Thinking Brett Terpstra had expanded nvALT into an iOS counterpart, I opened Chris Gonzales’s post on Tools & Toys reviewing nvNotes for iPhone curious to see what he had made and his justifications for such a move. To my surprise, the only relation nvNotes has to either Notational Velocity or nvALT lies in inspiration: created by Nicholas Clapp, it takes cues from both aforementioned apps in its utilitarian aesthetic and strong feature set. Despite its many benefits though, nvNotes’ infancy in relation to the likes of Drafts unfortunately shines through in many areas.
Immediately obvious from both Chris’s review and its page on the App Store, nvNotes supports syntax highlighting. Although I rarely write anything long enough for such a feature to prove more than occasionally useful on my iPhone, its inclusion nevertheless interested me. Perhaps with the appropriate toolkit, I reasoned, I might spend more time writing on my iPhone or, at the very least, experiment enough to know for sure that such a workflow did not fit me. Coupled with handy word and character counts, a nifty Markdown keyboard row reminiscent of Drafts’ similar feature in its iPad version, Dropbox integration — a must — and support for URL schemes, nvNotes made itself out as the perfect note-taking app. Unfortunately, $2.99 later I had nothing to show for my enthusiasm but mild disappointment.
At first glance nvNotes rivals Drafts in simplicity of visual aesthetic. When launched, the interface contains only three elements: a nondescript text field to add or search for notes, a label indicating the absence of any documents, and a gear representing the settings screen. I began by linking nvNotes to my Dropbox account, after which I started exploring other settings: display order, default font, theme, and auto night mode. Finished there, I began running into problems when trying to create my first note: I typed a title into the appropriate area, tapped the large body area that should have allowed me to add more content, and waited. Nothing. Turns out one can only add a new entry after picking a title and then hitting “Next” on the keyboard, at which point nvNotes will permit you to finish typing; forgetting that, nvNotes will retain this string in its uppermost box, preventing you from adding a new item until figuring out the requisite combination of taps, swipes, and pulls necessary to successfully instantiate a new item. If I wanted to name every entry, I would use Dropbox and write solely in plaintext files. I need fewer barriers to putting my thoughts to words, not more, and so in this regard I found nvNotes lacking.
An appropriate title fleshed out and finally with a blank canvas before me, I started typing only to have my efforts confounded by a disturbing lack of capitalization. For some reason, nvNotes capitalizes neither the first letter in a line nor sentence automatically. As a self-respecting writer, I found myself at an impasse: struggle against muscle memory reinforced with every other iOS app I have ever used, or swallow the bitter pill of improper capitalization haunting every idea I record. Neither a particularly attractive prospect, I cannot understand why any developer would choose to buck such an ingrained feature as this. Unfortunately, nvNotes’s poor design and disregard for the status quo does not stop there: the app also does not allow users to swipe away the keyboard. Instead, you must use of the unlabeled — and in some cases inscrutable — buttons only visible if the extended Markdown keyboard is not. It took several unsuccessful attempts pawing at the screen — like an animal — to discover this unconventional behavior. This same row contains the syntax highlighting option, curiously masquerading as a preview button of sorts.
After the last two rants, I have disappointingly little to say regarding this feature: it works reasonably well until you try to use Zen mode on any sentence but the most recent, in which case it, frustratingly, moves the cursor back to the bottommost line every time. Perhaps one could make the case for only allowing users to focus on their most recent line when using Zen mode given the mantra it derived its name from, but I would err on the side of bad design instead.
Decidedly tired of nvNotes and its quirks by now, unparalleled support for URL schemes was the app’s last bastion of hope. If I could build even better URL schemes and file actions with nvNotes than Drafts, I may have considered using it more regularly despite its numerous shortcomings. When I tapped the “Share” button though, the hallmark square with an upward-pointing arrow, I found four options: “Message”, “Mail”, “Twitter”, and “Copy”. In a word, underwhelming — both this standard share sheet and the app as a whole.