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Notable Note Apps for Fastidious FOSS Freaks

By Jack M. Germain
Mar 17, 2010 5:00 AM PT

The Linux OS offers users a variety of applications for taking notes and keeping information accessible in one place. Two popular choices, Tomboy Notes and Xpad, provide quick and easy ways to coral a stampede of wild notes and information.

Notable Note Apps for Fastidious FOSS Freaks

Tomboy Notes
Tomboy Notes
(click image to enlarge)

Note-taking apps have few features in common. That makes picking one a matter of personal preference. I find that Tomboy Notes and Xpad combine to create an ad-hoc pair of tools to suit many work styles.

Tomboy is a simple and easy-to-use desktop note-taking application for Linux. It also has ports to Windows and Mac platforms as well as Unix. It makes organizing the daily flood of ideas and information you deal with every day a snap.

Xpad is a sticky pad app that lets you stick Post-It-like notes on the desktop. It runs in the X window desktop environment. It creates GTK-powered customizable pads that can be saved and loaded transparently.

Tomboy Basics

What I particularly like about Tomboy is its easy integration on the desktop. Once loaded, an icon sits on the desktop or the panel, depending on your flavor of Linux. Left clicking or pressing the Alt/Fn12 key combination pops up options to create a new note, load a particular notebook series of notes or pin an existing note to the desktop.

The preferences pad controls spell-check while typing. This feature is provided by GtkSpell. More settings highlights Wikiwords to instantly create a note with that name, bullets lists automatically and sets a custom font. Other customizations allow changing the Hotkeys and setting up synchronization between a local folder and a remote server.

A quick mouse-click gives you speedy access to your notes. The Table of Contents lists all of your notes in the order they were last modified. That list length is limited, but a handy search window lets you look for older notes by matching any piece of information from content.

Wiki Wonders

What distinguishes Tomboy Notes from other note-taking apps is the program's ability to link notes and ideas together. It does this using the WikiText concept. Form two words, each capitalized, run together with no spaces in between.

Tomboy Notes recognizes that format and turns the word to gray with an underline. Clicking that word or words then creates a new note, titled the same. Each new note created by clicking the highlighted word instantly links back to the original note.

You can easily link these Wiki-created notes to other notes with the Link button to have the app keep track of ideas that branch off from the starting point. Go ahead and rename and reorganize the names -- the links between your ideas won't break.

Plug-in Powers

Another feature I find particularly useful is Tomboy Notes' extended features potential. This app has the potential for third-party extras to extend its feature list. Just check the list of preinstalled plug-ins from the Preferences window and activate the ones you want in the Plug-ins tab. This list varies depending on the build of the app you use.

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You can add more plug-ins from Tomboy Notes' Plug-ins list page. Simply drag and drop new plug-ins to the Plug-ins folder. Here is a partial list of available extras:

  • Bugzilla lets you drag a Bugzilla URL from your browser directly into a Tomboy note. The bug number is inserted as a link with a little bug icon next to it.
  • You can drag Evolution e-mail into a Tomboy note. The message subject is added as a link in the note.
  • You can export individual notes to HTM and Add fixed-width font styles or import your notes from the Sticky Notes applet.
  • You can automatically create a Today note to jot down your daily thoughts with the Note of The Day plug-in.

Post It

If your Linux system runs GTK+ 2.12, then you can enjoy the added flexibility of putting post-it style notes on your desktop. Xpad lets me forever banish the yellow paper slices from my physical work space.

Electronically sticking square yellow notes on a computer screen is not a method everybody will like, but it is a very handy solution. Sure, too many notes displayed at one time can be a bit overbearing on the desktop, but you do not have to post every note. Just display the notes you need during that work session.

I avoid desktop clutter with Xpad by only displaying the notes on the last virtual desktop. I run different groups of apps or project files in each of the four virtual workspaces that are the backbone of the Linux OS. So the sticky notes fit right into my work routine without always plastering over the desktop icons.

Using It

Xpad control options could not get any easier. Each Xpad session consists of one or more open pads. You can put multiple notes on a single "sheet" or reserve one note per pad. Each pad is resizable just like a standard window.

You can move pads around the desktop with a click and drag. You can change color settings by right clicking on a pad and selecting Edit > Preferences. The pop-up menu that appears when you right-click on a pad provides most actions. These include what are usually drop-down menus across the top row of a program window.

You can also set the bottom tool bar to hide or unhide. Here you can place icons for many of these program functions. You can also chose whether to show all notepads, close all of them or select a specific note pad from the list. You can also have Xpad display on all workspaces.

Wish List

Xpad has a number of convenient uses. But it could do more to be even more useful.

For example, I would rate this app as indispensable if it had an alarm feature. Then I could write myself a reminder and have it pop onto the screen at a pre-set time and date.

Otherwise, though, Xpad is a nice little app that helps me organize reminders, To-Do lists, and stray pieces of information that would otherwise get buried within a database or traditional word processing file.

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