The New Simplenote Apps

If asked to trim my iPhone and iPad Home screens down to just one app, that app would be Simplenote.

I have been using Simplenote for as long as I can remember. What first won me over to the app was certainly not the icon. Rather, it was (a) Simplenote’s ability to sync my notes over-the-air to my Mac, and (b) its use of Helvetica. These were two huge improvements on Apple’s native Notes app which synced over USB and used Marker Felt as the typeface.

Simplenote shipped in 2008 when the iPhone App Store was fresh and there was only a rumor of an iPad. In many ways, the app has barely changed since its very first version, seeing mostly only refinements and iterations of the original design.

Today, 5 years later, look at the App store today and you’ll find no shortage of minimalistic, well-designed, note-taking apps that sync over-the-air. And many of these apps are absolutely fantastic. But, even after my foray into Simplenote alternatives and doing research and trying out other note-taking apps, I’ve stuck with Simplenote as my iOS note-taking app of choice.

So much of how I use my iPhone and iPad is text based: ideas, articles, to-do items, lists, and more. Because I have an affinity for apps that do one thing well, currently all these “text-based” things are handled by unique apps:

However, I could consolidate them all into just one app if I had to. And that app would be Simplenote. The reason I’d choose Simplenote is because it’s a quick, easy-to-use app with great search and it has fast, reliable sync.

Today we find a significant update to Simplenote on iOS as well as a brand-new, native Simplenote app for the Mac.

These huge updates to Simplenote came as a bit of a surprise to me. When Simperium, the Simplenote development team, was acquired by Automattic, I was hopeful yet also had concerns that the future of Simplenote was in question. The announcement stated that Automattic founder, Matt Mullenweg, was a fan of Simplenote and had plans to keep its development, but that’s not always how things pan out after an acquisition.

Fortunately, I was wrong. And today we see one of the best updates to Simplenote yet.

Simplenote on iOS

The new iOS 7 version of Simplenote for the iPhone and iPad is even more simple (if that were possible) than its predecessor.

From a feature standpoint, what’s new about new Simplenotes is more like a list of what’s gone from the previous version.

In the previous version of Simplenote there was a modicum of preferences that allowed you to adjust a handful of options. Such as how your “timeline” list of notes was sorted, what font size you wanted for reading and editing a note’s text, and more.

However, in the new Simplenote, those options are all gone save one: the option for your list of notes to show a preview of text under each title or not.

Simplenote old and new side-by-side preferences

In one of the early iOS builds I tested, the preference for condensing the note list wasn’t even there. Fortunately, the developers were willing to be persuaded to add back in this preference which I consider essential.

The option to sport a collapsed notes list is huge for how I use Simplenote. Since I usually have around 10 active notes going at any given time, I love being able to see all of them at a glance when I open Simplenote on my iPhone.

I have no doubt that other preferences will slowly be added back in. But this initial purging marks the beginning of the next generation for Simplenote.

In the iOS apps, the most significant change you’ll see right away is Simplenote’s new typeface: Source Sans Pro. Other than the many refinements to several current features (such as sharing and version history) almost all of the biggest changes are under the hood. In fact, iOS apps have been re-written from the ground up in order to lay a new foundation for future iteration and evolution.

Tom Witkin, who also went to work for Automattic a few months back and is now one of the Automattic team members working on Simplenote, said to me that their general thinking throughout the entire Simplenote design process has been “to create a great platform to build Simplenote upon going forward.”

For an app with simple in the name, I’m delighted to see that it’s staying true to its nature. While I do miss a few of my legacy features, after a few weeks with the betas, I would not go back to the old version. The app feels faster, more professional, more modern, and more refined. Everything the new Simplenote does, it does very well.

Search

Search itself remains as great as ever. Simplenote’s search has always been second to none, and it continues to be one of the app’s finest features. I use it often, and it’s one of the primary reasons I chose to stay with Simplenote when looking into alternatives (as mentioned above). I can’t say how glad I am that search in Simplenote continues to be a top-priority for the developers.

In the new Simplenote, search has seen some nice design improvements that makes it a more polished and refined experience. When searching a term, the list of notes is pared down in real time to only those with that term in the title or the body text. If the term exists in the title, that word gets set in blue text. Tapping on a note from the search results takes you to the first result of that term within the note’s body text, and that term is highlighted in a blue rounded rectangle. Arrow buttons at the bottom-right in the note’s toolbar take you to the next and previous instances of the term, and next to those arrows you’re told how many total instances of the search term there are in the current note.

If you’re familiar with search in Simplenote, the overall experience is more or less the same. What’s new is primarily the above mentioned design details (the blue treatment on the words and the better highlighting within a note). But these are details that make the searching experience easier and more efficient.

Collaboration

What used to be called Sharing is now called Collaboration. This works on the Mac and iOS versions of Simplenote.

You collaborate a note with someone by adding their email address as a tag to your note. If you add the email address associated with that person’s Simplenote account then the shared note shows up in your collaborator’s Simplenote list. If you add an email address that’s not associated with a Simplenote account, then that person will get an email and can either (a) log in to Simplenote if they have their Simplenote account associated with a different email, and the note will be added; or else (b) create an account.

In the new Simplenote app, there is no longer an icon letting you know which notes in your list you’re collaborating on. Which means if someone shares a note with me, then the only way I know it’s been shared is because I notice there’s a new note there that didn’t exist before.

Moreover, if someone shares a note with you, the only way to know who has shared it is by the email alert. For an incoming shared note, there are no tags with the originator’s email addresses, nor does their email appear in the “Collaborators” list.

I’d love to see the collaboration area improve even more, by (a) offering better information about who is collaborating on a note regardless of the originator, (b) giving me the option to accept or decline incoming shared notes; and (c) some sort of marker letting me know a note in the list is shared.

Also, I see some options for pro features here, such as a list of trusted collaborators whose notes automatically get added to my list (first assuming Simplenote added the ability to accept/decline incoming shared notes), push notification options for new shared notes and when updates to a note are synced, and better visibility into the changes of a note when peering back at the note’s history. Also it’d be nice to add more email address to my Simplenote account (similar to how you can have several iMessage IDs).

Additional Tidbits Regarding New / Updated Features

  • As mentioned above, the default typeface is no longer Helvetica. Simplenote now uses Source Sans Pro for the note list and note body text. Though, as you can clearly see in the above screenshot, the settings pane still uses Helvetica.

    Source Sans Pro: the new Simplenote typeface

  • Simplenote on iOS now auto-completes unordered bullet lists when you start a list and continue it by tapping the return button.

  • Publishing your note to a URL (so you can make that note’s contents public to anyone you like) has a much nicer in-app interface, and an updated look to the Simplenote website is in the works as well.

  • When typing in a note on the iPhone version, the top navigation bar “minimizes” (a la Safari) when scrolling down in your note, and in landscape orientation, the nav bar disappears altogether when you scroll down. A nice touch.

  • The Pro subscription has been temporarily removed. For now, all Pro users will keep on getting their benefits (no API sync limit, Dropbox syncing, etc.) while the Simplenote guys figure out what to do next with the Pro subscription model.

  • Gesture navigations: On the iPhone you can swipe left-to-right on a note to return to the note list. On the iPad, you can “pinch” the note closed.

  • On the iPad there is no longer the 2-column view that sports the list of notes on the left and the text on the right. There is only one view at a time: your list of notes or else the note you’re viewing/editing. I prefer this “simplified” viewport setup because it often saves me an extra tap, since I usually prefer to view my notes in the iPad in fullscreen mode anyway. Now, they always are.

Simplenote on Mac

For the past several weeks that I’ve been testing the new Simplenote apps, I’ve eschewed my regular use of nvALT to give my full attention to the Simplenote Mac app.

Some things I like about it are its clean and classy design that feels very open and yet not wasteful. Also it features full integration with all the Simplenote features (obviously).

However, there is no autocompletion of any syntax such as unordered lists, there is very little keyboard navigation — CMD+F for search and CMD+N for a new note. Though I’m told that the basic syntax completion is planned for a future release.

Since nvALT now uses the new Simplenote API (the same API that the native Simplenote Mac app uses), as someone who’s grown used to the keyboard-friendly features of nvALT I see no advantage of switching to the Simplenote Mac app unless you make heavy use of tags, collaboration, or you prefer the design.

Wrap Up

The new Simplenote apps are free. The Mac app is available only in the Mac App Store, and the iOS apps are, obviously, only available in the iOS App Store.

While there are a lot of things I use my iPhone for — email, text messaging, Twitter, Instapaper, RSS, taking photos and videos, journaling, to-do list managing, music listening, and more — the one thing I would likely miss the most is the ability to take notes, make lists, write ideas, and have those all in sync with my Mac and iPad. Which is why Simplenote continues to be one of my favorite and most-used apps.

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