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Dropbox Paper Is Surprisingly Good

January 23, 2020 by Steven Ng

Note Taking Hell

It's no secret that I've been hunting for the "perfect" note taking application for years now.

I dropped Evernote a few years ago as a multi-purpose tool, and have been trying to find a replacement ever since.

Note taking is a very personal in that you develop some very specific tool and/or process preferences that you don't really want to compromise on. What works for one person may not work for another.

My Own Criteria

For me, my core requirements, in no particular order (they are numbered for reference), are/were:

  1. A Windows native desktop client
  2. The ability to have my notes in a hierarchical file structure that was available in a tree view (more important on the desktop than mobile)
  3. Cloud sync or storage
  4. Live conversion from Markdown to formatted text without having a preview pane
  5. Ability to access and read my notes from my Android phone. Editing and creating is only a nice to have, since I'm pretty much useless with a touchscreen keyboard.
  6. The occasional ability to collaborate on notes/docs with others (this one's not a deal breaker)

Criteria that I thought were important but ended up being unimportant:

  • Web clipping
  • Pen support

I always found that web clipping polluted my notes a little, and I recently switched to using Wallabag for all my bookmarks and web clippings. Wallabag is very similar to Pocket, and it's been working well for me so far.

For years, I've had this crazy notion that I wanted an electronic version of the paper notebook that I bring to meetings. The problem is that the available solutions work better in my imagination than they do in real life. I've pretty much given up on the idea of a stylus-based tool, and no longer consider it meaningful criteria in determining what type of note taking tool(s) I use.

Options I Considered

With my criteria considered, some picks I tried and considered were:

The one option that did look good to me was Bear.app, but it's really only for people in the Apple ecosystem, which I'm no longer a part of.

Even if they do eventually support Windows and Android, I don't know that I'd switch to Bear, given my experience with applications that are Apple-centric. For example, I've always felt like the Windows and Android clients for 1Password were second-class citizens in terms of the product line.

A folder full of Markdown files

One of the first things I tried was a Dropbox folder full of notes using a text editor like Sublime Text. This method wasn't horrible, but the problem is that I have multiple text editors open at any given time, and it got hard finding the right window. Having said that, the solution I'm using now has the same problem, except within a web browser.

Requirements satisfied: 1, 2, 3, 5

OneNote

I have a love/hate relationship with OneNote. On one hand, it's very powerful, on the other hand, it has so many user interface quirks that drive me bonkers. It's also not really a Markdown centric tool, even though it has a few Markdown-like shortcuts, like using asterisks to start bullet lists.

Requirements satisfied: 1, 2, 3, 4 (limited), 5, 6

Google Docs

Google Docs is fine, but the experience feels more like using a traditional word processor than a note taking tool. Also, it's not Markdown centric.

Requirements satisfied: 2, 3, 4 (limited), 5, 6

Joplin

Joplin is a Markdown centric alternative to Evernote. It lets you sync your notes using Dropbox. It's pretty good, and has a web clipper that works quite well. I think the main weakness of Joplin is that it it doesn’t do live Markdown conversion the way I’d like it to.

Requirements satisfied: 1, 2, 3, 5

WikiJS

WikiJS is a self-hosted wiki. It has a lot of potential, but as of the time of writing, it's not quite there yet for me to want to use it daily. To be able to use it outside of my LAN, however, I'd have to open up a firewall port, or host it on a server somewhere, which is something I’m not interested in doing.

Requirements satisfied: 2, 3, 5, 6

Bookstack

Bookstack must be the most recommended note taking tool on /r/selfhosted. I gave it a shot, bailed, and then gave it a shot again. For note taking, it had way too many quirks with respect to the user interface that just annoyed the hell out of me. If, however, I was authoring a book, it would probably be my first choice for that task.

Requirements satisfied: 2, 3, 5, 6

Dokuwiki

Dokuwiki is a simple file based Wiki. It's ok, but I struggled with the idea of using it every day. It just wasn't very enjoyable to use.

Requirements satisfied: 2, 3, 5, 6

MarkText

MarkText is similar to Bear, but lacking much of Bear's polish. It has a lot of potential, but it's still too buggy and quirky at the time of writing.

Requirements satisfied: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

No Clear Winners

So there is obviously no tool that checks all of my 6 main requirements completely. Short of writing my own tool (which I considered, but decided I had other projects more worthy of my time), I had to give up on 100% coverage of my requirements. The solution I ultimately choose would obviously require me to compromise on what I want.

Revisiting Paper

I tried Paper way back when Dropbox announced it, but honestly, it left no lasting impression on me.

I gave it another cursory shot a few weeks ago (after upgrading to a paid Dropbox subscription), and discovered that its live Markdown conversion is excellent. It is definitely better than MarkText in this regard.

It wasn't until I had to collaborate on a server installation document that I was truly sold on Paper. Before I get into the nuts and bolts of Paper, the requirements it satisfies are 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. Right now, there's no desktop client that's been released to the public. I'm hoping they release something, even if it's just an Electron app. I need something that occupies its own button on my taskbar instead of having to cycle through my browser windows to find my Notes. Having said that, in daily use, I am finding that Paper is a fantastic note taking tool.

Markdown Support

The live conversion of Markdown works very well in Paper. The reason why Markdown support is so important to me is that it saves me a lot of time. When I'm writing documentation, the ability to style documents using markup alone is incredibly powerful. There is no mousing around for styling or setting heading levels. I find pumping out documentation to be a noticeably faster and smoother experience.

So not only do I now use Paper for notes, I also use it for work-related documents.

Where I can, I'm actually writing documentation in Paper and exporting to Word or PDF. I can say without any reservations that the editing experience in Paper is the main driver for it being my daily writing tool, in spite of any glaring weaknesses it may have.

Other Useful Features and Details

The checklist feature in Dropbox is pretty darned cool. You can assign dates and people to checklist items, and get notifications too. Paper can also aggregate the checklists on all your Paper documents into a single view.

The implementation of this feature has me rethinking how I approach project management tools in general. I still have to do some practical experiments with Paper in this regard, but I have a feeling that it can do what I need, which is saying a lot.

There's a Timeline feature that lets you insert a horizontal timeline, which can be used to create a pseudo Gantt view. This could be a great feature for collaborating on larger projects.

Like Word and Google Docs, Paper has popular features like commenting, version history, and live collaboration.

It may sound corny, but the default stylesheet for the document is really nice. Not Bear nice, but a close second. I absolutely hate the default stylesheets in Word, Onenote and most other tools. When writing long documents, you get a hiearchy map on the right side of the Paper document to allow you to jump quickly to headings in your document.

You can export your document to Word for finalization, or if you don't need to make any edits, you can export your document to PDF.

There's a presentation mode for your document, but I haven't found a good use for that feature.

Deficiencies

While I am really liking Paper a lot, the user experience isn't all sunshine and rainbows. If the editing experience were not so good, I would consider some of these deficiencies to be deal breakers:

  • The Android app experience is horrible. You can't dig for a file based on location. It's basically an "all" or "favorites" view. This is fixable, but I have to admit, it is very annoying.
  • No desktop application. At any given moment, I have way too many browser windows open, each having too many tabs. Finding the window containing a Paper document is an exercise in patience. If I could at least have a dedicated Paper button in my task bar, that would save me a lot of stress.
  • Paper documents are server-side documents. They are not real documents like Word or text documents. In your local Dropbox folders, the files are basically links to the Paper web app. If you have any hangups about having readable local copies, you're going to absolutely hate this about Paper. If your Internet goes out or the Paper service goes down, you are f-ed. I think a Desktop app that can have local copies would mitigate any concerns related to this.
  • No easy conversion feature for existing Markdown documents. I couldn't find any way to convert my existing Markdown notes to paper short of opening the file, pasting it a new Paper document and deleting the Markdown file.

Verdict

As I mentioned earlier, whether Paper is ideal for you depends on your own preferences. When it came out in 2015, I thought very little to nothing about it. I was relatively unimpressed.

Years later, after giving it a new attempt, I find the application to be a revelation. It has improved so much that it has quickly become my writing tool of choice. In fact, the draft of this blog was written in Paper and pasted into my static site generator.

Paper may not be for you, but if you care about using Markdown for writing, you should definitely give it another shot. You might be pleasantly surprised at how good it is.