Notes from a Floating Life Thoughts about productivity, digital living, and leading a simpler life

Taking a Look at Simplenote

As someone who writes for a living, I take a lot of notes. And while I still use a physical notebook, I take most of my notes digitally. Over the years, I’ve tried a number of tools and techniques to do just that. They all worked, but never quite the way I wanted them too.

Then I found Simplenote. It fits in with my philosophy that a tool should be simple, and simple to use. And the fact that it’s plain text is a bonus. In fact Simplenote is one of the web-based applications that I regularly recommend to people.

Having said that, I do have a confession to make: a year or so ago, I drifted away from Simplenote. Why? I was bumping up against some of what I perceived as being its limitations. But lately, it’s pulled me back. Simplenote is more than adequate for my note taking needs.

What Simplenote Does for Me

As its name says, Simplenote is simple. It’s easy to use. There’s nothing to set up. I just log in and start typing.

And it’s that ease of note taking that appeals to me. It’s just me and my words. Or the URLs I’m copying. Or anything else that I put into Simplenote using its web-based interface or one of the tools that I use with it. More on these in a moment.

Some people I know are put off by the lack of ability to create folders and subfolders within Simplenote to better organize their notes. I don’t see that as an issue, partly because Simplenote has a better-than-average search engine and partly because it lets you tag your notes. Tags are keywords that you attach to your notes. For example, say I come up with an idea for a blog post. I’ll type a note and then tag it with the keyword blog.

So what does that do? I can choose blog (or any other tag) from a list in Simplenote and it will display all the notes that are tagged with that that keyword. It narrows down the options in the list of notes. And if the list is too long, I can use the search engine to narrow the list down even further.

Sometimes, I’ll write notes or even drafts of articles or posts in Simplenote. Then, I’ll delete something and later decide that I need it again. Well, that something isn’t gone. Simplenote has a basic revision control feature. It keeps a history of a note, and I can reach back into the past to grab something I might have chopped when I shouldn’t have chopped it.

Finally, and you had to see this one coming, Simplenote supports Markdown. You can edit using Markdown, and preview how a formatted note will look when converted to HTML.

What Simplenote Can’t Do

It’s definitely not as fully-featured as a tool like, say, Evernote. You can’t organize your notes in folders (which I talked about a few paragraphs ago) or attach files to a note. The latter was for a while one of the limitations with Simplenote that I bumped up against a year or so ago. But that isn’t too much of a problem now. More and more, I find I put files in Dropbox.

I’m sure that there are other limitations that people have run into.

Tools That I Use with Simplenote

For some, this could be another limitation: there aren’t that many tools —whether mobile or on your computer —that work with Simplenote. Especially when compared to something like Evernote. Having said that, there are a few and they’re pretty solid.

To be honest, I only use three tools with Simplenote. And sometimes I think that’s too much …

First up, Notational Acceleration. I use it on my Android-powered devices. It lets me quickly take notes and, when I’m online, it syncs with Simplenote. Notational Acceleration doesn’t render Markdown, but you can use Markdown to format notes.

On my laptop and Chromebook, I use an extension for the Google Chrome browser called SyncPad. It syncs with Simplenote so my notes are just a click away. With a click, I can also add a note (along with a tag) and it gets synced with Simplenote. And, yes, Markdown is supported.

Finally, there’s Dropbox. Is that a surprise? I linked Simplenote with Dropbox to back up my notes. You can only do that with a paid account, though, which costs $19.99 a year.

Update: I’ve also started using a desktop application called nvpy, which is inspired by a nifty Mac application called Notational Velocity. I’ll be writing a post about nvpy sometime in the near future.

Final Thought

Simplenote isn’t for everyone. It doesn’t pack the features they use or think they need. For me, it’s more than enough. Simplenote fits quite nicely into my plain text workflow. I can’t ask for much more.

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