Craft, the note taking app that combines a beautiful design with powerful functionality

In my pursuit of note taking apps for the zettelkasten method, I stumbled across a new app that I had briefly seen going by sometime around the end of 2020. Back then, I thought that it was yet-another-app like Bear and Notes and Drafts and… As I wanted to write an article on software that fits a zettelkasten system, at this point in time I thought I’d give it a go. It wasn’t love at first sight, but upon digging deeper, I found a true gem and one that shines for zettelkasten purposes too.

Craft looks splendid. That’s both its appeal and its Nemesis, as its looks were what first made me think this was just another all-looks-no-body app. There are many of those; I’ve tried them all and I threw all of them off my system after a couple of days. Luckily for Craft’s developers and for us, Craft is deceiving: it looks great but certainly doesn’t stop there. Users who are searching for a powerful note taking app that can be used for recipes just as easily as for scientific work or for writing a book won’t be disappointed.

OK, so Craft’s UI may not please everybody. It’s a matter of taste. You might be happier with a look like that of the upcoming nvUltra — nice but more traditional — or by Bear or Drafts. Even then, I would like to urge you to download Craft’s trial and take it for a spin. It has functionality you won’t find in any of those apps, at least not with the same ease of use that lets you focus completely on your content.

Linking notes together

A fine example is linking notes together. The Craft concept of a note is semi-hierarchical. You start with a folder (you could also call that a category) in which you create and store documents. The documents hold pages with paragraphs that are blocks. Those blocks would be your notes if you’d be working with such a hierarchy. If you’re not into hierarchies, you could call a page a note as well. It’s all as you wish it to be.

You can link documents, pages, blocks, and you can mix the lot (meaning you can link a document to a block or a page or…). You can also integrate Hook links with Craft document/pages/notes. Linking is extremely user-friendly. Wherever you want to insert a link, you type an @ upon which a popup list will appear.

At first, this list will only show you a “Create new” option. You will use that if you want to link to a new note (from now on, I’ll use note for any connectable content level in Craft). However, if you immediately start typing some characters, the “Create new” option will move to the bottom and the list will be populated with notes that contain your entered characters. Mind you, the list will have suggestions for notes containing the characters entered regardless of the level or whether it’s a different note. That means you can link to a note in a document that lives in a different folder — without ever having to remember that — or in the same note you’re now working on.

Of course, you can link from text you first selected in a note as well. In that case, a list of options containing the @ sign will appear and when selecting the @ you’ll be able to do the same as above. If there are no other documents, pages or blocks that contain that word, the list will be empty and you can still create a new note (a block in this case, but bear with me) with that term as the title.

You will notice that every link you create is listed in the note to which you connected and that backlinking is automatically added, which is a huge time saver and a must-have for zettelkasten use. Not just that, but remember that I said that creating a new note would create a new block? Well, your blocks can actually be turned into pages within pages. For example, let’s assume you have a block (more or less equals a paragraph) with one sentence: “The secret life of moths is no longer a secret” and you realise this subject merits more elaboration, then it’s easy to turn that into a heading of a new note in Craft by clicking the right arrow. The paragraph will make place for a new note — in this case, with the looks of a page — with the sentence as its heading, ready for you to further add text below.

When you return back to the “higher level” in your document, you’ll notice your sentence has a new format that shows it’s been turned into an embedded page.

Files and file formats

As much as Craft is a powerhouse in terms of user experience and supercharging your notes with meaningful references, it’s not perfect, at least not in its current state (the developer’s published data security statement shows an interesting change that’s coming to the way Craft works in the background; if it comes true, Craft will become closer to perfection than any other note editor I know).

One criticism is that Craft does not produce plain text or Markdown files. Instead, its file format is based on JSON. That’s an open source format, which merits Craft good marks but as it is the acronym for JavaScript Object Notation, it’s not exactly a format designed to give a pleasing reading experience. Still, the statement not only mentions a transition to Markdown, one of the export formats is Markdown, so you can get your notes out of Craft in easy to read and reuse Markdown format.

Another point of criticism is that Craft does not support tables at all. I also couldn’t find any reference to a planned table functionality. You can drag an Apple Numbers spreadsheet into Craft, but it will be converted to an image format (or PDF; I couldn’t tell). Export your table to CSV and it will end up in Craft as a bunch of comma-delimited data. This is one feature that would be on my list of most wanted things.

UPDATE: Craft’s developers informed me they are going to support tables soon. I got their permission to quote them: “We are actively working on tables. Based on our plans it will be available sometime in the upcoming months. Also with the next release we are introducing universal file type support, so you will be able to attach additional files not just PDFs, images, and videos (also CSV files will be kept as CSV files from now on).”

So, Craft isn’t perfect. Given that it’s been released sometime in November last year, if I’m not mistaken, you could also say it’s still in its infancy.

Is your data safe in Craft?

In order to share your notes with your iOS devices, you will need cloud synchronisation. Craft has its own synchronisation service which works blazingly fast and should be secure enough for most users.

In addition, it offers you to set up a “Space”. A Space is a collection of folders and documents, and the concept is an excellent way to manage note collections that have no relationship to each other — e.g. notes for a scientific paper vs. notes for managing a daily blog. You can have a Space that is 100% local or that is synchronising via the Mac’s iCloud account. Both options come with some limitations. For example, if you want to share notes with other people by sending them a secure link via email, you can do so only with Craft’s own synchronisation solution.

All that begs the question whether your data is safe and secure. The Craft website is reassuring in its determination to convince you the data is yours and they aren’t going to do anything with it except synchronising between your devices. That message is reinforced by the ability to push aside Craft’s server and use only local storage or iCloud (and perhaps other services like Dropbox and Sync or Box some time in the future?).

Furthermore, your data in the cloud can be accessed and modified without a Craft product and the company states they are going to provide strong documentation and open source libraries for parsing and modifying their file format — meaning you can build on top of these if you need to convert to a specific format they don’t have covered.

Is Craft worth the subscription fee?

Before I had taken a good look around in Craft, I thought not. I was convinced this was yet another app that is all design and no body, no power in your hands. But after having gone through the trouble of exploring a bit more, I am convinced Craft will appeal to a large number of people busy with all types of “projects”, whether it be writing, collecting recipes, creating a zettelkasten system, or just to have a digital binder with thoughts, ideas and memories in one gorgeously designed environment.

Craft can be downloaded directly from the Mac App Store. A one-year subscription costs 45 Euros.

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