Go Plain Ubiquitous Plaintext Capture, Part 1: nvALT

In my Go Plain manifesto, I said that the first thing I plan to deal with is ubiquitous plaintext capture solution.

So here I am, trying to deal with it, having some success on the Mac, mostly failing on mobile…

This post is part 1 of several posts on the subject of plaintext capture. I am dividing it to parts because it is still work-in-progress, and I wanted to share as I go along.

To reiterate and elaborate, my expectations for a “ubiquitous plaintext capture solution” include:

  • Available across all my devices. To prioritize: MacBook, Android phone, iPad, Windows laptop.
  • Sync “captured items” across all said devices, given connectivity. Handle poor connectivity with dignity – we are talking about plaintext files here. Handle sync conflicts gracefully.
  • The act of “capturing a piece of information” must be totally frictionless. This means as few clicks and taps as possible to get to “capture mode”. No messing with filing and categorizing a “captured item”. It should just be there, waiting for when I’m ready to deal with processing it.

A tl;dr version of where I am with this, at the time of writing:

  1. Decided that “captured items” are plaintext Markdown-formatted files in my Dropbox GoPlain/Notes directory. Flat structure (e.g. no sub-directories) to force simplicity. Filename is note title, file text is note content.
  2. Decided on nvALT for capturing notes on OS X. Been using it for a couple of weeks. It’s perfect!
  3. Became frustrated with the options I evaluated on Android. Remained unsolved for now 🙁 .
  4. Got overwhelmed with options on the iPad (iOS in general). Got to join nvNotes beta testing. Loving it so far!
  5. Didn’t do anything with my Windows laptop. It just sat there, streaming my Google Music library. Just as important for my productivity 🙂 !

In this part, I go into some detail about nvALT and my “ideal capture experience”. If you stick around, there might also be a mobile rant 😉 .

@nvALTApp is my ideal @goplaintxt capture solution on #OSX

nvALT and my ideal capture experience

How would an ideal “capture mode” look like, if I could have it my way?

The short answer – exactly like nvALT on OS X.

nvALT 2.0

For those who are not familiar with it, here’s a short description of the relevant features:

You start with an empty search box, above a list of previously “captured items” (let’s call them notes from now, OK?).

You start typing a title for the note you’re about to capture (right in the search box).

The list of existing notes is instantaneously filtered using your title as search query (really, also for many thousands of notes, and it’s an excellent full text search).

Often, you see a matching note that is relevant to what you want to capture (e.g., append something to an existing running list). In that case, you can select that result and edit the existing note. If you really want to create a new note, you just hit Enter, and a new note with the title as a filename is created.

In both cases (edit existing or create new), the cursor is immediately place at the end of the note body, so you can keep typing the content.

This might sound like more clutter than an alternative that just gives you a blank text box, but it really isn’t.

If all you want to do is to write your note — you just do it (title, Enter, content, done). Ignore the searching that happens – it doesn’t slow you down.

From my experience using it so far, the searching is so useful, that I take advantage of it more often than not.

The amazing thing about nvALT is how fast it is. I know I’m mixing here between “requirements” and a specific solution, but the frictionless requirement can be a subtle beast.

I’d like to use nvALT as an example of how speed is important in removing friction.

Assuming nvALT starts on login, and you configure a keyboard shortcut to activate it (you should!), you’re always less than 1 second away from capturing a note.

It’s hard to put into words how significant it is that hitting ⌘⌥N will reliably put me into capture mode so fast. If it took 3 seconds, or required another operation, or crashed 0.1% of the time, I know I would just do it less. Subconsciously.

Using @nvALTApp with a global Hotkey – you’re always less than 1 second away from capturing a note!

Oh, did I mention it’s free?! (but if you like it, consider donating to the developers! They need coffee and/or beer!)

My nvALT set up

Of course, I configured a global “bring-to-front” Hotkey.

To play nice with “everything else”, I changed the nvALT settings to manage the notes as individual plaintext files in a new Dropbox directory (GoPlain/Notes). If you intend to interact with the notes from other apps, it is recommended to uncheck the Confirm note files removed in the Finder checkbox. Otherwise, every time you delete a note from anywhere, nvALT will ask you if you’re sure you want to remove it.

Also, since I mostly work with Markdown-formatted notes, I added the md extension to the list, and set it as the default extension. Setting it as the default will make nvALT save new notes with that extension. This is what I want, because if I open these notes with other applications (such as Sublime Text), I get correct syntax detection.

As a matter of personal preference, I changed the fonts & colors. I chose the AndaleMono 13, and a dark colors theme.

What about mobile?

OK, so what about Android phone, iPad? Is nvALT available on these platforms?

Unfortunately, no… And this is where the cookie crumbles 🙁 .

I spent many hours and moneys on trying out a bunch of apps on Android and iPad. I didn’t even get to dealing with Windows yet, or testing things under limited connectivity and conflicts.

At least with the nvALT-Dropbox set up I have “raw” access to the notes from all devices and platforms, since Dropbox is available on all. That’s something – I have ubiquitous read/write access, but still with great friction (and no real offline access on Android and iOS).

I’m beta testing nvNotes on the iPad, following a recommendation by Brett Terpstra, and it looks promising. Will update on that after I’m done testing, in a separate post.

On Android, though, I couldn’t find anything that delivers anything close to the experience I’m looking for…

This is so frustrating.

Ideally, I would like an Android port of nvALT. If anyone comes across such a thing, please let me know!

A close second best would be some kind of Google Keep / Dropbox integration. I like Google Keep – it’s nice, simple, and supports quick capture and full text search. If it could do 2-way-sync with a Dropbox directory, it would practically be a nvALT-clone!

Alas, Google Keep, as it is now, is a closed garden. A prison for your own data.

So I submitted a Google Keep feature request, but haven’t heard anything. If you like the idea – please +1 my feature request 🙂 . If Google Keep had some kind of open API, someone (me?) could even build such a thing independently! But, alas! There is no API! So, also +1 the API feature request 🙂 .

Simplenote could also be a nice solution. They have Dropbox sync (only in premium, which is not offered anymore, unless you ask for it). tl;dr – it’s not good enough. Dropbox sync requires manual triggering only from the web app. I tested it with just a few notes, and I ran into severe note corruption that was enough for me to lose trust in that service. Credit where it’s due – responsive support team that enabled the premium feature on request, and is investigating the corruption I observed.

So I’m still floating as far as Android is concerned… Open for suggestions! Anyone?

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