotes and ResophNotes take the tagging approach instead of categories, which I prefer for the fluidity and flexibility the real-time tagging provides over predefined categories. Both come with powerful search-as-you-type functionality, coupled with search term highlighting which makes it super-easy to find exactly what you are looking for in text-heavy notes.
Tomboy Notes & CintaNotes feature pretty good rich text formatting support. One standout feature in Toboy Notes is the ability to create links between notes Wiki style. ResophNotes has Markdown support, which lets you add formatting syntax in plain text and then preview the formatted version on demand. For plain text afficionados like me, this can be a pretty powerful way of adding necessary formatting while staying with the simplicity of plain text. FlashNote & Quotepad take the bare minimum approach with nothing but plain text supported.
Backup & Synchronization
One feature I find most important though, is the ability to back up my content have access to my notes on multiple devices. ResophNotes reigns supreme in this case with seamless synchronization with SimpleNote, one of the best known plain text note taking platforms on the web. It makes up for the lack of an official SimpleNote client on Windows and is a good way to make sure your notes are available anywhere you are. SimpleNote is pretty well rounded off in the Apple universe with official clients for OSX & iOS, although if you are on Android, there’s not much to work with. Flick Note is the best SimpleNote client on Android, but I wasn’t too impressed with the app.
Of the remaining apps, CintaNotes was the only one that has a serviceable alternative to online sync by way of Dropbox. You can save your notes in a Dropbox folder, making it instantly available on all your devices, although you still need CintaNotes on all devices to be able to access your content. FlashNote, QuotePad and Tomboy Notes are pretty much restrited to the device you have the installed on.
And The Winner Is…
In the end, all the apps have something or the other going for them. If you crave complete simlicity, QuotePad is perfectly usable and snappy enough. Tomboy Notes make sense if you don’t mind — or even prefer — the system tray based interface with the notes front and center. If SimpleNote is your notes platform of choice and multi-device capbility is paramount, ResophNotes is probably going to be your only option on Windows.
For me though, the excellent interface and features of CintaNotes work better than any of the other apps. It is snappy, beautiful and the functionality is just right. It also handles the tag based approach for managing notes perfectly well. Sure, I don’t have access to my notes on Android, but synchronization across a couple of Windows devices is good enough for the time being and way better than the frustration of sub-par SimpleNote clients. So for now I’m going to stick with CintaNotes for my random notes and code snippets, at least till something else comes out that does all of these things well and adds a perk or two of its own.