My Ideal FOSS Note Taking Tool

21 August, 2023

In late summer and early autumn, 2023 I began to reevaluate the tools that I use. As part of that process, I not only started embracing simpler tools again, but also embraced more software minimalism. One area in which I began planning a refocus was around the tool that I use to take notes.

Part of that process had me pondering what my ideal note taking application would look like. The results of that pondering, to be honest, surprised me. Well, just a little …

Let’s take a peek at what my ideal note taking tool looks like.

(Remember that what’s below is a picture of my ideal tool. It might not be what’s ideal for you, but that’s OK. Not everyone uses applications in the same way and for the same reasons, or needs the same things from an application.)

To start, my ideal note taking tool must be free and open source software. That’s a deal breaker. The name of this blog is Open Source Musings, after all … I try as hard as possible to live my life in FOSS, so that rules out more than a couple of desktop note taking applications that have become popular in recent memory.

The primary way that application saves individual notes must be as plain text files. I don’t want to have to deal with a SQLite database (or any database), even if the application has the option to export notes as plain text. Exporting is something else I don’t want to deal with. Why add another step to the process?

Of course, my ideal note taking tool must support Markdown. It doesn’t need to have a Markdown preview function, but syntax highlighting would be a nice feature. And the tool should have the option to save the files that make up my individual notes with the extension .md.

I should also be able to set the note editor’s font and the size of that font. Yes, I do have specific likes and requirements around that, especially now that I’m older and my eyesight isn’t quite what it once was.

My ideal tool should recognize folders and subfolders on my hard drive. That’s how I organize my notes — using folders to group them in categories or projects. Barring that, the application should allow me to tag notes and filter those notes using those tags.

A built-in search function is also a must, especially if the tool doesn’t support folders and/or subfolders. That search function doesn’t need to have complex search syntax. It should be quick and simple.

Speaking of simple, the interface should be just that. And minimalist. Two panes (one listing my notes, and one displaying the note I’m working on), a basic toolbar or easily-accessible menu, and not much else.

The application itself should also be simple. It shouldn’t have too many frills, it shouldn’t do 42 things that I don’t need it to do. It should have the features that I use. If there are any extras, they should be few. And it shouldn’t require me to shoehorn the way I work into the tool’s design.

Finally, not being able to sync with an online service is an option. I’ve found that rarely, if ever, do I look at or add to my notes while using a phone or tablet. Being able to use my notes across devices or being able to store them on someone else’s computer is no longer the big selling point it once was.

There’s nothing on the Linux desktop that meets my requirements to the letter. A small handful of note taking applications come close, but not close enough. What I’m looking for combines elements of Paper, Iotas, Auer Notes, Notable (no longer open source), and nvALT with a bit of Standard Notes mixed in for good measure.

While writing this post, I could hear the strains of the What about ...? and Why not just use ... choruses. The tools that the members of those choruses usually suggest are, for the most part, just too much for my needs. I don’t need all of the features of those tools. I don’t need their bulk and their complexity. And I definitely don’t need the idiosyncrasies baked into many of those tools.

Maybe, one day I’ll find that ideal FOSS note taking application. Well, the one that’s ideal for me. Until then, I’ll stick with what I’m using. It might not be perfect, but it’s more than good enough.

Scott Nesbitt