nvALT review: Makes writing and finding plain-text notes simple

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At a Glance
  • Brett Terpstra nvALT

Editor’s note: The following review is part of Macworld’s GemFest 2013. Every day (except Sunday) from mid-July until late September, the Macworld staff will use the Mac Gems blog to briefly cover a standout free or low-cost program. Learn more about GemFest in this Macworld podcast. You can view a list of this year’s apps, updated daily, on our handy GemFest page, and you can visit the Mac Gems homepage for past Mac Gems reviews.

There are roughly a jillion text editors available for OS X; it takes a special one to stand out from the crowd. Simply put, nvALT is special.

nvALT isn’t just a general-purpose plain-text editor like TextEdit or BBEdit. Sure, you can use it as you would one of those other apps, to compose long essays or assemble big chunks of code. But where it really shines is as a catch-all repository for all kinds of random bits of information: to-do items; lists; phone logs; thoughts that occur to you as you’re walking to work; and pretty much anything else that can be written down in plain text.

That’s because nvALT doesn’t just record your words; it’s specifically designed to make searching for and organizing your notes super-fast and easy.

(Before I go any further, I should point out that nvALT is really a fork of the open-source app Notational Velocity. Much of what makes nvALT special applies as well to that parent program. But nvALT has enough special tricks of its own to deserve separate treatment.)

One way nvALT helps with organizing all those random bits of information: When you’re looking for a specific note, you don’t have to invoke some special search interface. Rather, the app has a single text-entry box at the top of its window (much like the unified search/address field in a Web browser). When you start typing a string of text in that box, the app immediately shows you a list (below the text-entry box) of all the notes that contain it; as you keep typing, that list winnows itself in real time to match what you’ve typed.

This search capability leads many nvALT users to create systematic naming conventions for their notes, to aid in finding files. If, for example, you rigorously name all of your notes relating to a specific project Project A..., and you then type Project A into the search field, all of those notes will immediately appear in the list below.

The app also has a simple-yet-robust tagging system. Hitting Command-Shift-T lets you assign any number of tags to a single note; select multiple notes, then hit that same shortcut, and you can tag them all at once. Tags autocomplete as you type. Because of the effective search tools, tags work best as secondary organizing tools. (You could, for example, tag to-do items Done or Pending.) nvALT also lets you bookmark notes, for future reference.

In one way, nvALT could flat-foot compulsive file-organizers: The app keeps all of your notes in a single folder. In fact, you have the option of keeping all of them in a single database, rather than in discrete files. (If you elect that option, the database can be automatically compressed and encrypted for safer storage.) You never have to save files manually; they’re autosaved continuously.

A reason you might want to save them as individual files: so they can be more easily edited in other text editors. Whenever you’re in a note, you can hit Command-Shift-E to edit that note in another Mac text-editor of your choice. If you put your nvALT files in a folder that’s synced via Dropbox, you can then edit them in any Dropbox-compatible text-editor on the iPad or iPhone. (Syncing is also available via Simplenote’s Simperium system.) In this sense, nvALT is as much a note organizer as it is an editor.

nvALT doesn’t have all the text-editing bells and whistles you might want, so you may want to edit notes in another app. It has the basics—cut, copy, find-and-replace, spell-check, switch from upper to lower case, and so on—but not all the stuff you’ll find in a full-powered app like BBEdit. nvALT has just enough to let you record your thoughts quickly, but not enough to extensively manipulate the resulting text.

Also, nvALT provides only very basic text formatting: bold, italic, and strikethrough. But one feature nvALT adds to Notational Velocity is support for the Markdown mark-up syntax that allows you to indicate styles (headings, bold, and so on) via simple text codes. That text styling then shows up when you port plain-text notes from nvALT to formats like HTML; nvALT can export directly to HTML from a Markdown-formatted note.

Keyboard lovers in particular will love nvALT, because it’s designed specifically to let you do most everything without your fingers leaving the keys. There are keyboard shortcuts for searching, renaming, and tagging files, creating new ones, launching those external editors, previewing notes, and more.

nvALT is up to version 2.2; recent additions include the option to auto-pair brackets and quotes (type a quotation mark, and the app will automatically insert a close-quote after the cursor); a new shortcut for inserting note links; better support for external editors; full-screen support; and more.

If you edit text on a Mac and iOS devices and want a simple system for managing large numbers of notes, nvALT provides it. As I say, it can’t do everything that text editors like BBEdit or even TextEdit can. But it is entirely unique in the way it helps you organize and manage your notes. If you’re inclined to record and store information in plain text, you have to check out nvALT.

Editor’s note: nvALT’s developer, Brett Terpstra, is an occasional freelance contributor to Macworld.

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At a Glance
  • nvALT isn't your typical text editor. It has features that makes it easy to search through a set of notes.

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