Taking Notes With nvALT

Since moving overseas just over five years ago, I’ve jumped between the dreaded day job and working as a contractor. Over that time, most of my work has been done in the offices of clients or employers. Using their hardware, too.

At a couple of those places, I used a MacBook Pro or MacBook Air. I’m a Linux guy. While I prefer Mac OS to Windows, I really don’t see what all the fuss about MacBooks (and Macs in general) is. They don’t have anything I hadn’t seen before, and they have more than a few annoyances.

That said, there is some nice software available for the MacBook. One tool that I’ve come to depend on is nvALT. It’s a note taking tool that’s based on the popular Mac app Notational Velocity.

nvALT brings much-needed minimalism and simplicity to taking notes. You write your notes in plain text, and it’s quick and easy to use.

Getting Going

That’s as easy as downloading and installing the software.

When you start it up, you’ll notice that there’s nothing visually-exciting about nvALT. In fact, it’s quite plain.

nvALT's main window

With nvALT, function supersedes form.

nvALT consists of two panes:

  • The top pane contains a list of notes. Obviously, it will be empty when you first start it
  • The bottom pane, which contains the body of your note.

You create note by typing the title for your note in the Search or Create box at top of window. Then, press Enter.

Creating a new note in nvALT's

Then, start typing.

You can write you notes in either plain text or using Markdown. nvALT doesn’t automatically render notes formatted with Markdown, but you can preview and print them. More about this in a few moments.

Example of a note in nvALT's

Working with Other Features

And there are a few of them. The main ones that I want to look at are tagging, searching, and previewing notes.


Tagging adds one or more keywords to a note. That keyword makes it easier to find a specific note. Why should that be a problem? nvALT doesn’t understand the idea of folders (like the ones you use on your computer or in a tool like Dropbox).

To tag a note, double click in Tags column for a note. Then, type the tag that you want to add to a note —for example, blogging.

You can sort your notes by their tags by clicking the header or the Tags column. From there, scroll through to find a note.


As I mentioned a moment ago, nvALT stores notes in a long list. There are no folders or any way to organize your notes other than with tags.

But you can search for notes. To do that, type words that might be in the title or body of your note in the Search or Create box at the top of the nvALT window. Depending on how many notes you have, you may still wind up with list containing several notes, but using the search function narrows that list down considerably.

Previewing Notes

I mentioned this a few paragraphs ago when talking about nvALT’s support for Markdown. The preview gives you a nicely-rendered version of a note.

To preview a note, select Preview > Toggle Preview Window.

Previewing a note in nvALT

You can save the preview as an HTML file, or copy and paste the HTML by clicking View Source.

A Few Other Useful Features

There are a few other useful features that make nvALT a bit more flexible. The first of those is the ability to export your notes as plain text, HTML, RTF, or as a Word document. Do that by selecting Note > Export. You can also save a note as a PDF file by selecting Preview > Print Preview / PDF.

If you use use Simplenote, can set nvALT up to automatically synchronize your notes with the service. To do that, select nvALT > Preferences. On the Synchronization, click Synchronize with Simplenote and then enter your user name and password for Simplenote.

Syncing nvALT with Simplenote

Even if you sync with Simplenote, nvALT saves your notes on your computer. You can decide how you want those notes saved by selecting nvALT > Preferences and then clicking the Storage tab. From there, select an option from the Store and read notes on disk as list.

Options for how to store your notes

You can save your notes in single database, as individual plain text files, as formatted HTML files, or as rich text files. The latter, in case you’re wondering, saves all the formatting and makes pulling your notes into a word processor easier. I find that the latter three options are useful if you want to back up or share individual files.

Final Thoughts

While I only use a MacBook at client sites, I find nVALT to be very useful. In fact, it’s an application that I rely on. That said, I probably don’t take advantage of all of nvALT’s features. What I do use works well enough for me. It’s a simple, fast, and effective way to take and store notes.