Are notes stored on your computer or phone in plain text that anyone can read? Here are two apps for PC, Mac and mobile that encrypt your notes for privacy and security. Both are free.
Notes apps and services like Microsoft OneNote, Google Keep and some others, store your notes in unencrypted format on a server in the cloud. Notes software that runs on the computer often store notes on the disk unencrypted, or if the disk is encrypted, backups may not be.
This means that if someone gained access to your computer, phone or server, they could read all your notes. It is therefore not a good idea to store sensitive information in notes that are exposed this way. It is best to use secure and private encrypted storage for your notes.
There are a few apps and services that offer encrypted notes and here I look at two of them, Turtl and Standardnotes. Both offer free plans and paid plans if you want more storage or features.
Turtl encrypted notes
Turtl notes provides encrypted notes for Windows PC, Apple Mac, Linux and Android phones. The one omission is iPhone, but according to the website it is coming soon.
You won’t have any problems getting the software running on Windows, Linux or Android, but security is tighter on macOS and it flat out refuses to run Turtl because it is from an unknown developer. However, you can go into System Preferences > Security & Privacy and click a button to run it anyway. After a few more warnings, it is up and running.
A plain, almost empty, window awaits you when it is run and clicking the plus button in the bottom right corner provides options to add text, a bookmark URL, an image, file or password.
Turtl organizes notes into spaces, like Work, Home, Personal or whatever you want to create. They are useful for keeping collections of notes separate. Within a space, there can be boards, which are places to store notes. In the Personal space, photos, bookmarks and passwords are suggested, but any number of boards can be added. Tags can also be added to notes.
Spaces and boards enable you to organize your notes and it is important that you use them wisely or your notes will become a disorganized collection that makes it hard to find what you want.
Notes are displayed as cards, a bit like the way Google Keep does it, and while it is useful to be able to see what is on a note, it can be difficult to find a note when there are a lot of them. It would be useful to have an alternative view that just lists note titles.
Notes are written in plain text and Markdown is supported, so you can add headings, bullet lists, to-do lists with checkboxes and so on. There is a button to switch to a preview mode to view the note.
Turtl notes are encrypted and only you can see them. For convenience, the app can remain logged in so you don’t have to sign in every time you run it, but it recommends you log out each time, then no-one can access your notes. Unless you share them.
You can invite others to any space, so you could create a space for a team at work and there are several levels that determine what people can do. There is admin, moderator, member and guest. An admin can do everything and a guest can only view a space’s contents. Typically, you would be the admin and others would be members.
What does all this cost? There is a free account that enables you to store up to 50 MB of note data and collaborate with up to three people in each space. That is a lot of space for text notes, but files and photos would rapidly consume it. For $3 a month the storage is increased to 10 GB and the collaborators to 10 per space.
Turtl notes is good and I could manage with the free space since most of my notes are text. If you want to store files and photos and collaborate with teams, it is reasonably cheap to subscribe. It is recommended, but Turtl needs to get the iPhone app finished and also sort out the security warning on Macs. The one minor irritation I had was that notes don’t auto-save and you have to click a Save button. I’m so used to just typing and quitting.
Standardnotes encrypted notes
Standardnotes provides encrypted notes for Apple Mac, Windows PC, Linux, iOS, Android and also the web. It is free, at least the standard version is, but there is an option to subscribe to add more features through extensions.
It is a very simple notes app and the only organizational feature is tags. Create a tag and only notes with that tag are displayed. This enables you to create notes for a project, for work, personal and so on.
There is a three column display and when All notes or a tag is selected in the first column, note titles and the first few words of each note is displayed in the middle column. Select a note in the middle column and the note is displayed on the right. It works in a similar way to some email services, such as Outlook.
Notes can only be plain text and this is a limitation for people that want to attach photos and files to notes or even to simply style the text. However, Stabdardnotes was built to be extended and for paying subscribers, there is an extension that allows rich text notes with images, videos and audio.
Another extension allows tasks lists to be created with checkboxes, a dual-pane editor has a Markup editor on one side and a preview mode on the other. A spreadsheet extension enables spreadsheets to be stored and edited, a code editor has syntax highlighting and code snippets for 120 programming languages. There are extensions to automatically create backups on Dropbox, Google Drive and OneDrive. A folders extension enables you to create folders and subfolders for notes.
The free version of Standardnotes has limited features, but you can create unlimited text notes, links, and other text content, and everything is encrypted so that only you can access your notes.
All the best features are provided as extensions for subscribers. The cheapest option is the five-year plan, which works out at $2.48 a month. It’s $149 upfront, but then nothing to pay for five years. That is tempting.
Standardnotes is OK, but I wasn’t excited by it. I found the white and pale grey color scheme meant the notes window merged with similarly colored windows on the desktop which made it awkward to see. There are other color themes, but as with other features, it is only for subscribers.
If you are looking for a free notes app that encrypts everything for security, I liked Turtl best. It has good organizational features and useful collaboration, which enables you to share spaces with others. It is currently missing an iPhone app, but that may be added at some point.
For paying subscribers, the notes services are more closely matched. Standardnotes is slightly cheaper over the long term and some of the extensions are very useful. It is likely that more extensions will be added over time, too. It boils down to how much you value the extensions. They will influence your choice of notes app and could swing it in Standardnotes favor.