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.

Thoughts On Apple’s WWDC 2020

Yesterday was the keynote for Apple’s 2020 Worldwide Developer Conference. Like so many things right now, the entire conference, keynote included, is virtual due to the coronavirus pandemic. In this case, it’s a blessing for the sessions since it means they’re all free for anyone to stream as opposed to being a $1500+ USD ticket. Admittedly, though, the keynote left something to be desired. Just a few weeks ago at Microsoft Build, I feel like Microsoft crushed it with their keynote. It was still streamed live, and it featured popular Microsoft employees all working remote. Scott Hanselman really killed it during the keynote with a ton of guests in a way that was still believable and relatable for everyone working from home.

Apple’s keynote was just a recording, and while it had all of the glitz and shine you’d expect from Apple, it really felt more like a 2 hour advertisement at times. At the end of the day, the presentation itself doesn’t matter nearly as much as the content, but in the future I’d like for Apple to make things feel a little more… human.

I thought it would be fun to rank some of the announcements (especially to help organize my thoughts since a discussion on them is a likely podcast topic for me in the near future) at least for products that I actually care about. You won’t see anything about the Apple Watch here, for example, because I don’t own one, don’t plan to buy one, and didn’t even really pay attention to those parts of the keynote. That’s not to say anything bad about the Apple Watch; I just don’t need a health tracker or notifications on my wrist when I sit at home every… single… day.

Meh

iOS App Library

The App Library is basically a series of folders where applications are auto-sorted, giving some order to the chaos without forcing users to spend hours manually putting apps into folders themselves. I’m definitely not opposed to the idea, but it gets a sold “meh” from me simply because I don’t have enough apps for that sort of thing to be useful. At the time of this writing, my phone has 3 pages of apps, none of which are even full. I rarely install apps unless I really need them, and I regularly prune any apps I haven’t opened in a few weeks.

App Clips

I like the idea of these; App Clips are small, partial versions of apps that you can access on the fly without needing to open the App Store, search for the correct app, and then download the whole thing. The example they gave is when you need a specific app to pay for parking, a situation I’ve definitely been in before. Beyond that scenario, though, I’m just skeptical over how useful this will be. When I go into stores, am I going to be willing to scan a special barcode to access their App Clip? Most likely that’s going to be a hard pass.

Widgets

Like App Clips, I like the idea of Widgets, and having more options and sizes is cool. I’ll definitely take some time to play around with new ones in my sidebar. What I’m not as enthused about is the ability to start cluttering up the app list with widgets sprinkled everywhere. I’ve seen a few people draw parallels to the home screen of Windows Phone 8, and I don’t think that’s a particularly good thing. Obviously I can just choose to only use widgets in the sidebar where they live today, but I hope they don’t start to change the focus of the app list.

Good

Picture-In-Picture

I’ve seen a lot of people throwing (warranted) shade that this is something which has existed for quite a while on Android, and that’s certainly true. Just because they’re late to the party, though, doesn’t mean Apple shouldn’t add picture-in-picture; that’s just silly. Having recently switched from being a long-time Android user to an iPhone user, picture-in-picture is one of the few things I miss from Android. It’s super handy when you’re watching a video to be able to pop out to picture-in-picture mode and quickly check something else. I also like the look of some of the intuitive controls Apple seems to have worked out to improve the experience over that of Android with the ability to easily resize and even hide the video while it plays.

Maps Improvements

The cycling-specific additions to Maps look slick, though they aren’t initially available in my area, and I don’t currently do a lot of cycling regardless.. Given my goal of eschewing all things Google, though, since switching to an iPhone I’ve been relying on Apple Maps in lieu of Google Maps. As such, I like seeing the commitment Apple has to improving the product. I also appreciate the fact that they themselves mentioned the privacy of Maps.

macOS Big Sur

One of the most immediately noticeable things about Big Sur are the UI tweaks. Most of them are small and subtle, but overall I think it really makes the operating system look significantly better. Having everything slightly tweaked with the uniformity and cohesion you’d expect from Apple just makes everything look and feel extremely polished. I’m looking forward to using it.

More specifically, I’m also looking forward to getting my hands on the updated versions of the Mail and Messages applications in Big Sur. I live in those applications pretty frequently, and they feel just a little dated in Catalina.

Aww Yeah!

Siri Improvements

I use Siri not infrequently on both my phone and iPad. One of those most jarring things about it is the experience you get when it takes over your entire screen to answer a simple query. The new UI for Siri looks like a massive improvement to me, with Siri appearing as a sphere toward the bottom of the screen and not covering all of the content with which you may have just been interacting. I think this will make for a much better workflow, especially for sequential questions to Siri where your next question is based off of the response to the previous question.

On top of that, it’s also nice to see a focus from Apple on giving Siri to the ability to respond to a broader range of questions. While it doesn’t happen all the time, it’s not unexpected when I ask Siri something only to be essentially given a list of links from a web search rather than an actual answer. The more that type of response can be eliminated, the better.

iPadOS Sidebar

This may seem silly, but I’m actually really stoked for the new sidebar UI in iPadOS. I think it’ll add a lot of uniformity to iPad apps that also make better use of the screen real-estate you get on an iPad. Too many apps that are “optimized” for an iPad (meaning they aren’t scaled iPhone apps), are still essentially just bigger versions of their iPhone counterparts. The more that can be done to make the iPad a unique thing of its own with its own strengths the better.

Hell Yeah!

macOS Running A-series ARM Processors

As the most-leaked announcement in human history, I think pretty much everyone was expecting this announcement. It was still exciting to see it made official, though. Given how stagnant Intel processors have been for the last few generations and the insane performance Apple is getting out of the A12Z Bionic in the iPad Pro, I think this is a smart and exciting move. A chip like the A12Z Bionic in something with active cooling? Sign me up. I was surprised that the first ARM macOS devices will ship before the end of the year, but it seems like the process for porting applications is fairly streamlined. Likewise, having a binary translator like Rosetta 2#Rosetta_2) for any applications not getting timely love is a nice safety net, though I don’t know if I’d really want to be playing games run through it like they had demoed.

Wrap-Up

At the end of the day, nothing absolutely Earth-shattering was announced at WWDC 2020 other than the macOS architecture switch that everyone already knew about. I still think there’s a lot of solid improvments coming on the horizon, though, and I’m eager to start upgrading my devices to the new software this fall.