My favourite note-taking app? Dropbox

Dick Pountain finds an alternative use for the synchronisation service

Dick Pountain
23 Nov 2012

I sometimes feels as though I’ve been taking notes all my life. I was doing it in school and during university lectures: in combination with my photographic memory, it was a great advantage in exams – I could just conjure up the page of my notebook where an answer lay. (That memory is now fading – but luckily, computers are improving at a similar rate.) Right from the start, personal computing for me meant trying to find a practical way to take notes.

Of course, for a writer, finding a decent word processor was the first priority, but that proved nowhere near as hard to achieve. For each successive OS since CP/M 2.2, I quickly discovered a word processor or editor that would serve me well for years – WordStar, PC-Write, TextPad and Microsoft Word – but for each OS, I also wasted hours trying out and rejecting inadequate candidates for the role of note-taker. The top drawer of my grey filing cabinet testifies to my failure, since it’s half full of spiral-bound reporter’s pads containing 20 years of pencil scribblings.

One day the Evernote Windows client just vanished from my PC without a trace

It wasn’t until the first Palm Pilot became available in 1996 that things looked up. A crucial attribute of any note-taking system is portability; ideas pop into my head at all times and places, even in bed at night, and having to plod to a desktop computer to record them is a total no-no. Palm took me to a point where I could be sitting anywhere, perhaps reading a book, with a Pilot at my elbow to scribble notes using Graffiti handwriting, and have them transfer to my desktop PC whenever I synced.

Soon I discovered Natara Bonsai, a neat outliner that ran on both PC and Palm, and no fewer than 125 of these Idealog columns were planned in that program. The fact that Bonsai lasted me ten years proves it was workable, but it still wasn’t ideal: it couldn’t handle pictures or diagrams, and contrary to what you might expect, folding editors aren’t that much help on a tiny handheld screen. And Palm’s syncing worked, but only if you remembered to do it.

After Palm went under I moved over to an Android phone, which opened up whole new cloudy vistas. Bonsai never made the leap, but there are dozens of Android outliner apps and I’ve tried most of them. Many of the free ones work well, but have neither a Windows sync client nor cloud storage.

Then there are big beasts such as Zotero, Evernote and SimpleNote that offer both cloud service and PC sync. I decided to try the free version of Evernote and was very excited for a while. It’s a whole ecosystem, with add-ons for drawing sketches and clipping web pages, and it has an attractive user interface. Notes handwritten on my phone (using the marvellous Graffiti Pro app) just appear on my laptop without effort.

Then, one day the Evernote Windows client just vanished from my PC without a trace. I hasten to add that no notes were lost – they’re all still there in my account on Evernote’s website – but it disconcerted me when the same thing happened again weeks after I reinstalled it. The cloud is mighty powerful, and this ability to remove things from my PC without asking has quite blunted my enthusiasm for the product.

It was around then that PC Pro adopted Dropbox to deliver Real World Computing copy, and the penny dropped that I can now roll my own cloudy note-taking solution using the excellent Dropbox client for Android.

Just create a directory tree called Notes in the Dropbox folder and bung all the text, pictures and spreadsheets relating to a project into the same subdirectory. I stick to a few file formats, such as text, JPEG, DOCX and XLSX (I have Documents To Go on my phone). And TextPad lets me drag web URLs directly from Firefox into a note and access them by right-clicking.

And what, I hear you mutter, about Microsoft’s OneNote? Well, whenever our Real World Office expert Simon Jones has demonstrated it to me on his Samsung Slate PC, I’ve been bowled over by its extraordinary capabilities. But there’s the rub: like almost everyone else, I never bought a Windows Tablet or Slate PC, and Microsoft has never provided me with a copy of OneNote with any version of Office I’ve bought. In fact, so effectively has it kept this killer app away from the public, it ought to be in charge of Hantavirus quarantine.

Now Redmond is betting the farm on Windows 8 – and my advice would be to make your Surfaces (or whatever they’re called this week) into dynamite OneNote engines, and let them easily communicate with your competitors’ devices: the iPad currently has nothing to touch it for note-taking.

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