Why I love Standard Notes

  • Post by Maxime Cote
  • Dec 26, 2019
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Ever came back to software after sometimes and it just feels like coming home? Sometimes you find software that resonates with you on many levels. Software that you love how it works, it’s philosophy and development. That’s how I feel about Standard Notes. I’ll go over why I like it so much and maybe you’ll find out it’s also for you.

How I found it

A year ago my notes collection started to grow exponentially. At that point I felt the need to organize them. Up to now it was just plain text files with Sublime Text and Google Docs. I had just found out about markdown too. So I figured I could get around to use it. My initial requirement were markdown, longevity, Linux support, and sync across devices. I did the rounds and one of the interesting app was Standard Notes. I discarded it at first after trying it. The main reason was it didn’t have many ways to get data in it. It didn’t have an API to connect, no web clipper, no email import. But after trying other apps and being disappointed, I gave it a try. That’s where I fell in love.

Built on standard

One of the key things I wanted in my notes app was long-term support. Notes apps are pretty timeless and popular, but so many die after some years. In my exploration I decided I didn’t want an app that would use a proprietary format. I didn’t want another app that would trap me like Evernote with their format. I had problems before trying to migrate .enex because of its limited scope. For example, it doesn’t save attachments or notebook related to the note. On top of that, many imports just strip all formatting from the content.

Standard Notes, on the other hand, is built on standard. It saves all the notes and other important data in plain text and JSON. JSON is a plain text structured data format that allows saving structured data. That decision makes it universal and timeless. Text files are easy to move around or even modify outside the app. That makes it very easy migrate if you ever need to. The app itself and all of its components are also fully open-source. All the data formats are also available and documented, which makes it easy to use.

It’s made to last centuries

These days we have more applications every day. Sadly, most of those won’t be around for years to come. Unless maybe if they’re backed by a big company. Even then, Google for example, is known to just indiscriminately kill off products. So what happens to your data when the app dies? Often time you lose it, especially if it’s proprietary.

Standard Notes, on the other hand, as longevity statement. That statement is talking in centuries, not years. A part of that is from the standard they’re using. Text and JSON won’t ever be “deprecated” for something else. That means it doesn’t require any special application to access. If you know all your notes will be safe forever, it’s easier to invest time and energy. Knowing that even if the app disappeared overnight everything is still usable is great.

Encrypted, for your eyes only

Breaches and data collection are everywhere these days. On top of that, unless explicitly said, most apps look into your data in some ways. Not all of those are bad or evil, most might even be useful for the service. But then what happens when there’s a breach? Your notes get leaked out, hopefully encrypted. Sadly, a lot of time what we found is the data was in plain text. The data was encrypted in transit from your computer to the server, nothing else.

Standard Notes solve this by being end to end encrypted. They use standard technique like key derivation function, TLS, PBKDF2 etc. You can find the full technical documentation here. What that means though is, all your notes are encrypted locally before leaving your computer. That also allows the backups to be placed wherever you want, without problems. Want to back up into Dropbox? Drive? Email? Sure, it’s all encrypted none of those companies will see into it. One possible bad side of encryption is about longevity. You need to be able to remove the encryption on your own. To that ends Standard Notes gives you an offline decryption tool.

Multi-editor for notes

Most notes apps out there have one or maybe two editors for their notes. Not all of those editors are made equals. Some like Bear notes are great at markdown. Some like Evernote are good with HTML and format. But what if I want both? What if I want to write documentation in markdown, but write text in an Evernote like editors? Use both note app?

Standard Notes answer that question here with its multi-editor options. Each note can be individually assigned an editor. Editors are things like task list, spreadsheets, markdown, advance text edition, code edition, latex, etc. Each of them allows you to edit the note content in their own ways. To answer the previous question, you could use both the markdown editor and the bold editor. That would give you documentation in markdown and notes in an Evernote-like editor.

Some drawbacks

Now, this app is really awesome but no application is perfect. One of the main reasons why I discarded it to begin with is still true. There’s not much third party way to get notes in the app. There is now a web clipper being worked on. That should help with getting web page data in the app. If you want more than that it’s still a manual process for the most part. For many peoples it might not that big of a deal. But I usually capture around 5 notes a day from various sources. I save things in: Kindle, Instapaper, phone, emails; that’s a lot of sources for a manual process.

The main reason for that decision is most likely security. You don’t want 3rd party to have access to your encrypted data. There’s also the goal to last for decades, on that scale decision are different. But this is the only reason I still use Evernote to capture notes. Evernote API is everywhere and all of those apps has access. My current workflow for the moment is to import them manually every so often from Evernote.

Another thing worth noting is the offline options for mobiles. While the mobile app works very close to the computer version, offline can be limited. Mainly because all editors, but the plain text one, are web-based. If you’re offline, you might not have access to them. With most people having data or WiFi accessible at all time, it might not be bad. But I did run into that problem often times with my iPad. I wanted to edit a note on the go and had to use plain text. So it’s probably worth noting and be aware of that limitation.

Is it for you?

If you reached this point, you probably know if you should give it a try. I know this notes app is for me. I recently put my money where my mouth is and got a five-year license.

Five years might feel like a long time but tools shouldn’t be changed all the time. On top of that, with their longevity statement I know everything I do will be around. As for the drawbacks, I’m planning to try to fix some of it. Given that it is open-source, I will spend some time next year to make my workflow work. Being able to automatically sync with Evernote in a secure manner would make it nearly perfect for me. No app is ever perfect but I think this one is as close as it gets for me.