Note-taking With Simplenote

I’ve written before about my experience using Notable for taking notes. Notable is a terrific app, and overall I’ve been extremely happy with it. The one shortcoming it has is that there isn’t any kind of mobile support. It’s something currently in the pipeline, but it isn’t available yet:

Mobile apps, so you won’t have to resort to third-party Markdown editors.

Screenshot of the Notable website saying that mobile apps are a future feature.

The nice part about Notable is that anything which can access the cloud storage where I keep my notes can open the Markdown files, but having to resort to a 3rd party Markdown editor on mobile isn’t great; I typically just wait until I’m at a laptop before I do anything with my Notable content as a result.

Due to this and because I have no life, I decided to spend a little time around the holidays looking at different apps for my notes, a topic the Craft Brew Geek and I have discussed at great length over the years. I ended up giving Simplenote a spin since it seemed to check the boxes of:

  1. Being available on macOS, Linux, and iOS
  2. Supporting Markdown

Yeah… My requirements were fairly simple… no pun intended. There’s also a web app for it, which is nice since it means I don’t necessarily have to install the app on devices where I don’t plan to access my notes very frequently. Simplenote is made by Automattic, the same company which makes WordPress, so I could feel good that it has some solid backing.

Giving Simplenote a spin was relatively easy. I uploaded my Markdown files from Notable, which was trivial since they’re saved directly to my filesystem. While that captured my content, the headers in the Notable files had to be manually removed. Likewise, I had to manually tag each note in Simplenote for organization. I’m sure I could’ve scripted the former, though I didn’t have enough notes where that seemed like a good use of my time as opposed to just grinding through them.

Pros

I would say that supporting Markdown is a “pro”, though I tend to think of it more as a “requirement”; if it didn’t support Markdown, I never would’ve made it far enough for this post to exist. Instead, I’ll say the biggest pro is that it supports a wide variety of platforms, including mobile. Simplenote also syncs content with the cloud. Unlike Notable which allows you to simply save content on your local filesystem into a directory which syncs with your cloud provider of choice, Simplenote handles this all for you, which is both good and bad. Regardless, it was nice to simply install the app, log in — I opted to authenticate with my WordPress account since it’s made by Automattic — and see all of my notes, even if I was just in a browser.

For me, this was big since it meant when blogging I no longer needed to throw Markdown files into ProtonDrive. The app UI and web UI were both extremely consistent if simple; I don’t think “simple” is necessarily a bad thing where my notes are involved. I don’t typically need bells and whistles. I need to be able to quickly jot down important information in a well organized and discoverable fashion.

Cons

While the name “Simplenote” naturally implies that the app is simple, however, there’s definitely such a thing as being too simple. For example, Simplenote doesn’t support adding images into notes. I’m personally not a fan of having images in my notes where I can avoid it; from back in the day when I used OneNote, including images seemed like a recipe for ending up with content that was scaled horribly, missing, or otherwise unreadable. When your critical content of a note is contained in that image, the note becomes worthless. As a result, I tend to think in terms of keeping as much information in text as possible. That being said, it can often be useful to grab screenshots of architectural diagrams and things like that which don’t translate well to text, and Simplenote doesn’t allow for that.

My main issue, though, is that Simplenote seems to be highly focused on note creation rather than note consumption. What I mean by that is that any note I happen to click on will initially be in raw, editable Markdown. If I want to simply read a note, I have to put it into preview mode, which can be done either via a keyboard shortcut or by clicking a button. If I move from that note to any other note, though, the new note will immediately be in edit mode rather than preview mode. So every note I click on looks like this:

Simplenote in edit mode

I have to hit a key combo or click the eye icon in the upper-right corner to enter preview mode:

Simplenote rendering Markdown in preview mode

This was significantly more disruptive to my workflow than I expected since my note-taking tends to happen in bursts. I’ll typically author notes while actively working on an issue, going through a training, etc., but outside of that most of my time is spent referencing my notes. Having to click into preview mode every time I wanted to view a new note came off as a rather clunky experience. This contrasts starkly with Notable. In Notable, whether the notes are in preview or edit mode is more like a global toggle. If I opt to edit a note, then any note I click on will be in edit mode. If I opt to preview my notes, then any note I click on will be in preview mode. For me, this is a much more elegant solution.

Similarly, on mobile notes also default into edit mode. I had to swipe the note to the left — something I had to look up online because it wasn’t intuitive within the app — in order to see the preview. Just like with the desktop app, switching notes for any reason immediately put the new note back into edit mode.

The other issue I noticed is that while Simplenote has support for authoring content in Markdown, it doesn’t appear to save your content directly to the filesystem as Markdown. To me, this is one of the huge benefits of Notable; if I ever decide I don’t want to use Notable or Notable goes away, I still have all of my content in a standard format. Simplenote does offer the option to export your notes, though.

Ultimately, the clunky experience with using my notes as a reference far outweighed the benefits of being able to view my notes from the web or on my phone. As it stands, I’m currently sticking with Notable and using ghostwriter to render any one-off Markdown, like my notes for this very post.

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