updated 03:05 am EDT, Mon June 30, 2014
Complete note-taking app with notebook metaphor, iPad version available
Software developers Circus Ponies has been making its flagship Mac product Notebook for over 10 years (and it was originally on NeXTStep before that), only last month introducing the latest major version, 4.0. The program has been a stalwart, comprehensive note-taking app that tries to include every feature students and professionals who need more than bullet points might conceivably need, and goes well beyond typical "Note" or "Notepad" type apps. With the release of a significant bug-fix update (v4.0.3), we thought it was time to appraise this skeuomorphic scratch pad.
The term "skeuomorphic" has gotten a bad rap, but there are times when its entirely appropriate. For people younger than current-generation students, the lined-paper motif of Notebook can be reassuring, comforting or kitschy, but the idea is to have it behave like a traditional notebook with some digital extras, in much the same way e-books continue to work a lot like paper books (with a few extra features). Modern school students may have little (and lessening by the day) contact with traditional note-taking and notebooks in the age of e-textbooks and iPads, but for anyone much older, the metaphor works well.
Different subjects are separated by "tabs" -- which will have an entirely different meaning to "former students" than it does now -- and each subject can have as many pages as needed, so all the notes stay in the same place. More importantly, the latest version uses XML for a format -- meaning that the content users save can be recovered in other programs if desired or necessary. Users can attach little bookmark "stickies" to sections for reminder purposes as well, carrying the notebook metaphor out beyond the boundaries of the page area.
Our first five minutes or so with Notebook
Notebook also allows synced recording of audio that can be anchored to specific portions of a note, a huge benefit. The full range of fonts, colors and characters can be used, with automatic outlining or not as the user desires. The diagramming feature is a surprisingly handy feature, allowing us poorer note-takers to illustrate concepts that would take longer to elucidate in text. The company makes an iPad version ($5) of the program as well, which should be considered a must for serious students, journalists or anyone who finds that their original notes need frequent revision as information is added, such as during a business briefing.
Related documents can be "nested" within a note so that all relevant materials are handy, and the program installs a "service" that can be accessed in nearly any program so users can "clip" extracts from web pages, emails, embedded multimedia and other things into Notebook, allowing for very structured or very free-form note-taking. To-dos can be integrated directly into notes and linked to Calendar for reminders and alarms.
Possibly the best feature of all is what the programs calls its "multidex," meaning an organic and automatic index of everything done in the notebooks, so users can find items or snippets based on nearly anything they can remember about the piece they're looking for. It's truly helpful.
Self-generated index of all notes
There are some awkward interface elements, however. We noticed that once you invoked the "sketch" mode, you couldn't move anything until you turned sketch off again. While you can move drawings in a satisfying Appleworks-esque manner by lassoing, drawing something in one place and expecting text to "jump over" it to carry on writing just didn't work as expected. There needs to be a layout-program-like "float around" drawn items by default so you can more easily jump from drawings/diagrams to text and it carries on after the drawing on the page, in our view.
Also of note in the "minus" department is a limitation beyond Circus Ponies' control in the Mac App Store version of the app ($60), as Apple's "sandboxing" security measures prevent the MAS version from "clipping" from inside other programs directly, though copying and pasting of text still works and images can be dragged directly from a browser to a notebook without issue. The company sells its own version with clipping services directly from its site for $50 (an academic version can be had for $10 less, and there are other licensing options).
Notebook's ability to throw everything but the kitchen sink into documents and adapt to work with a wide variety of note-taking styles, along with its ability to find anything every entered into its pages and notebooks, is the programs best feature. Anyone who needs note-taking that goes well beyond the basics will want to take a look at this program, though it is clearly aimed at students and business uses, and the ability to turn any line of a note into an "action item" with Calendar integration is right up there with the automatic index on the list of super-useful features.
Notebook would certainly benefit from an iPhone version, though the iPad version of the program (which, despite being labelled v4, is actually more like v3.1 and has not caught up to iOS 7's design language yet) is even heavier on the "skeuomorphic" style than the Mac version (giant No. 2 pencil for a document header, anyone?) and is also hobbled with the inability to grab from media libraries. Amazingly, there is not yet any automatic sync between the iPad and Mac versions of the program, a puzzling omission -- though Mac notebooks can be synced to the iPad through manual syncing in iTunes.
Who is Notebook best for? Students, mind-mappers, brainstormers and those who find they need to take notes incorporating information from a variety of sources.
Who would not benefit from Notebook? Skeuomorphism haters, people who insist they can keep it all in their head, those wanting a minimalist approach to note-taking.