Why I like this app that you may not know about

What is this app

This is an app called Notebooks. There is nothing creative about the name, but the power that comes with this app is unbelievable. May be the lack of a sexy name, this app is hardly mentioned by any blogger. This does not mean it is not a capable app. As a matter of fact, I am writing this article with the app itself, using the markdown format.

This app has been around from 2008, the developer release major upgrades to the Mac and iPadOS / iOS versions earlier this year.

What exactly can this app do

According to their home page, the app can

Write Books, Draft Ideas, or Simply Jot Down Notes.
Manage Complex Projects, or Simple Task Lists.
Store Files and Records, Organized in Nested Structures.

I shall dive into each aspect in this article

Using Notebook as a writing app

As a notebook app, I would not expect the app to be the best of breed for writing like Ulysses, scrivener or IAWriter. I may not use this app to write my first 500-page novel.

However, for day to day writing (such as this article), the app is more than adequate. In fact, there are a couple of features that not other writing apps can offer, such as

  • convert articles into ebook and LaTeX format
  • support screen writing in Fountain and Final Draft documents (I have not tried this myself)
  • convert markdown files into LaTeX format for typesetting

There are a lot of writing aids that app has built in

Using Notebook for managing projects / tasks

I must admit that it took me a while to figure out how to set up tasks, the due dates, etc. The app has its own way of dealing with task

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Once I got through the initial hurdle, I can follow the syntax and logic. It is great that I can follow through my workflow. While I create my notes or daily journal, some actionable items can be converted into tasks within the same app. I do not have to venture outside to a 3rd party app or site.

Using Notebook for storing / managing files

This is another very useful function and not often found in an note taking app.

Your Personal Database
Do you have PDF documents, handbooks, charts, email messages, presentations, voice memos, photos or anything else you want to keep close to your notes, minutes, drafts and chapters? – Just go ahead and add it all to Notebooks.

As the app creates standard folder structure on Mac, I have created different ‘books’ to store my pdf files, email archive, etc. I simply drag and drop the files into the relevant folders (aka. Books) , they automatically appear on the app.

One of my most useful workflow is to extract web articles into markdown files and use Hazel on Mac to send them into the Notebooks app. These files can be searchable and can be linked from my own notes.

What I like about Notebook

  • store files locally
  • let user decides what / how to sync files. It supports, iCloud, Dropbox, Webdav. The Mac app itself can even become a server for syncing iPhone and iPad.
  • Use standard filing structure - the files are stored as standard files. They can be accessed on iCloud Drive. The files are in standard text file, markdown file, pdf file, etc.
  • central repository of files and folders - I am now using this app for writing, note taking, personal knowledge management. All files that I collected and wrote are in one app. Cross references can easily be linked.

What needs to be improved

Like any app, Notebook is not perfect. There are always areas that the app can improve for user experience. There are nothing major that are broken, but the following areas can bring better user experience

  • better documentation on the use of the app. I cannot find a complete electronic manual of the app. I had to resolve to using web search to find specific areas
  • currently it is hard to find targets that I want to create wikilinks or backlins. There is no comparison with Obsidian that target note almost appears instantaneous. It appears that I have to know the title of the notes that I want to link to , then the app will create the link but there is not automatic prompt even as I start typing the first few words of the title
  • the task management / project management functions are a bit awkward to use. May take a while to get used to the way that tasks needs to be set up. The functions are very basic at this time. However, if the users want to embrace this all in one app, it is not a bad idea.
  • there is no external community support or forum. Perhaps this is due to the small number of active users, once the number grows this may change. If the app has open API that allows more integrations with other apps, I am sure the use case can expand a lot

As further enhancement, I would also like the iPhone app has more functionality. I mainly use iPhone as my mobile data collection device when. I am not in front of my desk. Hence it would be great if I can use the voice memo function to convert voice recording into text, use photos taken to become searchable images.

Final wrap up

Despite that I only tried this app out for a week, I decided to purchase the Mac and iPad versions and also using this on iPhone. I see the potential of this app and how it fits into my workflow.

I am now using this app as my daily driver, for writing notes, daily journal, filing my personal documents such as pdf files. I am still going through the learning curve of how to get the most out of this app but leveraging more use cases.

The benefits of having the app and data on Mac, iPad and iPhone mean that I always have the app and information not matter whether I am working at my desktop or on the road. It’s standard file formats and filing structure means that it is future proof. If I decide to quit using this app for whatever reason, I do not lose the files, I simply access them with other apps.

One of the best part I like about the app is that it is not subscription base, I pay once and I can keep using them without having to worry about ongoing cost.

I am now starting to leverage this app to develop my personal knowledge system, from my own notes and writings, to my collections of useful web articles. Most importantly, all these files are sitting on my own storage, they are now locked in a proprietary format in a cloud that I cannot access if I am offline.

So overall, I think I shall keep using this app for the foreseeable future. I wish there are more people that can recognize the potential and help to developer to maintain the enhancement. If a user based community can be formed to drive 3rd party extension / plugins , this could become very powerful contender and a very unique breed of app.