Cross-platform Note Sync with Dropbox

Update: The information here is still valid, and I’ve added some updates to keep it current. For the latest developments, see Crossplatform Text Editing in 2013.

Say you regularly use several different computers and want to make sure any notes or simple documents are always saved and synced between all your systems — between work at home, a desktop and a notebook, a Mac and a PC and even on your iPhone or iPad. Turns out it’s pretty simple to sync notes between platforms. And if you choose note-taking apps with a bit of forethought, it’s pretty simple to have an always up-to-date store of your notes wherever you go.

That you can sync textual notes — or any documents for that matter — between computers is no secret. There are quite a few apps that let you do this including Dropbox, Live Sync, SugarSync and no doubt others. There are also a few applications that specialize in syncing notes and other specific document types across platforms. I’ll get to that in more detail later.

I’ve used all of the above-named sync solutions over the years with generally good results. Beyond the broader sync tool, though, what I specifically wanted was a platform-agnostic set of tools for taking notes and creating simple documents in such a way that the files would be accessible and editable at any of my current computing devices, which include a desktop running Windows 7, a MacBook Pro, an iPad and an iPhone.

Here’s the simple solution I’m using.

I should start out with the disclaimer that this method applies only to plain ASCII text notes. It’s great for platform-agnostic writing, light coding, and basic HTML markup. If you need to sync bookmarks, images, documents and so on you might be better off with something like Evernote, Goodreader or SugarSync. I’m personally more interested in lightweight, single-purpose apps, though, and find Dropbox sync between dedicated apps more useful.

Having decided that I just want to sync notes, the next step is deciding whether to use Simplenote or Dropbox as your sync platform. They don’t play all that well together, apparently, but choosing on or the other is not a forever decision. Most of the note-taking apps support both methods and you can switch if necessary. There’s no lock-in.

I chose the Dropbox route because I am already using it to sync other files. I didn’t want to add a separate sync platform to the mix, nor did I want to limit my note-taking app choices to those that use Simplenote sync.

The note-taking apps are open source for the most part so you have several choices. The defining and common element of these apps is that they can save your notes as individual text files in a shared folder.

Mac: Notational Velocity or one of its forks. I’m using nvALT 2.0.

Windows: I’m using ResophNotes, another fork of the NV code.

iOS: As noted, you can sync with Simplenote, and NV also supports Dropbox sync with PlainText, Elements, iA Writer, and other iOS apps. I’m using both PlainText and Elements.

Setup is simple:

  1. Install Dropbox on all your devices, ResophNotes on Windows, and NV fork of choice on your Mac.

  2. Create a folder in Dropbox that will hold all the text files for your notes. I think most apps will allow any root-level folder, but Elements currently requires an Elements folder. If you’re considering Elements as an editor (it’s pretty nice for the price), you may want to go with that as a default. Elements creates this itself when you run it the first time, so that was my first step. check the documentation. As of version 2.0.1, Elements now lets you set the folder.

  3. In ResophNotes, click Options, then go to the Storage tab. Select “Plain Text File (.txt)” as your storage type. Point it at your Elements folder (or equivalent) for the file directory. In my case it was C:UserstpdorseyDocumentsMy DropboxElements.

  4. In NV, open Preferences and go to the Notes tab. Under Storage, set it to store and read notes as plain text files. Set “Read notes from folder:” to the appropriate folder in Dropbox, in my case Elements.

Done! Now any notes you create on any of your devices will be saved to DropboxElements and will be sync’d in real time to all other devices. (Technically the iOS apps seem to access the web store on demand, but that detail in transparent in execution.

To get some additional formatting and the ability to create HTML markup from your notes, check out John Gruber’s Markdown formatting. There’s a great introduction to using Markdown on the Practically Efficient blog. These are Mac demos, but it works the same in any Markdown-enabled editor, including ResophNotes.

In practice, using a sync’d note-taking system like this is simple to set up, simple to use and you never need to commit to a particular application, platform or workflow. If you decide this just doesn’t work for you, any text files you’ve created will still be saved in Dropbox, ready to use in another application. And if you switch machines — or platforms — the files are all there as soon as you’ve set up Dropbox.

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