SymNote: The birth of a cloud based Symbian notes app

Posted on 09/02/2011

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Created by Talv Bansal

Version Reviewed: 1.01

Ovi Store Buy Link (ZAR25; €3)

Final score: 90%

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I’m going to be bold and say that note taking is integral to anyone that wants to be productive, in any industry or at home, and these notes take many shapes and forms. Whether it is making lists for the shopping, movies, books, CDs, reminders, capturing content, creating content, the easiest way to achieve this is through a good old-fashioned note. Looking around my office and at home, I have till slips, post-its, pocket-sized note pads, A5 notepads and exam pads, and flicking through them I find a myriad of notes, recipes (?), lists, phone numbers, reference numbers, and working in a lab environment, recipes for solutions and experimental protocols. Some of these, especially the latter two, have been captured electronically and are stored on my laptop hard drive, the PC provided to me by my employer, and backed up to the cloud via Dropbox and SugarSync (yes I use both, having had some near disasters, I am pedantic about back ups). Unfortunately for the most part I tend to lose a lot of notes and have to scour the depths of my brain to recall what it is that was so important I had to jot it down on the first piece of scrap paper I could find.

My propensity for note taking and the haphazard manner that I compile and store them means that I have been on the lookout for any solution that simplifies the process. Ideally that would mean using my smartphone. Pretty much all phones (feature phones included) come with a basic text-based Notes app. On older Symbian devices there was a rich Notes app called Active Notes, that allowed for the inclusion of media objects, something like what Evernote does. However, a sore point with these apps and having looked around is a problem that afflicts all major OS platforms, is secure storage and easily accessible back-ups. The Symbian notes application allows backing up to Outlook, but I have always disregarded this for three reasons:

1. I don’t use Outlook for anything other than work email, not even the calendar functions. My phone syncs to Google calendar

2. Having to fiddle with cables etc and plugging in to a PC, and having to remember to do this is a bit cumbersome

3. I use more than one PC

So a cloud based solution was needed, and for the most part there are a number of good tools out there. I initially settled on Evernote. It has a nice web interface, an immersive desktop client and through the web clipper extension can integrate into your browsers. And there were attempts to build a web runtime based client for touch based Symbian devices, which unfortunately remained appalling and unusable. Aside from the lack of a usable Symbian client, I eventually found that Evernote was too feature rich for what I wanted to do. It just dawned upon me that 99% of my notes were text only. I literally had two notes with media, a draft for a blog post with screen shots and a list of music to get with album art.

And then I discovered Simplenote.

Simplenote defines simplicity, making it the perfect companion for a note taker. No formatting, no titles required, just geared towards accelerating the note taking process. The first line of the note automatically becomes the title. How elegantly simple is that? Notes are saved in realtime and appear in a column on the left hand side of the page, where they appear with the generated title and a number of user designated preview lines. That’s pretty much it for the basic note taker and is enough to get by. Additional features include search, adding of tags (notes can then be filtered by tags), and my favourite feature pinning of notes. This is useful if you have active notes, like shopping lists that undergo regular revisions. These can get pinned to the top of the list for quick access. Simplenote also saves previous versions of your notes, very useful. Another useful feature is sharing by email achieved by simply adding an email address as a tag, allowing both parties to make changes, and this works whether the recipient has a Simplenote account or not. Even with these additional features, Simplenote note functions with minimalistic fuss, a service designed around achieving its intended function.

But what about mobile access. Unfortunately when I first started with the service there was no app for Symbian. I devised a rather kludgy mechanism to access my notes on device. The Windows client for Simplenote, Resophnotes can sync notes to any folder on the desktop and I naturally set this as my Dropbox folder. Thus I was able to access the notes using my Dropbox client of choice, in my case cuteBox, view them and if I made revisions upload them back to Dropbox but would then have to wait until I was connected on my PC to sync back to Simplenote via Resophnotes. Workable but far from ideal.

Thankfully help was on the way through SymNote,the first Simplenote client for Symbian written in Qt,created by Talv Bansal (creator of the superlative Read It Late client SymPaper).

Introducing SymNote

SymNote, like Simplenote is built around simplicity, to allow you to capture thoughts as quickly as possible. When you first launch the app you are presented with a simple page to enter your credentials. If you don’t have an account, tapping on Sign Up launches the   default  browser and presents you with Simpenote’s very mobile friendly sign up page. When signing in the first thing you will notice is split entry. Now this should not be a big deal as it is part of the improvements Anna brought to the table for Symbian^3 devices…except for Qt apps, as this feature was only to implemented in the recently released Qt 4.7.4. But thankfully as it is an absolute necessity for a notes app, Talv managed to figure this out during the development period and it is implemented through out the app.

Signing into SymNote

After you log in, SymNote will perform the first sync automatically, but also prompt the user about how they want the app to handle this when launching the app. Nice touch I think. Since I work between the web app and SymNote I have set mine to automatically sync but for some users, a manual sync option (for those who only want to use the app over WiFi for example) makes more sense. The app populates the list and the status bar shows the progress of the sync process.

The first sync event with SymNote

Going through the UI, the bottom toolbar has five buttons, from left to right, Add Note, View Mode (with options for All, Active Notes, Deleted Notes, Un-synced Notes), Tags, Search, Options/Tools (Sync, Sync Options, App Info, Sign Out, Exit). Notes themselves are presented in a neat list, with each note having a title, a time stamp indicating date and time of last revision, and various icons to indicate certain things. The most obvious icon is the star, which indicates a pinned item, an icon to indicate shared note and a pen, which indicates an un-synced article (I will get to this one a bit later). When there is no available signal the apps also informs the user with a dialog box at the base of the list which can be tapped to hide.

The Notes List

When viewing or editing a note, there are slight modifications to the UI. The toolbar now has a back button, a save button an info button, and the options. Editing here is split entry as expected (again kudos to Talv for getting this working despite the limitations of Qt in this regard). Going through each button, tapping back not also returns to the notes list but initiates auto saving ensuring that you never lose any edits. The save button is self-explanatory and is useful for pedants like myself that need to save every 30 seconds. Tapping the info buttons flips the screen to reveal various bits of info meta data like version number, title, date created, last edit, pin share and delete status, number of time shared and any associated tags. The user also adds tags to the note in this view. Tapping the info buttons flips backs to the note. The options button allows to re-sync the opened note, undo all changes, return to the list view without saving, search within the note, Pin/Un-pin, Delete note, or Toggle font size.

An open note

That pretty much sums up the basics of the app but there are a couple more features I would like to mention..

A feature of Simplenote that should never be downplayed and one implemented nicely in SymNote, is search. This can be done by searching for strings of text or using the tag filter. The search dialog searches active notes either by note content or any tags attached to the note as seen below. The tag filter is a flick scrollable list of all tags that you’ve used.

SymNote search dialog box

SymNote Tag Filter

If you recall however I briefly mentioned the apps behaviour when there is no internet connection, and this I believe to be one of SymNote’s trump card, a feature I believe is unique amongst Simplenote clients across all platforms. With Simplenote being a cloud based service, the client, mobile or even desktop, needs to be in constant communication with the server. Now what happens when there’s no 3G connection or access to WiFi networks? SymNote solves this by saving notes to a local database. So when you launch the app with no access to a connection you will, assuming there have been no changes to notes on the server, have access to your notes as they were when you accessed them. Any changes you make or any new notes created, as the ‘no connection’ dialog informs you, will be saved locally. This is indicated in your notes list and the view switcher lets you view all un-synced notes. When a connection is available and you launch the app, the first order of business will be to push un-synced notes first to the server, and the ensure that server and device are 100% in sync. What this means in practice is that SymNote is not only a brilliant Simplenote client, but can function as your sole notes application by simply being able to function in an offline state.

For the first public release, it must be said that SymNote is already a near finished product and it’s actually difficult to see where the improvements will come from. SymNote distills the very essence of Simplenote into a very easy to use yet powerful and visually pleasing app. If it’s anything like SymPaper, updates will be frequent. A UI refresh, new features, who knows but in its current state, SymNote is a superlative effort from a developer at the top of his game and comes with the Tech Bishop Seal of Approval.

Highly recommended.

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