I spent the evening having a crisis about what note-taking application to use. For years I used Notational Velocity/nvAlt. It was light, fast, and I could sync my notes over Dropbox as a folder of files.

Brett Terpstra, the maintainer of nvAlt, had BitWriter in the works for years but as a result of life getting in the way, it never came to be. Meanwhile I kept on using nvAlt.

Then, several months ago, I saw the news that Brett and Fletcher Penney of MultiMarkdown were working on nvAlt’s successor, nvUltra.

I got excited about my notes again but realized how badly I had been wanting another setup.

That’s when I remembered Simplenote. When I discovered it was under the care of Automattic and provided as a free service, my interest was piqued. When I realized they had a native Mac app, I was impressed.

I did something irrational—I switched over to using Simplenote even though the app I had been waiting years for, nvAlt’s successor, was soon to be released.

That brings us to today. I got an invite to download the nvUltra beta.

I don’t feel like reviewing nvUltra in detail here, but let’s just say I wasn’t into it like I thought I would be. I went down a web rabbit hole reading about note-taking apps and really giving my setup some thought. The following represents my preferred features with a note about how well various apps delivered. I compared Simplenote, nvUltra, and Standard Notes.

Typography

This shouldn’t have to be the first point, but damn there is some terrible typography in note-taking apps. Standard Notes was the worst. Their website is awesome but their default editor has such tight line-spacing that I almost couldn’t believe it. nvUltra (barely) wins out here because of how easy theming it is. Standard Notes has theming, but I didn’t test it. The defaults are so bad that I didn’t even bother. Simplenote has the best typography out-of-the-box, but the macOS app needs some looser line-spacing. It has just enough Markdown formatting without forcing your note to be Markdown-compliant. Winner: nvUltra

Line-spacing rant; skip if you want

Seriously, though. Line-spacing of 1.0 (or 1 times the font size) is too tight. And in a lot of fonts, 1.5 is too loose. Anything between 1.2 and 1.45 usually is pretty good. I get that most people probably don’t give a shit about the nuance of line-spacing. That’s fine. But developers, can we make this a preference? Because you know you guys aren’t designers. Please, just let us snobs set our own line-spacing and other typographic properties. Ok, rant over.

Syncing

I need to sync two Macs. Having a web interface is a plus but not required. This is one of the reasons I was interested in Standard Notes. They implement end-to-end encryption which is pretty awesome. They take a strong stance on privacy, security, and longevity and I love that.

nvUltra relies on third-party syncing. In my case, it’s Dropbox. I sync a ton of files, though, so sometimes my notes get held hostage while I’m waiting for Dropbox to finish syncing. That said, it’s just a folder of files so that provides maximum portability. nvUltra (as far as I can tell) is perfectly happy for other apps to edit your notes.

Simplenote runs its own syncing service. Your notes aren’t encrypted in storage (though they are in transit). You also get a web interface. Having the separate syncing service is nice because there’s no waiting for Dropbox.

Winner: Standard Notes because of their commitment to privacy, security, and longevity. But Simplenote is a close second if you can get past the fact that your notes are stored in the clear.

Design and simplicity

Standard Notes talks a big game when it comes to simplicity but I don’t think the app delivers. Upgrading to Extended gets you all these wild add-ons and extensions. That’s cool, but like I just want text with decent line-spacing—not the kitchen sync. And as much as I love what Electron enables us web peeps to do (I mean I have an Electron app on the App Store), I don’t want to run yet another one. Especially for my notes, which I want to be snappy at a moment’s notice.

nvUltra brings the legendary simplicity of Notational Velocity but also the legendary flexibility of things made by Brett Terpstra and Fletcher Penney. For my needs, nvUltra is over-powered. In terms of design, it’s lackluster and needs some TLC if you want it looking good—which thanks to themes and some hidden preferences you can totally do.

Simplenote is what it says on the tin. It’s UI is nice, it’s editor is nice (save the aforementioned macOS line-spacing). It’s the most Mac-like in my opinion—it follows your system setting for dark mode, for example. There’s just enough Markdown. There are options I appreciate such as setting line-length to “Narrow” or “Full” (spoiler: you want “Narrow”) which while not as specific as I might want, follows the idea of embracing simplicity. You have options, but not too many.

Winner: Simplenote

My choice

The problem with writing articles like this is that I may very well change my mind within days. And to be fair, nvUltra is in beta.1 But tonight I decided to stick with Simplenote.

I really wish it stored encrypted notes, but I’m not willing to sacrifice my other wants for that. I enjoyed the portability of the folder-of-files setup for years, but I’m going with the walled garden of Simplenote because it makes jotting down a quick note (that’s everywhere) effortless. And there’s a great export tool if I ever want to hit the eject button. Simplenote also quietly packs some powerful features like note collaboration and publishing. But they’re totally out of your way if you don’t care about them.

While I appreciate Standard Notes’ commitment of longevity, I’m choosing Automattic’s track record of the same. Remember they make WordPress which is like 1 in 3 websites and they recently acquired Tumblr, the other popular blogging site. They have the resources to provide Simplenote, and they haven’t neglected it thus far. Matt Mullenweg needs notes too, right? Simplenote should be with us for a while.

If security is your primary concern, you want Standard Notes.

If you want maximum portability, compatibility, and some nerd power, then you want a folder of text files that you edit with nvUltra.

If you want to write a quick note down easily and elegantly, then you want my choice, Simplenote.


  1. nvUltra can nerd out in some pretty awesome ways but it’s missing some UI niceties I’ve become accustomed to—like having a list of my tags that I can click to filter the notes list. It’s really a keyboard-centric app and, unfortunately, my disability makes me more mouse-centric.  ↩