My take on the new outliner note apps

  • Post by Maxime Cote
  • Feb 22, 2020
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Outline apps are making a come back recently with a bunch of new ones getting built as the new note-taking paradigm. That shift makes a lot of sense, in my opinion, since outliners are close to how our brain organizes and navigate things, as explained in my previous post. But how do they stack up as your mind scaffolding? That’s what I’ll try to explain here, but first, let’s go over some shared basics. The idea behind all of those apps start from the same point; everything is a bullet in a tree. That bullet, in turn, can contain various pieces of information depending on the exact app implementation. Some will do anything from text, image to links, and embed, where some are more limited. All the apps also allow you to zoom in and out across the tree as you focus on something.

Other than those main points, there’s a bit more diversity across implementations. Some have dual pane so you can reference other bullets. Some have various elements you can use to make the bullet more interactive, things like sliders and date pickers. All of them have their twist and strength; that’s what I’ll go over here to help you decide. I’ll list what I noted while trying the apps to help you decide for yourself if one is a good fit.

Roam Research

Roam is one of the most feature-full applications in this list. It has a ton of useful but hidden features that stays out the way until you need them. That makes it reasonably easy to get going and learn the basics since, for the most part, you write text in bullets form. Once you have some bullets, you can add to them with various widgets and features. You can embed other bullets, create links, create todo, add date picker, etc. All of those make it compelling for a lot of workflows and allows it to replace your todo manager, calendar, planner, and other productivity tools. The text edition itself is also reasonably complete with bold, underline, highlights. The way to format text is Markdown with some added syntax like highlights.

Other than it’s extensive features list the main selling features of Roam is automatic backlinks. Those are bidirectional links between bullets, as oppose to usual one-way links. So not only can you find where something goes but also everywhere that piece of information was linked from. Those backlinks make for easy navigation and exploring (roaming) of your notes and knowledge. Roaming like that is the perfect way to go into deep rabbit holes with your ideas and knowledge base. Just make sure not to get lost.

It’s not all perfect, though, at least as of today ( February 21, 2020 ). First, there’s no offline mode, which means it requires the internet to use it. If you lose connection for a moment but keep the page open, it should sync itself back, but that’s clunky. There’s also no mobile app, although you can use it reasonably well in a mobile browser, with some limitations. The final big downside is it’s current stability overall. The teams have had a lot of growth very quickly, and that created some syncing issues and other problems. Since there’s no indication of the current state of the sync or the server status, it made using it a bit unnerving. Thankfully all of those complaints are already known and are planned to be addressed in the future.

RemNotes

This one is very similar to Roam in many ways. They both share a lot of features, but RemNote doesn’t have as many overall. One of the most visible differences between the two is the UI; they both have a very different take on it. Some of the shared features are date picker, embedding, todo, backlinks, links, and references. The way some of those works is a bit different, especially embed since it’s “portals” for integrating notes or bullet. Portals are a way to have another piece of content show up in a little frame in the note. From that frame, you can edit the information directly as if you were in the embedded note itself. That creates some great workflow like using the daily document as a start point then use portals to work on specific projects right on that page.

Those portals are also how RemNote does its automatic backlinks. On a page, you will see portals linking back to where that content is located, either in text, reference, or directly. You can also move those right into the parent if you wish. Another unique feature for this app is the spaced repetition function. Everything you write in the app (unless specified) will be turned into spaced repetition cards automatically. No need to create card decks yourself; organize your notes, and it does the rest for you. Finally, RemNote also has an excellent offline mode with a connection indicator to show sync and connection status.

Not everything is perfect here either, though. The app model and structure are more complicated than Roam and others. It will require some learning upfront to use it fully. Another thing is that, because it builds automatically spaced repetition cards by default, it has more strict formatting. For example, words starting with an uppercase are concept, and lower case is descriptors of those concepts. The default mode is the concept/descriptor mode, which is suitable for knowledge building but not for text notes. You can easily switch back and forth, even on a per bullet basis, but you need to learn how that works. At this moment ( February 21, 2020 ), there’s no mobile app, and the edition of notes in the mobile browser is broken. You can easily do the spaced repetition queue and practice on mobile but not edit the notes. Another drawback is the limited formatting of text in the editor. The main formating options are headings, underline, and colors though they are planning on adding highlight soon.

Workflowy

This app doesn’t entirely fit with the two previous apps in a lot of ways. The significant main differences are, it’s older, and it also doesn’t do linking of knowledge. The app is more focused on using and manipulating plain text. Even with those things in mind when I did a tour of apps that could do outlines, it was mentioned often, so I gave it a try. The app is polished and intuitive overall; like other outliners, everything is a bullet in a tree. It also has a beautiful desktop and mobile version that works well and mirrors the web app. Both of those clients also have offline and syncing capabilities. Finally, it has most of the usual text formatting option, bold, italics, underline.

Limited features here are the main drawback compared to the other apps. That’s one of the main reasons I didn’t try it for nearly as long overall. For example, you can link one way to other bullets to navigate, but you have to paste the full URL as the link, which is confusing. The way to organize things is also even less oblivious than the previous two were. The main idea is that you create long infinite documents that you navigate with the links or tags. There’s also no highlighting, no widget, or UI element, other than date pickers. You can add external links, but once again, it’s just putting the URL as a bullet, no embed. Back-linking is also not a feature; to navigate in and out, you need to remember the way you came or go to a starting point somewhere. There are some ways to change bullets and extend some of the features, but it’s using 3rd party browser extension that modifies the page, which doesn’t count, in my opinion.

Org-mode

The granddaddy of them all and the oldest application in this roundup. Spoiler alert, it’s not your average grandparents, and it’s still hold up strong. Org-mode is often one of the big reasons people get around to learn Emacs and its features. Org-mode is an implementation of an org file in Emacs. Org files themselves are plain text and a way to format text in an outline fashion with extra on top, like todo and agenda. But when it’s combined with Emacs, it’s where it shines the most. Emacs can combine its extensive text edition, and it’s own lisp scripting to push the display, feature, and extensibility of org file over the top.

You can edit the bullet, navigate around, zoom in and out, etc. It can handle text formatting (italics, bold, underline, strike-through), table formatting, quote, and code blocks. There are also links, even pictures (with extensions), todos, agenda, the features list is very long. Since everything is technically plain text, you can open with anything else, it won’t be nicely formatted as in Emacs, but in a pinch, you can. Another great feature of org-mode is one of the main features of Emacs, its extensibility. You can make it do whatever you want if you know how to. In the editor, you also have Babel with your org-mode, this allows you to compile any code you want and execute it straight from the editor. Babel integration is the origin of literate DevOps and literate programming. Just put the code right in the middle of your text, and it will run and execute.

As stated before, org-mode shine the most when used with Emacs, which makes it one of the main drawback. Emacs is far from being intuitive and will require fiddling and lots of learning if you don’t know how it works. It is a fully-fledged text editor in its own right. There’s even has been rumors of people living their life in Emacs. Another downside of this setup is that you have to own it all yourself. Org files are just text files, and Emacs is a local desktop application, so they’re in your responsibility. For some people, that can be a plus, not having to care if the data is well handled and safe, but for others, it’s the other way around. Also, on that note, even though it’s been out for so long, the mobile apps that can read org files are still somewhat limited. Most can show you the todo list and your agenda, but edition and other features are usually limited. The final drawback I’ll talk about here is the dark side of infinite customization, which is endless fiddling. Since you can make Emacs do whatever you want with its scripting language, you will also have to debug and fiddle with it to make it work.

Conclusion

In the end, should you use any of those apps instead of your current one? It turns out it’s a hard question to answer. Many of those are about helping your brain think and organize, and they do a decent job at it, but everyone’s brain is different. You might have trouble thinking in trees with everything being a bullet point and no structure. There’s also the fact that as of this moment, most of them are in beta. So your enjoyment will depend on your tolerance to bugs and crashes. Everyone has a different tolerance for those sorts of things, and one crash or one part of note lost for some might be too much.

Another thing to think about is your reliance on mobile, as most of those don’t have that good mobile app (yet). If you do most of your note-taking on mobile, that would be a problem. The best way to go if one of them piqued your interest is to put it on trial for a week or two. You’ll be able to see it’s features and workflow across most of your situation that way. I do predict that type of application will be the future of note-taking for at least a chunk of peoples reasonably soon, so might be a good time to try for yourself.