March 16, 2005

Keynote opens door for Windows note-taking

Author: Brian McGraw

By day, I'm a systems administrator, responsible for managing technology projects for my employer. By night, I'm a student, working on completing my degree. Both school and work require me to do a ton of research and take lots of notes. I have tried using many applications to help take and organize notes: OpenOffice.org, Microsoft Word, Vim, Notepad. Nothing really seemed to work for me, until I found Keynote.

Keynote is an open source note-taking application for Windows, written in Delphi and released under the Mozilla Public License (MPL). According to its developer, Marek Jedlinski, "Keynote is a flexible, multi-featured tabbed notebook, based on Windows standard RichEdit control." Roughly translated, this means that with Keynote, you can keep your notes in tabbed windows. Rather than one long column of text, you can create a multi-tabbed view, providing a visual breakpoint between areas of interest.

Several features make Keynote indispensable to me. For one, it supports Rich Text Format (RTF). While not as feature-rich as many word processor formats, the RTF capabilities of Keynote makes it easy for me to highlight words, create bulleted lists, and to use other formatting options not available with a simple text editor like Notepad.

Another excellent feature is Keynote's ability to create macros. While taking notes for a project recently, I found myself typing a large number of code samples. To make the code stand out from the rest of the text, I used a different font type and color. Switching back and forth manually would have been painfully time-consuming, but after taking a few moments to create a set of macros, I was able to switch between fonts with the click of a button.

Additional features I like include bookmarks and the open file format specification. The bookmark feature helps me not only keep track of important sections of notes, but to move rapidly between those sections. The open file format guarantees that if development of Keynote ever ceases or if I decide to stop using the program, my data will still be accessible.

These are all great features, but for me, the feature that really got me hooked on Keynote was the ability to make really amazing outlines. When I take notes, I find that the logical structure of an outline helps me retain data. However, I've yet to find an application that does a good job generating outlines. Sure, both OpenOffice.org and Microsoft Word will allow you to create outlines, but after using their outline features you will find the big drawback -- spacing. Once a topic contains more than a few subtopics, you find yourself working in a cramped space, utilizing only a small portion of the available screen.

By contrast, Keynote's tree view provides a way to create an easy-to-read outline. As you can see from the screenshot, Keynote allows you nest folders, or nodes. Each node can hold text, images, bulleted or numbered lists, and can contain one or more child nodes.

Keynote Interface -- click to enlarge

So practically speaking, how do I use Keynote? Say I am taking notes for a class. Each chapter in my textbook gets its own tab. Within each tab, each major section of the chapter gets its own parent node. Keywords get a child node, and for each detail about the keyword, I create a subnode. Wash, rinse, repeat to my heart's content, and I have all the information I need to know for my final, or project, or whatever.

While I think Keynote is great, there are some things I don't like about it. The biggest drawback is that the program does not run under Linux natively, though some have claimed it will run smoothly under Wine. Work requires me to use Windows, but at home, I am a GNOME guy, and the lack of a Linux version of Keynote forces me to run Windows more often than I would like.

Another downside is the lack of table support. According to the developer, this is not a limitation of Keynote, but rather the RichEdit library that ships with Windows, and upon which Keynote depends.

However, these drawbacks don't overrule the benefits, and besides, version 2.0 promises a lot of new features: tables, HTML and CSV support, improved handling of large files, and expanded configurability. Unfortunately, while still an active project, progress seems slow. Version 2.0 began development in 2003, and there is still no sign of a release. Much of this seems to be a result of a small (one-man?) development team, and perhaps the use of Delphi as the development language.

If you are looking for a way to take effective notes, give Keynote a try. It is powerful, highly configurable, and comes packed with features that really help you take control of your information. I have been using Keynote for more than a year, and find myself using word processors less and less. It is my open source must-have application.

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