Notes on taking notes

The application I use most, besides a browser and email client, is probably Notepad. I have the shortcut to Notepad on my Quick Launch bar and I use it every time I have to take notes of any kind. When I get a phone call at work, it has become second-nature for me to open Notepad before picking up the receiver.

This works quite well. I run into trouble, though, when it comes time to reboot or shutdown. I’m running Windows XP on a laptop and I don’t often reboot (I use the suspend status when moving between home and work). It’s a good nod to the stability of 2000/XP that I’m confident leaving notes unsaved in Notepad for days at a time. However, when I do have to reboot for some reason, I’m forced save all of my open notes. I end up having to litter my desktop with temporary files and folders. I’m also forced to name each of the notepad files (usually ending up with useless names).

I want a Notepad that has no Save command. I want everything to always be saved, all the time.

Some argue that the whole concept of saving files is vestigial and should be scrapped. There is definitely something to that. The most common counter-argument to that position is that it limits the ability for experimentation with files (you can try things out with a file without saving). This is bunk. Reverting to saved versions of files is not a good model for experimenting. That’s what universal undo/redo is for. Allaire’s ColdFusion Studio allows undo beyond the last save. Adobe Photoshop (version 6 & 7) implements a history system that works well (despite some nasty implementation quirks).

When I’m typing longer items, like this post, I usually use Microsoft Word. I have the Save command keyboard shortcut burned into my brain (Alt+F+S). I press it instinctively after almost every sentence. Can’t a robot do that for me?

Bill Gates smells my desire (that sounds obscene, but it’s not) and his minions are on the case. At Comdex this month, they previewed a new app called OneNote (say it out loud: wa’note – I’m not yet sure if this is clever or stupid). It won’t be available until next year (I’m signed-up for the beta in early 2003).

I won’t rehash the description of OneNote here. For details, see the WinPlanet article, Steve Gillmore’s InfoWorld article, and the official Microsoft OneNote site featuring a video of the announcement (300Kb/s Windows Media) worth watching if only for the terrible ‘acting’ by the presenters. If you can get past the embarrassing presentation, this video does a good job of demonstrating OneNote. You really have to see it in action as the benefits are difficult to explain.

Of interest here is a notable omission from the OneNote toolbar: no Save icon. As stated in the WinPlanet article: “The program always launches or opens to your most recent page of notes, while an auto-save function reduces fussing with filenames.” Yup, that’s what I want.

On a bit of a tangent, OneNote is an interesting step towards the “universal canvas”. The ‘canvas’ is powered by the Office apps (Word, Excel, etc.). I see (very) faint glimmers of Jef Raskin’s Humane Interface here. Let’s just hope it isn’t big, bloated, and stupid.


24 thoughts on “Notes on taking notes

  1. Ry, I’m not claiming that what microsoft is doing is necessarily innovative. I don’t really care who does it first – I just want it to work for me.

    I’ve tried a few Stickies-type apps for Windows and they’ve all seemed awkward and amateur. I’ll try out the Mac version at work tomorrow.

    Watch the video and you’ll see that it’s much more than Stickies (maybe too much?).

  2. My favorite thing about typing class on the oldschool macs was the notepad, it always saved. I littered that thing with all sorts of information from Starcraft strategies to haikus to anything else I dreamt up while sitting in that class doing absolutely nothing.

    My answer to that for the PC is a quicklaunch link to a file on my hard drive. I call it scratch.txt (of course, you may call it whatever you want). Upon clicking the link to that file, it pops up with all its contents, and ready for me to type a new note as well as review my old ones. You may seperate the notes however you wish, I prefer to use a couple spaces or the ubiquitous double-dash.

    Give it a shot, you’ll start to like it. I used to keep tons of untitled/unsaved instances of notepad up, but no longer.

  3. If you’re already running Outlook, which I think you are, it has lightweight notes that require no titles or saving. You can also add a quicklaunch icon to create a new note:

    1. Make a copy of the “Launch Outlook” shortcut on your quicklaunch toolbar
    2. Edit the properties of the copied shortcut
    3. The target should currently end with /recycle, replace this with /c ipm.stickynote
    4. Change icon to the note icon
    5. Rename shortcut to “New Note”
  4. If you can’t wait that long then you might want to try ActionOutline ( It’s a glorified tree-style text-editor that sits in the System Tray until you press Windows Key+A. When you’re done adding notes you just hit escape and it saves and minimises back its tray icon. I can’t live without it!


  5. You can use FileMaker to take notes. FileMaker saves every keystroke, plus you can build in sorting and searching functionality without much effort.

    Or, you can wait for something I’m going to be releasing in a few months 😉

  6. Just out of curiousity, Steven… why are you using the ALT save command in Word when CTRL+S is shorter and easier?

    I only use ALT commands for window modification, ie: ALT+SPACE+N (minimize) and ALT+SPACE+M (maximize). Oh, and the annoying WinXP IE6 bug that loses your status bar after using the new window shortcut makes me use ALT+V+B to get it back quickly.

    As far as notes go, I know what you mean. I too am a habitual note user, and have found the program “Stickies” (PC), made by Tom Revel (click here) to work wonderfully. It allows for extreme customization (colour, transparency, font, size, etc) as well as all the Apple version features as well (show on startup, etc). On the website it looks like an app designed for Win95, and it’s ugly. But after deciding to try it anyway (now that I have an Apple, I can’t handle not being able to leave notes on my PC), I quickly found it easy to make it pretty.

  7. Garrett, I use ALT+F+S just out of habbit. It also happens to work well in the home keyboard hand position. I love all keyboard shortcuts equally. I even know a guy how uses shift-insert to paste (show yourself!).

  8. I assume you are pointing to Nathan re: shift-insert.. I learned it from him, or perhaps it was Isaac, many years back.

    Ctrl-Insert for copy, Shift-Insert for paste.

    I also use ALT-F-S for saving.. I only use a pinky finger for the right shift. I hate using my left pinky.

  9. Jevon, I know that we both used shift-insert, ctrl-insert, and shift-delete way back when we were programming in QuickBASIC. The QB editor was the same as DOS Edit and it did not have the crtl-(X|C|V) shortcuts. It didn’t have ctrl-S either, so that’s where my habit of alt-F-S for saving started too. (BTW, alt-F-S works well in the home position too: only your thumb has to move from the spacebar over to alt, all fingers can remain on a-s-d-f.)

    Today I use both sets of editing shortcuts. The ctrl-(X|C|V) are convenient to use with my left hand while selecting text with the mouse. The shift-ctrl-insert-delete combinations are convenient when doing all editing with the keyboard: select text with shift, arrow keys, home and end, then edit text with the shift-ctrl-insert-delete combinations, all with the right hand.

  10. Versions of Notepad prior to Win2000 didn’t have the CTRL-S shortcut, so I also got ALT-F-S burned into my motor memory… however I eventually switched to CTRL-S when I (gasp) started using other HTML editors. 🙂

    To be really anal, I hate the way alt-f-s feels. In order, I use my left thumb, left index and finally left middle for that sequence, and the edge of the alt key always presses against my thumb. Ctrl-S forever! 😛

  11. …I say use Ctl + (X,C,V) for cut, copy, paste. The appearance of the letters even make sense in relation to the functions.

  12. Thanks to Daniel B. for pointing me to ZapNotes: everything I need, nothing I don’t.

    Two minor complaints:

    1. The icon is ugly. The bright yellow is too prominent for a permanent icon (I keep thinking I have new ICQ’s waiting). It’s also too sharp when in context with Windows XP icons. Maybe I’ll have a go at it.
    2. The Auto-Save function (which is a great idea, and does what I want) saves every 1 minute. This will probably work fine, but I’d rather something that saves every time I make a change. That way, it isn’t wasting time saving every minute while I’m away playing Tony Hawk Pro Skater 4 (which I’m on the verge of completing), and then you can’t lose a full minute of notes in case of a freak out.
  13. For those you who work on a lot of different systems, I always use Yahoo Notepad. Wherever I am, I usually have a browser window of Notepad open in the background so I can jot down ideas. At home, I cut’n’paste them into a Word file.

  14. I don’t know how it compares to all the other suggestions, but you may also want to try out Treepad Lite. Flexible, lightweight, sits in the tray, and has autosave (doesn’t seem to have a hotkey but, well, neither does Notepad).

  15. Stickies is available on Mac OS X, as well. It
    saves your notes (as a single file per user) as soon
    as you click outside the note.

  16. the best way i think is to put up
    .LOG in the first line of the file and open it with Notepad. then whenever the file is opened, the current date and time get added to the file.

  17. Recently i went through a phase of trying as many note taking programs as i could find. I eventually stumbled upon keynote which i got from
    Its a nice hierarchal type of list maker, a feature that onenotes sadly seems to lack, it also saves as you go. The only features that i feel are missing from it are the ones that onenote gives. I showed this to my sister recently who went absolutely ga-ga over it. She has a habit of keeping text files all over her desktop, but now she just uses keynotes for quick note keeping.

    How i have started to use Onenote and Keynote:
    Onenote: Notes for studying/work and as a quick scratchpad
    Keynotes: Shopping lists/to do/recipes/mathematical or science formulae/operating system shortcuts or tweaks…..

    You get the point.

  18. Steven:

    I have just begun to explore OneNote. I have scripted some stuff in ActiveWords related to SideNote, and there are some pretty interesting results.

    If want to see the scripts, let me know.

    Stay warm….75 and blue skies here.


  19. The Outlook 2003 notes system works perfectly for me, especially with the tip someone up above gave about putting a shortcut in the quick launch tray. Works perfectly, and lets you organize them any way you like at any time.

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