Tag Archives: Productivity

Standard Notes – A Secure, Multi Platform Note Taking App

Introduction

With this post I’ll continue my series on useful tools and utilities. In this post I’ll talk about an outstanding application called Standard Notes. You can find and download Standard Notes from its website, https://standardnotes.org/.

Now, I know what you are thinking, “Yet another note taking app? What makes this so special?”

Well as it turns out a lot. Let me start by covering some of its special characteristics, then we’ll get a short overview on how to use it.

Multi Platform

As I stated in my previous post on Microsoft To Do, I have a strong preference for apps that work across multiple platforms. Standard Notes has apps for Windows, macOS, and almost every Linux Distro. In addition, it also has mobile apps for Android as well as iOS, both phone and tablet.

In addition, you can also login to the Standard Notes with your web browser and access your notes that way. Handy for when you are using a computer or device that you can’t or don’t want to install the Standard Notes application on.

The notes you enter are synced across all of your devices, much like Microsoft To Do. Enter a note on your Mac, and it will be there on your Android device, or any combination of the platforms I just mentioned.

Open Source

Standard Notes is an open source project. All of the source code is available for you to inspect, and even contribute to.

The syncing ability is handled by Standard Notes using their sync server software. The Standard Notes sync server is also an open source project that you can download. As such you can stand up your own private sync server and use it to sync all of your notes. Very useful if you are super concerned about security, or want to stand up your own Standard Notes server for your companies private use.

This also has some very positive implications to the longevity of Standard Notes. Let’s say the owners of Standard Notes win a bazillion dollars in the lottery. They hang up a “going out of business” sign on their website and head off to a remote island in the Bahamas for an early retirement.

You (or your company) could download the server project and spin up your own sync server. You can restore your backup to the new server, make an adjustment in the app to point to your private sync server and you are back in business. This capability should make any business more confident in adopting Standard Notes.

I mentioned backups, by default Standard Notes will perform an automated backup on a regular basis. You can (and should!) also do a periodic manual backup via the Account menu.

Encrypted Notes

Speaking of security, the biggest benefit to Standard Notes is encryption. It uses industry standard encryption, not something they made up themselves.

All of your note data is encrypted on your device. It is then sent to the sync server over an encrypted connection. As Standard Notes doesn’t have your password they have no way to decrypt the data. Even if someone got access to their servers, all the data will be gibberish.

They do make it clear, if you forget your password, they have no way of helping you. You need to make sure to store your password in a safe place like your password vault.

Freemium Model

Standard Notes uses what is known as a “freemium” model. The base application is free. You can take an unlimited number of notes, and these will be synced for you.

In the free model, you are restricted to text only notes. In addition, you are stuck with the basic color scheme of a white or gray background with black text.

With the paid model, you gain access to different color themes. It also enables you to use the rich set of extensions Standard Notes offers. Most of these extensions are around various editors. One is a code editor, that gives syntax highlighting for a huge array of languages.

There is another editor which gives you a “Word” like environment to do bold, italic, and the like. There is also a MarkDown editor if you prefer to edit and save MarkDown data.

Another editor I use a lot is the checklist. It lets you create check lists, and once you mark an item complete it moves to the bottom under completed tasks. This can be useful when the contents of your checklist are sensitive and need to be kept extra secure.

The premium model is done with subscriptions of 1, 3, and 5 years. The 5 year model works out to less than $3 (US) a month (at the time of this writing), which is very reasonable and funds their sync servers and development.

Setting Up Standard Notes

The Standard Notes website has instructions for downloading and installing it on the variety of platforms it supports, so I will refer you to it for your computer or device.

When you open Standard Notes the first time, it will open up with the Account pane. Note that for all the images in this post you can click on it to open up a bigger version.

You’ll need to start by clicking the Register button to create an account. When you do, it will prompt you for an email address and password. It will then send you an email just to confirm you are a real person.

Note the big No Password Reset box, warning you that if you lose your password, there is nothing the Standard Notes group can do to help you. I highly advise the use of a password manager, such as LastPass, which will be the subject of a future blog post.

Also note that the combination of your email and password is used to generate your security encryption keys. This means your email address will be case sensitive.

YourName@email.com, yourname@email.com, and YOURNAME@EMAIL.COM are all different. When you login to your other devices, you must key in both your email address and password in exactly the same case you use to create your account.

Using Standard Notes

Here is the Standard Notes app with some sample notes I’ve created.

The left side panel is the Views panel. You can organize your notes into groups called Tags in Standard Notes. You can enter any text you want for a tag name.

Additionally a note can have multiple tags associated with it. This will let the same note appear in multiple tag views.

The center column is the list of notes. If you click on a tag, the list of notes is filtered to show just the ones with that tag. In addition to the name of the note, it also has the first few words of the note and the last date the note was modified on (although you can change this in the settings).

In the example above, I have a note called “Harbor Freight Shopping List”. Under the title of the note I have two tags, Ham (referring to my Ham Radio hobby) and Lists. I could click in this area to type in the name of another tag if I wish.

In this next example, I’ve clicked on the Household tag in the Views pane.

As you can see, my list of notes is now reduced to just two, the ones who have the tag Household assigned to them.

Uses for Standard Notes

The uses for Standard Notes are only limited by your imagination. Because your notes are encrypted, you could use it to store information like phone numbers, vehicle VIN numbers, even passwords (although I’d suggest a more robust password manager of some type, such as LastPass).

It could also be used to store all kinds of tips and tricks. Items that don’t necessarily need to be encrypted, but you’d like to store and have handy in the future.

Anytime I have to do a search to figure out how to do something, I make a note so I can refer back to it in the future.

Premium Benefits

As a big fan of Standard Notes, I have purchased the premium subscription. I first did a one year subscription to see if I liked it, but got hooked so when it was time to renew I went with the five year subscription and haven’t regretted it.

Here you can see my Standard Notes paid subscription with one of the color themes applied.

As you can see from my list of tags on the left, I have a LOT of notes in Standard Notes. Here you can see a PowerShell script to remind me how to use the StringBuilder in PowerShell. I’m using the code editor, and have selected the PowerShell language.

This is just one of the many languages available, pretty much every programming language is included.

I also use Standard Notes for check lists, regular notes, and more.

In addition to the editors, the extensions also provide for various color themes, plus a selection of enhancements to Standard Notes. One developers may find useful is the GitHub Push extension, allowing you to push a note up to GitHub.

Want an extension but don’t see it? The Standard Notes site on GitHub has instructions for authoring your own extensions. This is also where you can access the source code for Standard Notes, the Standard Notes server, and more. You can also log issues, make suggestions for improvements and new features, and check for solutions to past issues.

Also note that your premium subscription unlocks the premium features on all of your devices. There is no limit to the number of devices or computers you can have Standard Notes (even with your premium subscription) running on.

Passcode Lock

Another useful feature is the Passcode Lock. This is similar to the pin login feature of Windows 10. You can turn on Passcode Lock in the Account menu area.

When you launch Standard Notes it will prompt you for the Passcode Lock. The lock can be any combination of letters, numbers, and special characters you want. I use a long complex gibberish password for my Standard Notes account, but use a little easier to remember and type Passcode Lock.

I consider this a “nosy person” feature. It keeps a nosy family member or coworker from walking up to your computer while you are getting coffee and snooping at what’s in your Standard Notes.

In addition, you can set an Autolock timer. After a certain amount of time Standard Notes will lock itself. By default Autolock is set to Off.

It also has an Immediate setting, which locks Standard Notes the minute you click away from it. There are also timers for 1 minute, 5 minutes, and 1 hour.

You can also remove the Passcode Lock when you decide you no longer need it.

On iOS, you can also lock Standard Notes using either Face ID or the Fingerprint reader. I would imagine Android tablets/phones that support biometric security also have this feature, but my Android tablet lacks biometric security so I’m unable to test this.

Other Notable Features

I just wanted to mention a few other useful features.

You have the ability to sort the list of notes in a variety of ways. By default it uses most recent at the top, but you can also sort alphabetically. You can also reverse the sort so oldest is first, or titles are sorted Z to A.

You can also Pin notes so they will always appear at the top of the note list, regardless of what sort order you select. In addition to pinning, a note can be Locked, which puts it into a read only state.

You can also get rid of a note by selecting Move to Trash, then go to the trash can and choose to delete all notes in the trash can or just individual ones.

The final feature I’ll mention is the ability to Archive a note. Let’s say you have a note on how to do something in Ubuntu 16.04. It’s highly unlikely you’ll need to use this on a normal basis, and don’t want to see it cluttering up your list.

However, the information is valuable, and on the off chance you may need it you really don’t want to trash it. This is where the Archive feature comes in. In any note, simply pick Archive in its Options menu. The note will no longer appear in the list view or searches.

You can easily bring it back though. First, in the list view’s options menu you can turn on the appearance of Archived notes. Later you can use the same option to again suppress the appearance of Archived notes.

If you suddenly find that previously archived note is useful, you can pick the note, then in the note editors options menu just Unarchive it.

Standard Notes Version

The instructions in this post are valid at the time I wrote it, using Standard Notes version 3.6.9.

Standard Notes is under continual development, so depending on when you read this there may be some subtle differences between your version and the one I’m using for this post. The core concepts should remain constant though.

Standard Disclaimer

I just want to be clear this is in no way a paid for post. Nor do I receive any discount for talking about it. I paid my own money for it just like everyone else. I just love the tool and wanted to share it with others.

Conclusion

Give Standard Notes a try. You can do so for free, and I think once you do you will quickly find it an indispensable tool in your kit. It’s a tool I use literally every single day.

Microsoft To Do

Introduction

This post continues my series on useful tools and utilities. Here we’ll be covering Microsoft’s To Do application.

There’s a famous quote “If you don’t write it down, it doesn’t exist.” A “To Do” list is a great way to capture tasks or information you need to remember. Some people use paper, or a variety of other devices or applications. For me, Microsoft To Do is the place to capture this information.

Some of you may remember Wunderlist. Microsoft bought Wunderlist a few years back, and have transformed it into Microsoft To Do.

Multi Platform

I use a variety of devices and platforms on a regular basis. One of the things I find useful about Microsoft To Do is the availability of apps on almost all platforms.

There are apps for Windows, macOS, Android, and iOS. On Linux (or other platforms), you can access Microsoft To Do in any web browser.

I also found a blog post that describes an application called AO that runs on most Linux distros. It’s basically a wrapper around the To Do web page. I use it on my Kubuntu laptop for working with Microsoft To Do.

Using Microsoft To Do

I’ll quickly illustrate the various uses of To Do with some screen shots. (Note that you can see a bigger version of any of these images by clicking on them.) The first one shows the basic layout of To Do.

The default view of To Do is “My Day”. To Do allows you to designate tasks for immediate action called “My Day”. More on that in a moment, but here you can see one task for a new Pluralsight course I’m currently working on, the SQL Server Mobile Report Publisher.

The menu of actions appears down the left side of the application. To add a new list, simply click the “+ New List button”. This is very simple, it just brings up a page and you can start typing in your tasks.

You can rearrange the list by clicking and dragging the tasks into any order. Note that by default new tasks are added to the top of the list, but you can go into the settings menu to change this behavior so new tasks are added to the bottom (which is what I do).

Simple Lists

Microsoft To Do can be used for simple lists. Here you can see a grocery list.

To Do makes generating a grocery list like this easy. I can enter my list on my computer, where I have a full keyboard. To Do then syncs my list to all of my devices.

When I pull out my phone in the grocer store, I can simply mark each item off as I put it in my grocery cart. Completed items are moved to the bottom of the list, making it easy to see the items I still need to get.

When I get home, I can either delete each completed task individually, or right click on the “Completed” header and delete them all at once.

Projects

Another use for To Do is project tracking.

Here is the list for my current project, the Mobile Report Publisher course I’m working on. This list is a high level view of the tasks I need to complete for the course.

For each task, I can create a list of sub tasks that need to be completed.

When I click on the task, a pane pops out on the right. I can enter a series of steps for setting up my virtual machine. Installing Win 10, Installing basic tools, and more.

Here is the detailed information for another task in the list, Create Data Source in the Report Portal.

This task only has one step. However, I’ve clicked on the “Add to My Day” which will add the task to the “My Day” screen To Do opens to.

With To Do I can also set a Due Date. To Do makes it easy, I can set it today, tomorrow, next week, or I can pick a specific date. I can also set a reminder, so To Do will remind me when a task is coming up.

I can get an overview of all my tasks with due dates by clicking on the Planned link on the left side of To Do.

Here you can see the one task I planned with a due date. The nice thing about the planned tab is that it shows tasks coming due across all your lists.

For example, I could have assigned a due date for an item in my grocery list so I’d be sure to have an ingredient for a planned meal. Or perhaps I have another list for planned blog posts.

All tasks with due dates that haven’t been marked as complete will show up here on planned, making it easy for me to get an overview of upcoming tasks no matter what list they are on.

To Do and Multiple Accounts

To Do allows you to manage multiple accounts. By clicking on the account name it will show you a list of all To Do accounts you’ve logged into.

Here you can see I have two accounts logged in, one I use for work, the other for personal items such as grocery lists. This makes it nice as I don’t have to mix work and personal lists.

It’s also useful when I work with multiple clients, when the client provides me an account to use in their organization. I can easily keep each client’s task list separate from each other a well as my personal lists.

List Management

The final item I’d like to show is list management, accessible by right clicking on a list.

Some items are pretty obvious, such as deleting or renaming a list. You can also duplicate a list, or print it out.

The biggest feature I like is the “Share list” option. You can share a list with another Microsoft To Do user. A good example is the grocery list. I share mine with my entire family. When another family member needs a grocery item, they can simply add it to the list.

There’s no need to tell me, or send a text, or anything else. When I get to the store, there’s the item on the list. If it’s something odd or unusual, they can click on the item and in the pop out pane on the right add a note to the item to explain why it is needed.

Another use is for small projects with your coworkers. You can assign a task to another person. They will see the task as assigned to them, and as they mark the task, or each step in a task, complete the others that the list has been shared with will be updated automatically.

This makes it nice for a project manager, as they can easily see the teams progress for each task.

Conclusion

As you can see, Microsoft To Do is a great tool for managing lists, or for tracking progress of your smaller projects. The multi-platform capability makes your data easily accessible across any device you are using.

There are many more uses you can put To Do to. I’ve used it for managing home repair projects. I even have some lists for favorite recipes, that list includes the ingredients as well as cooking instructions.

If you can think of more uses for Microsoft To Do, then by all means leave a comment so we can all learn.

Cut and Copy Fast and Easy with Pantherbar for Windows

Introduction

In a previous post, I showed a tool to make Cut and Copy easy on macOS. In this post we’ll look at a tool, Pantherbar, to provide similar capability on Windows.

Pantherbar

Pantherbar is available in the Microsoft Store. It has a free version, as well as a paid one at the reasonable price of $4.99 (US).

Similar to PopClip when you highlight text, it pops up a toolbar.

As you can see from the image above, Pantherbar appears with several icons. The left most is copy, next is cut. If you have anything in the clipboard the paste icon appears next.

The magnifying glass will launch a search in your default browser. By default it is Google, but through the settings you can change the search engine. Finally is the share with windows icon.

Extensions

Pantherbar has a rich set of extensions you can add to it. You can view the full list at http://pantherbar-app.com/extensions

In the free version you can have two extensions active. In the paid version, you can have as many as you want.

In this next example, I’ve loaded three extensions. In the image below I’ve highlighted some text in notepad.

The three new ones on the right are character count (handy for composing a tweet), reverse the text, and remove spaces. In the image below I’ve clicked the reverse text option.

As you can see, the text is reversed immediately, replacing what had been selected.

Note this is a little different than the behavior of PopClip on macOS. PopClip copies the modified text to the clipboard. Pantherbar immediately pastes the new text in.

To be honest, I prefer this behavior. The majority of the time I’m going to put the corrected text where I had selected, so this saves a few steps.

Conclusion

Pantherbar is a useful addition to your Windows toolkit. With its rich set of extensions, you can save a lot of time performing common tasks. You can try it for free, and if you decide to buy the price is very reasonable.

Do note that this, nor the PopClip blog post, are paid posts in anyway. I just like the tools and was happy to pay for them.

To my knowledge there is no similar extension on the Linux platform, at least for the Ubuntu based distros I tend to use. As I understand it, the current graphics engine makes this kind of extension difficult. It’s hoped though that once the Wayland engine gets into wide spread use tools similar to Pantherbar or PopClip will become available on Linux.

If you know of one that exists, by all means leave a comment. I’d love to check it out!

Cut and Copy Fast and Easy with PopClip for macOS

Introduction

Everyone has little tools they find useful, tools that make using their computers easier. Often they are time savers, even ones that only save a second or two will add up over time.

I thought I’d spend a few posts talking about some of my favorites. In this first post we’ll talk about a tool to make cutting and copying text into the clipboard fast and easy on an Apple Mac – PopClip.

PopClip for macOS

Cut and / or Copy of text is something we all do a thousand times a day. Even though it’s fast action, anything we can do to make it even faster adds up by the end of the day.

On the Apple Mac, I found PopClip to be a fantastic tool. It’s available in Apple’s App store, for the reasonable cost of $12.99.

So how does it work? Well it’s pretty simple. Start by highlighting text, here I’ve opened the basic text editor on my MacBook and highlighted part of a sentence.

When you highlight text, you will see a little toolbar automatically appears or “pops up”, without having to right click or take any other action.

Here PopClip is giving us the option of cutting and copying the text. I also happened to have something in the clipboard, so the option to paste that in also appears.

The magnifying glass will launch our default browser and use your default search engine and do a search on the selected text.

But wait, there’s more!

In addition to the standard cut / copy / paste, PopClip offers a vast array of extensions. In the following screen shot, I’ve added the braces extension.

With the braces extension added, you can now see additional options added to PopClip’s bar. For this shot, instead of clicking copy I’ll be clicking on the Square Brackets button.

This will copy the the text into my clipboard, adding brackets around it. Then when I paste it, the pasted text now is surrounded by brackets as you can see above.

The braces are just one of over a hundred extensions available to you with PopClip.

Conclusion

I realize it may seem simple, but once you try it you will be amazed at how much nicer cut and copy becomes on your Mac. In addition the vast array of extensions will make other operations you frequently do, such as surrounding text with braces, fast.

In the next post we’ll look at a similar tool for Windows, then over the next few posts highlight some other tools I find very useful in my daily life.