Notes on Notes.app 

I’ve had an on-again, off-again thing with Evernote[1] for years. I like having attachments associated with my notes, but dislike almost everything about the service itself.[2]

That said, there’s a lot in Evernote that I don’t use.[3] I don’t have IFTTT routing any content in, and I don’t ever forward emails to the system. I occasionally use the web clipper to save webpages to Evernote, but it’s nowhere near vital to my workflow.[4]

The nerd in me really likes having my notes saved as text documents, written in Markdown. I’ve used Brett Terpstra’s excellent nvALT for years, too. My biggest problem is that I can’t ever seem to find a Dropbox-powered notes app on iOS that I like. Additionally, going text-only means I need to store assorted attachments elsewhere.

I’ve lived with this tension for years, migrating content back and forth between the two systems several times.

(I’ve also spent a lot of time in Simplenote, which I’ve liked for years. It’s fast, lightweight and reliable, but the lack of attachments means it has the same core problem as plain text.)

When Apple showed off iOS 9 and OS X El Capitan, the built-in Notes app got a lot of attention. Gone was the old, let’s-sync-via-IMAP-and-hope-for-the-best system. In its place, a more modern backend — powered by CloudKit — to an app with a lot more features than before.

The new Notes app allows users to style their text easily, add checklists, photos and even hand-drawn sketches. But is it any good?

In a word, yes.

First of all, sync has been rock solid in my experience. New notes and edits show up on my other devices within moments. All content is saved offline automatically, and with the app’s extension, its easy to save content from anywhere in iOS or OS X.

While the app doesn’t mind if I write in Markdown, its built-in formatting tools are pretty good. Not everything is preserved when content is copied out of Notes into other apps, but it does a way better job than Evernote at this.

Being able to mix content types is nice. Often, my notes are part text, part outline, coupled with a photo or screenshot of some type. Notes handles all this really well, and the application has a view in which you can see all attachments, across folders and notes for quick access. This is present on both the Mac and iOS apps, and I already really like it.

It’s not all good news, though.

The new app still sports a textured background, and its text still has a slight shadow to it. It’s gross and makes the text a little harder to read than I’d like. The Mac app’s default font size is too small and there’s no way to bump it up across all notes.

If you want to share notes or collaborate with others, you’re out of luck. I guess Apple’s solution for this type of work is iWork for iCloud, but you may die trying to figure out how that thing works. Proceed with caution.

Notes can be viewed and edited at iCloud.com, but it’s not great. All the text-editing functionality is present, but there aren’t any folders, and sketches are downloaded as .drawing files, which are basically useless:

Having folders is great, but notes themselves can only be sorted by the last date edited. Not having my notes in alphabetical order has taken some getting used to, and I still don’t like it. I know that the way Notes does it can be faster, but I really wish a future update would bring more options here.

Oh, and Notes doesn’t have any type of tagging system.

My last problem with Notes is more philosophical than anything else. While I use iCloud for my personal email, contacts, calendars and a lot more, I’m not in love with the fact that my notes are locked away in a weird format. My notes are in here somewhere, but I can’t get to them if something terrible happens to the Notes app:

Even with Evernote, I could clean up their weird-ass HTML formatted notes without the app.

These issues aren’t going to keep me from using Notes.app, because at its core, the app does what I want: mixing text and images in my notes easily, without nagging me about features I don’t care about. The sync is great, which is also important, but I wouldn’t mind Apple modernizing the UI on both iOS and OS X, and giving users more control over things like note sorting and font sizes.

There’s always next year, I suppose, but for now, Notes is enough for me.

Update: Follow-up can be read here.


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