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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Notebook 3.0, the Mac alternative to Microsoft OneNote

I’ve heard this whine far too many times. Where’s the OneNote alternative for the Mac? Seems like everyone on the PC had been using OneNote and were shocked to find that Office for Mac does not come with OneNote. I had never used OneNote for more than 15 seconds when I did use Windows, so had to find out what OneNote stood for in the first place.

It’s basically a swiss army knife of digital notebooks. In brief, here’s how it works. There’s tabs for separate ‘notebooks’ on the left side, such as for ‘personal’, ‘work’, etc. Each notebook has multiple pages, separated at the top by tabs (much like you would in a business notebook). Within these tabs are several notebook pages, which are separated by tabs on the right side. All of these of course serve a separate purpose, and the whole thing executes pretty nicely. On the notebook page itself, you can add text, copy and paste HTML and images, and it can even extract text from images (or so it says). You can even use a pen tablet to write on the notebook, or use the mouse to draw shapes like boxes and arrows. There’s system-wide shortcuts for adding stuff to the notebook, and there’s even a temporary area for dumping stuff. So that’s OneNote 2007 for the PC, and I’m looking to find something similar on the Mac.
Circus Ponies’ Notebook 3.0

This is the first app that comes in mind when looking for a OneNote alternative. While similar in the end it’s trying to acheive, Notebook is in many ways different from OneNote. So let’s see how it works.

On first launch, you’re presented with a ‘Starting Point’ screen, which brings up a pre-packaged notebook geared for a college student, researcher, planning projects, or just use it like a place to stuff in all your junk. You can of course also start with a blank notebook, which is what I did.

Notebook has a very minimal user interface, especially when compared with the clutter that comes with OneNote. It’s a floating virtual notebook on your screen, taking up only the space required by a single sheet of ruled paper. Unlike OneNote’s three sided tabby interface, Notebook has tabs tucked on only one side. However, they’re more than just skin deep as we’ll see later.

So how do you add content to your notebook? Simply double click to create a new text field. You can enter text, drag in text, drag in files, draw shapes using the shape tools. The shapes you draw are also sticky, so arrows snap to edges when you’re creating something like a flow chart. One of the most interesting ways of adding content, especially stuff you want to shove in without thought, is to add a clipping service. Take any notebook page, add a title ‘Links’, and ‘Add a Clipping Service’. Now in virtually any application, you can select something, go to the App Menu » Service » Notebook » and add to “Links” or whatever your title may have been. If you find that a little tedious, remember you can add any shortcut to that menu item.

Organisation of Tabs

Notebook has a beautiful organisational structure. The tab at the top is “Contents”. It will list out your ‘Dividers’ as well as the Multidex. Dividers are to be thought of like those thick plastic sheets between a notebook with a tab sticking out. You can add as many dividers as you want from the contents page. Click on a divider, and you’re presented with an organised list of ‘topics’. These are your notebook page titles. Double click on the page title to go into that page.

At the bottom lies the Multidex. This is sort of the aggregator of all things. It will automatically gather Text, Attachments, Numbers, Capitalized words, and much more. Double click into it and you’re presented with a traditional index of items.


When it comes to the pages themselves, you have different styles like ledger, steno, writing, and even special ones like “Cornell Page” which I remember from back in school.
Organisation of Data

Data is organised into units which I think are referred to as ‘cells’. Any bit of data will be tied to a blue dot at the margin. You can move this blue dot around, and add actions to it. You can add a check box, due date, add sub items for outlining, and it displays certain status information in the margin to the left.

This cell is the foundation as to how Notebook works. When you search for something using the global search (which is very efficient), it will narrow down results and present you with information in units. You can open units in new windows, cut them up, as well as create links to cells across different dividers.


As much as I liked Notebook, sometimes it’s a little frustrating. Those ‘cells’ are not as free floating as I’d like them to be, so spatially arranging your notebook is not the most convenient thing to do. Perhaps there’s a setting in there I’m not aware of. Second, the clipping service should have automatically linked it to the web page or file I’m clipping that info from. So I could easy grab a paragraph of text from some place on the net and have the link ready and waiting whenever I need it.

Third, is drawing shapes is not the best of implementations. I’d prefer an annotation system like LittleSnapper. And lastly, I’d have liked if the app looked a little sleeker. The UI elements look a little dated, especially since the nature of the app would allow for so much improvement.

Packed with features

Notebook is filled to the brim with features, yet it presents everything in such a clean and organised user interface. I think I’ve gone through just 25% of what Notebook has to offer. You can record audio clippings directly from within the interface, snap pictures using the iSight camera, organise everything into keywords, and most importantly find information without a hassle.

I set out to find a bunch of OneNote alternatives for the Mac, but knew I had the app with Notebook. I should probably shut up about OneNote since I haven’t used it extensively, but in my limited use Notebook not only matches OneNote, it’s got a better user interface, better integration with the OS, comes with plentiful of features. A standard license of Notebook costs $50 while a student license comes at a subsidised $30. At either cost, if you constantly find yourself getting lost amidst your data, Notebook will set things right for you.
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