Open Source Musings The thoughts, ideas, and opinions of an open source guy

Using Turtl as an open source alternative to Evernote

A paper notebook and a fountain pen

(Note: The introduction to this post first appeared (in a slightly different form) in an article published at Opensource.com and appears here via a CC BY-SA 4.0 license.)

Information. Whether we realize it or not, we collect a lot of it. Interesting little snippets. Links. Research for school or work. Recipes. Quotes. And a whole lot more.

To organize that information, millions of people turn to Evernote. There’s no denying that Evernote is a useful and powerful and popular tool. But it’s also a closed one.

Maybe you want to take control of your information and move away from a closed, proprietary tool. Maybe you’re disgruntled about the recent changes to Evernote’s services. Maybe you just want to take notes the open source way. Whatever your reasons for moving away from Evernote, there are open source alternatives out there.

Let’s take a look at one of those alternatives: Turtl.

Getting going

The developers behind Tutl urge you to think about it as Evernote with ultimate privacy. To be honest, I can’t vouch for the level of privacy that Turtl offers, but it is a pretty good note taking tool.

To get started with Turtl, you’ll need to download a desktop client for Linux, Mac OS, or Windows. Or, you can grab the Android app. Install it, then fire up the client or app. You’ll be asked for a user name and passphrase. Turtl uses this password to generate a cryptographic key that, according to the developers, that encrypts your notes before storing it anywhere on your device or on our servers.

Using Turtl

You can create the following types of notes with Turtl:

  • Password
  • File
  • Image
  • Bookmark
  • Text note

Types of notes you can create with Turtl

No matter what type of note you choose, you create it in a window that’s similar for all types of notes:

Creating a new text note with Turtl

You add information like the title of the note, some text, and (if you’re creating a File or Image note) attach a file or an image. Then, click Save.

You can format your notes using Markdown. You need to type the formatting by hands — there are no toolbar shortcuts.

If you need to organize your notes, you can add them to Boards. Boards are just like notebooks in Evernote. To create a new board, click on the Boards tab and then click the Create a board button. Type a title for the board, and then click Create.

Boards in Turtl

To add a note to a board, create or edit a note and then click the This note is not in any boards link at the bottom of the note. Select one or more boards, then click Done.

You can also add tags to a note by clicking the Tags icon at the bottom of a note, entering a more or more keywords separated by commas, then clicking Done.

Syncing your notes across your devices

If you use Turtl across, for example, a couple of computers and an Android device, then whenever you’re online Turtl syncs your notes. There is a small problem I’ve run into with syncing, though.

I’ve found that every so often, a note I’ve created on my phone doesn’t sync to my laptop. I tried manually syncing by clicking the icon in the top left of the window and then clicking Sync Now. But that doesn’t always work. I found that I occasionally need to click that icon, click Your settings, and then click Clear local data. I have to log back into Turtl but all the data syncs properly.

A question and a couple of problems

When I started using Turtl, I was dogged by one question: where are my notes kept online? It turns out that the developers behind Turtl are based in the U.S. and the servers they use are there. While the encryption that Turtl uses is quite strong and your notes are encrypted on the server, the paranoid in me says that you shouldn’t save anything sensitive in Turtl.

Turtl displays notes in a tiled view, reminiscent of Google Keep:

Notes in Turtl

There’s no way to change that to a list view, either on the desktop or on the Android app. This isn’t a problem for me, but I’ve heard some people pan Turtl because of the lack of a list view.

Speaking of the Android app, it’s not bad. However, it doesn’t integrate with the Android Share menu. If you want to add a note to Turtl based on something you’ve seen or read in another app, you need to manually copy and paste it.

I’ve been using a Turtl for several months on a Linux-powered laptop, an Android phone, and an Ubuntu Touch-powered tablet. It’s been a pretty seamles experience over all those devices. While it’s not my favourite open source note taking tool, Turtl does a pretty good job. You never know: it might be the simple note taking tool you’re looking for.

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