note-taking software

There is a huge range of software out there designed for the purpose of note-taking. These vary widely in their feature set, their editors/formats (e.g. WYSIWYG, Markdown, wiki formatting, plaintext), how they manage their files, and what platforms they work on. This page is about all the note-taking apps I’m aware of, with descriptions for each. They appear in an idiosyncratic order that probably makes sense to no one but myself.

  • Obsidian: This is my preferred app, currently. Things about it: Markdown formatting; notes and media files stored directly on my hard drive (not in a database); so many ways of organising notes (links, backlinks, tags, folders); its huge ecosystem of plugins that offer many useful extensions if you need them (e.g. daily notes, Dataview) but aren’t pre-activated to overwhelm you if you don’t. It’s cross-platform and free for most use cases; they offer paid upgrades if you want to publish a vault publicly, or sync your vault via their servers instead of via something like iCloud or Dropbox (or even a git repository if you need versioning). Because the files are saved directly on your hard drive, syncing via a cloud sync service or git is easily doable.
  • Notion(external link): I used this for a while in 2020. It’s quite attractive and also offers features like sophisticated data views and linking between pages (unlike Obsidian though, you can’t pre-emptively link to a page you’re going to create, or at least you couldn’t in 2020). Its editor is more rich-text although there’s some level of translatability to Markdown (for editing individual blocks, or for exports). The main reasons I ditched it were that it was extremely slow and it had no/bad offline support.
  • Roam(external link): Have never used it, but it’s usually mentioned in the same breath as Obsidian. The thing about it is that it costs money (US$165 per year or $15 per month) and is a closed-source, “you’ve gotta store your notes on their servers” kind of product. People seem to hate the privacy policy(external link) and the “fragile exports” and find the community culty, too. Seems to have some built-in features that require plugins in Obsidian (like kanban boards) but otherwise looks pretty similar. Also has blocks, “/ commands”, and certain other features that remind me more of Notion.
  • org-mode(external link): I’ve also never used this, but it’s a note-taking system used within Emacs in the terminal. It doesn’t use markdown but its own file format (with a suffix of .org and a mimetype of text/org)
    • there’s also such a thing as org-roam(external link), which is some kind of mash-up of Roam and org-mode? It seems to be more like org-mode than Roam (Emacs-based, org formatting) but it maintains a database with “aggressive caching” and I think the Roam element is the enabling of easy links between notes
  • Standard Notes(external link): This is what I ditched Notion for. A free account lets you write plain-text notes; with the subscription, you get different editors (markdown, rich-text, etc.), themes, the ability to embed photos and tables and even create spreadsheets, etc.. You can even store your 2FA tokens in it! End-to-end encryption is a huge priority for this software, so your notes are completely secure, but also are stored in a database. It also offers a linked blogging platform, Listed.to(external link), if you want to use this app and also have minimal extra effort required in maintaining a blog.
  • Dendron(external link): Note-taking software built on top of VScode. I believe the idea of it is to file notes hierarchically, but not so rigidly hierarchically: you should be able to file a note in multiple places and link between them. It does also support Markdown. Basically its own points of comparison are software to make Zettelkasten-type things, like Roam, Obsidian, etc.
  • Foam(external link): Also built on top of VScode, like Dendron. It seems to also use Markdown for formatting, and be built for inter-linking between notes. It describes itself as inspired by Roam.
  • Zim(external link): A desktop wiki application that I used in mid-high school, but is still going strong 15 years later! You can also maintain a journal and task lists in addition to the wiki functionality. It uses wiki formatting. It’s primarily developed for Linux but there are also Windows and macOS packages.
  • One Note: Part of the Microsoft Office suite; I used it in late high school.
  • Evernote(external link): Used this during uni. It’s a cross-platform note-taking app that I guess fell out of fashion – either it didn’t keep up with the times, or it took too long to catch up with the times, idk.
  • Notes-Up(external link): I used this briefly around 2017, but I really liked it 😛 It’s a note-taking app designed primarily for elementary OS (Linux) that makes use of Markdown for formatting. Notes are saved in a database file, while is less than ideal.
  • Ulysses(external link): A very highly-regarded app for macOS that also chooses to save all your notes in its own database. It uses its own idiosyncratic knock-off of Markdown that isn’t totally compatible (IIRC links are the big difference). It seems to work well for a lot of novelists, so I’m guessing it has features that work well for that. (See novel-writing apps.) It does have stuff like a grammar checker. You need a subscription to use it, which is US$6/month or US$40/year.
  • iA Writer(external link): Another Markdown-based notes app with a minimalistic interface that lets you do things like sync between devices, check your writing’s style, post directly to some blogging platforms, and so forth. Its feature set is slightly different between platforms. Requires a one-time purchase (not a subscription), which is US$50 for macOS or iOS, and US$30 for Windows or Android. (There is seemingly no Linux version.) You need to purchase separately for different platforms. Apparently they’re in the process of rolling out a subscription option.
  • Drafts(external link): People seem to swear by this because of the multitude of shortcuts you can create or install to process your notes in all sorts of ways and do things with them (e.g. publish them to different blogging platforms). It’s available for macOS and iOS. You can use it for free, but some features (especially the note-processing features) require a subscription, at US$2/month or US$20/year.
  • FSNotes(external link): An open-source Markdown app for macOS and iOS which syncs via iCloud and can also, optionally, save to a git repository for versioning. It also supports [[wikilinks]] for linking between notes.
  • Bear(external link): Also a Markdown app for macOS and iOS. Can be used on one device for free, but you need a pro subscription to sync (and get some other features); that costs US$1.50/month or US$15/year.
  • Simplenote(external link): A free cross-platform (including a website version) note-taking app owned by Automattic. Seems to include version history, inter-note linking, Markdown formatting and the ability to publish selected notes to the web if you want.
  • Craft(external link): macOS/iOS and web app. Seems like a competitor to Notion and the like. “group related thoughts into subpages… bi-directional linking”
  • Bundled Notes(external link): Free for Android and Chromebooks only; it has a web app but you need a subscription to use it. Different notebooks in this app are called bundles, hence the app name. Offers stuff like reminders and kanban boards in addition to ordinary notes.
  • Apple Notes: I have to admit that for a lot of scratchpad-type notes, or notes that I only need to exist for an extremely brief period (e.g. shopping lists) I often just use this, because it’s right there on my laptop and my phone and syncs almost instantaneously.

In addition to the above, I think there is a fuzzy grey area where something could be considered a “note-taking app” or a “Markdown editor”. For example, there’s Typora(external link), which supports displaying a list of all files in the currently-open folder in a sidebar, and Zettlr(external link), which goes one step further and supports note inter-linking. Because apps like these let you edit ordinary Markdown files saved directly on your hard drive, they’re compatible with something like Obsidian, which saves its notes as plain Markdown files on your hard drive.

There are also journalling apps, which overlap with note-taking apps as well. (For example, I use Obsidian’s daily notes feature as a journal.) Some options in this space include Journey and Day One.

There’s a lot of different terminology and different strategies for managing such a vault of notes… concepts like Second Brain, Zettelkasten, personal knowledge base and digital garden. In the main, I don’t think the minute details and differences between these strategies matter that much. More important I think is: get stuff down, have ways finding things again, and (probably) make connections (at the very least this makes it easier to find things again).