MAC USER
Note-Taking Applications for Apple Users

By Victoria L. Herring

When I proposed writing about note taking on the Mac, I thought it would be a fairly narrow topic, one easily written. Was I ever wrong. My research was hardly exhaustive, but I ended up with a database of almost 60 applications of varying complexity that could be considered useful for note taking.

I’ve therefore narrowed the field by looking for the following factors: (1) a price under $50, which mainly leaves shareware and open source programs; (2) something robust but fairly simple and straightforward, easy to learn and use by lawyers without extensive technological proficiency; and (3) a program that can be used on a desktop, iPhone, or iPad, with or without continuous access to the Internet. Even with these limits, I have a plethora of applications to review, so I’ll focus on a few of the best and provide basic information about the others.

A law student pointed out to me that Microsoft Word ( www.microsoft.com) has a note-taking function in its Notebook Layout. I haven’t used Word recently, but many people have that program, and if you don’t want to get a separate program, that will meet your needs just fine. As a user of OS X, other programs you already own will also do fine. The Mac operating system comes with Stickies and Text Exit, both of which will create notes that are easily searchable with the Spotlight search engine (also included in Mac’s operating system). Likewise, Pages and Numbers, parts of iWork 09, can be used to make notes and lists. If you own them, that may be all you need.

If you want a dedicated program that will provide you additional useful features, the best program out there in the view of many is Circus Ponies’ NoteBook ($49.95; www.circusponies.com). It is perhaps more than a pure note-taking application, but it can be as simple or complex in its usage as you wish. I asked attorneys on the MacLaw listserve to share their experiences with the program. Julie Kiernan said that she finds the word index, a concordance, to be quite useful. Bruce Cameron volunteered that he uses NoteBook to take notes at CLEs and conferences, just as a simple tool to organize reference information. Karl Dickhaus pointed out Notebook’s utility as a trial notebook program, something others mentioned as well:

This is a very good “binder” type of program. It is excellent for organizing and keeping materials that relate to a single topic. Its indexing capabilities are its strongest feature, closely followed by excellent support resources. . . . I also use it to prepare trial notebooks—a task at which it excels. It is not a good list manager [other programs do that well]. . . . A great value.

In NoteBook you can click and drag a file’s icon to a page, where it will be added either as a file in the “notebook” or as an attachment to it. In the former the item comes into the actual body of the notebook, and you can annotate it with colored “sticky notes.” In the latter you can make your notes in the text, and the item will be an attachment to the notebook, which you can then manipulate through an “inspector.” You can also import all sorts of different types of files: text files, MP3s, PDFs, JPGs, movies, etc. From within a notebook’s concordance, or “multidex,” you can open any of these files to read text, view images, or play music or movies.

In OS X you can import notes into your notebook from various places, including through the use of the contextual menu or Services under the main NoteBook menu, adding documents through the “clipping service.” And if you use the Services menu, you can import an image from a camera or scanner or make a screen selection and import that to the notebook. You can export in a number of formats and print the notebook to PDF as well.

The one downside to NoteBook is the absence of a dedicated iPhone or iPad application so far. But you might not need one. You can export a notebook as a website to view using Safari, you can print to PDF and view it on the iPhone or iPad, and you can store notebooks using various applications such as Air Sharing, DataCase, and Files to transfer documents to your iPhone or iPad. I’m sure there are other methods as yet unexplored by me.

A similar program allowing the easy importation and collection of notes and other materials is EagleFiler ($40; http://c-command.com/eaglefiler). Like NoteBook, EagleFiler features excellent documentation and support. Also like NoteBook, you must use third-party applications (such as Air Sharing) to transfer files from your Mac to your iPhone or iPad. EagleFiler’s website explains the various options available in some detail. Most of these programs allow not only the viewing but also the editing of the documents. You can also sync the EagleFiler Library’s contents with your iDisk and access it using a number of iPhone applications or use online storage sites such as DropBox or SugarSync.

If you’re looking to spend a little bit less, check out iOrganize ( www.brunoblondeau.com). It’s a shareware program with similar features to those in NoteBook and EagleFiler but it costs only $19.95. iOrganize will also export to an iPod (and presumably could export to a smart phone like the other two programs) and also is searchable through Spotlight, as is NoteBook.

Evernote ( www.evernote.com) is another application that receives high marks. Like the others, it is a desktop application that imports notes, images, and other types of data and also allows you to create a new note. It allows for the easy e-mailing of these notes and easy access to them from the web—you can keep a limited quantity online and access them through use of the iPhone Evernote application, which also works on the iPad. Up to 40 MB of storage per month is free, and you can upgrade to a premium account that costs $5 a month ($45 a year) and offers additional features. As explained on the website, it works through plug-ins and other applications to create and annotate notes to send to Evernote online, thus making them available both on your iPhone and also your desktop or laptop.

The one drawback to Evernote is that you need Internet access to reach the notes for maximum utility. Of course, that’s true for any application where the notes do not reside on your smart phone. I tested the application and found that you can edit notes or items already in Evernote online, but only when your iPhone has access, which makes sense. I did find, however, that if you sync your documents and review them while connected—by WiFi or other means—they are cached and can be opened even if you are off-line.

Several full-featured programs, such as DEVONThink (with versions ranging in price from $10 to $149.95; www.devon-technologies.com), Scrivener ($39.95; www.literatureandlatte.com), and SOHO Notes ($39.99; www.chronosnet.com), are quite highly thought of but simply require too steep a learning curve for me to adequately review here. People who use them swear by them, however, so you should consider them as options if you have the inclination to learn their ins and outs. Those who use them have found them excellent programs, but they are programs that reward in-depth use, not a quick testing for review.

If you want something very simple and straightforward, there are several options out there, most of them free or donation-ware or shareware. JustNotes ( http://selfcoded.com/justnotes) is exactly what it say it is: a small, simple writing pad that you can sync with an account for the free Simplenote app ( http://simplenoteapp.com) and have available with you on your computer as well as the “cloud” or your smart phone. Notational Velocity ( http://notational.net) is another straightforward program that will sync with the Simplenote app and website. VoodooPad Lite ( http://flyingmeat.com/voodoopad) is freeware, and once you try and like it you can upgrade to the full-featured VoodooPad ($39.95). Jotz ( www.thinkertons.com) is also fairly simple and has many features; at $17.50, it provides a way to create and keep notes, will import your Stickies, and allows for easy e-mailing of notes to people in your AddressBook. ShoveBox ($24.95; www.wonderwarp.com/shovebox ) is another program that works off the Menu and syncs with your mobile device. Memoblock ( www.blocksoft.net) is donation-ware and provides a text notepad and easy export to iPods or other locations. TopXNotes (39.95; www.topxnotes.com) is another straightforward program that still has a number of features to make it stand out. Yojimbo ($39; www.barebones.com) and Together ($39; http://reinventedsoftware.com/together) are two well-received programs that also permit drag-and-drop importing, use a Mail-like interface, and have other features.

This is only a quick introduction to note-taking programs for Mac OS X. If you add related programs for outlining, document management, word processing, and data collection and management, a book could be written—and probably has. But, perhaps this overview will give you a taste of what’s out there for lawyers who want to collect and deal with all the types of information that come into their possession over time. If you are interested in one of these programs, give it a trial run—most have full demo copies you can download.

  • Victoria L. Herring practices in Des Moines, Iowa, in an office that has used only Apple/Macs since the early 1980s. She may be reached at vlh@herringlaw.com.

Copyright 2010

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