Despite all the cool productivity porn modern technology has birthed, the Holy Grail for me is simple: I want to create and edit plain text from anywhere (desktop/tablet/phone), and I want the results to sync flawlessly between devices. And now I can.
Ubiquitous capture — that is, the ability to snag any thought or idea any time and anywhere it happens to crop up — is a key component to nearly every productivity philosophy. You want to capture those fleeting ideas before they're gone, and you don't want to waste brain power obsessing over remembering it until you can write it down somewhere. Below, I'll walk you through the best ubiquitous capture system I've ever encountered.
First, a note: What works best for me may not be what works best for you. A lot of people prefer applications like Evernote, which lets you capture nearly any form of text or media you want and is accessible via the web, desktop applications and smartphone apps. Personally Evernote's a bit too large (and sometimes too bloated) for my taste. All I've ever wanted is the ability to create plain text files on my computer, sync those files to my phone and other computers (without any extra effort on my part), and the ability to edit or create new files from any of those buckets. That's what I describe below.
The Glue: Simplenote
We've mentioned Simplenote once before on Lifehacker, but just to recap: Simplenote is a killer web application that does one very simple thing very, very well. That one thing? Creating, editing and managing as many plain text notes as your heart could ever desire. Apart from managing my to-do list, my ideas list, my shopping list and virtually every other list I could ever need, I now write nearly everything in Simplenote (including the post you're reading right now). Simplenote has a really good, open API, so you can also find desktop applications and smartphone apps that work with Simplenote — which I'll get to in a bit. First, here's a look at Simplenote's web interface:
(Click any of the images for a closer look.)
Simplenote may seem a touch peculiar at first, so here's a rundown of how it works:
- This is the search box. When you want to find a note — either by title or by text inside that note — just head to the search box. Every application that plugs into the Simplenote API generally works similarly.
- These are your notes. Enter a search, and Simplenote filters out and narrows down the matches. Click on a note or navigate through the list with the up/down arrows to open it.
- This is the main content area. It displays your current note. Pretty obvious, right?
- Click this + (plus) button to create a new note. The first line of your new note will become your note's title.
This is all pretty simple so far, right? And well it should be. The whole point here is that it's a lightweight, no-nonsense tool for managing your lists and notes. The web version of Simplenote highlighted above is nice because it's accessible to any browser (just login to get to your notes), but that's still not perfect. What we really want is to be able to access our notes offline from our phone or desktop and sync back to Simplenote when necessary. So let's figure that out.
Simplenote on Your Desktop
Simplenote comes in a variety of flavours for desktop users, but the two best apps I've found are ResophNotes (for Windows), pictured above, and Notational Velocity (for OS X), pictured below. Both closely mimic the functionality of the web app, so my explanation of the web app above applies to these desktop applications, as well. With both apps, just open the preferences and enter in your Simplenote credentials to get them up and syncing. (If you haven't already registered for a Simplenote account, you can do so here.)
The nice thing about the desktop applications is that you can create and edit new notes even when you're offline, and they'll take care of syncing the results back to Simplenote when you're back online. Both Notational Velocity and ResophNotes are very keyboard-friendly too, which goes a long way toward winning over the keyboard shortcut lovers at Lifehacker.
Notational Velocity is probably the nicer of the two if we're comparing, namely because the app can store files in plain text in any folder — meaning I can easily back up my notes to my Dropbox folder (I'm in plain text geek heaven). ResophNotes has its charm too, including a few features — like a one-click force sync — that we'd like to see in Notational Velocity. Either way both apps are excellent in the same way Simplenote is. They're barebones, distraction-free, plain text editors that help you focus on text and text only. If you're going to use Simplenote, I highly recommend you use a desktop application like one of these for offline access and backup. You can check out all of the various Simplenote desktop apps and browser extensions here.
Note: Now is probably also a good time to mention that a couple of us at Lifehacker are currently working on a cross-platform, open-source Adobe AIR app for Simplenote called Textify with hopes of bringing the best features we can come up with to every platform. We're still in the very early stages of development, but you can find the latest source here on GitHub. We're happy to accept help!
Of course the Holy Grail of plain text syncing and editing isn't really complete until you can do it all from your phone.
Simplenote on the iPhone and iPad
This is where iOS users really win out. Simplenote is available (from the folks who built the web app) as an iPhone and iPad application. It's fast, snappy and, frankly, better than their web version. Each time you open it, it syncs with all your latest notes if you've got a connection; if you don't have a wireless connection, you can still edit your notes and let Simplenote sync your changes back to Simplenote on the web next time you do. You can see Simplenote running on the iPhone in the screenshot to the right and running on the iPad in the screenshot below.
Coupled with a Bluetooth keyboard, the iPad version of Simplenote is a real gem. I now do the majority of my long-form writing on my iPad, which is propped onto a cheap business card iPad stand. With everything set up, I feel like I'm writing on a distraction-free typewriter — one that just happens to be connected to the internet and that syncs flawlessly to my desktop, the web and my phone.
But what about Android/my other non-iPhone? Good question. Since Simplenote is web-accessible, you certainly can fire up the web interface and add some notes from there, but the web interface is not really mobile-friendly. Some people have been working on an open-source version of Simplenote for Android, but it's still not quite there yet. We'll keep our eyes on it, though, and let you know if it ever makes it to primetime. Likewise we haven't seen any apps for other devices that plug into Simplenote's API, but hopefully a little exposure will inspire some like-minded developers.
Simplenote certainly isn't the only solution that can accomplish the same (or at least similar) results, but it is the best solution I've found to fit my needs. If you've got a different method you prefer, tell us all about it in the comments.