Over the course of my relentless lifelong search for useful ways to squirrel away information on my computer, organize it, and find it again later, I’ve reported in TidBITS on various outliners, databases, writing tools, and combinations thereof that have appealed to me or that I hoped might appeal to me. Whenever one of my reviews appears, I get email messages from readers telling me about some alternative program they like to use. Typically, I investigate these; if I find myself intrigued by the suggested program, I may report on it, but otherwise I generally remain silent, my rules being that TidBITS is first and foremost about the experiences of its contributors (rather than attempting to be comprehensive purely for the sake of completeness) and that TidBITS prefers to focus on the positive.
In this article, I’m going to break my rules by describing briefly three inexpensive "snippet keepers" – programs for storing miscellaneous bits of text – that don’t particularly appeal to me, but that do strongly appeal to some TidBITS readers. Why would I do such a thing? Mostly because my tastes aren’t everyone’s. For example, I tend to like such things as multiple hierarchical levels of organization and scriptability; but many folks feel that simplicity is a chief virtue, and that fewer features are better. They want a program that does one thing well, is easy to use, and can be learned quickly, preferably without even reading the manual. These three programs meet that description; plus, they are all free to try and inexpensive to purchase. For each one, I’ll try to give a sense of why I don’t use it, not in order to imply that you shouldn’t, but just to clarify my own biases. My purpose is a positive one – to let you know that these programs exist and might possibly interest you more than they do me.
StickyBrain 1.2.1 — In Chronos’s StickyBrain, each window is a note (a text snippet). These windows are modeled on those of the Stickies utility that comes with your Mac, which are themselves modeled on 3M’s Post-it Notes. They have no scrollbars; they have a thin title bar that vanishes when the note isn’t frontmost, a tiny L-shaped grow icon in the lower right corner, and a colored background. StickyBrain also lets you use a picture or texture as background, or you can escape the Post-it Notes look altogether and give a note an ordinary Platinum appearance. Unlike Stickies, a StickyBrain window is a full-fledged styled text editor.
StickyBrain lets you show and hide individual notes, and its chief organizational device for helping with this is the "category." You can create as many categories as you like, and you can assign default appearance features to each category (background color, text styling, initial text, initial size, and so on); a note will have its category’s default features when it is created or when its category is changed. You’re also free to override these for any particular note. You can show just the notes of any one category; and you can use a list of all your notes to show any particular note.
Through a supplementary background application called HotKey, you can use key combinations to access certain StickyBrain features from within other applications, even when StickyBrain isn’t running. A category’s key combination copies the current selection into it as a new note; a note’s key combination pastes its contents into the current application.
There are also numerous special features, many of them remarkably similar to Idea Keeper, which I reviewed a bit over a year ago. You can password protect a note, and a note can include an alarm. A note can include an email address that will create a new message in your email program, a URL that will navigate in your browser, or a file alias that will launch the file. A note can include boxes that you can click to show or hide a check mark, making a to-do list. You can search and replace text, across multiple notes if you like. There’s even inline spell-checking.
StickyBrain is certainly full-featured, but to me, Stickies themselves have always seemed a dreadful metaphor, with the no-scrollbar window being the worst possible editing milieu; Post-it Notes are just clutter, and even though you can change the window style to the more standard Platinum appearance, the fundamental StickyBrain action of summoning simultaneously all the notes of one category feels like clutter on steroids. StickyBrain’s background features depend purely on key combinations which can rapidly grow too numerous to be useful. There’s no export feature, and your information lives all in a single file in a proprietary format; what if this became corrupted? Still, many readers swear by StickyBrain, so it might be your cup of tea as well.
The $35 Sticky Brain runs on any Mac with Mac OS 8.1 or higher, and requires 5 MB of RAM, 5 MB of disk space, and a 640 by 480 screen or larger.
EZNote 2.01 — John Holder’s EZNote used to be a control panel with a rather modal interface, but now it’s an ordinary application permitting multiple windows, which is much nicer. It maintains snippets of styled text as files within folders; these folders are treated as categories, with the text files within them treated as notes, and everything lives inside a main folder you designate. In fact, you can browse your whole hard disk with EZNote and create or examine the contents of folders anywhere (any file of type TEXT will be seen as a note). However, EZNote sees only the top-level folders of its designated main folder as categories, and it works with them in a special way. For example, you can navigate instantly to a category, transfer a note to a category, and so forth.
An EZNote window consists of a browser pane and an editing pane. The browser pane, on the left, lists in a column all the folders and text files in the current folder. Selecting a text file’s name in the browser pane displays its contents in the editing pane. You get the standard basic behaviors for styled editing, plus you can have named text styles. You can search and replace, across multiple notes if you like. A number of plug-ins let you munge selected text in various ways (change case, strip linefeeds, strip HTML tags, that sort of thing). Switching to a different text file listing in the browser automatically saves the current file.
EZNote works well as a background application, through keyboard shortcuts that you can configure, or through a floating palette that appears anywhere. The floating palette offers less functionality than the keyboard shortcuts provide, but it does solve a major problem that StickyBrain doesn’t: with no shortcut at all, you can designate the category in which to create a new note from the current selection, or choose any note from any category to paste at the current insertion point. EZNote thus implements multiple styled-text clipboards, and is great for boilerplate that you need to paste often. You can also run a plug-in on the selected text. Conversely, within EZNote, you can create a new note from the clipboard, and you can paste the selection into any running application.
EZNote has a few shortcomings. You can’t export multiple notes (though you can append each note to a single note first, and export that). You can’t delete a category (but you can delete the folder itself, in the Finder). And I personally consider the save-without-asking behavior dangerous. On the other hand, in my view, EZNote’s interface, though some details are slightly clumsy, is vastly better than StickyBrain’s, and there is certainly much comfort in keeping your snippets in a plain text file. If you don’t need StickyBrain’s visual fluff (like background textures) or its extra features (like spell-checking, to-do boxes, or file aliases), I think EZNote is, hands down, a better choice.
EZNote runs on any Mac with System 7 or higher, needs only 2 MB of RAM and less than 2 MB of hard disk, and costs a mere $20 shareware. While you’re visiting the author’s Web site you might want to look into his other utilities; if what you really wanted was multiple clipboards, or if you want to store more than text, his QuickScrap control panel and ScrapIt Pro application are well worth considering.
Z-Write 1.2.1 — The window of Stone Table Software’s Z-Write is remarkably similar to EZNote’s: a list of notes runs down the left side, and clicking a note’s name brings up the note’s content for editing in the right side. Like EZNote, you’re editing styled text, and you can create named styles; and like EZNote, there’s a miscellany of text-munging features, such as changing case, eliminating multiple spaces, and so forth. However, Z-Write has no categories; instead, it has documents, and what you’re seeing are all the notes in a document. What’s special about Z-Write is that it’s intended as a writing tool; so you can rearrange the notes (which Z-Write calls "sections"), drag entire notes from one document to another, and export selected notes as styled text, RTF, or HTML.
Z-Write provides many extras useful to writers. There is good keyboard navigation, and text styling can be copied and pasted. You can insert bookmark tags, which are just ordinary text markup, such as "<bookmark myMark>", and then jump to any bookmark using a pop-up menu. You can insert hyperlinks, such as "<link myMark>"; Command-clicking on a hyperlink jumps to the thing it names, which can be a bookmark tag or a note. You can define glossary items (boilerplated named text), and then insert one with a pop-up menu or by typing its name. There’s also an "<insert xxx>" tag; when this appears in a note you print or export, the note called "xxx" is substituted for the tag in the output.
Z-Write is a fine milieu both for writing and for accumulation of text snippets; and its interface is an outstanding example of gorgeously clean design. But it offers nothing I particularly need, thanks to tools I already have. If Z-Write had multiple levels of notes, and keywords so that you could show or hide sets of notes, it might excite me a bit more. But as it is, Z-Write is essentially just an outliner reduced to a mere single level of hierarchy. Many of Z-Write’s features – such as bookmarks, glossaries, and text-munging – are present in common writing tools such as Microsoft Word and Nisus Writer; even the basic interface is reminiscent not just of EZNote’s interface, but also of Word’s document map feature. All this wouldn’t grate on my nerves if only Z-Write’s documentation didn’t constantly claim uniqueness and originality, as if a "non-linear word processor" were novel (I’ve been writing non-linearly with outliners since my Apple II days, and reporting on non-linear writing tools in TidBITS for almost a decade). Still, Z-Write has some vocal adherents, and you should certainly try it if you think it might fill a niche in your life.
The $20 Z-Write requires a PowerPC-based machine with System 7.5 or higher, and QuickTime. It requires 10 MB of RAM (more if you’re going to use the Print Preview feature) and 5 MB of disk space.