Text notes everywhere

Introduction

Since smartphones and tablets become more and more popular they frequently replace paper notebooks. It is also frequently happen than one person have several devices and it is very convenient to have all information available on all devices using synchronization via Internet.

There are a lot of services intended to solve this task. I will describe below criteria which I used to select service for my usage. I will also describe my experience of testing and using some of that services.

I will touch Google Docs, Apple Pages as a part of iWork for iCloud, Evernote, Simplenote, Microsoft Word Online as a part of Office Online .

Apple also provides Notes application with synchronization support for free. But I will not describe it here because it is very simple and lack a lot of basic features.

I will not consider in this article how powerful text editors in that services, because notes usually requires basic formatting functionality only , which are supported by all mentioned services. SimpleNote is the only service which works with plain text and allow to use Markdown formatting.

Despite described products may evolve and change fast the described features below can be used during the choice in the future even if product changed significantly. Article could be helpful for you even if you consider a service not mention in this post. It can be used as a list of criteria.

Price

Google Docs, Simple Notes, Evernote provides basic functionality for free. Payment plans for advanced features are available.

Apple Pages for iOS can be bought for $10 for old users for all iOS devices. This is one time payment.  If you just buy new Apple device Pages available for free on all your iOS devices.

Apple Pages for Mac costs $20. That is why I have not tried it. But it is free for new devices.

Microsoft Word Online allows you to edit documents via Web, on iPhone for free. And you may just view documents on iPad for free. If you want to edit document on iPad you should buy Office 365 subscription.

Usually space available for free is enough for editing text notes. But if you consider to store a lot of  documents and possibly other kind of media such as photo or even video you may need to buy additional space.

Usually services provide some small amount of storage for free and provide payment plans for more storage.

Supported platforms

Since we consider editing on our different devices most probably they are hosted on different platform. It make sense to have support all of them.

I tried on Mac OS X, Microsoft Windows, iOS and Android.

Support via web-browser is most important, because it allows to edit without installing any software, this usually makes service also available on all recent platforms.

There is such support for Google Docs, Apple, Pages, Evernote, Simplenote, Microsoft Word Online.

There are also applications for specific platforms which makes usage of it more convenient.

Most services support also specific application for different platforms to make editing more convenient.

To edit document Apple Pages documents on iOS you should have application installed. You can not edit such documents on Android in direct way, I can just via web-browser and hack.

You may install Office Mobile to access your Microsoft Office Online documents on iOS devices or other mobile platforms.

Evernote clients can be downloaded for different platforms.

Simplenote also supports many platforms. You may also choose from wide variety of alternative clients and specific tasks thanks to open API of SimpleNote.

Some features may be not yet supported on specific platforms. E.g. Google Docs does not support tables on iOS devices yet. You suggested to specific feature on all devices before using.

Folder structure

Google Docs support folder structure. But user interface may confuse you and you may miss this feature. This is because Google provides two services which shares the same space:

  • Google Drive for storing arbitrary files with support folder structure. Location of documents can be specified there.
  • Google Doc. This is the service which we consider here and it allows to edit documents, but it does not support folder structure. Documents are listed as a bunch of files despite their location in Google Drive.

So for example if you want to have both editing documents and have folder structure on your mobile iOS device you should install two applications: Google Docs and Google Drive for iOS. This works, but two application seems redundant. Hope Google will provide better usability in it service.

Microsoft Word Online support folder structure right from the Word Online on OneDrive.

Simplenote supports tags which allows to organize notes in one level structure.

In similar way Evernote allows to support the same structure via so called Notebooks. One level structure is enough for keeping notes organized.

Apple pages does not have means for structure of documents. Hope this is because it is beta yet.

Offline access

Since Internet connection is not always available it would be good to have opportunity to view and edit documents offline.

Usually to have offline access you should install some piece of software on your device.

I find SimpleNote offline access implementation most convenient. It tries to update notes on your devices every time you have internet connection.

Apple Pages simply saves all documents when internet available. This quite convenient.

Evernote supports offline notebooks on the paid basis on iOS. Desktop clients support all offline notes for free.

With Google Docs you should check offline access for every document on every mobile device. You should be accurate and specify it in Google Docs, not in Google Drive application on mobile device. On desktop systems you should use Google Chrome browser and enable offline files feature.

I tried to edit document offline in MS Word Mobile on iPhone. I needed to open document just before going offline so its content copied on my iPhone. I don’t know if it is just cache, and if it so then when this cache could be clean up suddenly. I also did not found a way how I can upload a set of document at once. I also experienced bugs; I was not able to upload changes made offline; sometimes upload was successful, sometimes no. I did not figure out in which circumstances issue received. I obtain error messages that document is used by other user, but in fact it was not used by somebody else.

Synchronization of changes between devices

If you use several devices for editing documents then issues with synchronization if changes might be very painful. With poor synchronization implementation you may lose your data without even having idea about this.

Robust scenario of using services is to have recent version of document on your device and edit on this. Most services provide explicit notification when last version of document is received, last local changes sent to server or synchronization just  complete. It is also useful feature to force synchronization especially when you are going offline. This is even more useful when you use poor internet connection.

Amazing, that Simplenote team removed “Force synchronization” feature and does not want to return it back despite “users experience issues without this features and request to return it back” (Discussion: http://help.simplenote.com/customer/portal/questions/3392308-sync-not-working). Developers assert that synchronization is performed as long as Internet connection available. But in practice implementation is buggy especially with poor internet connection.

If you still edited one version of document one several devices then you need to merge them later.

I usually perform following test. I create document, synchronize it with iOS devices, that disable internet connection for that devices. Then I add several lines of the texts on iOS device, several lines of text via web client in the same document near the same document location so to make merge non-trivial. Then I enable internet connection on iOS device again and synchronize document with server. Then I look through obtained results.

I encountered following approaches to resolve such situation by different services:

Merge changes from several versions of documents automatically

Google Docs implementation of this approach is awesome! You may edit the same document on different devices, edit offline on several devices and then everything is merged. I have never admitted data lost or inconsistent updates in documents. You may find description of approach in the article “What’s different about the new Google Docs: Conflict resolution“.
(UPDATE 2014.11.17. Sometimes quite rarely I admitted duplicated lines in my notes. This is usually happened after I have used poor internet connection. Duplicated lines are not critical, but I can not be sure that nothing disappeared)

Developers of Simplenote implemented the same approach, but from time to time I admitted data loss or mess with duplicated data after synchronization. Since uploading data is buggy as well I admitted occasional data lost. This was main reason why I stopped using Simplenote. I feel similar to this: “syncing has become a problem. I’m no longer 100% confident that something I write will stay there.

Inform user about two or more versions of the same document with further user decision what to do

Evernote saves two version of notes one of which is renamed. You may later merge documents manually. This is quite good approach and easy to implement. It seems now it is more stable than before, but now I use Evernote in the way which does not require many synchronizations.

Apple Pages informs you about two versions of documents available and ask user to select which of them to store. You may select one or more versions to preserve. If you selected more than one version then new files are created with content of that versions

You should enable synchronization with iCloud on iOS devices to obtain described behavior.

Microsoft Word Mobile also asks you to choose version: either local or from cloud in case of conflicts. I have also issues to upload updated document from my iPhone. Word suggested me to open it in web-browser – it was fine after this. But this is obviously not suitable for offline editing, because I can not access document via browser when I have no internet connection. I also obtained extra documents on my iOS device after renaming them via web-browser. Documents are obviously out of synchronization. Hope these issues will be fixed in next versions, Microsoft Mobile is quite young package yet.

Ignore one of the versions of documents silently

Amazing how frequently synchronization is implemented in such a way. I tried several services not mentioned in this article and many of them implement synchronization in such a strange way.

I would admit that Simplenote frequently behaves in the same way also because of bugs which are still not fixed for more than a year. So I suggest you to minimize synchronization with Simplenote as much as possible.

You may obtain such behaviour in Google Docs for text formatting style. For example if you set different colors for some piece of text on two different devices offline then after synchronization you obtain color of the text from one device, color of the other is lost.

Editing history

It is comfortable to edit documents and don’t worry about deleting something by accident. It would be good to easy recover removed context. For such purpose services provide edit history for documents.

It seems Google Docs save the history forever. If you need to clear it you could achieve this via creating new copy of document.

I remember that SimpleNote provided history for 10 last revisions only. But now I was able to view history of much more that 10 last revisions.

Pages has undo/redo while you edit document on the same device. If you are switching to another device and edit document on it then history is removed.

History in Evernote is available for paid users only.

Microsoft Word Online also has access to history of the document versions.

Need to mention that Google Docs, Simplenote and Evernote also have Trash folder where deleted notes are stored and can be recovered from it.

Apple Pages does not have trash folder. I observe that Apple does not uses trashes in many other its services as well, e.g. in Calendar, Notes, Contacts.

Backup documents

Sometimes you may want to take out your data from service for usage or just to backup in separate storage.

Simplenote can be exported via Service http://simplenote-export.appspot.com/. Simplenote has open API and I suppose that many other clients can be found to make a backup as well.

Google Doc documents can be exported via Google Drive web interface. You just need to select documents and folders and export. There are different options among which to export to Open Office, Microsoft, PDF format and others. Note if you use Google Drive to save your files locally on desktop then Google Docs file content is not stored locally. Google Drive saves links only for them.

Evenote allows just to select all notes in desktop client and export them via File menu.

Apple Pages allows to export many documents via web interface in native Pages format, also in PDF, MS Word, epub formats. You may select many documents at once (with Shift-key). Then press “Gear” picture on the top and then “Download document…” in the dropdown menu. After this you will be promted to choose format and save every document in it. Click “Ok” may be annoying if you have many documents, but I hope this is related with the fact that Pages are still beta and it will be possible to export all documents at once. Probably Pages for Mac has some features implemented because it is native mature product. But I have not tried it.

To backup MS Word Online documents you may just install OneDrive for desktop. Then copy OneDrive folder to backup location after synchronization. The application is already preinstalled in Windows 8.1+. You may be also asked to run installation without administration privileges. If you obtain crash when running OneDrive you may need to enable UAC (http://answers.microsoft.com/en-us/onedrive/forum/sdfiles-sdother/error-message-skydrive-cant-be-run-using-full/e9a458ac-02f0-43b6-be94-e492150f8b7f?rtAction=1409259933100).

Additional benefit after installing OneDrive is you can edit your Microsoft Word Online document with Microsoft Office on your desktop.

Suggested features

Two more features are interesting for me which I have not found in many services.

1. Named revision. Despite many services support editing history, but it is not possible to create revision when I want and give name for it to recognaze later. Automatic revisions is a good feature but it is very difficult to understand what to find where.

2. Encrypt content. This is to make document protected that even service company can not read it. It is possible to set up password for Apple Pages document. I am not sure if this protect document content from Apple acccess, but this is possible and how strong encryption is.

I have not investigated thoroughly. But at first glance mentioned features are not implemented in many services.

Some notes about online/cloud file storage

As may have observed some services mentioned above allow to store any files in so called cloud – online file storage.

As I mentioned above Google Drive allows to store files online. I should mentioned that about 2 years ago I have issues with it. Files were not shared consistently between devices. Some random files were preserved still on one device. And I was really suprized when I was told that issues is still not fixed.

I use Dropbox for storing files online. It is really robust, available on platforms mentioned above, IT is possible to save desired files offline, preview for some famous file formats etc… If you register via this link Dropbox will add 500 Mb free storage both for your and my accounts.

I experience the only mess with Dropbox in rare cases. This is when you have not synchronized some your desktop system with dropbox more than a month. When you synchronize it again then all or some deleted files during that period will be restored in Dropbox folder again. I should mentioned that I have not experienced upexpected files removal in similar scenario and that is fine.

Microsoft has OneDrive as I also already mentioned above. Documents are stored there and you can store any file along with them.

It is quite promising service Box. I like wide variety of file format for which preview is supported.

Apple is working on iCloud Drive which allows to store any kind of files along with your documents. This also allows to simplify backing up your documents.

Summary

As you may see quite mature services already available. But there are drawbacks that make them less convenient as they could be. Hope they will be more and more convenient with time.

As for now I stopped my choice on Google Docs. It is quite robust, has amazing support of synchronization and other features mentioned above, despite I prefer more light weighted applications. You may find Google Docs also interesting for you if you want to edit document by several people at the same time.

You may find Simplenote useful if you prefer light weighted application. But there are still issues with data loss during synchronization. I should admit that developers work on fixing such issues, because several last releases of Simplenote on iOS has sync bug fix in release notes.

Evernote could be useful if you prefer formatted text, easy adding pictures from camera, other feature for productivity.

I may like Apple Pages if you like Apple products. Despite it is beta yet and many useful features are not yet implemented it looks quite promising. Existing features work very well Hope it also interoperate with iWork for Mac.

You may also use Microsoft Office Online if you like Microsoft Office, it looks similar to it. But please note that there are still issues with synchronization of documents between devices; you may be surprised by this.

Hope this article helps you to selected suitable services for your needs.

If you have something to add feel free to comment this post.

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