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

TiddlyWiki – an easy, super-portable personal wiki.

I have been using TiddlyWiki since about 2006 and have yet to find an easier and more elegant way to create browser-based manuals, documentation, eBooks, etc.

If you have ever contributed to Wikipedia, then you have all the skills needed to use TiddlyWiki right away. You may need to refer to the manual for text-formatting codes but, beyond that, it’s almost completely intuitive. A cool feature about TiddlyWiki is that you can instantly create a hyperlink by SmashingAnyWordsTogether. (<- just like this)

It has very basic features – standard text formatting, tables and images. (Images work best if they are on an external web server, like Flickr.)

Navigation features are very strong: between hyperlinks, a side-bar menu and tags, it is very easy for your readers to surf around your document. As an experiment, I plugged the whole bible into TiddlyWiki and even that was not too big. I could navigate by book, chapter and verse quickly and efficiently.

Installation is as easy as downloading the file to your desktop and re-naming it.

This makes it highly portable, so you can pass it around on a thumb drive, email it, or keep it in DropBox or on an FTP or WebDav server.

For example, I’ve used TiddlyWiki for a college assignment, put it on a thumb drive, used it as a class presentation and then handed the thumb drive to the professor for grading. While other people struggled to get their presentations working, mine sailed through with no problems.

TiddlyWiki’s main weakness is that it is browser-based. (also its greatest strength!) This might be a problem on phones and some eBook readers which don’t handle web pages well. A second weakness is exporting documents. While it is easy to copy-and-paste a single TiddlyWiki page, it’s a nuisance exporting a long document with multiple pages (like the bible.)

Lastly, it is not truly collaborative like, let’s say, Google Docs. Realistically, only one person can be editing a document at a time. If you accidentally get two versions of the same document going, it will be a nuisance to reconcile it (the same problem as word processor documents).

But, if you want to create something like a school handbook or training manual, with lots of links and cross-references, it’s a great tool.

Tools:  TiddlyWiki
Description:  personal web page
Alternatives: many, including Google Sites,
License: BSD (free, open source)
Rating: highly 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.

WriteType – kids’ word processor with spelling assist

WriteType_logoWriteType is a simple word processor for younger children which scaffolds students in spelling.

It is available for Linux and Windows. The Windows program can be installed on flash drive or a LAN location. It comes in Spanish and other languages.

The best part of the program is what it does not have — feature bloat. It has just fifteen icon options but they are the ones young writers need — bold, italic, center, print, save, etc. Younger students should find it visually appealing.

WriteType_screenshotSpelling assist
Rather than distracting auto-complete it guesses a list of possible words on the right side of the screen. Students can insert the word with a function key. Although spelling assist is now common in word processors, there is debate on whether this hurts or helps spelling ability.  This feature can not be turned-off.

You may want to turn-off the text-to-speech buttons (which can easily be done) since it would be distracting in a classroom and I’m not sure how it assists typing. The voice is artificial-sounding (on my computer, anyway), so it probably isn’t very helpful for English learners. However it might be very useful for sight-impaired students.

Unusual file format
Rather than use the standard ODF file format, WriteType creates an HTTP document but with a .wtd extension. I’m normally critical of non-standard file formats but using a unique file extension allows young children to click on a file icon and automatically load WriteType rather than a web browser . The files can be easily exported (or renamed) as an HTML file which then makes this a rare child-friendly web authoring program.

Bottom line: this is the best (younger) kids word processor I’ve seen so far.

Tool: WriteType 1.3
Description: a children’s word processor with spelling assist.
License: GNU (free and open source)
Alternative: ooo4kids
Rating: very useful



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

LibreOffice Templates for forms and frames

I tutored in a struggling school for several years where the teachers regularly used forms and writing frames. Some of the students seemed to appreciate the structure this brought to the research and writing process.

LibreOffice Writer templates are very useful for forms because tables and text boxes can automatically expand to the amount of text written by the student. An even more useful feature is the ability for the teacher to insert non-printing comments throughout the document which can be turned off when not needed. This makes for a much cleaner-looking document. 

Obviously, this is not cutting-edge technology but, when coupled with free, cross-platform software, it becomes useful. If all students have LibreOffice installed at home and school, the teacher can produce one template knowing that it will work for everyone. Templates can be stored on the school server or on the open Internet.

Here is a Cornell note-taking template that illustrates text boxes and non-printing comments. Be sure to turn-on the “View – Comments” feature if you can’t see my instructions.

LibreOffice Writer templates for forms and frames.
Description: Cross-platform word processor templates
License: GNU/GPL (free and open-source)
Alternatives: Google Docs, AbiWord
Rating: very useful

Workspaces – Adobe’s Office Suite

Workspaces is ending.

NoLongerSupportedIt always makes me sad when a potentially good product fails. I am a fan of Google Docs but I don’t like monopilies, either. I can’t think of any reason why Adobe shouldn’t be able to make an on-line office suite every bit as good as Google.

Adobe’s free Workspaces is a surprisingly efficient way to create and share documents.

It’s Adobe’s “office suite” but not nearly as full as Google Drive.  It has the three main services: Buzzword, word processor; Presentation; and Table (spreadsheet).  All services allow for sharing and collaboration with strong PDF support (as expected.) As is usual with Adobe, it’s very polished.

Buzzword is the best reason to consider using Adobe Workspaces.  The export options are a little better than Google Docs with direct export to the ePub format for use on eReaders and tablets.  This valuable feature is still relatively rare. Export options also include OpenDocument, Word and the workhorse RTF format.

While formatting options are simple, Adobe includes some of their beautiful type faces.

To collaborate or export, your students will need to create an account but anyone with a link can view and print your document.  I have not used the collaboration feature but it seems like what Acrobat users would be familiar with.

Best I can tell, this is an orphan of Adobe’s first attempt at cloud services. The legacy Acrobat.com has moved to workspaces.acrobat.com and is basically OpenEthos (except for the unreadable user agreement), Adobe has launched big-time into Adobe Creative Cloud with their full suite of applications available by subscription. I have no idea how long Workspaces will be supported but it’s worth considering.

Tool: Adobe Workspaces
Description: Adobe’s office suite with strong PDF and collaboration features
License: free and (almost) OpenEthos
Alternatives: Google Docs, Zoho
Rating: possibly useful

Etherpad – collaborative note taking

EtherPad logo

Etherpad is a real-time, collaborative note taking tool.   It requires no sign-in or installation.
It’s a good example of less is more:  using your browser, you create a simple, temporary web page and send the link to your students.  They then join in writing.

In my experience, this can be a great time saver.  I recently attended an hour-long training session were we wasted fifteen minutes getting everybody logged into Google Docs.

Regarding the less: formatting is minimal, inactive pages are quickly deleted and there is no security.

The security issue is worth considering.  It is possible that a stranger could vandalize your lesson.  If you create a cryptic URL, it’s not likely, I think.  I used Etherpad for a study group in graduate school and, even after a 12 weeks, no outsider found our discussion.  If you create a page for a lesson or short unit, I think it is extremely unlikely that anyone would bother you.   Just be aware that this could happen.

If one of your own students vandalizes the page, there is a time slider to restore past versions.

Etherpad has the standard export options if you need a record of the class/session.   An inactive page gets deleted fairly quickly. (a good feature, IMHO.)  If you are creating a permanent on-line document, Google Docs or a wiki is a better tool.

Etherpad was acquired by Google and then released as open-source (thank you!), so there are a number of sites which offer it by other names and variations. The history is here.

Here are a few free sites using Etherpad software:

The source code is here although I’m not sure why a librairy would want to install their own – inside an intranet, maybe?

Tool: Etherpad
Description: on-the-fly, collaborative note taking
License: free and open-source.
Alternatives: Google Docs, wikis
Rating: very useful

The LibreOffice challenge — learn it this summer!

LibreOffice WelcomescreenWhy not learn LibreOffice this summer? Install it on your laptop and learn it at the beach! If you have even a passing interest in the open-source world, this is the place to start. For educators, there is no better tool.

Once you have learned it, make LibreOffice files one of the formats you accept for assignments. It could be your first step to solving the chronic problem of students giving you files you can’t read.

LibreOffice is a split from OpenOffice because of some sort of dispute. You can think of it as essentially the same product but definitely install LibreOffice rather than OpenOffice which hasn’t been updated for awhile. This may change, of course. As far as I know, all the file formats are the same. Usefully, Google Docs imports/exports to LibreOffice file formats.

The components of LibreOffice are:


A word processor with similar functionality and file support to Microsoft Word or WordPerfect. It has extensive WYSIWYG word processing capabilities, but can also be used as a basic text editor.


A spreadsheet program, similar to Microsoft Excel or Lotus 1-2-3.


A presentation program resembling Microsoft PowerPoint. Presentations can be exported as SWF files, allowing them to be viewed on any computer with Adobe Flash installed.


A vector graphics editor and diagramming tool similar to Microsoft Visio and comparable in features to early versions of CorelDRAW. It also includes features similar to desktop publishing software such as Scribus and Microsoft Publisher.


A database management program, similar to Microsoft Access.


An application designed for creating and editing mathematical formulae. The application uses a variant of XML for creating formulas, as defined in the OpenDocument specification.

(From Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LibreOffice#Components)

I suggest you first learn “Writer” “Draw” and “Impress”. If you are a math teacher, you’ll surely want to learn “Math.”

I use Writer the most. (I’m using it right now.) Writer reminds me of Microsoft Word 95.

For class presentations I use Impress. Nobody seems to notice that I’m not using PowerPoint. I put my presentation on a thumb drive along with a portable version of LibreOffice. While other students often struggle getting their presentations to run, mine always go flawlessly

For desktop publishing I use “Draw.” It took me awhile to learn “Draw” but I can now do almost anything with “Draw” that I did with Microsoft Publisher.

I have yet to learn “Base”. I’ve tried! The learning curve is steep.

I use “Calc” as well, but not for teaching. Like Word, it seems like Excel from about ten years ago.

Seeming like a 10 year-old Microsoft Office is not a bad thing. If you are like me, I don’t need all the fancy menus and extra features of the current version of MS Office. I find the old-style menus more intuitive. If you are super power user, LibreOffice is probably not for you.



LibreOffice Portable for your flashdrive

Description: a free office suite available for Windows, Mac and Linux. Reads and writes to MS Office and Google Docs.

License: free, GNU

Alternatives: GoogleDocs (free but not open-source)

Rating: very useful