Every Windows user eventually encounters Notepad. It's the built-in plain text editor that has shipped with the operating system since time immemorial (meaning since Windows 1.0, almost 30 years ago). It's fast, simple, and so utterly out of date few people ever bother taking notes with it. Every OS has its own equivalent, usually languishing unused. (Feel free to flame me in the comments section, ASCII lovers!)
Today the world of note-taking encompasses far more than a simple TXT file stored on a hard drive. There are web-based apps aplenty that store notes and provide access to your info everywhere you go, even on a handheld. At the very least, most incorporate easy-to-understand outlining, categories, and tags.
The best note-taking apps go much further. Many of them integrate full-blown organisational tools and storage so your "note" is anything you can look at and capture for later research, including your own voice. Those that don't offer their own storage or synchronisation across PCs, tablets, and phones typically use a third-party service like SkyDrive or Dropbox to facilitate backup/sync. And of course, we live in a sharing world so there are often options to send your notes to others, if not use them for collaboration.
Yes, the note-taking tools and outliners of the modern desktop computing era go far beyond Notepad. Here are what we consider the best free note-takers and outliners you can get on the desktop, be it for the Mac, Windows, or on the web. Oh, and we'll point out when they have mobile versions too.
By the way, if you truly can't imagine life without Notepad, which is really more of a plain text word processor, at least upgrade to NotePad++. It's perfect for code monkeys and comes with support for multiple languages, tabs to keep open multiple documents, and even colour coding for tags.
Evernote (Web | Windows | Windows 8 Touch | Mac | iOS | Android | Windows Phone | BlackBerry | Browser Extensions)
Given so many supported platforms, you may think Evernote covers all the bases. And indeed, no one covers more. Evernote makes it effortless to take notes and store info online for access anywhere, on any device. (You can see our review of the Evernote Android app here).
Evernote makes almost every single "must-have apps" list because it does so much for free. You can send Evernote 60MB of data traffic per month as you make and take notes, but there's no limit on how much you can store. Also, there's almost no limit on what you can store: Photos, videos, emails, web pages, and documents. But you'll eat up that 60MB fast with a lot of video "notes." A £35 per year premium version of Evernote adds even more features, such as the ability to work offline (the free version requires an Internet connection), search inside stored files, and increased capacity to store files (up to 1GB a month).
Ultimately, Evernote can be used as a backup for just about anything. If you visit a web page with an interesting article you'd like to read later, you can use a variety of methods to store it such as the Web Clipper extensions and bookmarklets that make it a one click process, or Evernote Clearly, which formats an article into an easy-to-read block of text. Plenty of other apps also support Evernote, along with some hardware, including many scanners. You'd be foolish not to have Evernote in your note-taking arsenal.
WorkFlowy (Web | iOS)
WorkFlowy falls neatly in the middle between the basic to-do list and mature word processor. It's a web-based note-taker/outliner/brainstormer that works just about any way you want it to.
You can create page after page of information where one bullet leads to the next bullet, nest more bullets or numbers under each, and so on. Whatever you write is searchable, so you can go on with a point, or just create a new bullet. Click the bullet itself and all the nested info will toggle in or out of view — this is called "folding text." You can tag points in the outline to make it even easier to search.
You only get one list for free, but that's probably enough. Pro users who pony up $49 (£31) per year get unlimited lists, plus backup and password protection, and eventually offline editing. There is already offline editing available in the WorkFlowy app for iOS; other platforms like Android don't have an app, but a third-party tool called Workflowy Agent in the Google Play store provides access if the browser won't. (You can check out our Workflowy iPhone app review, too).
Simplenote (Web | iOS)
Simplenote is a simple but powerful tool, allowing you to create notes that automatically store online and sync with the iPhone app. You can share and collaborate on notes with others by tagging your note with an email address. Simplenote also saves multiple versions of each note in case someone erases vital info. Notes are searchable by tag or content. You can even make a makeshift blog out of the notes by publishing them; you'll get a shortened URL to share, allowing others to read it. Post an update to the note and the "published" note updates as well.
If plain text isn't your favourite thing, Simplenote also supports Markdown, a lightweight markup language that translates it to nicely formatted HTML on viewing. There's a premium version for $20 (£13) a year that throws in sync with services like Dropbox, allows sending notes to Simplenote by email, and RSS access to changes in notes.
A host of third-party note apps integrate with Simplenote, including some of the others mentioned in this article. You can get the full list here. Syncing them with Simplenote gives you desktop-based local note storage, as well as online backup accessible while mobile, even on platforms Simplenote doesn't yet support. It's the best of all worlds — you can't escape your own note-taking.
Google Keep (Web | Android)
Ultra-fast Google Keep doesn't really compare to more fully featured services like Evernote or even OneNote (see below for the latter), but it can still do a lot, such as store voice and photo notes. You can access, edit, and search notes on Google Keep on any connected device. Keep is technically part of Google Drive, so it uses the same abundant storage you have for Drive and Gmail.
The voice notes — only available on the Android app — are not just stored for playback, but transcribed to text that you can send to others. With Keep there's not much to learn. The Android app works beautifully; for other mobile users, the mobile web interface still does the job.
The simple web interface might be a little off-putting to those expecting some glitz in their web apps. Nevertheless, it could be the perfect replacement you've sought for the sticky notes on your desktop, be they digital or actual bits of paper.
7 Sticky Notes (Windows)
Modern versions of Windows come with sticky-note apps, but this one has every feature the crippled native app is missing. You can run it portably (from a USB drive) so it works anywhere; you can format notes by font, colour, size, transparency, and more, plus there's a manager app to adjust multiple notes at once. They even look 3D on the screen. All note data can be backed up to the cloud.
ArcNote (Windows 8 Touch | Android)
It's a fudge to include ArcNote here — typing is not something you can do with this note-taker app — but it's a nice way to capture images of presentations and handwritten notes on a whiteboard, then turn them into stored and shareable PDFs. It's a shame this app is only on two platforms.
Fetchnotes (Web | iOS | Android)
Cross-platform sync, as is the case with Simplenote, is what Fetchnotes is all about. You start with tags before you even make a note; the interface expects you to categorise notes ASAP. Tagging a note as you go is the same as using a Twitter hashtag (just add a "#" symbol). Notes can be added via email or text message.
Notational Velocity (Mac)
Notational Velocity has several things going for it beyond its straightforward approach to making and retrieving notes (no images, and there are definitely no multimedia files). It's only been developed for the Mac OS X so it looks great on the platform, and it syncs with services like Dropbox, Simplenote and iOS apps like PlainText. It's open source, so the code is available for development on other platforms.
Keep a private journal using the easiest possible interface: Email. OhLife emails you at whatever time of day (or week) you think is best and asks how your day went. Send a reply, including a photo if you want, and it's stored in your private OhLife account to access and edit later.
OneNote (Web | Windows 8 Touch | Windows Phone | Android | iOS)
As part of Microsoft Office, OneNote naturally has a Windows-bent, but the software does have excellent mobile versions to amend, organise and create notes, as well as an Office Web App version. But it's the Windows desktop version where OneNote shines as storage for things you find, as well as a full online notebook. The problem is the desktop version is not actually free. It's available as part of an Office 365 subscription, or with a full purchase of Office 2013, but not on its own. Using the mobile versions or even the touchscreen Windows 8 incarnation without the power of the desktop version to back it up isn't worth the effort. But those living a life which is fully integrated with Microsoft Office products should embrace it.
ResophNotes is like Notational Velocity, except on Windows. It creates text notes and retrieves them, and that's all it needs. It supports Markdown text-to-HTML conversion, syncs with Simplenote and Dropbox for online backup (so you can access notes while mobile), and comes in a portable version you can carry on a flash drive and use on any Windows PC.
Scribble makes it possible to start building your own wiki full of notes almost instantly. It uses Markdown syntax for editing pages so you can type and type without distraction — it'll look pretty later. Adding collaborators is simple, and you can insert all the notes you like. With the free version you're limited to five wikis, but you can have unlimited collaborators on each.
This mind-mapper/brainstormer looks so good because it's Flash-based. It's free for starters when you only need three private maps for a single user. Unlike some other mind-maps, SpiderScribe lets you embed outside info, from images to video to maps.
Springpad (Web | iOS | Android | Kindle | Browser Extensions)
Think of Springpad as Pinterest for note-taking. It has the same kind of image clipping and storage options, but minus the social aspects. Meanwhile you can make notes, all of which are synced across mobile apps. It's possible to organise "springs" by tag or category — text, images, to-do tasks, web links, files, events, and more.