SOHO Notes and Notelife

I’ve been trying out the new version of SOHO Notes and the new iPhone app, Notelife, that goes with it. I had to pay $5 for the iPhone but the Mac program, SOHO Notes, has a free 30-day trial. It’ll cost me $25 to upgrade if I decide to keep it.

So far I’m pretty happy. It’s a solid note taking and organizing program with rather more bells and whistles than I’ll ever use. It doesn’t sync with my iPhone quite as effortlessly as OmniFocus does, but it’s still easier than with any other app I’ve used. (I’m not sure why Omni hasn’t created a perfect and efficient note taking program just by stripping everything away from OmniFocus except for its notes function.)

I’ve adopted and dropped a number of such programs over the years. My first one was iOrganize, which may still be my favorite in terms of simplicity and speed. You could only use it for text notes, but I can work with that. A version of iOrganize that worked with rich text files, just so I can boldface headings, would be ideal, but I can live with all caps.

However, for my work routine at the time, I really needed to be able to use the program on both my laptop and desktop machines, so that I could pass my notebook file from one machine to the other. So I paid for a second license online, but I was sent the same license number a second time. Useless — I couldn’t use the software on one machine without going through the hassle of uninstalling it on the other. Despite sending repeated email messages to the creator over a period of months, I never got a single response, never got the second license number (I mean, how hard would it be to fix that? it’s not like I was asking for tech support on some mysterious problem), never got the refund I asked for if they were unable to give me a second license number. Not like it was a huge amount of money, but it left a bad taste in my mouth. And I really needed a way to transfer my notes easily between machines or the program wouldn’t work for me.

Another early favorite was Sticky Brain. It had more bells and whistles than I needed, but I could not only use it on both machines but it would keep itself syncked via my .Mac account without my having to think about it. I could create or edit a note on my laptop and find the change made to my desktop notes 15 minutes later, without my having had to do anything (other than have the laptop be somewhere it would connect with the Internet, of course). I would have been happy to keep using it, but Sticky Brain morphed into the first version of SOHO Notes, which was a more complicated program with a lot of great features but frustratingly slow and buggy once you got a lot of notes into it. The main advantage of a program like this over, say, storing my notes in hundreds of separate files in a Finder folder called “Notes”, is that I can open, create, take, edit, and reorganize my notes at top speed. So if the program is going to pause and spin the cursor for anywhere from 15 seconds to a few minutes at unpredictable times, well, it sort of defeats the purpose.

SOHO Notes couldn’t really get its act together through a number of upgrades, so I eventually gave up on them, and in fact I’m trying this new version out with some wariness. However, reports are good. Some people are reporting problems with importing notes from an earlier version, but others are saying everything is smooth and very zippy. We’ll see how things are working for me after I’ve imported some folders full of text files.

I tried Yojimbo for a while, and I really liked it for a year or so. The problem with Yojimbo, though, is that it’s really for people who are collecting bits of information that have no strong and obvious organization, and not so much for people who are creating notes in the process of planning discreet projects so that each note goes with one and only one project. I make both kinds of notes, though, and Yojimbo is only first-rate for one of those kinds.

Yojimbo doesn’t allow you to nest folders. You can have any number of folders, mind you, but only on a single level; you can’t create even one extra level of hierarchy. You’re supposed to organize everything with tags. So I’d create a folder for a project and keep all my notes in it, and I’d start another folder for another project and keep all my notes for that project in there, and I like to keep my notes for all my past projects handy so I just precede the folder name with a symbol (I use omega, Ω, which is option-Z on the Mac) that drops it to the bottom of the list of folders so I don’t have to keep scrolling past it. And after a year or so I ended up with this ridiculously long list of folders.

If I could have had just one level of subfolders, I could have put all my completed projects into a folder called, you know, “Completed projects”, so that the only folders at the top level of my hierarchy would be that one, one folder for each current project, and my “Reference” folder for all non-project notes.

But I couldn’t do that. Nesting folders is not possible. I asked for advice on the Yojimbo forum on how to manage this, and was mocked by some Yojimbo chauvinists for wanting anything as old-fashioned and hierarchical and downright linear as a subfolder. Devoted Yojimbo users explained to me that the really modern and efficient way would be to add a tag to each of these notes with the name of its associated project. Then I could dump all these notes into a single folder. When I wanted to pick out the files associated with a completed project, I just had to search on the tag that was associated with it. Which meant keeping a new note with a list of the names of all those tags. I never could see why this was supposed to be easier than dragging a folder into a “Completed projects” folder and letting the names of the subfolders themselves take the place of the separate list of past projects.

I can see that organizing with tags can make more sense when many of your notes could have uses in many different contexts. And it was explained to me how much time I would save in the long run by setting up this tagging system whenever I had a note that was relevant to two or more projects. But in close to ten years of working on my projects in this way, I could remember only one such situation, and I handled it quickly by cutting and pasting the information from the old project note into the new project note.

So what is so wrong about a (horrors!) linear system of organization if you have data that fall naturally and clearly into groups?

Another suggestion, and a better one, was that I export my completed project notes into folders of text files and archive them in a folder in the Finder. A sensible approach, I suppose, though it irks me not to be able to use a note organizing program to keep all the old project notes at hand that I want to. I do look back at them when a new project comes up that is similar to an old one.

One genuinely great thing about Yojimbo is how effortlessly it syncs between my laptop and desktop via my MobileMe account. But at the same time, my routine has changed in the last several years, and it’s no longer particularly important if I can sync my notes between my laptop and my desktop. My current laptop is a lot more powerful than my old one used to be, and I bought a powerful one precisely so that I could use it for a lot of things I used to do only on the desktop, because I have a long commute now and want to make use of that time. So I rarely transfer project files back and forth; I use the the two machines for mostly nonoverlapping kinds of projects.

However, now that I have my iPhone, it’s very desirable to me to be able to keep my notes on both the laptop and the phone and to be edit them in either place and sync them. Over the last six months or so, I’ve been using the iPhone app Notebooks, which syncs the notes on your phone with a folder of text and RTF files that you keep on your main computer. Want to keep your notes in a hierarchy of folders and subfolders? Notebooks has no philosophical objection to your doing so. I’ve been using TextWrangler to open and edit note files on my desktop, because TW lets you have multiple text files open in one window, and makes it easy to switch among them quickly.

That’s been working well enough, and if I decide against SOHO Notes, that’s what I’ll go back to doing. However, syncking between Notebooks and the folder of notes on my desktop is still not as smooth and easy as syncking between SOHO Notes and Notelife. So that’s a point in SOHO’s favor. Another point is that in SOHO, creating and manipulating and jumping around among notes is faster and easier than using TextWrangler and the Finder, which is the whole reason I want such a program in the first place.

Anyway, I’m giving SOHO a spin for a month and we’ll see how it holds up when I start piling it up with notes.

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