This page has been cached on a Mac mini at Macminicolo so it can be read while interest is high. All text and images still belong to the original author. The ad clicks and server stats will still show for them as well. We do this to show how powerful a Mac mini can be as a server. Low Cost. High Performance.

iPhone notes app comparison

I have four note taking apps for the iPhone: Simplenote, Elements, PlainText, and Nebulous Notes. I’ve written about each of them before,1 but I thought it might be useful to compare them all in a single post.

The comparison will cover

Cost

None of these apps are particularly expensive, but in-app purchases can make the cost different from what you see in the App Store.

Simplenote

Simplenote is free, but there’s an in-app Premium upgrade option that costs $20 per year. A Premium subscription does several things:

I had a Premium subscription last year—I won it in a contest—but that was before some of these features were available, so I can’t speak authoritatively on their value. It seems to me that the most important of the Premium features is the Dropbox syncing, but there is, famously, a way to get Dropbox syncing via the API without a Premium account. We’ll discuss that in the Syncing section.

Elements

$4.99. No ads, no in-app purchases. Buy Elements and you get all the features.

PlainText

PlainText is free, but has ads that remain at the bottom of the screen in both List view and Note view. The ads vanish when the keyboard appears for editing. An in-app purchase option will remove the ads for $4.99.

Nebulous Notes

$1.99. As with Elements, this is the price for the app with all its features.


Syncing

This is an area where the differences between the apps can be huge. Dropbox syncing is the primary reason I switched from Simplenote to Elements.

Simplenote

This is really complicated.

Simplenote has its own syncing system, which I’ll call native syncing, that backs your note up to Amazon’s S3 cloud storage service. The notes can be viewed and edited through your web browser by going to simplenoteapp.com and signing in with a username and password. Before Simplenote published its API and before there was a Premium service, this was the only way to get at your notes from your computer.

Now, with a Premium account, you can sync your notes to your Dropbox account, where they’re available to be viewed and edited in any text application on your computer. This is a fairly new feature, and I have no experience with it.

Because of Simplenote’s API, there are ways to get Dropbox syncing without a Premium account. The most common, on a Mac, at least, is to use Notational Velocity. Both the standard NV and its most famous fork, nvAlt, make periodic calls to the Simplenote API to sync the notes with a folder of your choice on your computer. If you choose that folder to be one within your Dropbox folder, you now have Dropbox syncing with Simplenote.

This option pretty much forces you to run Notational Velocity all the time to get automatic syncing. If you’re an NV user, you’re probably doing this anyway. I prefer having just one text editor (TextMate) running all the time, so the NV syncing has never appealed to me. But lots of people do use the NV option to get Dropbox syncing with Simplenote and they love it. I’ve never heard anyone say that Simplenote’s API throttling interfered with syncing.

Elements

This is really simple. Elements syncs to an “Elements” folder in your Dropbox folder. When you start Elements for the first time, you give it your Dropbox login credentials, and it creates that folder. Notes you create on your iPhone are saved in that folder and are available to be edited with any text application on your computer. Notes you create on your computer and save in that folder are available to be viewed and edited on your phone in Elements.

I’ve noticed that small edits made on the computer sometimes don’t get synced immediately, and I’ve had to quit Elements and relaunch it to see those changes. I haven’t had this problem in quite a while, so it may have been a bug that got fixed.

PlainText

This is almost as simple as Elements, but the one extra step of complication has real benefits. Like Elements, PlainText syncs your notes to a folder within your Dropbox folder. By default, this will be a folder called “PlainText,” but you can choose any folder at all. I chose my “Elements” folder, which gives me access to all my notes from both apps. A thoughtful feature from Hog Bay.

Syncing PlainText to my Elements folder

Nebulous Notes

Now we’re back to complicated, but not as complicated as Simplenote.

Nebulous Notes can access any text file in your Dropbox folder—it’s not limited to files in a single subfolder. However, it doesn’t automatically sync all your Dropbox text files to your phone. Only files that you specifically open within Nebulous get a local copy put on your phone. These files are called “Auto-saves.”

Nebulous auto-saves

If you find yourself without a network connection, only the auto-saves can be viewed or edited; Nebulous won’t even let you see a list of the other files.

In a way, this is quite flexible, because Nebulous doesn’t force you to put your notes into a specific subfolder. But it makes the syncing only semi-automatic. If you may be going somewhere with no network access, you have to remember to turn any file you might need into an auto-save before you lose your connection.

This is a better approach than Nebulous had when I first reviewed it. Back then, there were no local copies whatsoever—if you were off-network, you couldn’t access any of your notes. Still, I prefer the fully automatic syncing of the other apps.


TextExpander support

All four apps have TextExpander support, and I wouldn’t even consider an app that didn’t.


Fonts

When it first came out, Simplenote’s two main advantages over the built-in Notes app were automatic syncing and Helvetica, and for many of us the font choice was just as important as syncing without iTunes. There were ways of getting Notes to use something other than that godawful Marker Felt, but they were annoying.

Simplenote

Simplenote still uses Helvetica and only Helvetica. If that fits your needs, you’ll be happy with it. Four font sizes are available: Small, Normal, Large, and Extra Large. What’s surprising to this middle-aged user is that Small is actually readable, and Normal is comfortably readable.

Elements

Elements offers every font on the iPhone in every style. This is overkill, as no on is going to write notes in DBLCDTempBlack. But if you like Palatino or Snell Roundhand or Verdana, they’re available to you. Also, Second Gear has included my favorite monospaced font, Bitstream Vera Sans Mono.

I’m repeating myself here, but I find a good monospaced font essential to note taking, mainly because so many of my notes are schedules and lists that are best expressed as tabular data, and a monospaced font is the easiest way to get the columns to line up.

PlainText

PlainText uses Georgia, with no option for another font. I love Georgia and it gives PlainText a beautiful overall look, but it isn’t right for my more data-centric notes. I imagine it would work really well for people who write mostly in paragraphs.

Nebulous Notes

Nebulous offers a subset of the fonts that come with the iPhone: Georgia, Georgia Bold, Heiti TC, Helvetica, Helvetica Bold, Marker Felt, Times New Roman, Times New Roman Bold, Trebuchet MS, Courier, and Courier Bold. It also includes not one but three additional monospaced fonts: Bitstream Vera Sans Mono, Monaco, and Lucida Console.


Searching

There are two ways to organize your text files: lots of little files on specific topics or a few large files covering broad categories. I use the former strategy, so I don’t need to do much searching; but if you use the latter, searching will be the best way to get to the information you want.

Simplenote

Simplenote has, without question, the best search tool. Not only does it tell you which notes contain the text string you’re looking for,

Simplenote search across files

but tapping on one of the files will take you to the first spot that string occurs within the file,

Simplenote search in files

and the arrow keys in the bottom left corner will take you to all the other places in the file with that text.

Elements

Elements will do the first stage of searching, telling you which of your files contains the text,

Elements search

but after that, you’re on your own for finding the string within the file.

PlainText

PlainText has no search feature whatsoever.

Nebulous Notes

Nebulous, like PlainText, has no search feature.


Sorting

Simplenote has the most options for sorting the list of notes, Nebulous the fewest. My preference, both when I used Simplenote and now that I’m using Elements, is to sort by descending modification date, which puts the most recently edited file at the top of the list.

Simplenote

Simplenote can sort the list of notes by

There’s also a “Pin To Top” option that allows you to choose files that will always be at the top of the list no matter how the other files are sorted.

Elements

Elements can sort the list of notes by

PlainText

PlainText can sort the list of notes by

Nebulous Notes

Nebulous sorts by ascending file name only.


Full screen mode

Full screen mode can be great for reading; it clears all the chrome off the screen, giving you a couple of extra lines of visibility.

Simplenote

Simplenote has a well-designed full screen mode. You get into it by tapping a button at the right end of the bottom toolbar,

Simplenote regular view

and go back to normal mode by tapping the floating “ghost” button in the lower right corner of full screen mode.

Simplenote full screen view

Elements

Elements has no full screen mode. You always have a title bar at the top and a toolbar at the bottom.

PlainText

PlainText always has a title bar at the top but has no toolbar at the bottom if you paid to remove the ads.

Nebulous Notes

Nebulous has a frustrating full screen mode. You access it by tapping a floating ghost button in the lower right corner of the screen,

Nebulous regular view

and get out by tapping a similar button at the same spot when you’re in full screen mode. I can’t show you this second button because Nebulous keeps it invisible until you tap at that spot. Worse, when you tap there, the virtual keyboard appears, whether you wanted to edit the file or not. Only then does the “regular mode” button appear.

Nebulous keyboard view

By the way, how do you dismiss the unwanted keyboard? Damned if I know. Nebulous is the only app that doesn’t have a button for that purpose. The only way I’ve found to dismiss the keyboard is to tap the folder button in the title bar to go back out to the list of files. If there’s another way to do it, I’ll happily update this paragraph; but if it’s there, it certainly isn’t obvious.


Word count

I can’t say I use this feature much, but all the apps have some form of it.

Simplenote

Simplenote has an info button in the bottom toolbar that tells you the number of words and characters in the note.

Elements

Elements has an info button in the bottom toolbar that tells you the number of words, characters, and lines in the note. It’s basically like the Unix wc command.

PlainText

PlainText has a cute but weird way of telling you the word count. Tap and hold anywhere on a note and the usual selection bar will appear. The word count will be at the right end of the bar. If you have text already selected when you tap and hold, the editing bar will have the word count of that selection at the right end.

PlainText selection word count

Nebulous

Nebulous’s word count is accessed through the settings ghost button, the one that looks like Aa. It tells you only the word count.


Other features

Elements has a Markdown preview mode; Nebulous is supposed to be getting one soon.

Simplenote has a “View As List” option, which I know nothing about because it’s a Premium feature.

Simplenote and PlainText will let you lock the orientation of the display even if the global orientation lock is off. Nice for reading/editing while lying down.

Elements has a variety of choices for foreground and background color. Nebulous has a smaller number of choices and a handful of preset themes, one of which gives you the green-on-black look of old CRTs—a look that people who never had to use those CRTs find much cooler than those of us who did.

Simplenote has a passcode lock similar to the four-digit lock you might have set on the phone itself. If you don’t like passcode-protecting the phone because it slows down access to it, you might still want to protect your notes.

Simplenote and PlainText can detect “links” in files. Tapping on a URL will open it in Safari; tapping on a phone number will dial it.

Nebulous has an optional macro toolbar that you can have displayed above the normal keyboard. It gives instant access to keys that you’d normally have to dig for.

Nebulous macro bar

I suppose this is OK on the iPad, but it takes up too much precious screen space on the iPhone.

Simplenote has some clever ways of sharing files online with other Simplenote users, a great feature for household files like shopping lists.


Conclusions

I’ve chosen Elements as my regular note taker, and that shows in my descriptions. While I’m still not happy with its use of byte-order marks and CRLF line endings, overall it fits my way of working better than the others.

Before Elements came along, I got a lot of use out of Simplenote and have no regrets buying it. Apart from the lack of font choice, it has more features than the other apps, and I can see where one or more of those features—search, in particular—would make it the best choice for many people.

PlainText strikes me as better suited for long narrative files than short, list-like notes and probably a more comfortable fit on the iPad than the iPhone. It’s the best looking of these apps.

Nebulous Notes has lots of interesting features, but its user interface is just too flaky. And the semi-automatic syncing is a dealbreaker. I know some smart people who use it, but it’s just not right for me.


  1. There are lots of posts about these apps, especially Simplenote and Elements. If you have any interest in seeing what I’ve written before, your best bet is to use the search field in the sidebar. 


2 Responses to “iPhone notes app comparison”

  1. JamisLaFrance says:

    I love using PlainText on my iTouch. While I can access any note from any Dropbox folder/subfolder, I now prefer using it as a quick way to add a note to be filed later. My other favourite note taker is Notebooks. It also has Dropbox sync and permits me to also access (view/hear) pictures and audio files.

  2. Sean says:

    Very nice comparison. I was unaware of Elements, and it sounds like something I could have used also. But I am very happy with Plaintext, as it fills my needs. I’ve spoken to the developer and have been assured that a search and sort solution is on the way.

    PS. For me using Plaintext, on the iPhone syncing with Dropbox to Notational Velocity on my Mac has worked ferpectly for me for months. The combination of these three elements has finally allowed me to remove Evernote. Notational Velocity is my all time favorite Mac app btw.

Leave a Reply


Comments can be in plain text or Markdown. Things that look like URLs will be turned into links automatically. Some comments will be moderated, so don't be surprised if your remarks aren't posted immediately. Comments that just say "Nice post," or something like that, may be flagged as spam and never posted. Abusive comments will be deleted.