The frustrating state of note taking tools

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Nov 7, 2017

One year left to the dissertation (we hope) and now turning from mostly software development into more of data analysis and needing to read up quite a pile of books and papers on my actual topic, pharmaceutical bioinformatics. With this background, I'm feel forced to ponder ways to improving my note taking workflow.

I'm already quite happy with the way of taking notes I've settled on, using a lot of drawings and often iterating over the same notes multiple times to ask questions, fill in details, and figure out connections. The main remaining question for me is instead about tools.

As I'm constantly digging into a wide variety of topics, reading, thinking, and also trying to memorize a bit, it sometimes seems paper might not completely cut it - primarily since paper is not searchable. As the collection of notes grow, it also becomes unprohibitive to lug around piles of paper-notebooks just to have them handy when needing to check something up.

What I've been doing so far is to combine paper-based notebooks for thinking and developing ideas, with a markdown based solution, for keeping a daily journal, as well as having a folder of such markdown files organized more according to topic, remotely like a wiki. The problem is that these two solutions (paper notebooks and the markdown solution) become two non-integrated entities and only one of them remains searchable and following my computer when switching between home and office or while travelling.

Basically, I'd love to use a Surface Pro 4 with OneNote, and the question would be set, but OneNote doesn't run on my OS of choice, Xubuntu, and nor would it be a good idea to use one's main laptop as a note taking device anyhow, as I need to be able work with the notes while coding on my main computer. And Microsoft hardware these days is so ridiculously expensive that buying a surface as a separate device seems pretty much out of question.

Overall, I'm quite surprised that there are so few options that fulfil the criteria for a good all-round note taking solution. A lot of people suggest solutions like Evernote (and a whole array of other very text-centric solutions) as alternatives to OneNote, but I think they totally miss the main point of OneNote: The strong stylus-support. I would not call any solution that does not allow you to seamlessly "think on screen" with a stylus a full-fledge note taking solution. Keeping hand-notes as vectors, natively saved in the notebooks and being able to turn any hand-writing into text for searchability, is pretty unique for OneNote.

But so, I'm in this dilemma. Anybody else been in the same situation and has some advice?

UPDATE: Found this blog post by Nick Blackbourn, which seems to have some answers to this (Gotta try out Nebo).