Free open source alternative to Microsoft OneNote, Google Keep

Google Keep, Microsoft OneNote, Apple Notes, Evernote and other notes apps are good, but all have drawbacks and if you are looking for an alternative, Joplin is a great one and it is free.

Apple Notes is excellent, but it only works on Apple Macs and iPhones. Evernote is good if you pay for it. Microsoft and Google have very different notes apps that are good in their own way, but some people are not comfortable with the tracking that these companies are involved in, or that they have access to your notes.

Joplin is the alternative notes app you have been looking for. It is free open-source software, which is a reason to use it all on its own and there are many fans of this type of software.

It is not the only benefit and it is cross-platform and available on Windows, macOS, Linux, iOS and Android. No matter what operating system or device you use, Joplin notes is available.

Sync notes across devices

Notes are synced across all your devices and several different methods are available, such as OneDrive, Dropbox, Nextcloud and WebDAV. Perhaps most important, your notes can be end-to-end encrypted, which means that no-one apart from you can see them. Privacy is a big deal these days and a private encrypted synced notes service is most welcome.

I tried Joplin on a Windows PC and Android phone, but you could just as easily use a Mac and iPhone or mix them up. All are supported.

The first thing you need to do when first starting the app is to go to the Sync section in Settings and choose how to sync your notes with other devices. It is straightforward, but because of security, you need to authorize them. Basically, you give the app permission to save your notes to a folder on Dropbox, OneDrive or wherever. This is how it syncs across devices.

There is also an option to enable encryption. This is done on one device and it is then automatically synced to all your others. Your notes are private and no-one can see them but you.

Create notes with Joplin

In some ways, Joplin is similar to Microsoft OneNote and there is a multi-pane view. The first column contains notebooks and they can be created to keep notes organized by project, topic, work or personal, and so on. The second column is a list of notes within a notebook. The third column shows the currently selected note.

Writing notes in Joplin on a Windows PC
Rich Text editor in the Joplin app for the PC

The first column can be hidden so all you see is a list of notes and the current note. It is a simple and clean interface. Rich text notes can be created with the editor and there are simple formatting controls in a toolbar at the top – three heading sizes, bold, italic, links, attachments and so on.

Notes can contain tables and there is an easy tool for creating them, there are bullet and numbered lists, and checkbox lists like to-do that you can tick when done. Files can be attached to notes and images appear within them. Code can also be entered and it color-codes them.

Joplin notes app stores notes using Markdown
Markdown editor in the Joplin notes app

Notes are stored using Markdown. In fact, in Joplin on a computer, the notes pane can be split in two with the Markdown in one pane and the WYSIWYG note displayed in the other. If you prefer, you can work entirely with Markdown, but I find the Rich Text editor is much nicer to use.

Joplin on a phone

Notes are saved in Markdown format and on a mobile phone, Markdown must be used when creating or editing notes. This makes it a bit awkward if you have never used this markup language before, but it is fairly simple and it doesn’t have a lot of things to learn. Don’t let it put you off.

Joplin notes app on an Android phone
Markdown editor for Joplin on a phone

The string of numbers and letters in the screenshot above is the result of taking a photo and inserting it into a note. You don’t actually have to type it in or know what it means. It’s just Joplin’s way of handling file attachments. Here’s what the note looks like when you exit the editor.

Joplin notes app on an Android phone
View notes in WYSIWYG mode

A phone forces you to use Markdown for editing, but you can switch to WYSIWYG view to see what it looks like. Notes written using the Rich Text editor on the computer appear in WYSIWYG view on a phone, but if you want to edit them you must do so in the Markdown editor. It is a small inconvenience which hopefully will be resolved in a future update.

More features

There is an option to create a note or a to-do list, which is a note containing checkboxes. Tags can be added to your notes and this enables you to find them more easily. Select a tag in the sidebar and all notes with that tag are listed. There is also a search facility to find any text in any note.

All attachments to notes can be listed and you can view them, see the size and delete them if you no longer need them.

Joplin has been designed to allow plugins to be added and there are a few that are interesting. They add extra features and functions that create backups, allow multiple notes to be opened and pinned, add a math calculator, create favorites, outlines and more.

Summing up

Joplin is a great note-taking app for all platforms and it has a good range of features. Sometimes it can be a bit more complicated than something like OneNote, such as only allowing Markdown editing on phones, but on the whole, it is easy to use and it is a good alternative to the mainstream notes apps.


Leave a Reply