Over the past few years I have been an avid user of OneNote as a way to organize reference material, plan projects, and keep personal notes. However, I have been increasingly frustrated by the direction its going in terms of how accessible your notes are. As Microsoft transitions to a more web-centric approach, your notes aren’t even fully available to you on your device; rather, they are stored in the cloud. Furthermore, there’s no easy export from the most up to date version of the app.

As I began to explore alternatives I realized that most note-taking applications suffer from the same drawback: they are hard to get your notes out of if you need to back up or take them to another service, and aren’t always available on every device, all the time. For me, the perfect notetaking application allows me to store reference files and writings in a way that’s easy to search, fully portable, easy to back up, and as future-proof as possible.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized the answer was right in front of me, and it was a strategy I had used in the past:

The file system.

Yes, just the humble file system on my laptop! It just makes sense.

  • Notes can be in any format needed (image, plain text, RTF PDF, Word)
  • Notes can be organized in virtually any way I like with a well thought out file structure and file names.
  • Search is robust and built in, and can include things like size, type, date modified, date created, and more.
  • Using apps like Dropbox, Google Drive, or OneDrive (but–sadly–not iCloud), all notes are fully searchable and available on any device with Internet access, while always being available offline where I need them to be.
  • Since everything is just files in folders and synced via a web service, a single note or a group of notes can be shared with granular control.
  • Backup is as easy as making a zip archive and throwing it on a USB drive.

Sometimes you just don’t have to reinvent the wheel.