Emerging Classes of Note-Taking Apps

If you’ve paid any attention to productivity news in the last 6-8 months, there has been a lot of talk around note-taking apps. Note-taking apps are part of the productivity trifecta (task managers, calendars, and notes), so this attention is no surprise.

And of course, with this attention usually comes a flurry of “What are the alternatives to X note-taking software” articles.

These articles usually lump software like Evernote, OneNote, Notion, DEVONthink, Apple Notes, Bear, and others all into the same list. While these apps all handle text well as note-takers, most have widely different feature sets.

There is a substantial break forming between different classes of apps in the note-taking space which I’d like to draw attention toward. If you’re in need of a note-taking app, this separation into multiple categories may help you make a decision based upon what you need.

Class #1: Note Takers

These are the apps we’re all used to seeing. At the very base, these apps take text, images, attachments, and put them into notes. The apps usually have straightforward organization systems (usually folders, tags, or some combination of both), and offer a similar experiences across platforms.

Apps that fall into this category include:

Class #2: Reference Libraries

This is the first sharp distinction I noticed in the note-taking space. Many tend to lump these apps in with the note takers, but the feature set of reference libraries often far exceeds what note takers can do.

Most often, reference libraries offer easy ways to clip data from external sources, search inside documents and images (usually via OCR), and organize documents in a highly detailed way. Reference apps also normally heavily rely on search and need to have a rock-solid sync system to handle the materials contained within.

Apps that fall into this category include:

You might be saying, “Wait, you added Evernote on this list too?” Well, yes.

While the free version of Evernote is as standard of a note taker as they come (really one of the first), the Premium subscription, which adds OCR and the ability to email in items for storage among other features, fits nicely into the reference app category.

Class #3: Wiki/Documentation

One of the newest categories of note-taking app are wiki or documentation apps. These apps are database-like and can be used for personal information storage or collaboration among team members.

These aren’t solely note takers because the experience tends to be more like creating a web page with information. T

hey aren’t reference libraries either because the apps often don’t feature the ability to easily get documents or web clippings in the software (though they may tie into software like Google Drive or Dropbox).

Apps that fall into this category include:

Class #4: Paper Replicators

With the rise of the iPad Pro, this category is one many look to if they want to move to a completely paperless lifestyle. The number one differentiator in this group: a heavy reliance on Apple Pencil for input and a free-form layout.

Apps that fall into this category include:

Notes are Notes

I think as these categories begin to mature, we’ll see fewer applications trying to be all-in-one. Evernote has done decently at trying to be al things to all people (with OneNote being the most successful), but most people don’t need an everything notes app . They want an appropriate place to store the stuff they need to keep track of.

I recently made the distinction in my life that I need a note taker AND a reference library. The two serve definitively distinct purposes in my system, yet I was trying to cram both functions in either Bear or Apple Notes. While they can serve as reference libraries, that’s not the role they best serve.

If you can get one software to work for you, that’s great. However, I say do not be afraid to use multiple apps for different purposes .

When you’re looking to choose a note-taking application, here are some questions you can ask yourself to get to those honest answers?

  • Do I want everything in one place, or am I okay with keeping different types of information in different apps?
  • Am I needing a place to store documents and search inside the contents?
  • Do I gravitate toward handwriting and like the idea of a paperless notebook?
  • Is something highly visual with building blocks work with my brain better than a sheets or cards metaphor? (If yes, something like Notion may be a good fit).

While these questions don’t get into the depths of individual features you may need from a note-taking application, these will at least help you figure out what classes of apps to focus your research on.

One last thing — be brave and commit to something when you find something that works! Remember: the most important thing is to get the work done.

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Nice post, @justindirose!

Don’t forget about Tinderbox, probably a category on its own, or perhaps one to be lumped with other more visual note approaches like The Brain and mind-mapping software. If you aren’t familiar with it, you may find this recent blog post I made about how I use Tinderbox to keep a Zettelkasten, which may shed some light on how very different it is (watch the fourth video for the best use case).

An interesting taxonomy that raises the thought that to be properly equipped for purposes that require research, thought and writing one may need more than a single note-taking application (which actually I agree with). No single application is likely to satisfy all requirements across the board.

BTW Eaglefiler ([https://c-command.com/eaglefiler/]), a long-standing competitor of DevonThink, Evernote and Keep It and its predecessors, perhaps ought to be included in the Reference Library category?

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Now you put the theme song of, “Pinky and The Brain” into my head. :slight_smile:

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Oh yes, that’s very interesting. I didn’t include Tinderbox on the list because it’s more of a mind-mapping app, but that does make a lot of sense! Great suggestion.

I hadn’t heard of EagleFiler prior to your mentioning it. Do you have any experience with the software? How does it work for you if you do?

Ah, but that’s not true! It may look like a mind-mapping app, but it’s actually a note-specific content management system. It’s entire philosophical underpinnings are in the taking, connecting, referencing, and sharing of notes.

So very much more than mapping, though conceptually mapping is a great feature in the app.

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My experience with Eaglefiler is relatively limited. I think I may have had a licence at one point (now no longer), but I’ve always followed its development with a keen interest. It’s probably most comparable with the now discontinued apps KIT and Together, with, like them, its folders accessible in the Finder. Unlike its current rivals Keep It and DevonThink, it doesn’t have an iOS sibling app. From evidence elsewhere, it’s partly distinguished by the knowledge (about macOS in general as well as Eaglefiler) and approachability of its developer, who’s also responsible for the (well-regarded, I believe) SpamSieve app.

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I know that Eastgate, the developer of Tinderbox, focuses a lot on the role of the application in the handling of notes. But to me that somehow implies usability features, possessed by apps such as Bear, Notability or Apple Notes, that Tinderbox lacks.

For me, Tinderbox notes are simply a medium. The goal of the application and what makes it so useful, at least for me, is - if this doesn’t sound too pompous or grandiose - the management and structuring of thoughts.

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Agree w/both the points you make here, Hugh. Well put.

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I tried really hard to use Tinderbox, but it never seemed to give me any benefit. I struggled with the ancient UI, things not staying zoomed or panned when you entered or exited a container note, etc. Then about the time all that was going on, it was time to pay for another years updates at $98, after having spent, what, $250 on the app plus $35 on his book?
Since then, I’ve found other apps (with more personable developers) such as Curio to be much more useable.
Maybe it’s time to revisit Tinderbox again. If you all have suggestions for novel ways to think about its use, I’m all ears.

Might want to take a look at my post above where I linked one use case.

I also have found Stephen Zeoli’s screencasts helpful (scroll to the bottom for the Tinderbox ones).

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I’d say the value of Tinderbox to you or others is likely to depend on two things: the amount of time that you’re prepared to put in to learn it, and your use-cases.

As far as the learning-time is concerned, its learning-curve is famously quite steep. If I were learning it now, I’d ignore the book, which as Beck Tench says is concerned mainly with its philosophical underpinnings and is definitely not a “how-to” manual. Like Beck Tench I think that Steve Zeoli’s blog and screencasts comprise the best initial guide (though now a few years old). And I’d start slowly, using Tinderbox initially only as an outliner, for which, if you know other outliners, its use is likely to be relatively familiar and easy to understand. Only later would I start using it also in its alternative, graphical guises.

As far as use-cases are concerned, its most frequently-cited role is perhaps in helping the user to identify “emergent structure” - that is, in finding relationships that are not overtly apparent between data or ideas. So I use it in discovering and plotting the optimal structure for long-form fictional projects, and so I know do others. Others use it in academic projects, involving dissertation and article structuring. Others use it for straight-up-and-down data analysis. Of course, alternative tools, some simpler and cheaper such as outliners and mind-mappers (or combinations, including Curio mentioned above), or more complex and expensive, can perform these functions to a greater or lesser extent. But Tinderbox is perhaps unique at its price-point in having quite so many different features dedicated to the role.

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