One online notetaker outshines the competition

Scott spanbauer By Scott Spanbauer

Whether you just need to do a little brainstorming or you’re creating a multimedia scrapbook, one free notebook service makes collecting and sharing ideas a snap.

Or keep things super-simple by recording your thoughts in plain text via two other useful Web apps.

When a sticky note just won’t cut it

Even though I’d been using computers since just after the dawn of time, I still relied on a Post-It note or the back of an envelope whenever I needed to jot down an appointment, a phone number, a shopping list, or an idea for a future column.

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My paper habit left my desk awash in drying, discolored scraps containing the crucial threads of information that stitch my life together. One stiff breeze and my career was out the window — literally.

Since I switched to recording my day-to-day data on one of the Web’s free notetaking services, not only is my desk clear but my scribbled phone numbers, appointments, and to-do lists are available to me wherever and whenever there’s a Web connection.

There’s something to like about each of my three favorite online notetakers, though they couldn’t be more different. If you’re the graphical type, Zoho Notebook lets you create charts and other diagrams. You can collect images and audio and video clips for use in your scrapbook. Then share your creations with anyone via e-mail or publish them on a Web page.

As you can imagine, Google Notebook’s claim to fame is its no-nonsense interface. However, the only way to paste images into your notes is via a Firefox add-on, and even then you’re limited to thumbnails linking back to the original image.

For the “War Games” look, try BigHugeLabs.com’s Writer: The Internet Typewriter, which mimics the look of the green-phosphor CRT displays of the 1980s. The service’s distraction-free interface is a welcome departure from the feature-creep we’ve grown accustomed to. Still, you’ll likely find more formatting options on a typewriter.

Note that while these online notetakers do support rudimentary text formatting, they are not full-fledged word processors. If you’re looking for a great online replacement for Microsoft Word, head instead to Zoho Writer, ThinkFree, or Google Docs.

Record your thoughts in graphs and charts

If your notetaking goes beyond simple text and Web clips, prepare to be astounded by Zoho Notebook’s seemingly endless capabilities. With Zoho, notes are a multimedia affair: draw diagrams and flow charts using vector-based symbols, lines, and color fills, all of which can be edited. Of course, you can also enter, edit, and format text.

Zoho notebook
Figure 1: Zoho Notebook offers the best features in the category of notetaking apps.

Zoho Notebook lets you create scrapbooks containing images, audio, and video scoured from the Web. You can also record sound and pictures on the spot using a Flash plug-in. The service lets you embed RSS feeds in your notes. You can also upload files to the service and import documents from Zoho’s other online applications.

Other features allow you to share your notebooks, individual notebook pages, or individual objects with anybody via e-mail. Or publish them to Zoho’s Web server with just a click or two. In fact, you can use the service to collect, annotate, share, and publish almost any information that can be viewed on a computer. How accommodating can you get?

Simple text notes, but images need not apply

Interface simplicity is the watchword at Google, and Google Notebook is no exception. Your main page contains one or more notebooks listed on the left, each of which contains one or more notes; section headers are optional.

You can edit and format your text, change notebook titles, insert e-mail and links, and collapse and expand your notes. Although you can’t paste images or other media types into your notebooks, a Web-clipping extension for Firefox lets you copy chunks of pages into a separate bookmarks area, after which thumbnails of the linked images appear.

I’m a big fan of Gmail’s labels, but I haven’t yet mastered the use of labels to organize Google Notebook. The trick is undoubtedly to create lots of short notes within a notebook. This way, tags apply to just the most relevant text in the notebook.

In real life, I often give my wrinkled handwritten notes to someone else to make sense of. In the same way, Google Notebook lets you share individual notebooks with others and invite them to collaborate.

Selectric flashback: take notes like it’s 1979

Sometimes to get my ideas down, I need to minimize distractions. BigHugeLabs.com’s Writer: The Internet Typewriter does away with standard Web-interface complexities in favor of an utterly retro green-on-black, text-only display that takes me right back to my days in front of the original IBM PC.

If green’s not your thing, choose to view amber, white, or gray text in your choice of three — count ‘em — three fonts. Writer’s few menu commands dim automatically after a few seconds, leaving just the text you’re typing in view.

You don’t even have to log in to the service. Just start tapping the keys. Your note will be waiting for you when you return — as long as you connect from the same computer and don’t clear the cookies out of your browser.

If you want to access your notes from any Web link, Writer lets you create an account and log in to create, view, and edit your notes from any PC.

Though it purposely eschews most text-formatting options, Writer does offer a few Web whistles and bells. For example, you can download individual documents in .txt or .pdf format. You can also e-mail notes or post them to your blog with a single click. But as far as features go, that’s all, folks!

Scott Spanbauer writes frequently for PC World, Business 2.0, CIO, Forbes ASAP, and Fortune Small Business. He has contributed to several books and was technical reviewer of Jim Aspinwall’s PC Hacks.
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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2008-05-15: