nvalt, Notesy, and Friends

Yesterday, I wrote an overview of my digital note taking process. Today, I will delve a little more deeply into the textfiles-in-Dropbox workflow, showing examples and screenshots from specific apps. If you have not yet read the previous post, I suggest you do so now.

To summarize that earlier post, all my notes are text (well, Markdown) files, living in a Dropbox folder. I use software that lets me work with this folder of notes. The specific software varies based on platform, but they each let me:

  • browse the notes
  • edit/create/delete notes
  • perform a full-text search across all of the notes
  • render the Markdown nicely

On the Mac: nvalt

nvalt is an app that splintered off from Notational Velocity. On the surface, they’re the same, but nvalt has several improvements to the rendering engine and UI. Three cheers for Open Source!

When you launch the app, it shows you a list of all of your notes in chronological order. Of course you can use the mouse but, for power users, you can also control it with only the keyboard. The up/down arrows move focus between notes and the enter key brings you down to the editor window. If the text you typed didn’t match any notes, it creates a new one with that text as the filename.

The initial nvalt view.
The initial nvalt view.

Cmd-L (just like the address bar in your favorite browser) moves focus up to the search box. From the search box, text you enter will incrementally search all your notes, narrowing down the list of notes as you type.

Narrowing the list based no a search word.
Narrowing the list based on a search word.

The up/down arrows let you navigate this narrowed-down list, with the search terms highlighted within each individual note.

Searching all notes for words and phrases.
Searching all notes for words and phrases.

You are not confined to the built-in editor and can edit any note elsewhere. Would you rather use Mac Vim? Textmate? Byword? I usually stick with the built-in editor for quick stuff, but for long-form content (such as these blog post drafts), I’ll pair up Textmate for writing and Marked, which gives you a live preview and analyzes spelling, grammar, and writing style. (This blog post is written at a 9th-grade reading level and has no passive voice, yo.)

“Edit with…”
“Edit with…”

There is also a Markdown preview window built into nvalt. It is not as fancy as Marked, but it gets the job done.

Markdown previews within nvalt.
Markdown previews within nvalt.

I consider nvalt as the gold standard of text database search, retrieval, and quick edits. I would love to find decent equivalents on Linux and Windows.

On iOS: Notesy

Notesy for the iPhone and iPad work similar to nvalt, but without the two-pane view. It presents you a list of notes in chronological order. The search box narrows that list based on a full-text search. Tapping on a note will bring you into a read-only view. From there, you can edit or render as full-screen Markdown.

notesy-iPhone
Notesy, iPhone

Notesy, iPad
Notesy, iPad

Notesy, iPhone editing
Notesy, iPhone editing

Notesy, iPhone Markdown
Notesy, iPhone Markdown

Because Markdown uses some symbols that are a little rough to type on the iPhone keyboard, the app presents a toolbar of shortcuts to common characters. Swipe it left and right to access even more symbols.

On Linux: Notes

My notes script allows for quick searching (but not editing) of the text file database. Just type notes signal from a shell prompt to look up all the notes containing the term “signal.” It presents a list of matches, letting you choose one. Like nvalt, viewing a note will also highlight the search terms.

Searching in Linux.
Searching in Linux.
Viewing in Linux.
Viewing in Linux.

Honorable Mention: Drafts

Drafts for iOS fits into the picture as a quick data-capture app. Most of these note apps present you with the same workflow: search for a note or add a new one (giving it a title first). Only then can you edit or view it. Drafts flips that around. You have an idea in your head that you need to capture, but you don’t want to think (yet) about where it goes. It becomes your go-to app for quickly writing something down.

Drafts launches directly to a new empty text window, with the keyboard displayed. You can quickly and immediately type in your thought before it’s lost to the ether.

Quick data capture directly after launching Drafts.
Quick data capture directly after launching Drafts.

Only after you’re finished typing, do you need to think about what to do with it. Drafts has an extensive and customizable set of “send to” actions that goes above and beyond what is built into iOS. I specifically want to draw your attention to the Dropbox actions, which let you append or prepend existing notes.

Drafts targets
Drafts targets

For example, if someone mentions a song that I may want to check out, I’ll type it into Drafts and then, with one tap, tell Drafts to appended it to the List–Music.md Dropbox file. Or if I think of something I need to do that day on the way into work, I can type it in and select “Email Reminder-Work.” This sends a form email to my work email address, with the body of the message being the note I typed in. It’s much faster than composing a new email in my phone’s mail client.

Summary

As I mentioned above, my strongest workflows for these notes are the Mac and iOS. Linux is passable; I have yet to find a unified app to perform both searching and editing. Windows is nonexistent, beyond an Explorer shortcut to the notes folder.

Do you know of any apps to fill these holes? Let me know. Do you have a favorite Android app that fits this workflow? I’m not an Android person, but I’m sure the information will interest other readers.

Posted in: Dear Diary

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Brian Enigma

Brian Enigma is a Portlander, manipulator of atoms & bits, minor-league blogger, and all-around great guy. He typically writes about the interesting “maker” projects he's working on, but sometimes veers off into puzzles, software, games, local news, and current events.

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