Mapping and Outlining, finding a path.

If you have a large collection of notes then there will be times when you cannot find the note which you want to find even though you know that it exists somewhere within the collection of documents.  This is a problem which has existed for as long as there have been collections of documents.  Over the years librarians have come up with many tools for dealing with this problem and many of these tools have been adapted for the digital era.  Things like references (links), indexes (tags) and categories have been used in computer programs to ease the location of information.

The art of a good note taking program is providing facilities for the user to be able to locate an item within their notes even though they have forgotten almost everything about it.

So how can you locate an item of information?  It is all in the metadata, the information about information.  If you have a large corpus of notes without any metadata then they might as well be written in a foreign language for all the good they will be to you.  It is worth the time and effort to add a relevant metadata to a note as you create it whilst it is still fresh in your mind.  These are the clues which will lead you back to this note in the future.  Think of it as having a conversation with your future self.  Think of how you would locate this note if you didn’t know where it was, what tags would you search for?  What would you expect it to be linked to?  What might you search for?  Make sure that the terms you might search for appear in the text, if not then include them as a list at the end of the note.

Metadata comes in many forms, not just the obvious ones.

One form of metadata which is often overlooked but always relied upon is location, people navigate to where they last saw the item they are looking for.  This is especially useful as it requires less verbal attention and more visual attention, people do it without thinking about it and whilst concentrating on something else which is why it is so often overlooked.

Search is often portrayed as the most useful way of finding things but in my experience it is not used as often as the other methods.  Search is less well used than it would be because it involves a break in concentration.  If you are in the middle of composing a document or trying to find understanding of some difficult problem then you have to stop concentrating on the problem at hand and think about search terms.  In my experience this break in concentration is obtrusive.

Search can be made easier by the use of tags, particularly if the tagging system is hierarchical and has inheritance.  Selecting from a list is easier, quicker and less prone to errors than typing search terms.  In my opinion InfoQube has the best hierarchical tagging system of any program available at the time of writing, closely followed by ConnectedText.  Try to choose tags which distinguish items rather than tags which just describe it’s characteristics.

Links from one note to another are very important.  The act of linking from one note to another is arguably the most important aspect of note taking and it should be as quick and easy as possible.  ConnectedText is unrivalled in this area.  One can insert a link by just putting the [[Page Name]] in square brackets which is much less of a break in concentration whilst you are composing a document.  ConnectedText can also automatically convert the names of other pages which occur in a note into links and it can also show which pages link to the current page (backlinks).

Another form of metadata used to locate things is the favourites list.

One form of metadata which has been touted as being new with the digital age is mapping, mind maps and concept maps.  However I think that these are not as useful as they are made out to be by many people.  The examples which are given to illustrate the usefulness of mapping are usually small and fit on one screen, real uses of mapping would probably be much bigger and consequently less useful.

In the following discussion I will focus on Mind Maps but the points raised are equally as valid for concept maps.  A concept map is just a hierarchy where an item may have more than one parent and so may appear in the outline in more than one place.

There is a lot of hype about Mind Maps and their use in navigating data.  There are a number of companies who present Mind Maps as being a really wonderful solution to visualising interconnections between data, and for small data sets this is undoubtedly true but it becomes less so for large data sets.

A Mind Map is topologically equivalent to a simple hierarchy which could be expressed as an outline.  In my opinion the fact that the outline can be scrolled in one dimension makes the outline more useful in the navigation of data.

In many programs using a mind map you have to arrange the branches in an aesthetically pleasing manner which detracts from the time you can spend on other things.  People waste time on the layout of the map rather than thinking about the content of the map.  Whereas with an outline there are simple rules which the program follows to automatically arrange the tree.

Once a mind map or concept map has grown as big as the screen on which it is being displayed there arises a problem of how it can grow any further.  You could make the branches of the map ever smaller but you eventually have to use a magnifying glass to read the text.  A better solution is to only display part of the map.

It seems to me that the conventional way of displaying a mind map has no advantages over the simple outline and has some disadvantages.

One could accept these limitations of mapping and work around them as the outline accepts the limitations of a one dimensional list and works around them.  In such a map the layout would be automatic and only the relevant part of the map would be displayed.  This would make the map more useful in my opinion.

A good example of what is possible is a program called The Brain (a.k.a Personal Brain).  This program only displays a small part of the map at any one time.  One item has the focus and the program only displays those items which are linked to it.  In practice this is a very good solution.

The developer of this program Harlan Hugh took out software patents on this layout and has aggressively defended them in the past.  One can find a list of these patents at https://patents.google.com/?assignee=Thebrain+Tech+Corp .

It seems wrong to me that a company can take out a patent on such a basic idea, a layout which has been used by genealogists for many centuries, one node has the focus, it’s parents are above, children below and siblings to the side.  The sole purpose of these patents is to stifle competition from it’s rivals.

The main patent in this list relevant to the automatic layout of maps is US6918096B2Method and apparatus for displaying a network of thoughts from a thought’s perspective however this patent has expired “due to failure to pay maintenance fee” on 12th July 2017.

It seems to me that a map laid out in this way is much more useful than a mind map which tries to display the whole map on one screen.  Each item is shown in context and only the items connected to it are displayed.  If you move the focus then the map is re-drawn with the focussed node at the centre.  The displayed map is always the same size no matter how big the whole map grows, this is mentally more manageable.

This way of displaying a mind map is fundamentally different from an outline and deserves it’s place in note taking programs.

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Take Note!

Why do I use a note taking program?

“Notes on paper, or on a computer screen […] do not make contemporary physics or other kinds of intellectual endeavour easier, they make it possible … no matter how internal processes are implemented […you…] need to understand the extent to which the mind is reliant upon external scaffolding.”

Levy, Neil. 2011. “Neuroethics and the Extended Mind.” In Judy Illes and B. J. Sahakian (Ed.), Oxford Handbook of Neuroethics, 285-94, Oxford University Press.

Why would I keep a set of notes on everyday insights and ideas over many decades, things which only I would be interested in.

Well, I write!

Imagine if you had to write a piece of text on a particular subject.  Wouldn’t it be nice if someone came up with a list of suggestions and ideas for you on what you should write about.

You could then arrange these ideas and develop them into a coherent whole, fill in any gaps in the arguments, expatiate on any parts which need expanding and proof read it and edit your rough draft until the text flows correctly.  Then read it with a critical eye to pick up any background material which you have left out, things which you may already know but the reader might not.

Writing a piece of text like this is much easier than starting off with a blank page.

You might be thinking at this point that I am cheating here, only doing half the job, the easy half.  Surely coming up with the initial list of ideas is a major task in itself.

Well yes and no.

What if you already had a large body of notes on many different subjects, things which have sparked your interest over the years.  Things which may not have been immediately useful but which you thought were noteworthy at the time.

This could be thought of as a bank for ideas.  Obviously you can’t start making withdrawals until you make some deposits.  So you have to put a few ideas in there before it becomes even slightly useful.  But unlike a bank when you make withdrawals the ideas are still there and can be used as many times as appropriate.

Such a database of notes (a notebase) would be quite useful for ideas for writing.  The more notes it contained the more useful it would become and also the more interconnected the notes are the more useful the notes database is.  If it is small with only a few hundred notes then it is not that useful but there is a ‘critical mass’ of information beyond which it starts becoming much more useful and the more information which is added after that makes it exponentially more useful.

So, what is the source of these ideas and insights ?

Everyone comes across noteworthy ideas and insights every day it’s just that they don’t take note of them, they don’t write them down.  They don’t take note of them, and by the time they would be useful they have been forgotten.

I take notes.  I never go anywhere without the capability of writing something down.  I have a small paper notebook in my back pocket and I always carry a pen.  If I am going to work or somewhere where I will be carrying my backpack then I take my tablet computer.  The aim is to capture all the little ideas and insights which come to you during the course of a day.

Writing something down is more memorable than typing the same thing.

My tablet computer takes handwritten notes just as well as a pen and a piece of paper, except that my handwritten notes then instantly become available on my phone and computers.

Then when I get chance I read the notes I have made that day and write them out properly using full sentences.  Of course some of them get discarded for various reasons but often they find their way into the notebase (my database of notes).

Think of each note as you having a conversation with your future self and write in a way that you will understand, it doesn’t matter if it is incomprehensible to anyone else as long as you understand it.  It is best to write just one idea per screen.  If the note extends to more than a screen then it might be useful to think about splitting it into two notes.  So I write many small notes rather than a few larger notes.

There is another aspect of note taking which is equally as important and that is reading notes.  When reading a book it is essential to capture ones thoughts on the book.  Many people write notes in the margins of the book itself.  I don’t do this, for one thing it would deface the book, the other reason is that I would rather have all the notes in the same place and accessible rather than having to look through the book to retrieve my notes on that book.  Each reading note is accompanied by the page number and paragraph number which it refers to so that I can easily find the source of the idea again.

Notes can be linked together and used in different contexts.

I often go wandering through my notebase just to familiarise myself with the contents and this often sparks new ideas and new connections between ideas.

This idea is not new, my method is modelled on that of the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, it is called the Zettelkasten Method.  A literal translation of Zettelkasten is ‘slip box’ i.e. a box containing many slips of paper.  His notebase consisted of many A6 sheets written on one side only, in wooden drawers.  Each card had a unique number and links between cards consisted of writing the number of the card targeted by the link on the card which was the source of the link.

Once many years ago I had a paper card index but it wasn’t as well thought out or as useful as Professor Luhmann’s slip box.

Then there was a Z80 computer running an operating system called CP/M running a program I cobbled together myself written in DeSmet C, and then there was an 8086 computer running DOS with a hypetext editor program called ‘Black Magic’.  I can’t find a reference to it but in some ways it was an early forerunner of ConnectedText except that it had much more limited capabilities and facilities in monochrome on a 24 x 80 text screen.

Nowadays I use a Windows PC running a note taking program.  I have been through many different note taking programs some good, some bad, some with just one good trick up their sleeve and the rest mediocre.  Finally I have found what I think are some pretty good programs.

There are advantages to using a computer program for note taking, links between notes are much more useful than on a paper system as are the other features of a computer program which cannot be replicated by a paper system.

There exists a program which was specifically written to replicate the Zettelkasten Method, unsurprisingly it is called Zettelkasten3.  It is free but the user interface is extremely awkward and clunky.  It is also not very good at revealing the emergent structure of data.  It is a very uninspiring and unimaginative program which has been overhyped.  I tried it a couple of times but I do not use it, I think it is an awful program.

There is another program called ConnectedText which is extremely good at being a receptacle for a notebase, it is not free but it is not hideously expensive either.  ConnectedText is probably the best at revealing the emergent structure of data and is probably the best of the three programs at being the receptacle of a notebase although it is not as pretty as InfoQube.  The editing is not as interactive as InfoQube but that is an artefact of the way it was written.

One of the really neat things about ConnectedText is the way you can place a link to a page which does not exist into a page whilst editing it.  The link comes out in red indicating that it doesn’t point to anything but if you click on that link ConnectedText will create a new blank page with the name used in the link and open it for editing.

Development was stalled for quite a while but recently the developer announced on the forum that he was back on the case.  However apart from the initial announcement there has been little apparent activity and the forum still appears dead.  I will wait and see, it would be nice if development was resumed as ConnectedText is an awesome program.

There is another commercial program called InfoQube which is also very good at being the receptacle of an notebase.  It is not as good as ConnectedText at revealing the emergent structure within the data but is has all sorts of other features which make it good at many different things.

The aesthetics of the interface and of the documents produced are better than ConnectedText but the functionality as a notebase is not as good.  The functionality as an appointment book is better, the functionality for project management is better, the outlining is better, many aspects of this program are better than ConnectedText but as a repository for a notebase it is not as good.

Linking things together in InfoQube is not as quick & easy as in ConnectedText and this is for several reasons.

There is a constraint in ConnectedText that no two documents can have the same name, all names must be unique.  So in ConnectedText you can just start a link and type the name of the target page, a list will drop down as you type and it will get smaller as you type because it only contains the names which match what you have already typed, eventually the list gets down to one or you click on one of the options in the list (and as stated earlier you can type a name which doesn’t exist yet).

In InfoQube there is no such constraint, several items can have the same name, they are distinguished by the ID numbers in the database.  This may seem more flexible but it is a huge mistake as it means that items cannot be unambiguously identified by their name.  In InfoQube you must select the target for a link from within a dialog box in which you search for the item you want (or a Tag or an external file or a URL or anything which can be the target of a link), this is more flexible but makes the whole process slower and more cumbersome.  To me this is a major detriment of InfoQube.

So why am I now using InfoQube for my day to day note taking activities ?

Well it has so many other good things all available in the same program.  The word processing features and the ability to re-structure documents mean that I am now using InfoQube instead of Scrivener as a word processor for structured documents and it helps to have your notebase to hand when typing such a document.  Of course InfoQube doesn’t contain such refinements as ‘Typewriter Scrolling’ which Scrivener has but … Oh well !

My notebase is present in a grid called ‘Zettel’ which contains an alphabetically sorted list of notes, deliberately not in any sort of hierarchy.  This is kept separate from anything else in the notebase, effectively this is the slip box.  Notes may contain links to other notes in the body text of the note and may contain a list of links to other notes at the end of the note as references (‘see also’).  I can pull out a bunch of notes and arrange them in a separate grid (created on the fly) as a cluster of notes.

InfoQube does transclusion properly so these are the original notes but you can arrange then into whatever hierarchy you wish.  You can do outlines in InfoQube, I do two different types of outline (my definition not InfoQube’s).  One is the normal outline and the other is the brainstorming outline where I move things about a lot to see what is the best representation of the information I have to hand.  For a normal outline everything is the same colour but for a brainstorming outline different levels have different colours.  In InfoQube you can define the formatting of outlines so that different levels have different colours, different formats (Bold, Italic), different fonts and different sizes.  This is a really good way to visualise things when you are throwing ideas about.

You can do outlines in ConnectedText too but it’s hard work (each item in the outline has to be linked to a document manually) and they are nowhere near as flexible as the ‘coloured by level’ outlines in InfoQube.

So the reason I’m using InfoQube is that it incorporates good word processing, brainstorming and adequate zettelkasten features in one program whereas ConnectedText combines good zettelkasten facilities with adequate brainstorming facilities.

Sooner or later I am going to have to ditch one or other of the programs (either ConnectedText or InfoQube) as my main notes repository because there is a lot of strain involved in maintaining two very different note repositories in parallel.

Editing Fonts

Font Editors

There are many people who couldn’t give a damn about how their documents appear, they just want to get the message across and don’t care what it looks like.  This is why Times New Roman and Arial are so overused.

Most of these people ignore the excellent typefaces like Constantia, Cambria, Corbel, Candara, Calibri and Consolas which Microsoft have spent a lot of time and effort optimising for good rendering on LCD screens at small point sizes (they also work quite well in printed documents).

I am not one of those people.

Then there are others who want their document to look just the way they want it to, they don’t want to compromise on any detail including the typeface.  They usually have a large collection of fonts none of which they consider perfect.  These are the type of people who are likely to know how to use Open Type features in their documents.

I am one of these people.

I believe there are many people in the situation I was in several years ago, they would like to create their own typeface if they could, or at least alter a typeface they are using to make it more suitable for them.

There were many occasions when I would hunt through my collection of typefaces looking for the one which was just right.  One which had all the right features.  But I became frustrated that none of the typefaces in my collection were completely suitable for the purposes I wanted them for.

It’s all very subjective, but if you want a typeface which is just right for you then why not design it yourself ?

Free Font Editors

As you may have realised from reading this blog I am a fan of free software.  But only where it provides a good usable alternative to commercial software.

There is a free open source font editor called ‘Font Forge‘ however it does have many bugs and the user interface is quite messy.  It can produce good fonts but using Font Forge is much harder work than it needs to be, oh well, at least it’s free.

I used Font Forge for eight months before buying Font Creator.  Font Forge is complicated to use, it opens many independent windows on your monitors and there are many bugs.  When I bought Font Creator editing fonts suddenly became a whole lot easier.

I wish that the open source offering was of a higher quality but unfortunately it is not.

Non Free Font Editors

There are a few commercial Font Editors.  There aren’t as many for Windows as for the Mac but since I only have a Windows computer I have not concerned myself with any of the Mac editors.

High Logic

High Logic is a Dutch company run by Erwin Dennisen.  They produce several font related programs but Font Creator the font editor is their main flagship product.

I use Font Creator, however I have no connection to the High Logic or Erwin Dennisen other than being a user of their products.

Font Creator

There is a full review of Font Creator on Bhikkhu Pesala’s website which also contains his excellent collection of fonts which are free to download and use !

Font Creator is a moderately priced font editor which does most of the things which the very expensive font editors do.  You can edit and create fonts in Postscript (with CFF cubic curves) format and true type/open type fonts using quadratic curves.  It also supports Web Open Font Format (WOFF and WOFF2) and colour fonts.

The ‘Visual OpenType Designer’ for adding or editing open type features is better than the equivalent open type editor on any of the more expensive font editors in my opinion.

At the time of writing the Home edition of Font Creator costs $79.  This version has some restrictions however.  Union and Intersection of contours is not included in this version, also the batch transformation of glyphs is not included.  This version doesn’t have automatic composition of composite characters either.

The more expensive version of Font Creator (Standard) has many features like real time validation and a more thorough validation which can be run to identify and correct errors in your font.

The Standard edition can also automatically Kern your font and of course you can still do the kerning manually if you want.

There is a comparison of the editions on the High Logic website.

At the time of writing the Standard edition of Font Creator costs $149 however this price is set to increase to $199 on 28th September 2018.  The Standard edition has all of the features except for Optical Metrics (setting the spacing of your characters so that text appears to be evenly spaced on the page).

Optical Metrics is useful but not essential and the price jump between the Standard edition and the Professional edition of Font Creator has become quite large.

Even if you know nothing about spacing characters it isn’t rocket science, there is a preview window which can be viewed in which you can display many different strings of characters (including your own strings) and the display adjusts as you alter the spacing of a character.  Just adjust them until they look correct.

Preview Window

The preview window showing a selection of Cherokee characters from the upcoming Munson v2.0 to be released ‘real soon now’.  As you can see these are not correctly spaced yet.

If you want to go a little deeper then get a good book on typography like ‘Letters of Credit’ by Walter Tracey or ‘Optical Character Spacing’ by David Kindersley then you will be able to set the spacing manually without too much trouble, trust your eyes, if it looks right then it’s right.

However I must admit it does save a lot of work to just let the computer do it.

At the time of writing the Professional edition of Font Creator costs $199 however this price is set to increase to $299 on 28th September 2018.  Three hundred dollars is a lot of money, the price has increased a lot since I bought my copy several years ago, this is disappointing as it is getting to be a comparable price to some of the Font Labs editors.  I’m glad that I have kept my license updated to the latest version.


Edit :- Apparently the discounts on the standard and professional editions of Font Creator are ongoing.  Once the deadline runs out it just renews with a new deadline.  This is probably to persuade people to buy now rather than later.  The price of the professional edition of Font Creator has been $199 since 2009, ten years at the same price probably means it will actually increase in price in the near future.


As you might expect the Professional edition has all features enabled.

Overview Window

The overview window showing the Cyrillic characters (itallic) from Munson v2.0

The font overview window is what you see when you first run the program and create a new font or open a font for editing. It displays a view of all the glyphs in the font although you can view a subset of glyphs, for instance a Unicode block or all punctuation or after doing a validation of your font you can display all the glyphs identified as having potential problems.  Double click on a glyph to edit it.

Edit window

The glyph edit window. Toolbars can be placed anywhere round the window and can even be floating.

The glyph edit window is where you edit a single glyph.  Either using cubic (CFF) curves or quadratic (TTF) curves.  You can add shapes, add points or draw freehand to create a glyph.

Open Type Designer

Open Type Designer showing the placement of an anchor used to position diacritic marks relative to a character.

The Open Type designer is an easy way to add and edit open type features to a font.  Although it is complex it is much simpler than editing the code manually although you can still edit the code if you really want to.  In most cases the results of your changes are illustrated in the dialog box so you can see what is happening.

Code Editor

You can also edit the code manually if you want to.

Font Labs

There is an American company called Font Labs which produces font editors amongst other things.  Apart from one (Type Tool) the editors they produce are quite good but very expensive.  Expensive enough to discourage someone who is only mildly interested in producing their own font.

Type Tool

Type Tool is the cheapest font editor that Font Labs produce. The facilities it offers are very basic, so basic that it is not useful for producing anything but the simplest of fonts with no open type features.

At the time of writing Type Tool is being sold at $47.99 which may seem cheap but for that price you don’t get very much.

Why would Font Labs produce such a limited editor ?  They don’t want their customers to see it as a viable alternative to their more expensive editors.

Fontographer

Fontographer is a font editor designed for graphic designers. It is a very competent editor but doesn’t do Open Type features.  Apart from the fact that it doesn’t do Open Type features the interface and features seem somewhat similar to Font Creator.

At the time of writing Fontographer is being sold at $259.

Although the drawing tools are very good the editor is limited in what it can produce.  Open Type features are being supported by more and more software as time passes.  If the font you produce is to be used with a good word processor or desktop publishing program then open type features are important.

I have not used this program but from looking at the available documentation it seems expensive for the features it offers.

FontLab VI

FontLab VI is an extremely competent editor with just about every feature you could want for producing a font.  It does open type features, automatic spacing and kerning.  It has all the facilities which you might need to design fonts.  The user interface is quite complex but the job it is doing is complex so this is perhaps understandable.

At the time of writing FontLab VI is being sold at $459 which in my opinion is quite expensive for what you get.

I have used a trial version of this program and it seemed complicated to use.  Perhaps the user interface would become more comprehensible with time but I didn’t want to spend the money to get a license when I already have a perfectly good program for this purpose.

FontLab Studio 5

At the time of writing FontLab Studio 5 is being sold at $649.

I cannot pass any comments on this program because I have not used it or read the documentation.

Other Companies

There are a few other offerings for those who want to produce a font.

Like DTL FontTools and Letter Modeller or TruFont or even FontArk.

Please note I have only taken a quick look at some of these.  DTL FontTools seems like a commercial editor, Letter Modeller and TruFont seem like they might be free and FontArk is online and runs in your browser.

Conclusions

If I was in the position of wanting a font editor and knowing what I do now, having used some of the products looked at here (albeit some of them only the trial versions) I would still choose Font Creator.

I cannot recommend the free open source ‘Font Forge’ because it has a messy user interface and there are many bugs.

The editors from Font Labs are very good but also very expensive.  Apart from ‘Type Tool’ which is crippled in it’s functionality to the point where it is not a real alternative.

Font Creator does everything you need to create a professional quality font and in my opinion it offers the best value for money, although the prices have risen quite steeply since I bought my copy several years ago.

 

A Review of Right Note

Right Note by Bauer Apps is easy to use and to understand. It has many useful extra features than a basic two pane outliner/note taker but it also has some limitations which mean that it won’t be taking the prize for the best note-taking program. The interface is a bit cluttered by default but the superfluous icons can be turned off in the options dialog.

I love the many different types of note and the colourful interface and it nearly has a decent tagging system, if it had notes which could be cloned and appear in many places in the tree, a decent calendar with repeating reminders and if it supported Universal Links properly then this would be my ideal note taking application. But it does not have these features and it is unlikely to get any of these features any time soon.

Verdict = Simple to use but not as powerful as some. Potential to be very good and much more useful if a few things were changed. However sometimes an easy to use simple program is all that you need.

40 out of 60

 

1. Connectivity = 5

Right note can have links in its articles which can point to another note in the same Right Note file or to a URL, a file, a folder or a Universal Link. However it provides no mechanism for allowing other programs to use universal links into a Right Note notebase.

So there is only partial support for Universal Links (outgoing). I suspect the support of incoming universal links requires a lot more programming work than outgoing links.

Links are coloured blue with an underline but you cannot just single click on them to follow the link, you have to either double click or press control and then click.

Although a note cannot have attachments there is an ‘attachment’ note type which embeds a file in the notebase and a ‘link’ type note which can point to a file on the local disk (just one file for each attachment/link note). For some types of file a preview of the contents of the file appears in the note. I suppose if you wanted to attach a number of files to one note you would just attach a list of attachment or link type notes as children of that note.

 

2. Classification = 7

The tagging system isn’t hierarchical, just a flat list. But it does have the useful feature that you can refine the search by selecting more Tags, this just does a simple AND between the selected Tags (this AND that) which is all you want most of the time. When you have selected a tag in the Tags panel you can then click on extra tags in the top of the search panel, if you click on another Tag in the tags panel then it will be the only tag selected.

With other programs like Ultra Recall, MyInfo and ConnectedText the searches can be much more sophisticated with combinations of AND, OR, NOT & brackets or a tree to define the order of combination, and in InfoQube you can write an SQL expression to select your results, oh joy!  These complex searches are sometimes nice to have but mostly you just want to locate something by remembering a few salient features of that item and searching for those tags.

The tagging system in Right Note is certainly useful enough for day to day use.

Right Note has many types of note and this might be used to classify information. Also some of the notes may be designated as ‘Folders’. A note designated as being a ‘Folder’ is just the same as any other note except that you can view a list of Folders in a hierarchical tree of their own. It is another option for the classification of information.

As far as classification goes Right Note is just a standard two pane outliner with a flat tagging system. If that is all you need then this program is great but it does not have some of the extra things which make a program much more useful. There is no arbitrary meta-data, the only meta-data a note can have is a list of tags. Again this may not be as much of a limitation as it might at first seem because the meta data can be put in the main body of the note. This approach allows you to search for the meta data but does not allow numeric comparisons (price < 42) only text searches.  Arbitrary meta-data would be nice but I don’t think that will come any time soon either.

The main limitation I find with Right Note is that the trees and outlines are strict hierarchies, an item can only have one parent and this limits the usefulness of the program. As trees get bigger it becomes harder to find one unique place where a note should be placed. As trees get bigger it becomes more likely that there will be several places in the tree which are appropriate for any given note, if the structure of the tree is used to classify notes then you have to choose what you think is the most important category from all the possible categories that the note might fit into. However if the program has transclusion (cloned notes) then the note can be placed in all the appropriate places at the same time. This is not the case with Right Note, a note can only be in one place in the tree.

The ability to have an outline tree as a type of note is also good but not as useful as it might first appear, having a tree as a note type is just the same as placing that same tree as a child of the note, in that way having a tree as a note type is equivalent to a hoist.

All the trees in Right Note suffer from the same restriction, they are strict hierarchies. Notes are restricted to one parent per item and entries can only appear once in a tree. This makes them trees as opposed to directed graphs.

Directed graphs are more useful especially for larger notebases.

 

3. Text Layout and Formatting = 9

The editing facilities of Right Note are excellent, the developer has done a really good job of crafting comfortable well designed text editors for this program. Unicode characters are supported in most of the editors and in the trees.

There are many different note types and some of the names aren’t as self explanatory as they could be, two of the editors are nearly identical and this could be confusing to new users. Yes I know they are based on two different GUI tools but ordinary users don’t want to know about the internal workings of the program they are more interested in editing text.

The available types of note are :-

  • Memo (Plain Text)
  • RichEdit (Word Processor)
  • RichView (Word Processor)
  • Syntax Highlighter (Source Code)
  • Spreadsheet
  • Webpage
  • Evernote
  • Attachment
  • Link
  • Outline
  • Task List

Mostly the rich diversity of note types is a good thing but it has a disadvantage. For instance if you want to store a simple piece of text you can choose either Memo, RichView, RichEdit, Syntax Highlighter or Evernote. Two of these are equivalent (RichView and RichEdit) so one of the pair should be retired and the other re-named, there is little point in having both.

A Memo note is plain text with no formatting.

A Syntax Highlighter note is plain text with no formatting but with syntax highlighting for the language you declare the source code to be in. You set which programming language the note is in by selecting it in a drop down box in the toolbar of the editor, much the same as the text styles in the RichView editor. One nice touch is a thumbnail of your entire note in the top right hand corner of the editor pane, this can be used to scroll to a place of interest in the text by click and drag.

The program supports syntax highlighting for about fifty different programming languages plus ‘Text’, a brief experiment seemed to show there is no highlighting for ‘Text’ but you do have the scrollable thumbnail which could have some advantages for long texts.

The Syntax Highlighter note type ought to have been called the Source Code note type which would be a better representation of it’s purpose in my opinion.

An Evernote type note has all the same characteristics and formatting options as in the Evernote program but in order to use this type of note you must sign up to an Evernote account. All the pages which are of the Evernote type will get synchronised to your Evernote account whenever you go on-line.

RichView and RichEdit note types are both variations on the Rich Text Format but with slightly different capabilities. They are for formatted text. The names are not as well thought out as they could have been in my opinion. Something suggestive of a word processor document would have been better or just RichText.

RichView can contain tables and has better support for hyperlinks and images. This review is being written in a RichView note.

RichEdit supports OLE embedding but cannot contain tables.

I think it was a mistake to have two different types of note with such similar capabilities. This just causes confusion for users. Basically unless you want to embed a file form another program as an OLE object then you can just forget about the RichEdit note type. As a test I tried embedding a small Excel spreadsheet into a RichEdit note and it failed to display (perhaps I was doing something wrong).

The RichView editor has default styles for text and paragraphs which can be easily applied to text so you can set up a customised ‘look’ for the documents and have them all look the same with little effort. Setting up the styles is easy but the paragraph styles could appear a little intimidating until you become familiar with the dialog box, it is a little complex. The option for setting up the styles for both the text and paragraph styles appears in the drop down list at the end of the list.

Apart from these Right Note has spreadsheets as notes. I think this is great! I don’t know about everyone else but most of my use of spreadsheets is as a table. I would say that about three quarters of my spreadsheets have little or no calculations at all, the grid of data is what is useful about it. That and being able to set the background colours, borders and format of cells.

Right_Note_Review_2

A spreadsheet as a note in Right Note

Having spreadsheet type notes is much more useful than it might seem at first. Each of these spreadsheet notes is a fully functional spreadsheet. You can even use them to do calculations with numbers! 🙂  The Spreadsheet note type supports a large number of functions for use in formulas. These spreadsheets are probably suitable for small scale scientific and business number crunching.

Right Note also has outlines and task lists as note types, so you can have an outline within an outline. This may seem innovative but it isn’t quite as innovative as it might seem, it is just a hoist. If you have an outline within an outline this is equivalent to having that outline attached as the child of the parent note and when you are within the child outline it is just the same as if you had hoisted the parent of that outline.

The variation on this theme is the task list which is just the same as the outline note except that it has check-boxes. The addition of check-boxes is quite useful.

There is also a Webpage note type into which you can download and store the contents of a web page and this page is stored as a local copy so you can still view it even if the page on the web is changed or deleted, your local copy remains untouched. It is possible to edit these stored web pages.

This is all very well but special items like mathematical formulas in TeX are not rendered correctly. But it should be able to cope with ordinary web pages that have nothing but text and pictures.

It should be noted that if the web page was generated by a PHP script then it is only the HTML output from the script which is stored so some web pages may not work the same as the ‘live’ version but this same restriction would apply to all systems which store local copies of web pages.

There are attachment notes and link notes, an attachment note may be used to copy a file into the Right Note notebase. The file is stored within the Right Note file. A link note is almost the same except that the file is not stored in the Right Note notebase, the note contains a link to that file on the local file system.

 

4. A sense of Time = 2

There is a very rudimentary reminder system but no repeating reminders and no calendar.

This program allows you to set a reminder on a note, this can be a simple reminder with no date or time or it can have a date and time. If it has a date and time and if the program is running at that date and time then it will bring up a reminder dialog box.  If not then it will bring up the reminder next time you run the program after the date and time.

There is also a ‘Journaling’ mode, if you have ‘Journaling’ switched on then the default title for all new notes is the time and date of the note’s creation. This might be OK for keeping a diary.

 

5. Ease of use = 8

This program is simple and easy to use. Most things in the user interface are where you would expect to find them and most things work as you would expect them to work.

There are keyboard shortcuts for moving notes in the tree and dragging the notes around with the mouse works as you would expect.

There is a limited amount of customisability of the GUI, you can set skins (themes), some of the colours and the font used in the tree. That’s about it. The newer skins are colourful and most of them are good.

You can configure the keyboard shortcuts but you can’t change any of the toolbars.

Apart from having a couple of note types which do the same thing and might cause confusion about which one to use it is a good user interface.

By default there are some superfluous icons in the trees indicating the type of each note, they take up screen space without any clear benefit but they are easy to switch off in the options.

 

6. Visual Appeal = 9

Right Note has a pretty interface. It is colourful and there are several themes to choose from. The default font for the tree and tabs can be set. The user interface is fairly configurable but it is not the most configurable interface I have seen.

Right_Note_Review

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There are a lot of icons with the program which can be used in the program and there is an even larger collection of icons which can be downloaded for free from the Bauer Apps website, this is a single file in the format used by Right Note for it’s icon database. The file is free but is useless to other applications.

These icons can be placed before note titles and assigned to tags and notebooks, but beware, having too many icons on-screen at once can make the display appear too busy and cluttered.

 

Note Taking Software, back to basics.

There are many note taking programs but there are none which are ideal in my opinion. Many of them do a lot more things that I don’t need and don’t do all the things which I do need. A couple of them do come tantalisingly close to my ideal.

So what do I actually need from a note taking program. Let’s build it up from basics.

I like things to be simple!

What is the simplest note taking system?

A pencil and paper!

But a pencil and paper is not connected, you can’t search a large paper document easily. Organising and re-organising paper documents is difficult even if you have scissors and glue.

It would be more useful if it were electronic and on a computer.

So what is the simplest note taking system on a computer ?

Plain text files!

This is true, but having lots of plain text files scattered about on a hard disk can also be frustrating.

“I’m sure I had that information in a text file somewhere, if only I could remember what it was called and what folder it was in, dammit!”

There are problems with organising and re-organising a body of information which is contained in plain text files. What is needed is a way of structuring them and indexing their contents so they can be searched as a whole.

Keeping all your notes together is a good idea. Being able to add structure to them so that they can be grouped by their salient features is a good idea. Being able to explicitly express the salient features of a note (tags & metadata) is a good idea. Having a mechanism whereby one note can refer to another note (or indeed something outside the program) is a good idea. That is why note taking programs are a good idea.

With a note taking program you can keep all your notes in one place, link them together and define a logical structure, add meta-data to express the significant features of the data, link to other files or websites and search for things which you want to find.

Everything over and above this is either the icing on the cake or superfluous and unnecessary depending on your point of view.

Of course there are programs which provide a myriad of extra facilities and functions but if they fail to provide these basic facilities then they still fall short.

All the extra functions do is obfuscate the basic functionality. I am not saying that programs should not offer extended functionality but if the basic functionality ends up hidden in a sub-menu of a sub menu or in a context menu somewhere obscure then that is a bad thing.

The basic and most often used functions should be in obvious places, the extra functionality can be hidden in obscure places. The developers task is to decide which functions are the most often used and which ones get used once in a blue moon by just a few people.

If a program tries to be all things to all people then what usually happens is the user interface becomes complicated in one way or another.

 

Organisation

Almost all note taking programs organise their notes in either a tree or a directed graph. Most of the other types of organisation are either trees or directed graphs if you look at their topology.

A wiki might be thought of as a free form structure but the notes are connected by links and thus it is actually a directed graph. A mind map might be thought of as different from an outline but they are both trees, they are just displayed differently.

Directed graphs are more useful than trees.

Trees have the problem that as they get bigger it becomes more difficult to place nodes within them, that is, it becomes more difficult to find a single place which is correct for that node. There are usually several places where it could plausibly fit. That is why directed graphs are more useful.

For example, if a node could fit in the tree under the project it is part of or under the person whose responsibility it is or under the problem which the project is supposed to address then with a tree you have to select which is the most important feature of the node. This leads to difficulty in finding the node later when you have forgotten what your original decision was. It also leads to inconsistency of placement.

With a directed graph you can put the node in all the appropriate places simultaneously. If a node in a tree can have more than one parent then that tree is a directed graph. If you can ‘clone’ a node so that it appears more than once in a tree then that tree is really a directed graph.

It should be noted that a clone is not a copy, it is the same node which appears in more than one place.

 

Tags

Tagging nodes to indicate properties of the node is a necessary feature of a note taking system in my opinion. Well thought out tags are very useful.

Hierarchical tagging systems are in my opinion most useful, but few note taking programs have hierarchical tagging systems. Ideally the use of a tag should also imply the node having the parent tag as well (inheritance) i.e. if the node is tagged as belonging to this electronics project then it should also be tagged with the parent tag of ‘electronics’ and if electronics is the descendant of another tag then it should inherit that one too, recursively right back to the root of the tree.

One caveat with this is that when selecting the tags to apply to a node the list should be just a flat list of all the tags in alphabetical order, i.e. the tree should be flattened out.

Tagging systems can become a mess if the user doesn’t think about what the significant features of their data are. If the collection of tags just develops ad-hoc then they will probably be inconsistent with each other and this can lead to confusion.

A tagging system is even more useful if on can refine a search by selecting from a list of tags held by the results of the current search. Similar to the system used by the website ‘Del.icio.us’ before it was discontinued to make way for Pinboard’s subscription service. One alternative to this is if you can build a query using tags combined with AND, OR, NOT and brackets.

Meta-data is just another form of tagging, the meta-data expresses something about the node and as such it should be able to be searched and nodes should be able to be grouped on properties expressed in the meta-data.

One unhelpful characteristic of many programs is that their meta-data is common to all nodes. For example, let us suppose I have a notebase in which I have some notes on a selection of vacuum cleaners in order to choose which one to buy. One of the pieces of meta-data I might define for those nodes is ‘price’ and give each vacuum cleaner a number which represents it’s price. In a well designed note taking program that ‘price’ meta-data would only exist for those items I had assigned it to. In a badly designed note taking program all nodes in the notebase would now have a ‘price’ even where it is inappropriate. This would make the list of meta-data extremely long for every node because every node has an entry for every piece of meta-data defined for any node in the entire notebase.

Tags are all that is really necessary, other meta-data can be placed in the text of the node in a minimalist system.

 

Links

Linking notes together makes them much more useful. The information in one node can refer to information in another node and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The basic link is like a hypertext link and occurs in the text of a node, it refers to another node. Clicking on the link takes you to the node which the link points to. This basic link is all that is necessary in a note taking system. Just with this type of basic link you can build a wiki.

There are usually other types of link in a system, especially if it is structured as a tree or graph. The structure of the tree implies parent/child links and this is used to arrange the nodes on the screen.

In my opinion there also needs to be links where the information in one node needs to cite or refer to the information in another node. There needs to be a mechanism whereby a node can list other nodes which provide supporting or related information. These are sometimes called ‘see also’ or ‘related items’ or ‘reference’.

 

Text

The function of a note taking system is to hold notes, i.e. information. This can be plain text but the necessity of including links to other nodes implies something more than just plain text. And a bit of formatting is quite nice too.

The inclusion of pictures and diagrams is really useful as well. There is an old saying that ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’, pictures can aid comprehension and understanding of the information. The inclusion of pictures in the text of a node although not strictly necessary is a good feature to have.

Tables are also quite useful.

 

Conclusions

So my ideal note taking program would not have a lot of extra features which I don’t use but would include the all the basic functionality described in this article.

What would such a program look like?

It would have a directed graph structure presented as either a tree (or many trees) or preferably as a network (map). Each node could appear many times in the network/tree as a clone of the same node.

If the structure is presented as a map then the map should centre on the node which has the focus and if the user moves to a new node then the map should be re-drawn with the new node as the centre of the map, this allows you to see the node of interest ‘centre stage’ whilst still being able to see it’s context.

If displayed as a tree then it would be able to ‘Hoist’ a node so that it becomes the centre of attention and would be able to expand/collapse branches of the directed graph/tree.

Each node would be associated with a pane of text which could contain pictures, diagrams, tables and links to other nodes. Links should be opened by a simple single click just like a web browser. In addition each node would be associated with a list of ‘related’ nodes and/or a list of files associated with that node each of which could be opened by clicking on the entry in the list. Ideally the text pane should be floating so that it can be placed on a second monitor.

There would be a hierarchical tagging system with inheritance which could be searched by clicking on the tag in the tag tree but in which the search could be refined by clicking on further tags narrowing down the selection each time, similar to the system used by the ‘Del.icio.us’ website.

The text of each node would be indexed so that full text searches can be carried out quickly. In addition complex searches would be possible by building search criteria in a ‘search table’ each row having columns defining what is being searched for, what is being searched (node text, tags, meta-data etc.), what the conditions are (greater than or equal to, less than, equal to, text contains, matches wildcard etc.) and what the relationship is to the other search criteria (AND, OR), maybe a tree structure would be more useful here instead of brackets. Furthermore these complex searches should be able to be saved for later re-use. This does not mean that a quick and simple search should not be available as well.

There are a few (very few) programs which come close but there isn’t yet a program which ticks all the boxes for me.

This is a bit more complicated than a simple pencil and paper but I think it would be a lot more useful.

 

InfoQube followup

InfoQube is a complicated program with many capabilities but it is difficult for a new user to understand.

It is very easy for a new user to feel lost, partly this is due to not knowing where everything is but its because the program is capable of doing so many different things, when faced with so many possibilities a new user might think “What the F*&@ should I do now ?”, option paralysis is a well known phenomenon in psychology.

InfoQube is almost completely opposite to Microsoft OneNote, with OneNote the user interface is superbly designed to help the new user and to make the operation of the program obvious.  But the program itself sucks, many of its capabilities are superficial and gimmicky.  They are included just so that the advertising department can tick the box saying it has that capability.  If you use OneNote for any serious work then you come up against its limitations very quickly.  It is a typical product of Microsoft ‘focus groups’ which tend to make things so they are easy for the new user and difficult or impossible for the power user.

InfoQube on the other hand does not have a user interface which is simple and intuitive.  The user interface is very dense.  What do I mean by dense ?  It is packed with sub menus, drop downs and context menus and some of the sub menus have sub menus.  This can be confusing for a new user who doesn’t know where everything is.

There is a lot of depth to this program, but it can be intimidating to a new user. I am still learning and so I am sort of a new user but I don’t feel lost anymore. I was helped a lot by finding the option to customise menus and toolbars and experimenting with what I could and couldn’t move and/or get rid of.

Toolbars can have icons taken out of them and other icons put into them. New toolbars can be defined. The same is true of menus, the menus themselves are fixed but the contents of each menu can be changed. There are a few things in the menus which are fixed and you have to work around these entries but you can almost completely re-arrange everything else.

I was not aware how customisable InfoQube was until I went looking for the command to set up keyboard shortcuts.  In the sub menu there was an entry called ‘Customize’ (pardon the Americanism but that’s the way its spelled in the program).  This is a key feature and shouldn’t be hidden away in a sub menu.  Once I found out what it was capable of I dragged it up one level onto the ‘Tools’ menu between ‘Help’ and ‘Options …’ where I would have expected to find it in the first place.

I then butchered the interface until I was comfortable with it.

I am now using the cut down interface.  I have deleted many of the capabilities of the program, the things I am not interested in.

  • Like Pivot Tables and Pivot charts, since Microsoft Office is no longer installed on my system I can’t use these anyway.
  • Like sending e-mail to InfoQube, someday I may want the capability to send information to my InfoQube database from anywhere or for others to do so but for now I’m not interested.
  • Like Gantt Charts, maybe one day I will have to manage a project and if that is the case then I will be grateful for this capability but for now its something I don’t need.

These facilities are still there, they have just been deleted from the user interface.  If they are ever needed then they could easily be re-introduced.

Without all the stuff I don’t need and with the stuff I do need re-arranged I have a sensible manageable, comprehensible (to me) interface.  Actually I haven’t taken that much out, but in the process of re-arranging things I became much more familiar with where things are.  I have assigned a new set of keyboard shortcuts so that the operations which are common to the other programs I use are now in familiar locations where my fingers can find them on their own without too much thought.

So, what have I got left ?

I have a two pane organiser similar in operation to MyInfo with the columns in the left hand pane similar to Myinfo but it has the dockable panes which can be detached and placed on the other monitor just like Ultra Recall and it has a form of hierarchical tagging similar to ConnectedText.  It has the ability to assign different meta-data to different items like Ultra Recall and the capability to have saved searches like the $ASK command in ConnectedText (except the results appear in a table (grid) not on a page).

The hierarchical tagging is not native to InfoQube but it shows the flexibility of the program that something like this is possible with only the things which are already built in.

I am aware that I am not using InfoQube to it’s full potential but the question is, do I need to use the program to it’s full potential ?  If it does what I need then that is enough and the extra capabilities are there if I ever need to use them.  I didn’t use ConnectedText to it’s full potential either.  So what!  If InfoQube does become my main note taking program then my usage of other parts of the program would possibly expand over time.

If only the linking of pages (placing a link on a page which links to another page) was as good as ConnectedText then I could rebuild my ConnectedText wiki within InfoQube.

Moving lots of data over to InfoQube has highlighted the fact that the import facilities of InfoQube are very rudimentary unless you are importing from EccoPro or Evernote.

This is the reason I have not done a load test on InfoQube, importing a couple of thousand text files is only practical if it can be automated.  I suspect InfoQube would perform rather well in such a test but I cannot say that for certain until I do the test.  If I drag and drop files to the left Pane then all I get is links to the files on disk, the file contents aren’t inserted into the database.

The pace of development of InfoQube is quite rapid and things have changed (for the better) since my review.  I look forward to seeing what new developments are coming.  If there are substantive changes then it may be worth doing a second review.

Software rental brought to you by Microsoft !

I have recently been having problems with my laptop computer.

The nature of these problems is not relevant to this discussion but it did necessitate what Microsoft call a ‘Reset’ of the PC.  I opted to keep all my personal files.  I thought I could re-install the applications I had bought and paid for from Microsoft after all it was the same PC they had originally been installed on and I had bought a valid license key for that computer right !

Wrong !  Microsoft have stopped re-activation of license keys for previous versions of Office software.  This was a copy of Microsoft Office Professional 2010 which I had been forced to buy after Microsoft destroyed my previous laptop with the disastrous Windows 10 upgrade.  I bought this software in September 2016 so I have had just over 18 months use out of it and now Microsoft refuse to re-activate the license key.

For many years Office has been a very profitable product for Microsoft.

Software has different characteristics to normal products, the development costs are high but the production costs are low.  This means that for a small company who aren’t selling very many copies the development costs are a large percentage of the profit for each copy sold but for a large company who are selling a large number of copies the development costs become tiny compared to the profit for every copy sold, particularly at the excessive prices that Microsoft charge.

This is what destroys many small software companies.  However Microsoft are not a small company and they have sold many copies of Office and looking at the differences between Office 2010 and Office 2013 they have done little or no development in those three years.  But now they have become even more greedy than they were previously.

They have moved their business model over to ‘SaaS’ or ‘Software as a Sentence‘.  So they have stopped the service to activate the license key by telephone which means that a license key which needs activation can be activated just once online.  If it has already been activated then it can no longer be re-activated.  They are trying to kill off older versions of Office.  They are trying to force everyone onto the rental version, Microsoft Office 365 because it generates a steady revenue stream for Microsoft.

Be warned, if you have a copy of Microsoft Office previous to Office 365 installed on your machine do not un-install it unless you really mean to get rid of it completely because you won’t ever be able to re-activate it on any computer ever again, not even the one on which it was originally installed!

So what alternatives are there for people who don’t like being milked by Microsoft.

Microsoft Office Professional 2010 consists of Word, Excel, OneNote, Power Point, Publisher, Access and Outlook.

Free Software

Mozilla Thunderbird is a worthy replacement for Microsoft Outlook.  I don’t think there is another program either commercial software or free software that can beat it.

Libre Office Calc can do almost all the things Excel can do but with a quaint old fashioned looking interface.

Libre Office Impress can do almost all the things Power Point can do but again it has an old fashioned looking interface.

Libre Office Base is a very different animal to Access, the user interface is not as good but the capabilities of the database exceed those of access.  The back end of Base is the HyperSQL database.  The user interface is different to Access and will take some getting used to.

Libre Office Draw is not a suitable replacement for Publisher.  It is quite awkward to use, it can produce good documents but it takes a lot more work than in Publisher.  Inkscape however is a lot more capable and although the user interface is not as intuitive as it could be you do get used to it with experience.  If you want a full desktop publishing solution then Scribus is far more capable than Publisher ever was.

OneNote was never a very good solution to note taking, it has a nice graphical user interface that is quite intuitive and it has a lot of features but many of those features were only added to tick boxes in the advertising feature list and they were added with no consideration for how they would be used.  For example OneNote has a tagging system but it is designed in such a way that if you have more than about 30 or 40 tags then it starts to become unusable.

There are many suitable replacements for OneNote both commercial and free.  The free programs aren’t quite as good for note taking as the commercial programs and none of them is similar to OneNote, most of them are similar to two pane outliners.  Treesheets however is quite novel, it is like a spreadsheet for text. Among the free solutions are Treesheets, KeepNote, SEO Notes and Cherry Tree.

Libre Office Writer is not a suitable replacement for Microsoft Word for one simple reason, it doesn’t do Outlining.  The absence of this crucial feature in Writer is what is holding Libre Office back from becoming the Office suite of choice for business and academia.

Outlining is a good way of analysing a problem, divide and conquer, keep on dividing the problem into simpler pieces until the pieces are easy to do.  Businesspeople want to organise documents in an outline, Lawyers want to organise case notes in an outline, students want to organise assignments in an outline.   It is one of the basic tools which helps people to put their ideas into a document and arrange them into a coherent whole.

Microsoft Word has a very good, well designed and easy to use outlining mode and once you have finished organising your document you can go back to the normal mode and concentrate on the formatting and presentation of your document.  But at any time you can switch back to the outline mode and re-organise/re-arrange things.  As an outliner Word is hard to beat.

The outlining feature has been requested many times on the Libre Office forums but the developers at Libre Office say “well we have Navigator and it does the same thing”, no it doesn’t.  Navigator was designed to move about documents and find things, it is not an outliner, it does some of the things outliners do but it is not a fully functional outliner.

Unfortunately if you want to stick with free software you will need a separate outlining program and word processor.  So unless the outliner has very good formatting and printing you will need both programs and there will be problems with re-organising things unless you maintain two versions of your document.

UV Outline is a very good free outliner and The Guide is also quite good.

Commercial Programs

If you are willing to pay a little money then the available options become a lot more numerous.  None of the programs here are rental versions.  When you pay you actually get the program, you don’t have to keep on paying for it over and over again.

For Office suites there is SoftMaker Office, it is quite expensive but at least you get the software indefinitely and don’t have to pay rent (although there is a rental version of the Office Suite as well).  I haven’t used SoftMaker Office so I cannot comment on its performance or features and it is pretty pricey.

For something a little more affordable Ability Office is quite good and this is one I have got.

Ability Office Professional consists of a database, a paint program, a presentation program, a spreadsheet and a word processor.  They claim to be Microsoft compatible and to be able to load and save files in Microsoft format and this is largely true apart from the database where it can load the tables and queries from your Access files but not the forms.

The word processor ‘Ability Write’ doesn’t do outlines, it doesn’t even have anything as functional as Libre Office Write’s Navigator, but as a basic word processor it is OK.

Ability office has some nice features like being able to link data from one document to another so you can have numbers in a table in your Writer document which come from the spreadsheet and this link can be both ways so you can change figures in the table and it changes the numbers in the spreadsheet.  The same links can exist between the database and the spreadsheet and between the database and the word processor.

You can also set up Ability Office to have conventional toolbars and menus and get rid of the ribbons.

The lack of an outliner in Ability Office Writer is a big limitation but there is another solution out there.  Scrivener from Literature and Latte is a word processor designed for authors to write books.  It has a lot of nice features to help in producing long documents and of course it does outlines.  For each project there is a section containing research notes or background information.  If I was writing a long complex document like a thesis then Scrivener would be my word processor of choice for such a task.  If I wanted to produce a quick half page note then Scrivener probably wouldn’t be suitable.  Scrivener is quite reasonably priced.

As far as desktop publishing goes then Serif PagePlus X9 is very good and is also surprisingly suitable for producing long documents.  Serif are heavily promoting their new replacement for PagePlus called Affinity, it looks good on the website but its someting I haven’t tried yet so I can’t give an opinion on how good it actually is.

There are many note taking programs out there for sale.  If you don’t want too many complex facilities and are satisfied with a strict hierarchical structure and no universal links then there is a note taking program called ‘Right Note‘ which is fairly simple to learn and also does spreadsheets as a type of note.

I was going to do a review of Right Note sometime in the future but a preview would be, simple to learn, attractive user interface with plenty of colour and quite useful features but not very sophisticated.  A lightweight!  However sometimes a lightweight program is all you need.

For something with a little more power then you could choose MyInfo or ConnectedText but there are some problems.  The developer of MyInfo is threatening that the next version of MyInfo will be a rental version (Software as a Sentence), if that is true then I won’t be updating my copy.

ConnectedText is very good and very powerful but I cannot honestly recommend it for new users as it is no longer being developed, version 6 (the current version) will be the last.

If you want something with lots of power but a very steep learning curve then you could try InfoQube.  InfoQube is a lot more than just an outlining program or a note taking program but it is a formidable program to learn.  InfoQube also links to and synchronises with Google Calendar.

There is also Ultra Recall, WhizFolders, TreeDBnotes, The Brain and 3D Topicscape. I can’t recommend any of these for a variety of different reasons, but they are all better than Microsoft OneNote.

As far as e-mail programs go Mozilla Thunderbird is as good as any commercial program and it’s free but if you really want to pay some money then Essential PIM Pro is just as good and quite reasonably priced.


There are many alternatives to joining the Microsoft hegemony both free and commercial.  Microsoft are a big company and their attitude seems to be that they can do whatever they want and their users will just have to accept it.

Unfortunately the version of SaaS they have chosen is a very pernicious one, if you stop paying the rent the program stops working completely.  In other words they are holding your documents and files hostage against your future payments.  There are some other companies which have chosen a less aggressive version of SaaS, like The Brain Technologies, if you get TheBrain on a rental deal and stop paying the rent then the program continues to work you just don’t get any upgrades or online services.

So help to promote more diversity in the software marketplace, switch to a non-Microsoft solution today!

#DeleteMicrosoft

Your money would be better in the hands of small software developers than in the hands of a corporate giant that treats their customers with contempt !