Nesting Folders in Apple Notes

A few weeks ago, we published a Mac Power Users episode comparing the current status of notetaking applications. During the show, I went on at some length about the good and bad points with Apple’s notes application. One of my issues was the inability to nest folders. I was wrong about that. You can nest folders in Apple Notes on the Mac and then it will propagate down to iOS. It’s kind of weird that you have to do it on the Mac first but that’s where things stand at this point. (Thanks Ken Haynes for pointing this out.)

Once you know of the existence of this feature, it’s not difficult to implement. Open Apple Notes on your Mac and simply drag an existing folder on top of another. That adds a disclosure triangle to the folder and placed the moved folder inside the destination folder. Then open up the Apple Notes application on your iPhone or iPad and give it a second to synchronize and you’re good to go.

This does expose a further issue with Apple Notes. Despite the fact that the app was rebuilt just last year, the are still a lot of subtle differences between the Mac and iOS versions. I hope with the next iteration of the Mac OS and iOS 10, the applications get closer and add a few of the features I mentioned in the show, like the ability to sort alphabetically and, for the love of all that is holy, a better way to set the font size on the Mac.

Going Deeper with Apple Notes

Apple Notes continues to get its hooks in me. When I showed up at WWDC last year, Apple Notes was nothing more than a target for my derision. When they announced during the keynote that they had an “all-new” Apple Notes I chortled and rolled my eyes.

Then I started using Apple Notes and the strangest thing happened. I liked it. Not only is Apple Notes a contender, Apple has continued to refine the product. Just last week we got a new beta of an upcoming Mac OS X release that includes additional Apple Notes features. One of those new features is the ability to import Evernote and plain text files. It seemed to me like a perfect excuse to slurp in the rest of my nvALT database so I could really push the application’s limits. Now I’ve got 787 notes in my Apple Notes database. It’s growing daily.

So first this was all a big experiment to see what was wrong with Apple Notes and then I just started using the application. I didn’t admit to myself, or anyone else, that I become an Apple Notes user but apparently I have.

I’ve already written at some length about Apple Notes and a few useful tips. That post resulted in a lot of questions about how I’m organizing my notes. Below is a list of all of my folders.


 

As you can see I’ve got basically three areas of my life: the geek, the lawyer, and the dude. For years I’ve been collecting bits of text relevant to every phase of life. On the legal side, I keep text files on most matters I work on. I split these between the active and closed matters. These include simple things like the name of a court or opposing counsel’s name in addition to any other bits of information I want to have quick access to. As an example, many of these notes have a communications log where I I have a running text list with the date, time, and content of any significant communications for later reference. I also keep bits of research and any other information I may find handy. On the legal side I also sometimes do a bit of research that I know I’m going to want to use again and I keep that is a text note. Finally, I have 286 separate notes including snippets of text I’ve written in the past but may want to use again.

On the MacSparky side I have notebooks related to field guides and everything else. A while ago I started keeping notes on Mac Power Users ad spots. When I come across something interesting with an advertiser’s product, I record it in the text file so I can remember to talk about it in the future episode.

Finally, the personal folder is the catchall. That one runs the gamut of notes I took when reading a book to useful Latin quotes … Sit vis nobiscum.

My 787 notes seem to be synchronizing just fine. When I add something on the iPad and iPhone, the new text makes its way to my MacBook faster than I can open the lid and go looking for it. I’m not aware of losing any data. One of the nice things about my active matters notes is that I can now add a picture. When I’m sitting down with the client and they start explaining something to me I can visually diagram it right in front of them and then keep it digitally. (This is just one more reason why the iPad Pro is increasingly becoming essential to me.

I also find myself frequently using the bullets, checkmarks, and other text features. I gave this tip my prior post but it’s worth repeating: Learn the Mac and iPad keyboard shortcuts.

That doesn’t mean Apple Notes is without fault. I wrote before, and it still remains true, that the text size on the Mac version is just too small. They keep adding new features with the betas and it keeps amazing me that they don’t address this problem.

The search also needs work. Searching in Apple Notes only searches all of your notes. You cannot search inside an individual notebook. I would think that the more appropriate behavior would be that if you are currently in a notebook, search remains inside that notebook. The library of nearly 800 notes, sometimes I just want to search inside an individual notebook.

Apple Notes also only really makes sense if you are on the Apple platform. It doesn’t synchromize across devices like a plaintext system, Evernote, or solutions will.

All that said, I’m on board now with Apple Notes. I’m going to be continuing to use it for the foreseeable future until either Apple stops giving it love and attention or something else new and shiny comes along. You know I like new and shiny things, right?

Using Apple Notes

Like a lot of people, I like having a place to keep piles of text notes. For years I’ve solved this problem with nvALT and a rotating group of iOS apps that work with Dropbox-based text files. About a year ago, I decided to start looking at other options. This was not out of some dissatisfaction with nvALT but instead but my insatiable nerd-curiosity. So I went on a notes spirit quest for several months including tours of duty in SimpleNote, Evernote, and several other options that ultimately led me back to nvALT. The funny thing about that experiment is that one app I never considered as a potential replacement was Apple Notes and all of its Marker Felt glory. Then WWDC rolled around and one of Apple’s big new announcements was an all new Notes app. I was in the betas. I had just finished one notes app experiment so I figured … “why not?”. I started using Notes in August and we are now sneaking up on January and I find myself still using Notes. Trust me; I’m as surprised as you are. So here’s a few notes on … well … Notes.

Things I Like About Notes

Syncing Works

Syncing in the old version of Notes always felt like a crap shoot. It used an IMAP protocol and felt (and acted) like a bit of a hack. With the new version, syncing is much improved. I’ve currently got over 300 notes and the list is growing. Some of them are a few lines of text. Others are full of pictures, files, and links. It’s also fast. Out of curiosity, while writing this I got out my iPad Air, which has spent the last week on a shelf, and fired up Notes. It was up to date in seconds. It’s sad that I need to even mention this but I’ve had no syncing errors and lost no Notes despite now running the app on four devices.

Rich Text and Attachments

If I just wanted to have plain text notes, nvALT is probably still the winner. However, one of the reasons I started looking for alternatives was because I’m finding I’d like to do a bit more and Apple Notes does that. I’m increasingly finding excuses to put pictures in notes. I’m also throwing word processing documents and other files. Everything is syncing just fine. I also really like the checklists and bullets. They’re easy to add, attractive, and useful.

Adding a little formatting is nice. That does, however, come at a price. My nvALT text notes are timeless. I’m certain my grandchildren’s grandchildren will be able to open a text file. I’m not so certain they’ll be able to get at my Apple Notes data. I’ve been conscious of this as I’ve been adding new notes to the database. Anything that I want to be really long-term, I’m addressing differently or at least exporting as a plain text when appropriate. There’s also an app linked below that can mass-export your Notes to text files.

Notes as an Everything Bucket

While comparisons to Evernote are obvious, the applications are very different. Evernote definitely has more features and better sharing as an everything bucket but it hardly feels native to the Mac and iOS. Evernote, and its desire to be everything to everyone, gets a little rough around the edges. I think the more appropriate comparison for Notes is to Yojimbo. Notes is a native Mac and iOS app that also syncs its data on the cloud. That was something that we never quite got out of Yojimbo. Apple Notes is cleaner and, in my opinion, generally a better experience overall for Mac and iOS users. Moreover, because it’s an Apple product, it’s got hooks all over the Mac and IOS operating systems making it seriously easy to put data inside it.

Sketches

Now that I’ve got an iPad pro, I also find myself adding sketches to notes. That’s something I haven’t done for a long time and it’s really useful.

Things I don’t Like About Notes

That Ridiculously Small Mac Font

It’s completely nuts to me how they shipped the Mac app with both that tiny default font and no way to change it to something larger. You can increase the font size in individual notes but nothing across the board. It’s like someone at Apple thought, “I’m 24 years old and I can read the tiny font just fine. If anyone else can’t, screw em’.” I was hoping that by now they’d have shipped an update that lets me fix this but no luck. Strangely, this is not an issue on the iPad or iPhone where the default font size is larger and entirely readable.

Duplicating Notes

There is no way to easily duplicate a note. Quite often I will use an existing note as a jumping off point for a new one. The only way to do that now is to physically copy the contents of the note, create a new note, and then paste those content. Not exactly convenient.

Note Organization

The Notes application will sort your notes any way you like, so long as you only like them sorted by modification date with the most recently modified note always at the top. This generally is the best way to sort notes and my preferred method. However, once in a while I would like to sort them in different ways, like alphabetically. That’s not possible here. Searching your Notes (Option-Command-F on the Mac) helps but still I wish we could decide for ourselves how Notes organizes its data.

A Few Hacks I’ve Picked Up Along the Way

Text Formatting Shortcuts

There is a series of keyboard shortcuts for text formatting. Once you get them under your fingers, they speed up text formatting on the Mac nicely:

Shift-Command-T – Title

Shift-Command-H – Heading

Shift-Command-B – Body

Shift-Command-L – Checklist

Tags

Notes supports folders, which is a convenient one-dimensional form of organization. It has no support, however, for tags. With the inclusion of tags in iOS last year, I was hoping that would become a “thing”. However, my hopes appear to be dashed. We saw very little support for tags in iOS 9. Notes was a golden opportunity for Apple to jump on their own tagging bandwagon but, alas, they did not. If you’re going to tag notes, you’ll have to make homegrown tags. I suggest using the hashtag (e.g., #grocery) and putting them in at the bottom of your notes. The searching feature will sniff them out for you.

Moving in from Evernote

If you’ve got a lot of notes in Evernote that you’d like to put in Notes, use Larry Salibra’s script. I’ve moved great big piles of text out of Evernote into Notes this way with no trouble at all.

Yanking Text out of Notes

You can always block and copy individual notes into a text file but if you’d like to copy all of your Notes out into individual text files, there’s a Mac app for that called Notes Exporter.

Am I Sticking With It?

So throughout this test drive I’ve been putting off deciding whether or not I’ll stick with Notes or not. However, after six months I’ve come to realize that the decision has already been made. The fact that I haven’t abandoned Notes after this long answers the question. I’m sticking with Notes.