Back in 2001, after I'd written several TidBITS articles about intriguing ways to store and retrieve information on your Mac, a number of readers attempted to impress upon me that for some folks, simpler is better. It was with that in mind that I wrote "Three Simple Snippet Keepers" in TidBITS-593. And later, in the same spirit, I discussed iData Pro X, hinting that perhaps it was a bit too simple, since its notes were just text, with no fonts, styling, or Unicode awareness (see "The Digital Shoebox: iData Pro X 1.0.5" in TidBITS-675; also see the series "Two Bytes of the Cherry: Unicode and Mac OS X" for more on Unicode). It was in reaction to that article that a reader wrote suggesting that some users were quietly but enthusiastically practicing the cult of Hog Bay Notebook, and that I should be looking into this.
Hog Bay Notebook, which recently reached version 2.0.1, certainly is worth looking into. It is indeed simple - you can learn to use it in about a minute - and has an elegance and visual clarity that is simply stunning. At the same time, it's powerful, mostly because it has an amazing search engine build into it. If you have snippets of information and you want to give them a modicum of organization and incredible searchability, Hog Bay Notebook might be the solution.
Taking Note -- The essence of a Hog Bay Notebook document is the note, which is exactly like a TextEdit document. You can give it a title, enter text, and add character formatting and paragraph formatting, including alignment, line spacing, paragraph margins, and tabs, by means of a ruler, just as in TextEdit. You can paste in pictures, and even drag in other documents, such as PDFs or HTML files, to be stored inside the note as an attachment. (If you didn't know TextEdit could do all those things, you haven't been playing with your computer enough!)
In fact, Hog Bay Notebook notes are TextEdit documents. Hog Bay Notebook's documents are bundles, and its notes are .rtfd files, which are one of TextEdit's native types. Indeed, if Hog Bay Notebook vanished from the universe tomorrow, you could open a document with Show Package Contents, and presto, there are your all notes, safe and warm, ready to be opened by TextEdit. All that would be missing is their titles; but these are stored in an XML document that any text editor can read. This structure adds to your sense of confidence and security when you use Hog Bay Notebook.
Getting Organized -- Notes themselves can be further organized within your document. If you like, you can create virtual folders in your document and put notes (or folders, of course) into them. The resulting hierarchy is displayed in an outline view. You may also set a few attributes of each note: a status, done or not done, which appears a checkbox; a label, which appears as a color (as in the Mac OS 9 Finder); and a rating of 1 to 5, which appears as a row of stars. The attributes are displayed in a table view of your note titles, where you can sort on any column.
Hog Bay Notebook also provides a couple of organizational extras. Selected text can be highlighted, and you can then jump from highlight to highlight within a note (but not through the document as a whole, which is a pity). And you can make wiki-style links: any capitalized word with inner capitalization, LikeThis, is taken to be the name of another note, and you can jump to that note, or create it, by clicking on that word. Also, you can navigate backwards to recently viewed notes, as in a Web browser.
Seeking and Finding -- Hog Bay Notebook's tour de force is its inclusion of a free, open source, search engine, Lucene, which does a live batch search of your entire document while you type into the search field at the top of the window. The results appear in the table view, showing each matching note's title and a bar whose length ranks the quality of the match. By default you're doing a whole-word search, but you can do partial-word and wildcard searches, boolean searches, phrase searches, proximity searches, and even weighted searches. To keep things simple, titles are automatically included in the searched material. This magic depends upon an index, of course, which is maintained live and adds somewhat to the size of your document.
In an attempt to push Hog Bay Notebook to its limits, I imported my entire diary into it - over 3,000 notes. Hog Bay Notebook wasn't fazed. I did unearth one bug: in the table and outline views, note titles stop appearing beyond some number of titles; but you can work around this by clumping your notes into folders. Everything else - the search engine, sorting, navigating, opening and closing a document - was as fast as if had been just one note - namely instant.
Taking Stock -- I did run into a couple of little issues. Hog Bay Notebook isn't at all scriptable with AppleScript, which is a pity. You can't customize the names and colors of the labels. Selecting a note in the outline view displays it, but doesn't also show it in the table view, so I don't understand how you are supposed to find out what attributes it has (its status, label, and rating). And you can't navigate from a note to its folder - when you're reading a note, you have no way to know where in the hierarchy it lives - which seems to me like an oversight.
As weighed against this, however, one can only be astounded by how clean and compelling Hog Bay Notebook's interface is. It's a kind of poster child for Cocoa, taking advantage of what seems like every widget and every technology Cocoa provides. The outline appears in a drawer. The table appears in a split view, where the split can be horizontal or vertical. You can edit a note in its half of the split view or in a separate window. The clipboard contents in another application can be pasted into a Notebook without switching to it, through the application's Dock menu; selected text can be copied in through a Service. There's spell checking, which can be inline, and a note can read itself aloud. It has a Finder-like toolbar you can collapse or customize to display text, small icons, or large icons. In fact, things are customizable to a fare-thee-well, plus there's extensive Undo. It's as if the author's intent were to give every Cocoa feature a workout.
It would be wrong, though, to give the impression that Hog Bay Notebook is a mere Cocoa kitchen sink. It's not like a Liszt tone poem; it's more like a Mozart symphony. The interface is clean, clear, well-behaved, with a sense of rightness throughout. To the user, it seems easy, obvious, light as a feather - but if you have some Cocoa programming experience, you know that, behind the scenes, this apparent artlessness is not at all easily achieved. What's really impressive here is Hog Bay's evident thorough dedication to doing Cocoa right. This, too, gives the user confidence that, with Hog Bay Notebook, your snippets are safe.
Hog Bay Notebook costs $20 shareware, and is available as a 700K download.
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