Submitted by jean-paul on Thu, 01/09/2014 - 23:26

Taking notes is an important part of school life, especially in college and university where the content is often presented at a faster pace than in earlier levels. In the upper levels, computers are often used by students in the classroom, so I'm going to try out a few different options available to me on Ubuntu Linux 13.04. Users of other releases or distributions (such as Fedora, openSuse, Arch) will likely have to modify the install instructions based on their setup.

First off is some research. I have found a bunch of note-taking programs. I am sure that there are others, but I'll add them at a later date. Feel free to tell me about projects that I didn't mention, in the comments below.

I will only be reviewing note taking software that is free to use. I would prefer opensource software, but I will use anything except for crippled, demo, or otherwise functionally limited software. I would be willing to add reviews of proprietary note taking software if I feel it is noteworthy, and a licensed copy is donated.

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I am looking for specific features, so I'll set out the criteria first.

  1. Some professors make available PDF files with varying content, based on particular lectures. I need to be able to either copy/paste pages or parts of pages, embedded images, text fragments, or I need to be able to annotate the PDF files directly.
  2. Editing needs to have some WYSIWYG features, namely bullets and basic markup.
  3. Text needs to be searchable and editable.
  4. Content needs to be structured, hopefully hierarchically, but a flat index would suffice if I can sort and filter.

First, a nod to some ignored projects. There are many types of "note taking". Not all of them are useful in a lecture setting. Those are listed below, in the hopes that a reader won't waste time installing something that they think I might have forgotten to mention.

  • vim - I love vim, and use it daily. I'm not taking my class notes with it, as there is no WYSIWYG in vim, and you can't edit PDFs with it.

  • emacs - I've heard that it's great, but again, I'm not taking my class notes with it.
  • gedit - It's got nice plugins, and even doubles as a very good IDE with some minor configuration changes. Not quite what I'm looking for.
  • Evernote - I'll bet it's pretty great, and it's free for home use but I haven't seen a native package, and I'm not willing to use Wine. There is a web mode which is definitely a great bonus, but I don't want to depend on a web-only service unless it has an offline mode.
  • Rednotebook - This looks interesting, but is geared towards personal journals or something similar where chronology is important.
  • Lonote - Lonote is browser based, and too basic for my needs. It would be cool if I was doing my notetaking directly on my server, but Lonote doesn't have buttons, and the assigned hotkeys don't work in my browser.
  • OwnCloud - I got the idea to try this one when I saw that Lonote is web based, but unfortunately the journal plugin and the text editor are both too simple for my needs.
  • Jarnal - This program was originally on the "to test" list, but closer inspection revealed that it is geared towards pen input and PDF annotation, similar to Xournal. For that reason, I won't be using it.

Now let's take a look at the projects that made it to my shortlist.

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Nevernote (NixNote)

Used to be called NixNote (or it's the other way around). I've used this a few times in the past few years. Installing in openSuse was a bit of a pain, as the automated download button on the project page offered a deb. I might have been able to install it (didn't try) forcefully, but I opted to keep looking. I would built it from source if necessary, but thankfully I found a rpm of a slightly newer than stable version. I ran it, and couldn't connect because of a lack of SSL libraries, so I opened Yast and installed the one that I thought it should be using. I reran nevernote, and automatically got the Evernote login screen. I read that the SSL library is only used for annual app authorization for the website, so if you have the same problem, you can uninstall the library once the auth is done.

I tried to copy an image from a PDF and paste it in to an Evernote note, but ended up pasting the whole page. I tried again on a different PDF, and successfully copied and pasted an image from a PDF. The resulting paste was unresizable, which is less useful than I need. (As a side note, I've had problems in the past with posts containing images synchronizing with the Evernote servers. Beware of that, and do some testing, before you use this for school!)

NeverNote has WYSIWYG, including bullets. The text is also taggable, and there is a basic search/filter box. The search apparently doesn't use all fields, as I couldn't search for content. Only titles and notebook names gave results.

NeverNote doesn't use a complex heirarchy, although notes can be added to notebooks. You can also "stack" notebooks when you're done with them. Stack is essentially your archive.

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Never heard of it, but there appears to be a Debian package, which is promising.... As it turns out, installing keepnote in Ubuntu 13.04 is as simple as

$sudo apt-get install keepnote

Its icon is a keyboard key, and the startup screen is fairly spartan, with 3 apparent screen sections and 4 buttons. A peek through the menus reveals many options for both use and configuration. I created a few folders, and a page inside one of the folders. I tried to drag and drop images from both my webbrowser and nautilus, and only got a link. You can insert images using the "Edit" menu. I also managed to copy/paste embedded images from a PDF, and then resize the images. KeepNote has all of the basic editor buttons, like bold, underline, bullets, font styles, etc.

KeepNote also has a winning search feature. It's easy to miss, but if you select the "Search" menu, and then choose "Search all Notes", nothing seems to happen. I don't know why that option is there, because the search box is near the top-right corner of the window. You can also search in a single document, or do a search-replace. Very handy indeed!

KeepNote uses documents within folders within folders within folders etc. as a hierarchy, and it seems to be perfectly functional to me. There is a collapsible tree on the left, which would be easy to navigate.

I just stumbled upon something that I haven't seen in Linux so far, which is a build in screenshot function that enables you to draw a box around anything on your screen and it will embed it as an image on your document. That's a winning feature, if I ever saw one.

Keepnote is, so far, my first choice, despite the fact that KeepNote is missing one very important feature. The ability to export or print notes and notebooks. You can export to HTML, and then print from a browser but that's very kludgy.

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I found this one in the openSuse repositories, and while I dind't expect much because I hadn't heard of it previously, and it didn't appear on lists of note taking applications, it looks like it might do all of the functions that I would need.

Notes can be held in "Cherry Trees", of which there can be more than one per file. That means that you can either have one file for all of your courses, or as I would suggest, one file for each class. That way you can use the top-level notes for another category, such as classes/labs, or one top-level per date.

Images can be copy/pasted from PDFs, or can be inserted with the normal "insert image" dialogue. After insertion, you can right click on the image, and select "edit image" in order to resize it.

Other important functions are bullets/numbered lists, text and background recolouring, tables, links, and last but not least, configurable code-boxes with automatic syntax highlighting for a huge number of programming/markup languages and file layouts. I selected Python for my example, although the range goes from C to LaTex, Pascal to CUDA. Of course there is a whole range of standard WYSIWYG options, such as bold, italics, underline, strikethrough, and HTML heading tags (h1-h3). It also allows you to make sub-nodes on any node, which allows for complex hierarchies.

Conveniently, you can then export to PDF by entire tree, current node, or current node and subnodes. Nodes can be resorted at any time, which makes PDF creation much more useful. Text is searchable by node, all nodes, and by node title.

This program impressed me so much that I'm going to give it a real try in class. I currently use either Xournal, LibreOffice, and on occasion NeverNote.

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This is Google Office, but framed as a desktop app. I just read about it recently, but haven't found package.

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Interestingly, it will automatically turn a title reference in to a link. As an example, I can create a note called "March 10 - ToDo" and on it, place my to-do list for that day. If I then write another note and on it type "On my previous note March 10 - ToDo I mentioned that...", the instant I type that last "o" on "ToDo" the whole phrase becomes a link to the first article. All in all it's an interesting project, but much too limited for my needs.

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I didn't find this one in my Ubuntu repositories, but a quick search identified packages located at including one that fit my needs. If you are a new user, I don't recommend installing software in this way, as it can make your system difficult to manage as well as introducing unknown software to your system. If you try it and like it, perhaps send an email to the author to ask him to include it in a ppa.

The program starts quickly, and has screen divisions for "Subjects" and "Notes" listings, as well as for the notes themselves, and a column for tags. I create subjects for each of my classes, and start on a new note. I see that there are many of the standard WYSIWYG editor buttons (although bullets are missing), and one that says that its for sychronizing. I thought it might be an online portion, but the documentation explains that it is for sychronizing two databases with eachother. That's handy when you need to be able to work on something on more than one computer, and don't/can't use some sort of online service.

I tried to drag and drop images from nautilus and firefox without success, but I could add them from the notes menu. Before the menu appears, you have to choose its size (without seeing it), and the image can't be resized again. There also didn't appear to be a way to take a screenshot within the program. I also did "copy image" from pdf, and tried to paste, but got an error "Operation not correct. That's a showstopper for me, if I can't get whole or pieces of PDF in to my notes.

All in all, I like that mynotex keeps everything neat and tidy in one file, with file attachments zipped in a folder. The lack of bullets, and the inability to either import (and edit) PDF or copy/paste embedded images makes this all but unusable for me. I'll have to remember to come back to it in the future and see if it has become more useful to me.

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Xournal has been my preferred way to take notes for a number of years, simply because I could add notes on top of the PDFs that had been provided by my professors. It is primarily designed for pen input, and its default "paper" style is lined. You can also add text, but the entry and styling options are next to none. There is no way to do formatting such as tables and lists, and bits of text are interspersed around the document as images. You can't search for the text later, but you can easily reexport your document to PDF again. It really is designed for the pen, as you can see by the tools that are available, such as the pens highlighters, and eraser.

You can insert images through the menu, and you can paste them from the clipboard, and resizing is as easy as resizing a window. All in all it's a good program, but using only a keyboard limits its usefulness.

Conclusion: I am going to use KeepNote, and possibly contact the author about getting an export or print function. I would also like to see a button on KeepNote's taskbar for screenshots, but that's just a personal preference.

What do you think? Was there something that I missed? A different program, or maybe you think that one of these has a killer feature that I ignored? Let me know!