Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Sunday, September 05, 2010
Couple of days ago I rambled about how to take notes (here). Now, what about all the geeky (and not-so-geeky) tools that are available to take notes? There is tons of stuff available for $$ and for free, but which tools are most useful?
Let's start with some criteria to evaluate the tools: First, I don't want to pay much for them. I can buy a paper-based notepad or notebook for little money, so I don't want to pay more for computer-based tools. Second, tagging is important. I want to mark information with keywords, tags, or the like, so that I can retrieve the info I need without reading through stacks of notes on all kinds of topics. Third, I want to synchronize my notes across computers. I use three computers in different locations – work, home, mobile. While synchronizing through flash drives is always possible, it's easier to do so online. Fourth, the possibility collaboration is a plus if you take notes in class – notes typically improve if they are the work of several brains. Fifth, I want to write about tools that I've actually tried. If you have further suggestions, please use the comments.
I haven't found the perfect tool yet, but there are several that I think fit the bill for most of the requirements that I listed:
The classic tools for any collaborative writing are wikis. While the super-geeks can try to host Wikipedia-style wikis on their own servers (and I have no clue how to do this), there are several wiki services available for which you don't have to pay. I have worked with Wetpaint and PBWorks in the past, and I found both easy to set up and use. Both types of wikis allow tagging. Access to the wikis can be restricted, if you do not want to give the whole world access to your notes. Wetpaint and PbWiki use ads to finance themselves, but they both have programs for ad-free educational wikis. (And if you're bothered by ads, there is also always Adblock.) One downside of wikis is that all your notes are online; if you don't have a network connection, you're out of luck.
There are more wikis out there. You can find a useful comparison at WikiMatrix.
While Google docs is not a note-taking application per se, it can be used for this purpose, and it satisfies almost all I want from a note-taking application. It is free, you can share documents (and collaborate on them) with other google users, and the documents are online and thus accessible whenever you are online (so synchronization is a given). There are no tags, but there are folders, and you can put documents in several folders - in other words, the folders function precisely as tags. The downside is that one has to be online to use Google docs. As with wikis, if you don't have access to the internet, of if the network is down, you're out of luck.
If you don't want to collaborate with other notetakers but you work with several computers, Evernote is a great choice: You can install Evernote as a freestanding program on your computer and take notes even when you are not connected to the intertubes, but you can also use Evernote online in your browser. Synchronization is a breeze, you can tag notes, you can email notes to your Evernote account, complete with folder and tag definitions, and if you are on the go, you can also send yourself a note by SMS. (I often forget ideas or appointments that I do not immediately write down; sending myself a note takes care of the problem.)
The main downside of Evernote is that full collaboration is not possible: You can publish your notes, but you cannot easily work with others on them. This doesn't matter so much for me, since most of the notes that I take are not collaborative, but if you want to work with others on classnotes, this is a dealbreaker.
What tools do I currently use myself? I still use pen and paper a lot, particularly when I am not sure whether I am going to take notes beforehand. Paper is light to carry, it's noiseless to use, and cheap. For things I want to remember and file away, I use Evernote. It's easy to use, easy to synchronize across computers, and I have copies of the notes on my harddrive (I figure if Evernote goes under – it's a fairly new company, and you never know – I won't lose my notes). For occasions when I have to collaborate with others, I like PbWiki. And as a super-geeky lightweight (though completely offline) toy to play with, I have Vim with Viki on my slowish xubuntu netbook – perfect for some quick writing that I can easily find afterwards.