Note Taking Tool Recommendation

 · shakiestnerd
Table of contents

There are quite a few videos on YouTube and article on various web site these days about note-taking applications. Articles like "Top 10 Note-Taking Applications for 2023", and so on. They end up being a list of applications they highlight some of the features, but try to remain diplomatic and not give an opinion. The article usually winds up by saying something like, "these are all great apps, decide which one you like". That's kind of annoying. I really want to know which ones to try first and not have to wade through 8 or 9 of them.

Background

Sadly, I have used quite a few note apps over the years. My first biggie was Microsoft OneNote which I used on the job. It was a great tool. I could put all kinds of info in a note like graphics, text, snippets of web pages, etc. It could be organized in several different ways and I used it extensively to organize the data from various work projects. I was then transferred to a different office in the same company. I made sure to capture copies of all my OneNote data on a USB stick to take with me to my new position.

When I arrived at the new office, I found they were using an earlier version of Microsoft Office. All of my hard collected OneNote information was absolutely useless because of the proprietary format that OneNote used.

Lesson learned! Your data is the most important thing. Eventually, you will have a lot of information and losing it can be disastrous. So, never again will I commit my data to a propriety format.

Your data is the most important thing.

All the applications reviewed today, I have personally used.

Requirements

If you are serious about note-taking, then develop some requirements. Here are mine.

Plain Text Files

Notes must be store in a non-proprietary format. For me, that is plain text files. Text files have been around since the dawn of computing and will still be around 100 years from now. Text files are supported on every operating system.

Plain text is a universal file format.

Markdown Syntax

Markdown syntax is a great way to format your text files. There are a ton of application that work with them. This includes text editors, special markdown editors, and (the subject of this article) note taking applications. Don't bother with a note-taking app that doesn't support markdown.

Mark down applies a formatting convention to plain text.

Control My Own Data

I want my notes to be accessible from my local computer. It should not be held exclusively on cloud based system. This includes being able to maintain my own data backups.

Prefer Cross-Platform

Application needs to be able to run on multiple platforms. In my case, Linux and Android are the two platforms I use for this.

Synchronization Solution

If you're going to be sharing notes across devices there needs to be some mechanism for moving notes around. In my case, that's across a desktop, laptop, tablet, and cell phone.

Multiple Notebooks / Vaults

Because of having multiple ways to organize and filter information, I didn't think there was need to maintain multiple notebooks... until there was. Being able to have more than one notebook has become more important as I expand my personal collection of notes. With multiple vaults, you can also have multiple configurations (themes, plugins, settings).

In my case, there are several.

  • Personal vault - notes about everything under the sun.
  • Can of worms blog notes that are used to create this web site.
  • Bible -

Defined Feature Set

There are certain features of a note taking application that I consider to be essential. These include:

  • Ability to arrange notes in some kind of hierarchy similar to a folder tree.
  • Has a robust search capability. Once you have a lot of notes, this gets real important.
  • Support tags or keywords for notes.
  • Must have a markdown preview mode.
  • Editing should support color themes and the ability to change the font. That's crucial for the user experience.
  • Available plugins: tools to format tables, templates, etc. can really help the work flow.

Use Cases

Personal Knowledge Base / Second Brain

The primary use case is to capture all the things that are a pain to find otherwise. For my PKB, I've set up the following folders:

  • Basics: Home page note, check list, maps of content. These notes are jumping off locations for diving into note areas.
  • Archive: These are notes that are basically obsolete, but I don't want to lose them. Right now, there aren't that many. But I could see moving them to their own vault if it becomes a lot.
  • Faith: Bible study notes, lesson plans
  • Games: Notes about different computer games I play.
  • Health: Doctor visits, test results, prescription lists, insurance information. Anything health related.
  • Home: All about home. Automobile information, recipes, financial data, etc.
  • Journal: Daily journal notes
  • Miscellaneous: Mostly lists of trivia and fun facts.
  • Note: a place for templates and attachments
  • Reading: all about books and reading, reading list, book notes.
  • Technology: Software notes, programming notes for various languages, self hosted application information.

Blog Articles

I use Visual Studio Code with a markdown plugin to write the articles for this blog. They are arranged into a folder structure that gets converted to web pages. Because my static site generator software and Obsidian both use a folder tree to store the individual markdown files, I can use an Obsidian vault to write my blog posts and then have a second vault for my other notes.

Bible

Not too long ago, I found an Obsidian vault that was dedicated to Bible study. It includes a copy of the Bible as notes along with other notes that can be linked to the scriptures.

Intangibles

There are a few other things that make a difference in which note taking app you use. These can include things like how good is the documentation and how is the community around the software.

Feature Obsidian Joplin QOwnNotes SimpleNote
Cross Platform X X X X
Open Source - X X X
Text Files X - 1 X X
Markdown Syntax X X X X
Note Control X X X - 3
Multiple Vaults X - 1 X -
Import/Export X X X X
Sync Solution X X X2 X
Offline First X X X -
Tree hierarchy X X X4 -
Search X X X X
Tags X X X X
Attachments X X X -
Themes X X X X
Plugins X X X -
Linux X X X X
Windows X X X X
MacOS X X X X
Android X X X X
iOS X X X X
Meets My Req. X - X -

Software Tool Comparison

I have used Obsidian, Joplin, QOwnNotes, and SimpleNote enough to have given them a fair shake. They all fulfilled my requirements at the time.

Obsidian

Of the four applications, Obsidian is the most powerful. It has the largest feature set. I use the tree hierarchy and the search features the most. There are a huge amount of plugins and themes available. There are also lots of YouTube videos describing various ways to use the software.

Obsidian's markdown files are stored on your hard drive at a location you can define. Each note is stored in an individual mark down file in a directory according to the folder structure you set up within Obsidian.

Obsidian's company offers a paid synchronization option that, by all accounts, is very good. In my case, I am using synchthing to synchronize between devices. It was a chore to set up synchthing and I do have occasional synching issues. I had previously tried synching via dropbox, but had troubles whenever changing notes frequently.

One thing to watch out for... if you get to using a lot of the plugins such as dataview and kanban boards, I am not sure how well notes made with those plugins will transfer to another editor. Plugins such as these interpret the markdown files in different ways to support the extra features.

Joplin

Joplin was my previous note taking application and I migrated to Obsidian about two years ago. I was lured away by some of Obsidian's more advanced features.

I really like Joplin. It is a solid note taking application and has all a lot of good features.

Joplin's markdown files are stored within a SQLite database. On my system, this file is found in ~/.config/joplin-desktop. There are synchronization options included within Joplin. One of the options is NextCloud which is really cool. It also supports syncing with Dropbox and other cloud storage providers.

When synchronizing, Dropbox saves each individual note as a separate markdown file. My files are stored in Dropbox/Apps/Joplin The only downside is the filename for each one is a GUID identifier instead of the note title. This method insures uniqueness but, you can't easily tell the file contents without opening the file.

Joplin also has a very cool terminal application version.

QOwnNotes

QOwnNotes is an underrated note taking application. It has some interesting features, one that integrates itself into NextCloud and allows editing of notes within the cloud application. So, if you're a NextCloud user QOwnNotes is a good solution.

In my case, individual .md markdown files are stored in a folder ~/Nextcloud/Notes. By turning on an experimental feature, you can get the program to use additional sub-folders.

QOwnNotes has a built-in javascript scripting engine where you can write some of your own scripts. Plus there are community written scripts/plugins available from a github repository.

Although there is no Android or iOS version of QOwnNotes, it gets around the issue by the ability to store its notes in NextCloud and having a NextCloud plugin for editing notes there.

The user interface is more traditional and uses the Qt framework.

SimpleNote

SimpleNote is truly simple. The simplest option is running it as a web app from your browser. You can also download clients for all the major platforms.

It supports tagging notes, but doesn't have any kind of folder hierarchy.

SimpleNote stores your notes on their server and syncs them to a local client thus avoiding any synchronization issues. Because of the way the notes are stored, I would avoid placing any sensitive notes in the software.

Recommendations

No. 1: Obsidian

Obsidian is the work horse of these applications, it's the tool I use and recommend. For a full featured note taking environment that is flexible and can accommodate the way you work, choose Obsidian.

No. 2: QOwnNotes

QOwnNotes is a good choice for simple note taking and really shines if you are a NextCloud user. It took a bit of tweaking the settings to get it to where I liked it.

No. 3: Joplin

Joplin is my second choice. It's easy to use and has all my feature requirements. It has good multiple syncing options and is a solid piece of software. Switching between my multiple vaults is the show stopper for me.

No. 4: SimpleNote

SimpleNote is a good choice if you want to keep things really simple and have them available on multiple platforms. At this point, I've outgrown SimpleNote and would not go back to it.

Prologue

This article is about note taking applications. So, what's the difference between a text editor, a markdown editor, and a note taking application that supports markdown?

Text Editors

Since markdown is plain text, you can use any text editor you are comfortable with to write markdown. So, good old Windows Notepad, TextEdit, or Xed is good enough to write markdown. The whole point of markdown is to write text files that emulate formatting features of web pages (HTML) or word processors. This can be accomplished with a basic text editor.

Markdown Editor

A markdown editor is basically a text editor that supports previewing your markdown file, usually in a side by side view showing both the markdown text and the rendered view. They may have additional features to make writing markdown easier. In fact, a markdown editor can function as a note taking application. Just organize your markdown files into a folder structure and you're golden.

Note Taking Application

A Note taking application is a markdown editor that has additional features to help with organizing your notes. This includes tools such as managing images, searching, tag tools, journal tools, and so on.

Logseq

Logseq is another highly regarded note taking application. I have looked at it briefly. It has a default bullet style interface that just didn't click with my workflow style. I really just want to write text files. Loqseq positions itself as a kind of Obsidian competitor. Since I didn't like the markdown editing, I didn't use it enough to give it a fair shake. But, If you're seriously looking for an application, it does deserve your review.


  1. Stored in a SQLite database. 

  2. Includes NextCloud / OwnCloud integration. 

  3. Built in sync stores notes on SimpleNote's servers. 

  4. Tree hierarchy support is an experimental feature.