Notebooks for iPad ($8.99) is a note taking app by Alfons Schmid. But calling it “a note taking app” really does not do it justice. Notebooks is not a dinky little replacement for Apple’s Notes app. It is not a gimmicky, fluffy app filled with unnecessary eye candy. This is a full-featured application that would be appreciated best by writers, researchers, and academics. If all you want in a note app is a place to store your shopping lists or quick notes, Notebooks is probably overkill. If, however, you want a sophisticated app that offers powerful features and is meant for serious writing and research, Notebooks is the perfect solution. I happened upon the app after searching for a notes app in the App Store. While I love SimpleNote as a basic note taking application, I was looking for something I could use for novel writing and research and for my academic writing needs. Initially, I balked at the price of this app, but, as you’ll see from this review, it is well worth every penny.
For many reasons, I think Notebooks is the best application available for people who want to do serious writing and research on their iPads. It offers more features than any other app I’ve run across, and it implements those features almost flawlessly. I will cover the major features of the app in this review, but for a complete understanding of what it is capable of, you need to look at the developer’s website.
The Notebook Motif
Like other note taking apps, Notebooks makes use of a notebook motif. But, notebooks doesn’t do this in a superficial way (i.e. using a notebook-lined canvas and little spiral graphics). Rather, Notebooks turns the motif into something imminently useful. You can create as many notebooks (=folders) and notes as you want, and (here’s the exciting part), you can nest notebooks to your heart’s content. Finally, I’ve found a note taking app that allows me to organize things hierarchically! For example, I created a notebook for the Sunday School lessons I’m writing for Smyth & Helwys Publishers. Within that notebook I created a notebook for lessons on Gideon. Within the Gideon notebook, I made a separate notebook for each of the four lessons I’m writing, and within those, separate notebooks for research, the learner’s lesson, the teacher’s lesson, etc. I love hierarchical arrangements — that’s simply how I think. Keep in mind that you can only nest notebooks, not individual notes — think of the notebooks as your folders and notes as the individual pages within a folder.
In addition, you can arrange notebooks and notes according to name, date, or manually. And you can easily delete a notebook or note by swiping to the right or using the trash can icon.
New items can be created in Notebooks simply by tapping the ‘+’ button. The button opens a menu with the following options: new note, new book, new from pasteboard (a note is created from whatever is currently on your clipboard), picture from album, and import with SyncDocs. Plus, if you tap and hold the ‘+’ button, a new note is created instantly, so you can start typing immediately.
A book’s title is also a tappable button that offers you several actions unique to a book. You can synchronize your book via WebDAV or SyncDocs (more on this later); you can combine all the notes within a book into one note; you can move the book to a different location; you can duplicate a book; you can copy a link for your book. This last feature is particularly useful. Once you create a link for your book, you can paste it anywhere in Notebooks and it becomes a clickable link back to the book. In this way you can link various books together — sort of like a personal Wikipedia. Even better, you can paste the link into other applications (as long as they automatically recognize URLs) and have a quick link back to your notebook.
Individual notes have their own action menu, depending on the kind of document you are working on. Notes can be converted into task lists with a touch of the action button or you can select text from a note and turn it into an individual task. Notes can be duplicated or copied as plain text. Web archive notes can be opened in Safari. You can copy a note’s link and paste it into Notebooks (or other applications) as a cross reference. The note can be sent by email, exported via SyncDocs, sent to external task management applications, such as a Todo or Print (if you have one of EuroSmartz‘s printing apps installed on your iPad).
Full Screen Mode
Why the heck other writing apps for the iPad haven’t figured this one out, I’ll never understand. Writers love having the entire screen for writing! I haven’t found another app that uses the iPad’s deliciously large screen to its full advantage — until now. Inevitably, other apps insist on using a huge column on the left side to list your notes. Notebooks, however, gives you the option to use the app in full screen mode all the time! Thank you Alfons Schmid, you ingenious developer, you!
By the way, if you do want a column view, you can certainly choose it in the settings, so everyone can be happy. Brilliant!
Notebooks isn’t just a writing app. You can import all sorts of material into the app for use in research and writing. For example, you can set up a bookmarklet in Safari, and if you want to import something from Safari into Notebooks, just tap the bookmarklet. Immediately the app opens and the web page becomes a new note and web archive. If you don’t want an entire web page, simply select and copy the text you do want, open Notebooks, tap the ‘+’ sign, and choose “New from Pasteboard.” A new note is created with the selected text. You can also import text, HTML, RTF, PDF, MS Office, Apple iWork documents, and photos into Notebooks using the web bookmarklet, document syncing (see below), or email attachments.
Notebooks integrates task management as part of its functionality. Although most of us already have a dedicated task manager application, Notebooks allows you to integrate your projects and to-do items together within the app. What’s especially nice about Notebook’s task management is that you can arrange your tasks into complex hierarchies and, even better, connect tasks with documents and research within the application. You are never limited to one line for a task. In fact, each task is a note with unlimited space.
If, however, you are already deeply invested in a task management program, Notebooks allows you to integrate with some external applications, including OmniFocus (which should be available for the iPad soon), Appigo’s Todo, Firetask, and Ideawell. Select a note or any text from Notebooks, click the action button, and you can create a todo in the application of your choice.
Your notes and notebooks are not forever trapped on your iPad. They can be exported and synced. And, as noted earlier, you can easily import various kinds of documents into the app via email. Sharing documents between computers can be accomplished via two methods: WebDAV and SyncDocs/Bonjour. The documentation for Notebooks explains in great detail how to work with these two formats. In essence, WebDAV services include MobileMe, myDisk, and other cloud based services (apparently DropBox is in the works, too). SyncDocs/Bonjour works on your local wireless network and involves downloading SyncDocs to your PC or Mac. This method is especially good for transferring many documents at the same time.
I tried both methods and both work seamlessly. Personally, I prefer using MobileMe (or another cloud-based service), simply because I’m more familiar with that method. But SyncDocs was incredibly fast, so I plan to use it when I need to transfer large files or multiple files at once.
A Couple of Other Great Features
Notebooks boasts several other useful features. Your work is automatically saved as you write, so you don’t have to worry about losing anything. The app can be protected with a passcode lock that can be enabled in the settings. Then you can passcode protect any individual notes or books within the app. Another feature is search. You can search within an individual book and across all the books and notes within that book. Unfortunately, you can’t search across all the books in the app. A universal search option would be a helpful addition. Finally, for all you writers out there, Notebooks maintains a running word count for you in the upper right corner beneath the bookmark button (NaNoWriMo‘s right around the corner, you know).
What’s Macgasmic: Everything about this app is Macgasmic. I apologize for gushing, but it really is that good. Alfons Schmid’s website states that Notebooks “is the one and only notebook you”ll ever need,” and it is true. This is the one notebook app to rule them all. I’ve tried to cover what makes the app so good in my review, but let me recap a few features here. 1). This is one of the most full-featured note taking apps available. 2). The app is well integrated with many other applications, making it flexible and extraordinarily useful. 3). The app offers one of the best user interfaces, including a full screen typing mode. 4). Material can be easily imported into and exported from the app, meaning that your work is never trapped on the iPad.
What’s Not: I am so impressed with Notebooks, it’s hard to find much to complain about. This is one of the most versatile and well-developed apps I’ve ever come across. Nevertheless, no app is perfect, and I’ve found a few minor weaknesses. First, there is no document formatting. You can choose from a variety of fonts in the settings, but it would be nice to be able to do italics and boldface whilst typing. A rudimentary outlining feature would be helpful to most writers. Second, I discovered that not all web pages can be imported into the app. In particular, I was disappointed to discover that I couldn’t create web archives from The New York Times, CNN, or ABC. Yahoo News worked fine, as did most other pages. This problem may be due to those news sites’ restrictions rather than a flaw in Notebooks. Third, although you can set the background canvas for Notebooks by downloading templates from the website, none of them looked very good. Perhaps the templates are really for the iPhone version of Notebooks rather than for the iPad. Regardless, I reverted back to the standard background.
My recommendation? If you need a seriously great note taking application, go buy Notebooks, now! Notebooks for the iPad is available on the App Store for $8.99.