A Foray Into Simplenote Alternatives

My history with iOS notes apps is briefly recounted. I used Apple’s own Notes app until 2009, which is when I learned of Simplenote. And I’ve been using the latter ever since.

To say I’m a fan of Simplenote would be like saying I kinda like coffee. Aside from Apple’s Messages and Phone apps, I don’t think any single app has been on my first Home screen for longer. And it’s the app I rely on the most because it’s where my “digital brain” lives. Notes, ideas, information — just about anything relevant or important to me right now — is stored inside Simplenote.

This, of course, isn’t the sort of thing that only Simplenote can handle. There are many options for those of us who have important bits of information we want to write down and have available to us regardless of if we’re with our iPhone, iPad, or Mac. Some folks live and breath in Evernote, others with a different notes app which syncs via Dropbox. If you’ve got a repository for where all your “stuff” lives, then you know what I mean when I say if I had to pare the apps on my iPhone down to just one, Simplenote would be the app left standing.

It’s not just about the app, of course. It’s about the data inside the app. Simplenote is invaluable to me because of the notes it holds. But a great app encourages regular use the same way a crummy app discourages it. And I can think of no higher priority for finding a great app than when looking for the one which will hold my digital brain.

* * *

The initial appeal of Simplenote over Apple’s Notes app was two-fold: (a) Helvetica; and (b) cloud sync. At first, the only non-iPhone access to our Simplenote notes was via the Web app. It may sound rough compared to what we are used to today, but compared to what it was like back when our notes were drowning in skeuomorphic legal pads and Marker Felt, Simplenote was a glorious, cutting-edge breath of fresh air. (And it has come a long way since those early days of an icon that pictured a high-school locker with a yellow sticky note.)

The first Mac client for Simplenote I used was a Dashboard widget called Dashnote. I used it for a few months until, in January 2010, Notational Velocity added Simplenote sync. And my iPhone, Mac, and iPad have had shared notes ever since.

Today, thanks to The Cloud, a huge part of my personal and professional workflow is underpinned by the syncing of my everyday data like documents, bookmarks, notes, and tasks.1

The broad strokes of my job here at shawnblanc.net include reading, writing, and publishing. If I had to, I could do those things from any of my 3 devices — iPhone, iPad, or Mac — at any given moment because everything important is pretty much in sync and accessible at all times.

To give a brief overview of my writing workflow, most articles start out as ideas and/or collections of information. And that always starts out in Simplenote (on iOS) or nvALT (on OS X).

(Of course, my database of notes is comprised of much more than just ideas and reference material for pending articles. They are made up of just about any tidbit of information which is relevant or important right now, or which I may want to access when on the go. For example: flight and hotel information for an upcoming trip; my shirt size for fitted, button-up shirts; some recipes; lists and references for random things (such as some favorite Supply Decks in Dominion); and more.)

Once I’m ready to turn my reference note into an article, I paste the note into a new Byword document and save that document to a Dropbox folder named “Writing”. All the articles I’m writing right now are in that folder.

On my iPad I have Byword, iA Writer, and Writing Kit all pointed to my “Writing” folder. These are all awesome apps and I use them on my iPad for long-form writing. Which one I use often depends on the weather or what type of coffee I made that morning, but these days it seems to usually be Writing Kit.

Now, some people keep both their notes and their articles-in-progress within their Notes folder. I, however, like having a separate place and separate apps for my Notes and Articles. Notes are notes, which for me means they are small, tidbity, random, and many. I don’t organize them by tags or folders, I just search for what I’m looking for. Simplenote and nvALT are fantastic apps for quickly jotting down or finding a note, but they are not the best apps for writing and editing big chunks of text in.

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Over the past several months, I’ve encountered occasional syncing hiccups. Posts like Michael’s and Brett’s led me to believe it has something to do with the combination of Simplenote and nvALT that I use. These hiccups slowly eroded my trust in the Simplenote syncing engine to handle my data. That is a bad place to be with an app you use so regularly. Therefore, a few weeks ago I reluctantly began looking into alternatives to Simplenote.

My options were: 1. Keep using my Simplenote/nvALT setup and hope the syncing issues resolve. 2. Find an alternative to nvALT and continue using Simplenote on iOS. 3. Find an alternative to Simplenote on iOS and begin syncing all my notes via Dropbox, whilst continuing to use nvALT.

Friends shouldn’t let friends look for a new iOS note-taking app that syncs with Dropbox.

There are a lot of great notes apps out there, each with different strengths and weaknesses. Once you start looking around it’s easy to get sucked in, never to be heard from again. If you’ve ever been in a similar boat then you feel my pain (maybe you still haven’t yet found land).

This entire article is the results of my rummaging around in search of answers. Is there a fix to the syncing hiccups? Is there a good alternative to nvALT? Is there a good alternative to Simplenote? Can someone please bring me a fresh cup of coffee?

The Root of the Simplenote / nvALT Syncing Hiccups

Early on in my quest, I found the root cause of the syncing hiccups I’ve been encountering. While my suspicions were correct that it had to do with the combination of Simplenote and nvALT, the problem is not as serious as I thought.

The syncing hiccup happens when creating a new note from within Simplenote’s iOS app. If it’s an extended note, the text will sometimes get cut-off as I’m in the middle of writing and a few sentences worth of text just disappear. Fortunately, a look into the note’s version history will reveal the text as it was just before getting cut off — thus, I haven’t actually lost any data. But having the ever-looming prospect of losing text is worrying to say the least.

The cause of this syncing hiccup is, however, not within Simplenote’s servers. Rather, it’s a bug in nvALT, and it only has to do with the first time a new note syncs into nvALT that was created via the Simplenote iOS/Web apps.

Knowing that there’s no real threat to losing my notes, and knowing the cause of the bug, gave me some fresh trust in my Simplenote/nvALT system. I could continue on and wait for a bug fix, look for a different Simplenote app on the Mac, or flat out move to Dropbox syncing.

Simplenote’s Dropbox Sync

Since my original plan all along was to use Simplenote’s Dropbox syncing service, I decided to keep using nvALT and move to Dropbox. Except, you can’t do that.

At first, I had assumed Simplenote’s option to enable Dropbox syncing meant my Simplenote iOS apps would use a Dropbox folder of text files to sync my notes instead of their proprietary Simperium syncing API. That is not the case at all.

What Simplenote’s Dropbox syncing actually means is that all your notes get pushed to a Dropbox folder and the Simplenote sync engine checks that folder ever 5-10 minutes and syncs any changes between it and your Simplenote database.

Simplenote Dropbox Sync explained

Though the Simplenote Dropbox syncing is not what I thought it would be, it still makes a great way to easily migrate my notes into Dropbox as individual text files. Also, it makes a great backup of all my notes. If you’re using Simplenote and are a premium subscriber, I highly recommend enabling the Dropbox syncing.

Savvy readers may know there is another way to get your Simplenote notes into Dropbox as individual text files. You can do so via nvALT. And it’s been outlined here in great detail by Michael Schechter.

I will add that something I like about the Simplenote export is that each note created uses the first line as the text file’s title, but also keeps the first line within the note’s body. nvALT’s creation of plain text files places the first line within the text file’s title and that is it. Thus, if you’re not somewhat careful about making sure the first line of your notes in nvALT are title-worthy, you’ll end up with some weird note titles and body text that begins by missing the first half of your sentence.

All this to say, if you are having trouble with nvALT and Simplenote but want to keep using Simplenote, there is but one good alternative: Justnotes.2

Justnotes

Justnotes is a great app with reliable syncing that works with Dropbox, Simplenote, or both. I’ve been using the app for the past couple weeks and I like it (though not quite as much as nvALT).

For the keyboard-committed among us, Justnotes is not as powerful or robust as nvALT. Also, Justnotes’ window has a bigger minimum footprint than nvALT. But I like that you can manually force a sync. And I’ve talked to the developer via Twitter and learned he is working on updating Justnotes to use Simplenote’s new API (which is faster, more robust, and handles conflict resolution better) and is also making some UI improvements.

Cody Fink and Ben Brooks both wrote reviews of Justnotes when it launched last Spring.

Dropbox Text Editors

After discovering that I wouldn’t be able to point my Simplenote apps to Dropbox instead of the Simperium sync servers, I began looking into other apps that I knew did sync with Dropbox.

There is a cornucopia of Dropbox enabled text editors and notes apps for iOS. So on Twitter I asked what people are using these days, and the overwhelming response was for either Notesy or Byword.

In addition to these two apps (the latter I already know well) I spent time with these two apps, as well as Elements, Nebulous Notes, WriteUp, and PlainText.

If I was to make the switch away from Simplenote, I’m looking for an app that has a clean interface, high-contrast, fast scrolling, syncing, and searching, and powerful search. Surprise, surprise — that description pretty much sums up Simplenote. Well, I don’t mind gushing about Simplenote. It’s an app I’ve relied on for years and it works exactly as I’d like it to.

For one, I love Simplenote’s searching. When you search for a term, not only does the list of notes shorten based on notes that contain that term, but then when you tap into a note, you’re taken to the first instance of that term, which is highlighted, and two arrows at the bottom of the screen help you navigate to all the other instances of that term in your note. So, say you’ve got a note with 100 quotes in it. If you search for “Franklin” the quote note would appear in the list and then when tapping on that note you’d start at the first instance of “Franklin” in the note. Simplenote makes it extremely easy to find exactly what you’re looking for quickly.

Since my foray into other apps was not due to a fault with the Simplenote app itself, each other option left me unsatisfied. Of all the other notes apps I spent time with, none were quite the right combination of design and functionality that I was looking for. Either too much or not enough…

Which Combo?

In the end, I’ve come back full circle and am sticking with Simplenote and nvALT. Though the syncing can hiccup at times, I still consider it to be the best. And, of course, now that I know more about the cause behind the syncing hiccups I no longer fear losing my data.

But, what’s best for me may not be what’s best for you. Through this process I came across additional note-syncing setups which I heartily recommend. The two best notes apps on Mac are nvALT and Justnotes. The two best notes apps on iOS are Notesy and Byword. Pick two, sync them up, and happy note keeping.


  1. Interestingly, as huge a role as Dropbox plays in my computing life, most of my aforementioned syncing happens outside of Dropbox and on the the app’s proprietary service. Text documents exist in a Dropbox folder, but bookmarks are synced with Pinboard, notes with Simplenote, and tasks with OmniFocus.
  2. Recently, the Simplenote team announced they are working on their own Mac app. If it’s anything like their iPhone and iPad apps then I have high hopes.
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