December 11, 2016

Notebooks a Multi-Pronged Toolset for macOS and iOS

Notebooks IconNotebooks Icon

Product: Notebooks 8
Price: $6.99
In-App Purchase: PDF Reader($2.99)

Product: Notebooks for Mac
Price: $19.99

Notebooks is a product which has been around for a while, but it doesn't get anywhere near the kind of love that it's due.

The initial release of Notebooks was on iOS and then came the macOS version. The iOS version has more features than the macOS version. I am going to write about the macOS version first and then include some thoughts on the iOS version. Interestingly Notebooks is available for Windows. I have no interest in testing that out, but it is available for those of you saddled with that particular beast.

Conceptually Notebooks is a collection of multiple apps. In no particular order of importance, these are the kind of apps whose functionality is included in Notebooks:

  • Notetaker: Allows you to take plain text notes.
  • Markdown Editor: Notebooks can be used as a full-featured markdown editor for text files. This is the task I use the program the most for.
  • Task Manager: Allows you to create and maintain task lists characterized by boxes you can tick when you complete tasks.
  • Word Processor: Allows to create and format styled rich documents.
  • File Storage: You can use Notebooks as a file storage system. It allows you to import text, HTML, RTF, PDF, MS Office, Apple iWork documents, iPhone and iPad notes, Palm memos, pictures, websites, web archives, audio files and videos. You can use Notebooks as a portable knowledge base.
  • HTML to Markdown Converter: Notebooks lets you convert between HTML and Markdown.
  • Clipboard Manager: On iOS, you can create new documents from the contents of your clipboard.
  • PDF Converter: You can convert any document or group of documents to PDF.
  • eBook Converter: On iOS, any document or group of documents can be converted into ebooks.

One of the reasons why Notebooks doesn't garner more attention is because it is difficult to slot it into a particular category. Specifically it is easier to write about a task manager or a markdown editor. Notebooks versatility makes the product difficult to describe. The good news is that you can just start using the product features which make sense to you and then incorporate other features as your needs change or grow. It is a stable, well designed application on both iOS and macOS, and it deserves more love.

The macOS Notebook

Three-paned NotebooksThree-paned Notebooks

Notebooks has a three paned design. A list of folders which are called books in Notebooks, followed by a list of individual files in a specific book, and the editor window displaying the contents of a selected file.

The editor window is where most of the work gets done and it has the choice of a nice notebook background. It has a running word and character count.

Notebooks PreferencesNotebooks Preferences

The preferences of Notebooks are well thought out. I am going to go through some of the choices which make me like this application.

Markdown as DefaultMarkdown as Default

The ability to assign a Markdown document as the default document type in Notebooks is appreciated. The other choices are plain text and formatted.

Notebooks Font ChoicesNotebooks Font Choices

I like the ability to choose my own font. I like writing in Operator Mono and I am happier when I can see my words in that font.

Notebooks BackgroundsNotebooks Backgrounds

There are a few backgrounds you can choose from in the editor window and I like the lined-notebook ones.

Notebooks Lined BackgroundsNotebooks Lined Backgrounds

Notebooks Auto-SavesNotebooks Auto-Saves

I like that Notebooks automatically saves my documents and I don't have to be worried about that.

Notebooks Full ScreenNotebooks Full Screen

Notebooks has a nice full screen mode. The one thing it is missing is typewriter scrolling. But it is a clean window to work in and it is a pleasure to see full screen mode implemented well for large screens.

Notebooks is distinguished by the use of plain text files. All the files created by Notebooks can be plain text files. It does not tie you to a proprietary file format or a proprietary database format. For those of us who are living in text files, this is a product feature whose absence is a deal breaker. I am glad to be able to use my existing text files in Notebooks. I am elated that the documents I produce in this application are accessible to any other program I choose to use.

Task Manager

Notebooks has an interesting implementation of a Task Manager. You can create a folder and within that you can have multiple folders. Each of these nested folders can be designated as a Tasklist.

Notebooks as TasklistsNotebooks as Tasklists

⌃+Click on the folder title, you are going to get a dropdown menu. Choose Show as Tasklist. You can create individual tasks within the folder. Each of these tasks is an individual file. You can write in it.

Notebooks Task List of Blog EntriesNotebooks Task List of Blog Entries

I maintain a task list for the blog. Firstly I decide on a topic for the blog, I make a new document in my task list. I write the first line, a header for the topic. I input the relevant URL's I need to talk about or link to. I can start writing in this document. It is like a task list and document for the topic all in one. At any given point in time, I have twenty or more of these blog articles I want to write.

Notebooks Color Label TasksNotebooks Color Label Tasks

I color label them depending on where they are in the workflow. Red for articles which are being worked on now. Green for articles which are ready. Yellow for articles which are in process. Without the aid of Notebook, I would have a hard time figuring out what I need to work on and what is the progress on each of these topics. In Notebook they are all in the same file. One glance and I am ready to write and/or edit and the process of preparing articles for the blog moves along.

Notebooks Status of TasksNotebooks Status of Tasks

Clicking on the round circle next to the title changes the status of the task. You can switch between open, started, done, or cancelled to denote the status of the task. Gives you a sense of where you are in the process. I sort the list manually. The tasks I am working on are on top, followed by the tasks I have decided to do, but haven't started, followed by the tasks which are done and then the ones I have canceled or given up on.

Notebooks Set Due DateNotebooks Set Due Date

⌃+Click on the document in the file list and you get the above drop-down menu. This has a few interesting choices. The first one is Set Due Date…. You can set a due date for the task.

I love the Task Manager component of Notebook.

Other Comments

An interesting choice in the drop-down menu from above is Open(⌘O). The markdown file opens in the markdown editor you have assigned in your system. In my case, the file opens in iA Writer. So, I can keep writing in my chosen editing environment and the file gets updated in Notebooks. Notebooks supports Markdown but it is better implemented in iA Writer. So, I switch to iA Writer to write when I know I am going to be dealing with a lot of links and images and edits. Notebooks lets me use iA Writer to edit and work on the file and does it seamlessly. I love this feature.

Notebooks supports document syncing through Dropbox. It works reliably and it makes it possible to work on the same document through multiple devices.

One of the problems with Notebooks having a dedicated folder irrespective of where you host it is that you might be already using a system of dedicated folders to host your text files. Would you have to change it to incorporate Notebooks into your work flow? The answer is that you don't have to change anything. In the Notebooks folder make aliases of the folders that you normally work in. For instance, I have a notes folder in Dropbox. It has all my notes. All 3000+ of them, at this point. I manage this folder in nvALT. How do I bring them into Notebooks? Simple I make an alias of the notes folder and put it in the Notebooks folder. That is it. All files added, or edited in nvALT are now available to Notebooks. Conversely, when I choose to add, or edit something to/in this notes folder in Notebooks, those files with its changes are also available to nvALT.

Note: You make an alias of a folder by highlighting the folder in the Finder and typing the keyboard command ⌘+L. This creates the alias. It has an icon with an arrow in it. The file name is highlighted, you can choose to change the name and then drag it into the Notebooks folder. Conversely you can also hold the ⌘ and ⌥ keys and drag the folder into the Notebooks folder. This will make an alias which points to the original folder.

Notebooks is feature rich and you might find other uses for it which I have not covered. I suggest you start using it and you will find new and interesting uses of what is essentially a knowledge manager.

At this point the three features I like most in Notebooks for the Mac are:

  1. All of the files created by Notebooks can be plain text files. So, I am not tied into any one program and my repository of text files continues to be useful. There is no proprietary file format or proprietary database format to be worried about.
  2. The interface is lovely to work in.
  3. Managing writing tasks in it using the Task Manager feature.

The developers have two versions of their Notebooks for the Mac. One is available from the App Store and the other is available directly from them. The direct version is not saddled with the limitations of sandboxing. What that means is that the direct version has the ability to support folders of files stored anywhere on the computer. The App Store version needs to have all of its files residing on the assigned folder for Notebooks. My recommendation is to buy the direct version. If you already have the App Store version, you can ask the developer to change the registration to a direct version. It is a simple process, you send the developer a pdf file of the receipt of your purchase from the App Store and the developer issues you a license file for the direct version.

Suggested Improvements to the macOS Version

  1. Typewriter scrolling. I would love it if the editor window gave me the option of using typewriter scrolling. I am used to this feature and hate looking at the bottom of the document when I am writing in Notebooks.
  2. Focus Features: Writing environments provide the ability to focus on the sentence you are working on, or the paragraph you are working on. Would love to have this included in Notebooks.
  3. Grammar Check: Notebooks automatically checks the grammar of the content you are working on. It uses the system feature and puts a green squiggly line under content it thinks is not grammatically correct. I would like an explicit option of turning this stuff off and on. Ideally I work best with spell checking turned on and grammar checking turned off. I would like these choices to be explicit. I can reach these options now by ⌃+Clicking the editor window, and choose the options, but it doesn't provide me with any visual feedback on what is selected and what is turned off (see the screenshot below)

Notebooks Missing FeedbackNotebooks Missing Feedback

iOS version

Notebooks iOS VersionNotebooks iOS Version

The iOS version is more capable than the macOS version.

Thanks to Dropbox syncing, the documents you are working on are available on all your devices. It works seamlessly and it is a pleasure to work in. In no particular order these are the many things that I like about the iOS version of Notebooks:

  1. The iOS version lets me use Operator Mono which is made available by AnyFont.
  2. The ability to control the spacing between lines is also much appreciated. I wish I had the same control in the macOS version.
  3. The integration with TextExpander is welcome.
  4. The extra keyboard bar when you are using a Bluetooth keyboard is useful.
  5. The environment is great for writing.
  6. You can password protect specific books. This is an iOS only feature.
  7. You can read and annotate PDF files. This is an in-App purchase of $2.99

To improve your use of the iOS version, you need to download the Handbook. It is a comprehensive look at the features of the iOS version and it is going to help you learn how to use the program. I am not going to repeat the contents here. Go through the Handbook and you will discover that this is an unique program on iOS, and can claim to be a well-designed, document managing, knowledge base for your use.

I heartily recommend both the macOS and the iOS versions.

macosxguru at the gmail thingie

Markdown Task Manager macOS iOS

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