Note-taking apps I’ve used from the age 9 to 27

Ming
5 min readFeb 1, 2022

Since my last article on note-taking reached #1 on Hacker News, many have asked, “Have you tried X?”

Let me answer this question with another post.

Photo by David Travis on Unsplash

Starting with walled gardens

A Word document was my dear diary when I was 9 years old. Password protected, it felt secure enough to hide my childish thoughts from the prying eyes of my guardians. (On their defense, my privacy was always respected.)

My diaries mimicked the structure of ancient Chinese poetry. Looking back, I’m embarrassed that they violated every single possible rule of it. That being said, I can still remember the joy when I realized that, after a year of writing everyday, my skills in expressing ideas visibly improved.

What an embarrassment to expose my “poems” to the Internet! This is the first time I hope no one understands my native language.

Around age of 13~17, I used OneNote as my main storage of notes. Topics include funny quotations, what movies & books I’ve finished, process of applying for a student visa, every detail of my crush(es), and a wish list of electronics I begged my parents to buy me.

Later, EverNote became phenomenal for its web-clipping capabilities. As I clipped schoolwork solutions a lot, EverNote soon became my main storage. I continued to use EverNote till 2016, when I’m already in my 3rd year of college.

EverNote gradually went sluggish as I collected more notes. To alleviate this problem, I started using CintaNotes and formed a habit of capturing notes in plain text.

Leaning towards plain text

Like OneNote and EverNote, CintaNotes is still a walled garden. Importing txt files into CintaNotes was a tedious labor. This was especially staggering to me, because I wrote most of my plain-text notes on an electronic dictionary (more on this later).

I want my note-taking workflow to be simple. A folder of txt files should be the ultimate database. That proved to be a long-lasting, time-proof storage solution that remained my default choice till I started using macOS.

A screenshot of a folder named “Notes” showcasing some Markdown files, each being one piece of note.
A screenshot of a folder named “Notes” showcasing some Markdown files, each being one piece of note.

To share my notes online, I wrote a blog engine

When I was in high school, there was a hype of building your own websites among my friends. Some of my friends put Flash animations on their homepages, and some put blinking GIFs on their landing pages. Being a logophile, I wanted to share my writings.

I taught myself PHP in 2011 and made a plain-text blogging engine, t.t.t. It reads articles from a folder of Markdown files. Sounds familiar?

A screenshot of t.t.t, my own blog engine.

Poor Markdown editors pushed me online

On macOS, I enjoyed nvALT. Sadly, it was never updated after 2017, and newer versions of macOS dropped support for it. That’s around the time when I started my graduate studies.

I then became one of the early adopters of FSNotes. However, FSNotes was buggy around that time, to an extent that I rather share my notes online than to save them locally.

A natural choice is my own blog engine, t.t.t. There’s one problem, though: t.t.t was hosted on free cPanel hosting services. (I had zero budget for virtual properties back then; NFTs and cryptos weren’t popular.) These services ran out of bandwidth — sometimes even out of business — quickly. Tired of hunting for reliable PHP servers, I turned again to existing solutions.

I decided to put my completed proses on Medium, hence this blog.

Earliest stories on this blog date back to 2016.

Not everything is of bloggable quality. Most of my quick jots are merely for my own reference. For those notes, I kept a public personal wiki . It was updated now and then since 03/03/2019 till 09/26/2020. I chose the format of a wiki for the non-linear topology of how notes are interconnected to each other.

My current setup

In 2020, Zettelkasten enjoyed a surge in popularity. Following the trend, I started using Obsidian. Initially planning to keep it a more private wiki, I soon fell in love with it and migrated all my notes there. People loved my setup, too: This article of touring around my note clusters was very popular.

Graph view of my notes in Obsidian today.

Final Words

We all organize notes differently. On reflection, it seems that I have never settled with a best software to organize my digital notes. Instead, I switched between tools from time to time, leaving siloed repositories for each stage of my life.

To collect screenshots for this post, I had to look back at each of these notebooks. Nostalgia hit me like a truck with concrete tubes driving 20% above speed limit on a California highway. It’s a fun ride. I wish to see yours, too!

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