Note-Taking With Notable

The Others

I’ve struggled for years with finding a good, reliable, and simple note-taking application that fit my needs and didn’t lock me in to a particular platform. When I started my career, I was using Evernote for handling my notes at work. At the time, the free version of Evernote was pretty solid which was good because I didn’t have the money to be spending on notes. After a few years, however, Evernote apparently decided that not enough people were paying for the premium version of the product; as a result they crippled the free version. The free version had previously been limited to the amount of data you could sync in a month, and that alone seemed reasonable. They added on to this by limiting the number of devices which could connect to an account. Since having my work laptop, personal laptop, and phone all connect was no longer an option, I decided to look for something else.

At the time, nothing else really stuck out to me. I was working in a very Microsoft-centric environment and was managing Office 365 at the time a fairly new service. I opted to use OneNote since it would integrate in to Office 365. I almost immediately hated pretty much everything about OneNote, from the appearance, to how shitty the web app was at the time, to how poorly it would index and search my notes. However, I stuck with it for years because 1.) it was able to import my years of existing notes from Evernote and 2.) intertia made it easy to stay with a product (even if I strongly disliked it) because it meant I didn’t need to invest my time in anything else.

When I finally switched to a new job about a year ago, though, I decided it was time for a fresh start with my notes. I was working in a new role that meant my years of previous notes were no longer going to be nearly as important to me as they were. In the rare instance I needed one, I could easily pop open the OneNote (finally improved) web app and find it; I didn’t need to worry about importing those notes into another system for daily use. Since the job change also marked a change in switching from Windows to macOS for work, I originally started off using Apple Notes. I rather like Apple Notes in that it’s simple, fast, lightweight, and it syncs nicely between my MacBook, iPhone, and iPad. However, I quickly found that being locked in to Apple’s ecosystem for my notes wasn’t exactly what I was wanting. For example, while there’s a web app for Apple Notes, it’s clunky and slow. This means accessing my notes from my personal laptop running Linux is a painful experience. Likewise, what if I stopped using Apple products in the future? It makes no sense to be locked in to a particular hardware vendor when it comes to something as ubiquitous as note-taking software. While I still use Apple Notes occasionally for quick, personal notes that I’m only accessing from my phone, I didn’t want to continue using it as my primary note-taking application.

Since I was already an avid Dropbox user and had been for many years, I decided to give Dropbox Paper a try. I was initially drawn to it since it seemed like it was basically Markdown, the markup language I perfer to write things in. In fact, all of the posts for this blog are created in Markdown and compiled through Hugo. In reality, though, the syntax wasn’t exactly Markdown but a weird mix where some pieces of Markdown had been cherry-picked (e.g. bold, italics) while others were ignored (e.g. hyperlinks.) Being that the files were created with a .paper extension also meant they weren’t Markdown files I could directly edit with something else in a clean manner; I was locked in to Dropbox. What if I wanted to change my cloud storage to something different, which could very well happen if ProtonDrive lives up to my expectations when it releases.

This is when I started to realize that what I really wanted was something that would allow me to easily work with Markdown but that would leave vanilla Markdown files on my system. These files could be synced through whatever means I wanted to use, be in Dropbox, ProtonDrive, iCloud, or anything else; I didn’t want to be dependent upon a particular sync mechanism. Likewise, I needed the files to be Markdown so that I wasn’t dependent upon a particular application, either. I’ve discussed before how I love having all of the posts on this site saved as Markdown because it means that I can (and have!) moved them quickly and easily between different websites. I wanted to have the same flexibility with my notes.

Notable

The Good

I did a quick search for note-taking applications that deal with Markdown, and one of the first results I got was Notable. Almost immediately it seemed to fit the bill. It was a simple, lightweight application that dealt with Markdown files. When a file is open in edit mode, I see all of the Markdown syntax I know and love. When I save a file, the Markdown is rendered for easy consumption. While I don’t get a live-preview like I do with Atom, I think this is a much more elegant setup for note-taking and reference.

It’s important to note, pun not intended, that the name for “Notable” gives away the fact that it is focused on notes in particular. When I was discussing my attempts to find a good Markdown editor for my notes, a friend of mine shared with me an episode of the Mac Power Users podcast focused on Markdown. While they list a lot of options (with an obvious focus on software for Apple products), many were not note-specific; some were just Markdown editors. For example, Byword looks cool but seems to be much more focused on a minimalist writing experience than on a note-taking experience. While I could use something like that and simply search through my notes with grep from the CLI, if I wanted to do that I would just use Vim or Atom as my editor and be done with it. I was really looking for something that would allow me to easily categorize and search my notes. Notable does this through tags which can be applied to each of my notes. Tags are used as an organization method; with them it’s easy to then do a text search across the content of either all of my notes or on just the notes with particular tags applied.

All of the notes created in Notable are .md files that live in a directory I choose. At the moment, that directory is inside of my Dropbox folder. This is especially cool for a couple of reasons. First off, Dropbox can render Markdown files. So if I just need to reference one of my notes from another device, I can simply go through Dropbox on the web, open the file, and reference all of my notes. I just have to know the name of the file since the tags are not readily accessible or searchable outside of Noteable. All of that information is stored as metadata at the top of each .md file.

The Bad

While using Notable has been working well for me after about a month, there are a couple of things that could be better. The immediate problem is that there isn’t any type of mobile app, and even if there were a mobile app I don’t know exactly how it would continue to sync since Dropbox isn’t keeping my files directly on my iPhone and iPad the way that it does on my MacBook. I think the design of Notable would need to be fundamentally changed, and suddenly integration with cloud storage would need to be done at the application level rather than the filesystem level. I don’t think that’s a good solution. Similarly, I also don’t really want to be authoring a bunch of Markdown content on my mobile devices, either. Most of the notes I’d be using on my phone are more personal (e.g. my grocery list) and those I continue to use Apple Notes for. In the instance I need to view some notes from Notable on my mobile device, that’s where opening them from Dropbox and rendering the Markdown works rather well.

Notable itself exists on a wide array of platforms. While it’s fairly simple to install on macOS or Debian-based Linux, I haven’t installed it yet on my Manjaro Linux laptop where it would be available via the AUR. I didn’t see the point since on this machine I haven’t installed Dropbox, either, and that’s where all of the notes are. On this machine, however, I mainly only need to reference blog-specific notes; for those I’m typically just once again opening the files from Dropbox on the web. In the instance that I want to edit a note, I can use Dillinger for that to edit the files directly in Dropbox from the cloud. In another life, I made heavy use of Dillinger for authoring blog posts for WordPress via Markdown; this was back when WordPress had support for authoring content in Markdown but didn’t support it in their editor.

In very rare cases I’ve wanted to create a new note in Notable but didn’t have access to my MacBook. In that case, from Dropbox I can simply copy an existing note, manually update the metadata to apply the appropriate tags, and then make whatever notes I need. I’ve verified in a few occasions that this seems to work without a hitch, though I suppose it’s possible to mess something up in the metadata if you really farkle it up.

Overall, the downsides I’ve enumerated here are more minor inconveniences than serious issues. I am curious how well the application will scale; right now I have a few dozen notes saved and everything is snappy. If I reach the same number of notes that I had in OneNote, though, I’m curious how quickly things like searching and swapping between notes will continue to be. The good news, though, is that since I’m not really locked in to Notable given that the files are just Markdown, if there are any problems in the future it shouldn’t be too terribly difficult to switch to something else or just work with the files directly if I can’t find a better solution.

If you’re comfortable with Markdown and the idea of controlling your notes without being locked into a particular application for editing and syncing them is important to you, then I would highly recommend checking out Notable. I’m extremely pleased with it right now, and for the low cost of free there’s really no reason not to give it a shot. It’s worth mentioning that while Notable was originally open source, that’s no longer the case. While I’d personally prefer if it was open source, it’s not a dealbreaker for me.