More Than A One-Trick Ponie

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Review: Circus Ponies NoteBook

Price: Regular $49.95/Academic License: $29.95 (Free 30-day trial)

There are three different use cases where an electronic notebook serves me better than my Moleskines. The first is the equivalent of a notebook full of sticky notes. There are times when I need to keep track of small snippets of information, or information that doesn’t require a great deal of organization. For example, for the past several years I have kept track of tenure-related activities—talks in the community, published papers, service to the university etc.—using a free program called nvAlt. With nvAlt, I can quickly enter some information and a .txt file is created in the program’s default folder. The nice part about this is I can access that folder (which I have saved in DropBox) via my iPad, and edit the files with my preferred text editor.

While nvAlt is useful it does not offer the kind of organization that I need when working on journal length articles. For long form note-taking and writing, nothing beats Scrivener. Scrivener’s Research folder allows me to keep track of web pages, PDFs, audio files, video and of course text. I can easily refer to my notes while working on an article without ever leaving Scrivener.

Somewhere between these two extremes lies NoteBook by Circus Ponies. NoteBook will perform the same tasks as nvAlt (automatically indexing you notebook as you go), as well as allowing you to write pages of text. Although NoteBook could be used for longer writing projects, academics may find the lack of footnote or endnote support and advanced formatting as a deal-breaker for this use.


When you open notebook for the first time you are presented with the New from Starting Point screen. There are an array of options for the type of notebook you might want to create. I generally like to start from the General->Take Notes option, although many of the other templates offer a nice starting point. There are also several handy video tutorials that walk you through the process of starting a new notebook, and using some of the basic features.


There are far too many features to discuss here, and Don McAllister over at Screencasts Online has created a series of tutorials for the Circus Ponies web site that providesa great overview of many of these features. There are a few specific features that are particularly appealing to academics:

  1. Clippings: One of the subtly great features in NoteBook is its clipping service. The clipping feature allows you to send text from web pages or other documents directly into a specific page in your notebook. I can for instance go to a news story, highlight the text, go to the Services menu and send the highlighted text to a notebook— even if that notebook isn’t open.
  2. Web Site Creation: One of the nice features in of NoteBook is the ability to export a notebook as an interactive web site. This function is particularly good for those that want to create a cross-plaform ebook that is viewable on all mobile devices. In addition to text, you can include video, audio, and downloadable files. Once the NoteBook has been placed on your website, you can add to or edit the notebook on your computer and the changes can be exported without having re-upload the entire site.
  3. Multiple Export Options: One concern I have with using information managers is how to get my data out if for some reason the company discontinues the product. Circus Ponies puts this concern to rest by providing multiple export options including TXT, RTF, DOC, OPML, HTML, NBPB, and NBML (these latter two being NoteBooks own file extensions). Also, the support for TXT export means that MultiMarkdown users can compose and organize blog posts within the program.

As good as NoteBook is there are a few things to be aware of before taking the plunge. First, there is a definite learning curve. Many of the powerful features may not be immediately intuitive. While I found it easy to create a new notebook, the video tutorials were extremely helpful when attempting to use some of the more advanced features. Secondly, the program allows for creating links from one page another. While I eventually figured out how to do this, I still had trouble round-tripping, for example, I could jump from a line on say page 3 to page 6, but couldn’t get the return arrow to send me back to page 3.

Overall, I am finding NoteBook to be an excellent way to organize meeting notes, prepare for a new course, and even do web-based research. Also,the ability to easily create an interactive online notebook without knowing any HTML makes this program more than a one-trick pony (sorry, couldn’t resist).

[Note: Circus Ponies does offer an paid iPad version of its Notebook software. I hope to evaluate this in a future post.]

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