The Holy Grail Of Ubiquitous Plain-Text Capture

The Holy Grail Of Ubiquitous Plain-Text Capture

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. This is the main content area. It displays your current note. Pretty obvious, right?
  4. 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.[imgclear]

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.


  • I do love Simplenote

    But I do love Evernote too!!!

    Using both give me the occasional headache of where is that note..?

    But Evernote is just too heavy sometime…

    If only Evernote could sync to Simplenote in some way, then I would be in a true nirvana!

  • I’ve been looking for ages for a simple note taking app that will sync between the web, my Android phone and my wife’s iPhone. Basically just for shopping lists.

    The closest I have found is Don’t Forget the Milk, but that is a paid app on iphone.

  • For Android users (and everyone else, of course) if you have a Simplenote Premium account you can create notes by email, sending them to a special address it will be given to you.

  • I find that emailing myself notes to Gmail to be the easiest. I have tried Evernote, but most of the web based services are overkill for me. You can take advantage of the filters, and filter by subject – for example, for to-do list items I enter the subject line as “TODO: “. Really whatever floats your boat when it comes to text capture.

  • The Holy Grail Of Ubiquitous Plain-Text Capture…For People With iPhones/iPads.

    Evernote still does it for me. I write in a pocket pad ideas as they come to me, scan/photo at the end of the day and upload to Evernote where it does the OCR and makes it searchable. Gold.

  • I use Android (HTC Desire) and there is an app called AndroNoter that syncs with Simplenote. Works flawlessly. I think there is another app called mNote too.

  • I migrated off of the Palm phone / Palmdesktop platform two years ago. One of the three mission critical functions I needed was plain text notes syncing, like Notes in the Palm world.

    Evernote and the like were AWFUL for this.

    AK Notepad and were precisely right for this. In fact, they match your description above of SimpleNotes nearly exactly.

    So, if you’re an Android user, try AK Notepad.

    (sadly, if you Google “AK Notepad” the first hit is basically the wrong place, so please do check out the above URL instead of Googling)

  • This may sound confusing and/or unnecessary, but for my desktop (Mac) and mobile (Android) combo I use the following: Simplenote syncing with Dropbox syncing with Notational Velocity syncing with Flick Note.

    Not to brag, but it is magic and it is awesome.

  • Watch the march of the useless do nothing software and their boosters. This kind of 37signals crap is so incredibly brain dead and annoying.

    Flawless syncing because syncing is so simple it can be flawless? No. It’s not the case, you are losing content, you are losing history, you are dropping changes, or your design requires too much centralisation and makes too many assumptions.

    Keep it simple stupid, only goes so far, right now its getting in the way of getting things done!

  • I use simplenotes in combination with ResophNotes which can also sync with Dropbox – chose a Dropbox folder as the default save folder. (Windows), but I sync with Simplenotes.

    On my Android Nexus S, I use Flick Notes (with the fantastic Swype keyboard- I cannot imagine how iPhone users can productively write with the native IOS keyboard in contrast with the incredibly intuitive and super speedy Swype) which is very good as it supports Markdown, Tagging (inline tagging too) etc amongst many other features.

    Although some have experienced synching issues with the last upgrade, this is really a non issue and I have posted my review there on Google Play:
    During the recent update to 5.06, I experienced the synching problem others referred to. But this is simply fixed by un-intstalling & re-installing the app & re-entering the password to sync with Simplenote. You are then back in business. I think those experiencing Tags problem will see that resolved as well. I really like the elegance of this App. (I bought unlock key) I literally take all my notes in Flick Notes and I can use the free Resophnotes Windows client for my Windows Laptop if I need to work on my laptop.

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