Simplenote — free, cross-platform note taking

Simplenote is a free note-taking tool that can be used on the web or natively on Windows, Mac, Linux, Android or iOS. (what else is there?)

Simplenote is one of the best, least-known free tools I’ve ever used. It is a mature product having been around since 2008. It was acquired by the good folks at Automattic who made the full version available to all without ads or cost. I don’t like exposing students to advertising, so this makes Simplenote great in education. Users do need an email address.

Remarkably, Automattic puts no limits on how many notes you can take. None!

Automattic has developed Simplenote for more platforms but has not succumbed to “bloatware.” For me, a note taking program must be fast and simple like a real notebook. (I’m not a fan of Evernote for that reason.)

Simplenote supports Markdown of which I’m a huge fan. Backup is beyond easy — just download a .zip file and read your notes with any text editor. Simplenote also has tagging, sorting, revision history, collaboration, publishing but not many more features.

Publishing is so easy! A couple of clicks and you get a shortened URL like to share with students or colleagues. It’s one of the easiest ways I know of to publish a simple web page. All for free!

I haven’t tried it but collaboration seems equally simple — just use their email address as a tag and it shows up on their account.

Too Simple?

Text Only

Simplenote is strictly text-based, so you can’t easily embed graphics or pictures from your phone. This is one of the useful features of “Keep” by Google, also a simple program. With Markdown, you can link to graphics but those have to be stored elsewhere online. A service like TinyPic makes this fairly easy but it is another step.

No Spell Check

This is probably another deal-breaker for some people, especially if you are using this as a tool to publish directly to the web.

Tool:  Simplenote
Description: A free, text-based note-taking program which synchronizes across all your computers and phones.
Usefulness: very

WPS Office – the best free office suite you probably haven’t heard of

I hadn’t heard of the freeware WPS Office but it has millions of users worldwide. It was started over 25 years ago as a DOS program by Kingsoft. This long history shows in its polished interface.
WPS Office looks vaguely like Microsoft Office but is more comparable to Libre/OpenOffice in its features. Power users will keep using MS Office but, for many users, WPS Office has more than enough features.

“WPS” stands for Writer, Presentation and Spreadsheet. It doesn’t have a database, desktop publishing, note-taking or other modules included in MS Office or even OpenOffice. This is not necessarily a bad thing if you only use the main three modules in MS Office.

WPS Office is highly cross-platform with implementations for Mac, Windows, Linux, iOS and Android. The Linux version worked flawlessly for me but was less impressive on the iPad.  It claims to have collaborative and cloud features which I didn’t test.  There is also a pro-version but the free version is not crippled.

WPS Office offers templates and product support within a document window of WPS Office. You don’t need to web browse to separate page to find templates. Some people may find this intrusive but I expect more products to start doing this.
I like how WPS Office handles style sheets. Styles can be modified directly from the side panel without having to burrow down through menus. It is also very easy to switch between print view mode and web view mode which is useful if you are writing for both.

I was disappointed that WPS Office doesn’t support the Open Document standard but many people will be glad that it can use Microsoft formats by default.
WPS Office’s native format uses a *.wps extension (confusingly, the same as MS Works.) If you want to test compatibility I’ve exported an original .wps document to:  PDF  .doc and .docx  (right click to download)

I probably won’t switch from OpenOffice/LibreOffice since I use the draw module more than anything else and WPS Office has only the three modules. That being said, the Writer module of WPS Office handled frames well which is the core feature of desktop publishing. Also, as a matter of principle, I favor open source tools rather than just freeware.

Bottom line: good free suite if you often work with MS Office documents.

Tool: WPS Office
Description: three-component freeware office suite
License: open ethos (freeware)
Alternatives: LibreOffice, OpenOffice, Abiword, Google Docs
Usefulness: very

Laverna – encrypted note taking with no registration.

Laverna_logoLaverna is another encrypted note taking program, similar to ProtectedtText which I reviewed in September.    While not a feature powerhouse, Laverna has more formatting options than ProtectedText.   It also has the security advantage of storing your files on your own computer, if you are worried about your files being stored on the ProtectedText servers.
Laverna files can also be stored in DropBox which is convenient but a concern if you are worried about the NSA or other high-level snoops who collect this kind of data.  However, it’s good if you are worried about privacy at work, since your files are stored off-site.  In any case, your files are powerfully encrypted and (supposedly!) not accessible even by the NSA.
Laverna_Screenshot   Laverna requires no registration and is very easy to set-up if you store your files locally on your computer.   Storing your files on DropBox involves a somewhat complex set-up.  You need to create a DropBox “app” for Laverna which is a little geeky but worked flawlessly for me.
I’m not sure which program is more secure but Laverna is much better for formatted text since it supports basic word processor features  (bold, italic, images, etc).   ProtectedText is simply text.
Even if you don’t use Laverna or ProtectedText, you should use something like it.  Hackers and snoops are a real problem and “cloud” office suites give you no protection from them.  Both programs automatically encrypt your notes while remaining easy to use.
Bottom line:  While a little difficult to set-up, Laverna is worth the effort if you want a secure note-taking program.  (and you should want it!)

Tool: Laverna
Description: free encrypted note taking, with no registration
License: OpenSource (GNU GPL v.3)
Alternatives:  ProtectedText
Rating: useful

Shutterborg – free, easy web-based word processor

logoShutterborg works so well I just needed to review it  even though I’m not sure how to use it.
It is simple a “cloud” word processor that requires no sign-in or account.   It creates a PDF, Word Doc or HTML file all which are useful for printing.
Unfortunately, Shutterborg does not save your document in the cloud so it is mostly just useful for single-session writing.
jjffjj_shutterborg_screenshotShutterborg‘s  most intriguing feature is that it allows you load a file from a web page.  For example, you can load a Wikipedia article and edit it as a word processor document.   Again — it works very well but I’m not sure of how this might be used.
Shutterborg does have some advertising on the initial screen but, otherwise, it is distraction-free writing.

Tool:  Shutterborg
Description:  Free “cloud” word processor
License: Open Ethos
Alternatives: many
Rating: potentially useful

Writer — no-hassle word processor in the cloud

JJFFJJ_writer_logoWith Writer it’s 1992 all over again!

This is one of those little oddball tools that is both retro and ahead of its time.

If you are of a certain age, you remember DOS computers with monochrome monitors, first green and then amber, which, I believe, were one of the purest writing tools ever, even better than typewriters.

 Big Huge Labs provides a free and very simple on-line text editor called Writer which reminds me of the DOS days.

Retro but also ahead of its time: Writer launched in the “cloud” back in about 2007 when Google Apps was still clunky and slow. But, Writer is no GoogleDrive — which can be a good thing.  (Read my sort rant on privacy and the cloud.)

JJFFJJWriterIn Writer it is possible to do basic formatting (italics, bold, etc.) but Writer really shines for just writing. Despite its sparse formatting features, it offers several useful ways to export your document including text, PDF, print and Word. (Sadly, no OpenDocument format) You can also publish your writing directly to a blog.

There is no need to register but, if you do, your document are saved. Writer offers a paid option that is integrated with Google Docs and Dropbox. Unfortunately, Writer does not offer collaborative tools. BigHugeLabs offers special services to schools.

Writer could be a great alternative to Goodle Docs if the main point is to write. I have found, with Google Docs or MS Word, students tend to fuss for too long before they get down to writing. I haven’t tried it in a classroom but I think Writer would require less of a “fuss phase.”

I still think MoPad is probably better for classroom writing because of its collaborative features. But, if the point is to just write, Writer does that very well.

Tool: Writer (atBigHugeLabs)
Description: simple “cloud” word processor
License: OpenEthos
Alternatives: MoPad, GoogleDocs, many others.
Rating: very useful

Desktop Publishing with LibreOffice Draw – a school “newspaper” template

 I frequently use LibreOffice Draw for desktop publishing as I previously blogged about here.  I think this makes me unusual  since Scribus is the more-powerful, better-known open-source DTP tool.   But,  for one- or two-page items printed on a school/home printer, I find Scribus a little bit of over-kill.   (I’m not bashing Scribus!  I plan on leaning it better and reviewing it later.)

Anyway, I decided to contribute to the commons with a “newspaper” template for newsletters.  As an exercise in open-source discipline, I strictly used only open or free fonts and graphics.

iconAlthough I used LibreOffice Draw to create the template, it should work flawlessly in OpenOffice Draw (but I have not tested it.)

Although I’m pretty good with LO Draw, it still was a learning experience.  One of the biggest lessons I learned was that if one uses the “Styles” feature, every element (headline, subhead, body text) must to be in its own frame.  (frames can be joined)  I tend to do this, anyway, so it’s no big deal but this could be a deal-breaker for some.

You can preview the Newspaper Template with this PDF file.

I am keeping the file at Archive dot org since they get a lot more traffic than my site.

Here is the Newsletter Template page.   Here is a direct link to the zip file (will all fonts).





3 Note Taking Programs Reviewed

I prefer to write in a note taking program rather than a word processor because I want a single place to store my random ideas/clippings, organize them into a final draft. and then archive them for future reference.

I used Info Select for many years but they kept charging me a hundred dollars for every upgrade which I had been doing version 1 in DOS. This made it possibly the most expensive program on my computer — maybe by quite a margin. When I wrote them an email mentioning this, they wrote me back telling me that their program was a value because of savings in efficiency. But I wasn’t using it commercially! That response was one reason I became so committed to open source.

But, I have to admit, I have not found an open source note taking program as good as the best parts of Info Select. (Info Select has suffered a bit from bloat.)

Lately I have been playing with three such programs, each which have limitations.

Cherry Tree CherryTreeLogo

Cherry Tree is being basically a hierarchal word processor, making it the simplest of the three. In note taking, simplicity is a huge virtue. While graphics can be used in Cherry Tree it not a convenient process. Cherry Tree exports nicely to PDF, HTML and text which for backing-up and publishing.

Cherry TreeUnfortunately, Cherry Tree doesn’t have a clip-library or template function, a feature I find very helpful for repetitive tasks like taking phone messages. The deal breaker is not spell-check. All writing tools need a spell check! In my world, this is an essential feature.

But, if you are a very good speller and you mostly are writing documents, Cherry Tree could be a good tool for you.

BasKet Note Pads BasKet Note Pads Logo

BasKet Note Pads is the most ambitious of the three note taking programs and is the best for collecting random pieces of information. It doesn’t have templates but it does allow fast importing of an HTML file which could be used as such. It only exports notes to HTML which will surely be a limit for some even though HTML can be imported into many different programs.

BasKet Note Pads It has a “nearly finished” feel to it but still has a couple of missing features (and it crashed once in my testing the program). To make-up for this, it does allow you to launch an external program — like LibreOffice if you need, let’s say, a spell checker, because this program does not have one either! (This just amazes me.)

If you are collecting random notes, lists, graphics, etc, then Basket Note Pads could be useful for you but it is probably not the most useful for writers.

Everpad Everpad Logo

Everpad is a Linux open-source implementation of Evernote. Like Cherry Tree, it’s mostly a hierarchical note taking program. (with fewer hierarchies.)

Everpad screen shotIts stand-out feature is that it synchronizes with the on-line version of Evernote. This is a huge advantage if you use your notes from several computers and devices.

If you use Linux with the “Unity” interface, Everpad is nicely integrated in the “Dash” menu so that your notes are discoverable, even when Everpad isn’t running. Of the three programs, it has the most limited export options.

Some users have complained on-line that Everpad does not always synchronize properly with Evernote. I did not have this problem in my testing but this would be a critical issue, if true.

And, it doesn’t have spell-check!

Of the three, I am most likely to use Everpad because of the “cloud” advantages of Evernote. But, I’ll keep looking for the perfect note taker.

Tools: Cherry Tree, BasKet Note Pads, Everpad
Description: easy to use digital story telling tool
License: open-source
Alternatives: many others
Rating: useful

IBM Lotus Symphony – integrated office suite with some unique features

I normally wouldn’t review software on the verge of being orphaned but IBM Lotus Symphony is still worth considering. It is free and works on Linux, Windows and Mac. And, as you would expect with IBM, it is polished and stable.

Notably, Symphony is one integrated, multi-function program as opposed to a bunch of programs thrown together. Symphony has never crashed on me (great!) but if it did , all the documents would presumably go down at once (bad!). It’s strictly a personal preference  but I like the one-program approach.

Symphony back from the dead…

I used Lotus Symphony in the DOS days and was delighted when IBM brought it back about five years ago. It’s based on OpenOffice with a couple of innovations that make it worth considering. It is free software and I think IBM hoped to make their money off of support.   I suspect that IBM rightly perceived that companies are suspicious of open-source software and wanted the security of a big-name brand.

… only to be orphaned?
IBM quit development with version 3 in January 2012 and they released a service update at the end of last year. So, it’s still a fresh piece of software.

According to Wikipedia, IBM has given the project to Apache who will incorporate it in the long-overdue new version of OpenOffice. I hope they keep the main two features that make this product unique from LibreOffice – an integrated web browser and widgets.
This is a consideration if you chose to adopt Symphony. If the rocks stars at  Apache are smart (and they are!), you might be an early-adopter rather than an orphan.

The standard three modules integrated one tabbed interface.
As opposed to most suites, Symphony keeps you in one tabbed interface, whether you are doing word processing, presentations or spreadsheets. Unfortunately, thats all the productivity modules it offers. I wish it included the Draw module and I’m sure some business users would like a calendar/planner module.

The formatting controls are on the right side of the screen which takes advantage of the newer, wider desktop screens. On a laptop, it can be a little cramped. The formatting controls are smartly contextual and well organized – a problem with MS Office, in my opinion.

Integrated web browser

This is such a great feature that one wonders why every suite does not offer it. Many of us constantly use the web while we write, so it makes sense to bring the web into the word processor. Sadly, Symphony doesn’t support dragging content from the web tab into the word processor. This would be a great feature, if it did. You can still cut-and-paste.

Widgets – an easy way to customize Symphony

IBM offers only a few widgets but you can import Google Gadgets. This is huge since it gives Symphony many of the features of Google.

The most useful feature, for me, is that you can create a widget from an RSS feed. If a blog, calendar, newsletter, shared docs, etc generates an RSS feed (many do) you can create a widget from that feed and monitor it within Symphony while you write or work on your spreadsheet.

(Click here for my little rant on how how RSS could make your life simpler.)

This is a very useful feature that I hope the people at Apache keep in the next version of OpenOffice. This has potential to be a killer app.

The bottom line: a solid implementation of OpenOffice with a couple of innovative and useful features. But, you risk being orphaned.

Tool: IBM Lotus Symphony 3.0.1
Summary: customizable office suite with web integration.
Rating: very useful
License: open ethos (proprietary but free)
Alternatives: LibreOffice, Google Docs.

Calligra Suite – ambitious but uneven office and productivity tools

Calliga_logoI spent a few days playing with the Calligra Suite and am very impressed with the variety of its modules. It’s one of the most ambitious open-source applications I’ve seen.

It is a project of KDE and has Windows, tablet and phone versions but I only tested the Linux version.

As expected, it offers the standard modules: word processor (“Writer”); spreadsheet (“Sheets”); database (“Kexi”); and presentation (“Stage”), compatible with the OpenOffice file standard.

What makes Calligra so impressive is the other modules it offers: mind mapping (“Braindump”); flowchart/diagramming (“Flow”); vector drawing (“Karbon”); project management (“Plan”); paint (“Krita”); and eBook composer (“Author”).


I played with the modules that might be useful in a library setting. My impression varied a lot depending on the module. One module worked very well, a couple were OK and others are just not ready.

Writer requires a bit of a learning curve because it’s organized around frames, somewhat like Framemaker. (Calligra calls them “shapes”) It’s not difficult but requires un-learning MS Word or LibreOffice Writer. Shapes/frames allows a higher level of formatting control which I appreciate. I find graphics in MS Word extremely frustrating. Mixing text and graphics is almost effortless in Calligra Writer.

Calligra Writer imports and exports to the standard formats and directly imports (only) from Google Docs. This worked fine with a relatively simple document.

But other things don’t work so well. Writer behaved erratically at times, even considering my inexperience with the product. It crashed once. I was excited to see that Writer exports to both ePub and .mobi (Kindle) but I was disappointed with the results.

My suggestion to the developers: Writer should be positioned as a desktop publishing program and Calligra should add a lightweight, super-easy, word-processor. Just the basics. This would give users a less-painful way to start using Calligra. The suite could also use Dreamweaver-type web authoring module.

I was excited to try the Author module which is designed to create ebooks and textbooks. The world needs an ebook authoring program where a single master document can be exported to multiple common formats (ePub,kindle,html,PDF,doc,etc) with a click or two. I was motivated enough to endure about four or five crashes, when one crash is too many. The web site acknowledges that Author is an early release.

Sheets was the same — it seems more developed but had erratic behavior and a crash. Braindump worked well-enough but wasn’t what I need in a mind-mapping program. Mostly it’s just a drawing program when I need a program that guides thinking and adds structure to brainstorming. It does use an interesting-but-initially-confusing, expanding “white board” approach.

Krita — the stand-out in the suite

Calligra_krita_example_womanAfter all that, the Krita paint program was a delight! It’s the one module that I will keep using. You may consider installing this as a stand-alone program.

It worked perfectly with my drawing tablet, never crashed and the features were intuitive.   I’ll write a longer review after I use it more.

See the Krita website for some impressive examples of what can be done with this module.  The site includes some interesting interviews with artists using Krita.

Conclusion – an A for effort

I didn’t play much with all the other modules but I doubt my impression of Calligra would change — it’s not ready for work or school. If you use it, consider yourself a beta user. This may not be true for all the modules (like Krita) but others are just not ready.  By the way, being a beta user is good citizenship in the open source community.

That being said, I want to affirm the Calligra development team. This project has impressive potential and should be developed to maturity. I’ll be checking back!

Tool: Caligra Suite 2.6
Description: office and productivity suite
License: GPL
Alternatives: LibreOffice, Sigil, GIMP, Inkscape, more
Rating: mostly not useful.

AbiWord – the more-daring, skinny little sister of LibreOffice Writer.

AbiWord_logo I want to like AbiWord, I really do. I am happy that it exists — giving LibreOffice a little competition in the open-source world. I like that it tries things that other word processors don’t.

It has a number of features making it theoretically better than LibreOffice but I have never gotten AbiWord to work properly — at least not well enough to be suitable for a work environment.

This is unfortunate because AbiWord has some great things going for it.


Even though AbiWord has been around a long time (since 1998) it has not suffered much from blaot. AbiWord is good for older computers and often comes bundled with lightweight versions of Linux instead of LibreOffice.

I always keep it installed because it doesn’t take up much disk space. If LibreOffice or MS Word feel sluggish on your aging computer, AbiWord might feel zippy.

Exporting documents to other formats.

It offers more native exporting features than even some commercial products. When my Palm Pilot was my primary eBook reader, I appreciated AbiWord’s native PalmDoc export abilities. This feature worked so well that, in some ways, I still miss my Palm for reading on-the-run.

These days, AbiWord is one of the few word processors that exports natively to ePub. I got so excited about this feature that I spent about two days trying to get it to work. I finally gave up and went back to using Sigil. I don’t mind a little learning curve but this is just too much.

Even so, if you have a specific need to export to — let’s say — MapInfo Interchange Format then AbiWord might be very useful for you.

Collaboration tools

abicollab_logoAbiWord also integrated collaboration tools which could be very useful. AbiWord integrates very well with the free AbiCollab document server. While I have not used this service extensively, it worked flawlessly in my testing.

One immediate advantage of using AbiWord for collaboration is that you can avoid all the advertisements and other distractions of the Internet. You will need to go to AbiCollab to set up your account and to manage your groups of collaborators but, after that, you can just stay within AbiWord.

A less obvious advantage of using AbiWord for collaboration is security. Unlike, let’s say, Google Docs, AbiWord allows you to keep your documents on your school’s intranet or your own private server. Your local intranet would be especially private and suitable for working on sensitive issues like policies or students which you would not want on the open Internet.

(Click here for a side-note about security.)

RDF – so bleeding edge, I don’t understand it

AbiWord also actively supports Resource Description Framework (RDF) which, to be honest, I barely understand even though I spent some time trying. My impression is that RDF is the next level of stylesheets. Anyway, if you understand RDF, then you may be interested in AbiWord.

So, I give AbiWord an enthusiastic “possibly useful” recommendation. I would also encourage you download and use AbiWord just to support this ambitious project.


Tool: AbiWord
Description: a lightweight, stand-alone word processor with powerful export and collaboration features
License: GNU (free and open source)
Rating: possibly useful