The Nebulous Notes Utility Bar and Markdown
11:00PM — Saturday, December 3, 2011. Reading time ~4.916666666666667min.
I’m a massive Markdown nerd and a reasonably prolific note taker so I’m always looking for the next, great iOS text editor. I’d seen Nebulous in the App Store before, but honestly I’d been a bit put off by the icon and screenshots. It didn’t seem to have the polish of Elements or the simplicity of Simplenote.
I dug a bit deeper and found that this assumption was largely unfounded. Plus it has one absolutely killer feature—the Utility Bar. This is essentially and extra row of keys above the standard keyboard. iA Writer was the first app that I saw implement this. Their version is nice, but it’s limited to the set of keys they decided would be useful. As lovely as Writer is, it forces you into their way of writing. It really is made for writing, not note taking, or outlining, or anything else you might use a text editor for.
What Nebulous Notes lets you do is customise this Utility Bar with your own macros. This is great for Markdown. When I take notes they’re usually bulleted lists with indented bullets for sub points. For example:
* This is my first point - This is a sub point - This is another sub point * This is my second point * This is my third point
Typing this on an iPad or iPhone is a pain in the arse. You need to change the keyboard to get to the hyphen and you need to change it twice to get to the asterisk.
In Nebulous I can setup a macro key that adds an asterisk with a space after it — ready to type a point. I also setup another that adds a tab, then a hyphen, then a space — ready to type an indented bullet.
I did the same for ordered lists. Tap a button and 1. with a space after is inserted. Tap another button and 2. with a tab before and a space after is inserted. As Markdown automatically re-numbers ordered list items. It doesn’t matter if all items in your list start with 1. and all sub items start with 2.
Similarly for heading levels I setup buttons for h2 and h3 that insert two or three hash’s respectively, with a space afterwards.
The macro’s can also reference things.
$sel will use the currently selected text and
$paste will use the contents of the clipboard. This means selecting a word and hitting the button programmed with
*$sel* will wrap it in asterisks (which outputs as emphasis/italics in Markdown). If you tap the button again it simply adds an extra set of asterisks for strong/bold.
This makes Markdown links really interesting.
[$sel]($paste) would turn the selected text into an inline link using the URL in the clipboard.
[$sel](http://$cursor) would take the selected text but insert
http:// with your cursor ready to type.
I prefer reference links so I use
[$paste]: $cursor. The first of these takes the selected text and wraps it in square brackets with an empty set of square brackets next to it, ready to have a reference name typed into them. I’d then copy the reference name to the clipboard and run the second one at the bottom of the document — so I’d have a list of links I need to find when I’m finished writing.
It’s pretty killer.
You can export your custom macro’s as a text file. If you want you can download mine. Just (unzip it then) dump it in the root of your Dropbox folder. At the bottom of the list of Macro’s in the app, theres an import button.
A few notes about the rest of the app
- When you’re using a bluetooth keyboard, the Utility Bar stays on screen, even though the software keyboard disappears.
- Due to the nerdy nature of this customisation, I also expected support for custom CSS for the Markdown preview. This means Notsey is still hanging around for the one single task of previewing in a nicer, custom style.
- You can pinch to zoom to change the font size.
- There is a decent selection of built in typefaces, both monospaced and variable width. And you can set the background and text to be any colour you like.
- Sync works a bit differently to other apps in this category. I think this is a good thing, but I’m not sure yet.
- It’s worth noting that I’ve customised the Utility Bar for Markdown. But you could can customise it however you want. You could any other strings you use regularly like
'sor even regularly used single characters that are on the next keyboard like
- It’s universal. So you get iPhone and iPad for the same price.