Saturday, January 7, 2012

The notebook applications – online and off

The next step in human evolution or just a good place to park your data?

In our previous discussion on how to organize information using outliners, mindmaps, files and even 3x5 cards, we discussed some of the advantages of using notebook applications which are, essentially, free-form databases. It might be an exaggeration to say that these applications are the next evolutionary step in human memory capacity, but they sure can be useful.

If you want to use a notebook application, there are some wonderful choices for you to consider. Here is my take of the advantages and disadvantages of the various offerings.

Springpad emphasizes social networking tools rather than just collecting data. It is primarily a web application which can also be accessed using Android and iPhones and iPads — no downloadable PC or Mac apps, yet. Springpad has some unique features, like the ability to scan a bar code with your phone to import the info on the product (say, a book) directly into Springpad. It also has a digital felt board area where you can arrange different pages in a notebook on a wall. (Unfortunately, this feature appears only to work in Chrome and Safari so far).

You can create notebook pages, tasks and add things to a “Look it up” area. You can also create both public and private RSS feeds. Presumably, other Springpad users can look through your public RSS feeds to see what you are following. This fits in with the “Friends Stuff” (which, grammatically, should be “Friends’ Stuff”), which allows you to choose which Facebook friends to follow to see their favorite books, movies, games, TV shows, and places. The interface facilitates sharing info (recipes, recommended books, films, restaurants), which makes it great for online communities. I never found Springpad a useful place for individuals. People who value privacy probably should avoid Springpad (and, apparently, Facebook, too). Some features may only work with Chrome browsers.

Springnote. Although the name is similar, Springnote takes a very different approach from Springpad. When you create a notebook you decide whether it will be private (personal, but allowing you to share with others) or a group notebook (which is more like a wiki environment where all members can view, create and add information). Since sharing information is an important part of Springnote, you can use your RSS feed application (such as Google Reader) to show updates to other members’ notebooks. You can add other members to your “watch” list, and use search tools to find content you are interested in. Once you visit another person’s notebooks, you can leave comments.

Springnote appears to have one of the best text editors of the notebook apps, allowing you pretty full formatting of text, including list and paragraph styles. You can also export a Springnote page to your blog – which might be particularly useful if you want a group to take a wiki approach to creating blog posts.

Likewise, Springnote’s wiki approach allows you to easily create workspaces for formal and informal work groups with other users around the world. You can allocate different permissions for reading and editing.

Among the other features are a Dashboard, similar to what you find on project management applications. You can easily see which pages have been updated, add tags, organize pages into a tree structure (like an outliner), view page histories and download HTML backups of files.

Membership is free and you get up to 2 GB free storage. In addition to working online, you can use iPhone and iPad applicatons, but there doesn’t appear to be an Android app.

If you need fairly complete word processing tools, want to connect your notebook to your blog, or want to create an ad hoc or permanent wiki-style work group, Springnote might be a very attractive option if you don’t have to work off-line or use non-iOS equipment.

übernote has fewer social tools and its main use is to take actual notes. (What a radical idea!) If you don’t need to share notes with others or create workgroups, überNote is a nice online option. You can create check-off lists, tag information, collect web references (with their übermark tool) or just import the entire page. There is a lightning tag you can use for important notes and reminders.

The main application is online, but you can access it from phones and use additional tools to collect information via browsers. UberNote includes free and paid levels, but will be adding a more expensive premium level which will include SSL secure connections, use of folders to collect different pages, more and larger files, and a new voice to note utility.

Zoho Notebook  Previously, Zoho’s notebook was a very basic and boring notebook application; it’s main attraction was that it was part of a large application suite. Today’s Zoho Notebook (in beta) has grown to include many of the features of OneNote and Evernote and beyond. It lets you store text, graphics, audio, video, HTML, and you can also embed URLs, RSS, lists, Zoho writer docs, spreadsheets, presentations, and files. You can also create well-formatted text files and spreadsheets directly within the notebook with its mini-Writer and mini-Sheet tools.

You can share notebooks with others and publish them, too. It does have a few features that Evernote doesn't have: You can embed videos in Zoho Notebook. (You can attach short videos in Evernote, but it doesn’t appear that you can watch them within Evernote.) You can create functioning spreadsheets in Zoho, Evernote just uses tables, and Zoho’s formatting tools are superior to Evernote.

If you use Zoho as your main office workspace, combining the Notebook and Zoho’s clipping bookmark might be a nice way to centralize all your research in one location. But there are no desktop or phone applications for Zoho Notebook as there are for Evernote. Individuals may use all of Zoho’s applications for free. Feature-wise, Zoho is creating an impressive multi-media data collection tool.

Microsoft OneNote is a well done but more complicated program with PC, online, and Windows Phone and iPhone apps (no Mac or Android versions). You must buy one of the Office 2010 suites for the latest version, it’s not sold separately. (OneNote 2007 does not sync with the newer online OneNote pages.) Like all Microsoft programs, it is feature-rich and allows you to select commands in many ways (ensuring a longer learning curve). The lack of tags is, in my opinion, a major weakness of the program as is its search function. However, with web, installed and Sharepoint tools, it can be a powerful information resource for teams in a business setting. If you already own Office 2010, by all means give it a look. For me, the lack of Android support and the necessity of buying an entire Office suite to upgrade are fatal weaknesses.

Evernote. One of the ways that Evernote blows its competition out of the water is its almost universal accessibility. There are downloadable desktop versions for both Macintosh OS X and Windows; apps for iPhone, iPod, iPad, Android, Blackberry, Palm, WebOS and Windows Phone 7, and it works with Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome and other browsers, including various clipping and reading tools. You can also submit clips via email and send tweets to Evernote by adding “MyEN” to the tweet. (You can set up a circle in Google+ specifically to forward any of your messages to Evernote.) You can also share notes with your Facebook friends, and with Google contacts.

Evernote offers universal file synchronization for plain and formatted text, images, audio, photographs and PDFs. A great feature is its ability to search for and index text from within images and PDF files. So, for example, you can take a picture of a whiteboard presentation with your phone and send it to Evernote online. Evernote will search the photo for text and index that text for easy search. That picture and keywords will sync with your desktop app, too.

For free accounts: you can upload up to 60 megabytes/month free. (I’ve never exceeded it.) You can share access to your notes or publish them to the web with an URL. (Shared editing takes a paid account, however.)

Paid accounts cost $5 per month or $45 per year, and allow you to upload up to 1 GB of data per month. You can sync any file format as long as the file size is under 25 Mb. The paid accounts also add secure SSL encryption, priority tech support, priority image recognition (to find searchable text), and no ads. It will also search PDFs for text and index the text. Another paid advantage is the ability to store your complete Evernote collection on your smart phone, so you can access your notes even when not connected to the internet. Other premium services are collaboration capabilities and the option to allow others to edit shared pages. There are discounted memberships for three or more sharing an account for a workgroup.

In the past year, the company has begun developing additional programs to augment Evernote. Its first new app, Skitch, allows you to edit and draw on photographs which you can then send to Evernote or to other applications. Evernote Clearly is a browser app which allows you to read web articles in a variety of fonts and sizes without all the background ads and rigmarole (similar to Readability, but quicker). Clearly also works with Evernote’s clipping tools to allow you to save selections or entire articles in Evernote. Evernote Food is designed for foodies who like to photograph and write about their culinary experiences, so far only available for iOS. Evernote is also developing Hello, which is a people manager (much like a contact manager), but your contacts can help create their own profile. Rumors are that a new advanced To Do list manager is in the works for release sometime soon.

There is also a huge number of outside utilities designed to work with Evernote. One, Call Trunk, is an internet phone service to make phone calls, record them, and upload the sound files to Evernote, where you can add your own notes and even transcribe the files. It works with Android, iPhone and Blackberry phones and even integrates with your phone’s contact manager.

There are many other tools, including over 100 phone and tablet apps to connect info (scans, business card photos, handwritten notes) with Evernote – mostly for iOS but also Android and others, too. There are many other desktop and web accessible applications which connect your info with Evernote, including webcasting and groupware applications. Hardware manufacturers from scanners to smart pens, to Wacom tablets, to VAIO computers include software to connect with Evernote also. It’s hard to think of any net-based program that is better connected. You can find these apps on Evernote’s own web store called TheTrunk. There are also free applications and notebooks to share.

Evernote Essentials is a PDF book by Brett Kelly just on using Evernote. There are also a wide variety of tools and guides in Japanese – it appears that the program is well received in Japan as well as in the U.S. Like its competitors, Evernote has its own blog and community. In addition, Evernote has its own Ambassadors — people who create blogs, webcasts and videos on how to use Evernote in the home and in business. Evernote is well represented on blogs and YouTube videos.

My Evernote Wish List.

If you, the reader, haven’t already figured it out, Evernote is my favorite of this group.

However, even with all these features, I do have a few quibbles with Evernote. First, its universal green interface reminds me of some old institutional green color schemes, which is not a great psychological boost. A choice of colors or even skins would be nice.

Its text formatting options could add styles for characters and paragraphs as well as formatting rulers and better tabs. (Zoho and Springnote have better text formatting tools.) Evernote’s tables are quite limited. Evernote could really benefit from embeddable spreadsheets to replace tables, like Zoho Notebook. (Zoho uniquely has the advantage of actually having its own spreadsheet program to embed into its Notebook.)

Evernote really, really, REALLY needs a good To Do / Task List manager to add to its notebooks. I would have gladly foregone many other features for this. (I’ve been waiting years for this, Evernote.)

It would be great if Evernote allowed you to encrypt notes for greater security online. You can encrypt text in Evernote’s Windows and Mac clients, but not online. Since you can create private notebooks that are not shared online, that is not a bad option, but it limits accessibility. (None of the reviewed programs above appear to encrypt pages online. For this reason, users need to beware putting sensitive, personal, student data, legal, medical or proprietary info or passwords online, no matter which notebook they use.)

Finally, as an Android user, I would like to see more programs come out in Android before iPhone and iPad, naturally. Also, it would make life simpler if The Trunk put iOS and Android apps on separate pages or otherwise showed which was which without clicking to read the description.

In conclusion, your choices:

So if universal connectivity, lots of ways to submit notes, and a galaxy of add-on apps appeal to you, Evernote is probably your best choice. If you are more interested in what your Facebook and other friends are reading, watching, cooking and listening to, Springpad may be the better tool.

If you want an app with wiki features for a workgroup, you should compare Springnote and Evernote to see which has the features you want. (Zoho also offers a wiki application plus its notebook and all its other applications, but they are separate programs. Google offers free wiki tools, but is discontinuing its notebook app.) Springnote and Zoho Notebook appear to have the best word processing features, too.

If you are a spreadsheet maven and like or need to embed spreadsheets in your notes (say, for a blog on using spreadsheets or for data analysis), I’d give Zoho Notebook a good look. It can also export its pages in XHTML to add to a web page.

If you are a student and use your notebook or netbook computer to take all your notes where there is a universal Internet connection, UberNote might be all you need, but frankly, I’d try Evernote, too.

If your office already uses Microsoft Office and Sharepoint, OneNote is probably already installed and ready for use, online and off. The problem there is training the staff how to use the program features and how to work in groups. Macintosh users are left out in the cold, though, and are probably already using Evernote.

But Evernote is the über-program to compare all others to, and it’s growing new features and apps quickly.

Coming soon: The Seven Types of Evernote Users

Key wordsEvernote, Springpad, Springnote, UberNote, OneNote, Zoho, notebook, wiki, workgroup, notes, apps, phone