From Evernote to Standard Notes
My notes application is my most used piece of software. I use it for bookmarking websites, recording thoughts, keeping track of contacts, planning family schedules, making to-do lists, documenting trouble-shooting procedures, writing down recipes, and planning my writing, which includes all the planning for this blog. It is the most detailed record of my life.
Looking for alternatives
At the same time, I was learning about concepts like open source software, encryption and decentralised, trustless or zero-knowledge administration, and I began using these terms in my searches. I discovered Standard Notes, created a free account to try it out and used their online conversion tool to migrate all my Evernote notes to their format. After a few hiccups with this, I had Standard Notes up and running, and liked it so much that I began paying for a subscription not long after.
Using Standard Notes (free and paid)
Before I continue, it should be noted that there is a big gap between the free and the paid versions, and that Standard Notes is best seen as primarily a text-focused note-taking application. For a time, Standard Notes was unable to import images, sound files and video due to difficulties posed by encryption. There is a new 'Professional' subscription tier that enables encrypted cloud storage for photos and other types of files, and I have recently discovered it's now possible attach files to notes with the regular subscription tier as well, something I still need to try out.
Standard Notes are transparent about the fact they are based in the US and that all user data is stored there. Privacy laws in the US are not as robust as in some other countries, but I like that they are open about this. Transparency is a sign of trustworthiness and confidence in the product. The software is open source, and the company's income is based entirely on user subscription fees.
The free version enables plain text notes. You can organise your notes by category using tags, which work very similar to a single-level folder structure, with the difference that each note can have multiple tags. I like this hybrid between tags and folders a lot. I am old-school and still visualise computer organisation as a hierarchy of folders rather than a grab bag of searchable labels. Notes are encrypted and it seems there is no upper limit to the amount of notes you can store. There is a neat note-to-blog tool called Listed which also works with a free account.
With the regular 'Productivity' subscription tier, users can select different note types. Something to get your head around here is that Standard Notes is more than a simple note-taking app; it is a conglomeration of different text editing applications, which you can activate per individual note. Let's say you want to make a shopping list. You would create a new note, and then change the note type to 'Checklist'. You can then categorise the note or place it in a folder. Other note types are: Markdown text (various versions), Code, Authenticator and Rich Text. I use the latter most, which has a mini tool bar with basic word processing buttons (bold, italics, bullet points, insert table). Each note can only be of one editing type.
In the past, Standard Notes had a customisable 'Extensions' menu, where users could try out and download new themes, note types and actions. They have now streamlined that. The person I've been mailing my questions to in preparation for this article did helpfully point out that 3rd party extensions can still be installed from their community plugins repository. In the Advanced settings, you need to select the option to 'Install External Packages'. I will add links to instructions and collections of 3rd party plugins below.
If I recall correctly, the external packages method is how I installed the 'Listed' action, a neat feature that enables you to publish straight from your notes to a public blog. This is another example of Standard Notes' versatility. To get started with a blog, you start a new note, select the 'Listed actions' option and publish. It is that simple. If you are familiar with Markdown, you can draft your blog posts using one of the Markdown notes options and publish the resulting pages. Paid users can use advanced features, which includes tying the blog to a custom domain name.
My favourite feature by far is the minimalist 'Focused Writing' option, which hides all the navigation menus, showing only the note you are currently editing. This works especially well if, like me, you often use your operating system's split screen function, with a browser open on one half of the screen, and Standard Notes taking up the other half.
I found their help desk friendly and thorough in their responses to my queries. The tone was always professional, the response-time fast, and the content directly relevant to my questions, not 'bot-like'. I got responses within a day each time, and my subsequent queries were followed up on by the same person.
Privacy claims and note encryption
Below are some of the key claims taken from the articles on their help pages:
About trustlessness built into the software:
While fundamentally different from cryptocurrencies, Standard Notes shares a similar ideology of removing trust from central authority. Our encrypted syncing server is designed to be completely trustless, so that any data stored or processed through it is unreadable, even to us.
On how note encryption works in Standard Notes:
When you make a change to a note or other data item using our applications, your data is first encrypted offline on your device using your secure key, then synced to our server. Our server cannot read the contents of the note. It can however read the date the item was created and modified and the content type of the item (whether it is a note or tag).
Using offline encryption before uploading to the servers narrows security risks down to just those related to your own hardware, as any information sent over the web is already encrypted. If you remember to log out of your user account or activate sleep mode whenever you leave your device unattended, your notes should be quite well secured this way.
And finally, on third party audits of their software, they write:
We've completed four (4) security audits to date by industry-leading security firms, which cover the entirety of our ecosystem. You can review the results below.
Standard Notes even goes as far as recommending their software for password storage. They claim to offer 'higher levels of security than offered by typical password managers' with two-factor authentication. This is also why I decided to add Standard Notes as a suggested tool in my post on digital journal writing. If it's secure enough to store your passwords, then it should certainly be a safe enough place to record your private thoughts.
Migration from Evernote
Standard Notes has a webpage with a range of tools for migrating notes from Evernote, plain text, Aegis and Google Keep to Standard Notes format. Having used Evernote for years, I had several hundred notes that needed migrating, so I was thankful for this feature.
Clearly, I am a fan of this product. Like Signal Messenger, it is one of those rare privacy-focused products that is as good as or better than its mainstream counterparts. However, as is the case with most applications, I did run into a few issues.
With any end-to-end encrypted application, it is vital to store copies of your login password in different locations. In the case of Standard Notes, this means losing your password equals losing access to all your notes. Given its trustless structure, Standard Notes cannot help you retrieve your notes if you lose your password.
The migration process from Evernote to Standard Notes worked but was not glitch-free. Because I had so many notes, small formatting problems that occured during migration ended up being a big headache for me, as I had to then to check through each note to see what had worked and what had not. Additionally, I did have a lot of embedded PDFs and images in my Evernote collection, and all of those could not be migrated in bulk. But after a day or two of wrestling with these issues, I was all set up, and I haven't looked back since.
Occasionally, Standard Notes throws up strange formatting. This happened, for example, when first they began introducing the folders (or subcategories) option, but that specific problem seems to be fixed now. There is another annoying bug where an inserted table goes straight to the top of the note, not to the location of your cursor. Thankfully, inserting a table always leaves one line of empty space above, so you can copy and paste your text back to where you wanted it, but it is an extra step. When copying and pasting text from other applications, it is really important to choose the 'paste without formatting' option. Pasting text from a LibreOffice Writer document straight into Standard Notes creates an indecipherable mess. Finally, I find sometimes the delete or undo actions don't respond quite as expected, and you have to actively select the sections you want to delete. If you really get stuck, logging out, restarting the app and logging back in solves most problems.
Finally, Evernote did have that clever text search tool which could locate specific words and phrases even within photographs stored in your notes, but I honestly don't miss it.
Current use and looking ahead
Standard Notes is by far my most-used piece of software. I recommend it to others regularly. It's great for high school and college students, and the Listed extension turns your notes application into a great little blogging tool to boot.
As discussed in my post about using desktop, I mainly use Standard Notes there, and have removed it from my smartphone. I carry a little paper notebook with me instead.
While drafting this post, I discovered a 'Switch workspace' feature in the Account Settings. I asked the help desk about this, and they explained that this allows you to sign into multiple accounts in one instance of Standard Notes; it is not a work/personal profile feature.
The help desk also directed me to websites and pages that explain how to install third party plugins. A quick glance was enough to get me interested, but I will need to play around with this a bit more to fully understand how it works.
Standard Notes have a helpful online demo of their app here.
Here is the help article that explains how to install 3rd party plugins. This is the community plugins page, and this is a curated list of more 3rd party extensions, which include tools like flashcards, music notation and whiteboard.
"What information does Standard Notes collect about me?"
Information about the Listed action for Standard Notes.
After posting this article, someone on Mastodon suggested I take a look at Obsidian. After watching this video, I must admit I'm interested! Obsidian combines .md (markdown) notes with note linking, a feature I'd love to see in Standard Notes too.
I have since discovered that Standard Notes has developed a new note type called 'Super' which uses Markdown. You can explore this further in the browser demo.
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