Circus Ponies Notebook for iPad

I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape — the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.
Andrew Wyeth

One of my favorite programs is Circus Ponies Notebook for the Mac (CPN, see this posting here about the program itself or here about using it for an academic writing). It is a beautiful and very useful outliner that has become an integral part of any complex document I write (see the posting about content outlines here or this one about the difference between a content outline and a structure outline). And yes, even this posting was done with CPN.

After buying an iPad one of the first Apps I bought was Circus Ponies Notebook for iPad. After having used it for a while, the question is: Is the app worth the high price of €23,99/$30?

cpn_ipad_1 cpn_ipad_2 cpn_ipad_2
Click on image to see larger version.

Unfortunately, the question is not simple. There are strong pros and cons:

The pros:

  • You can access your Circus Ponies Notebooks on the move (or anywhere you are). No need to make HTML files out of them or export the page as PDF. The notebook file you use on your Mac is available on the iPad. And after making changes you can transfer the files back to your Mac and they are still there.
  • The functionality is impressive. The outlining function works (yeah!) including the keywords (which I use for source information), you have speech annotations, the Multidex works, you can draw, use the shapes, include images.
  • The App handles multiple notebooks and shows you the page you had open last (see the first image above).
  • There is a sync feature via Dropbox, but I do not trust sync (sorry) and have not tried it. But you should be able to see the changes in the notebook on the iPad quickly on the Mac as well.

But not all is well, there are a few cons …

The cons:

  • The app is not snappy. It is not exactly sluggish either, but it does not react as quickly to user input as I would have expected. In the current form, it is not exactly fun to work with — even on an iPad 3.
  • The outlining controls are hard to use (toolbars work fine). In part because the App is not snappy, in part because the controls are a little to small for me. You can easily zoom the page (with two fingers moving away from each other), but still, expanding or collapsing cells, moving cells, etc. — it does not react fast and at times it does not do what I would have expected, which is very frustrating.
  • Switching between notebooks takes time — and the time delay gets frustrating.

Looking at the use cases I had with the app in the last few months I think you can use the App on the iPad for:

  • Having your notebooks available where you go: For example, if you use a content outline and want to show it to someone else, you can. If you use topic notebooks and want to have them available in a meeting, you can. However, if you want to quickly change it, I think it is too slow on the iPad to be used this way.
  • Make notes while you read a text on the iPad: For example, I graded essays on the iPad by reading them in Good Reader (highlighting or underlining the text there) and quickly moving to CPN with the four finger horizontal swipe of the iPad to make notes. Worked well as the CPN file had pages for each student with the rating scheme on it (created on the Mac). However, it only worked well on the iPad because I had an external Bluetooth keyboard to type the notes. Typing text on the iPad is still something that does not work well in my experience, but of course, this is not the problem of the App. And still, grading was still much easier on the iPad than using a Mac, as I had the text in my hand, could do the annotations in Good Reader more easily, and could quickly switch to CPN to make the more general notes. I sit more relaxed with an iPad than in front of a Mac and CPN for iPad worked really well here.

However, you might not want to use it for the following things:

  • Annotation: There is no automatic OCR of images and no easy way to do annotations that are really connected to the images or PDFs (unless I am missing something). Thus, I would not use it to annotate PDFs (that’s what GoodReader is for, especially as you can easily export the comments and highlighted parts of the text).
  • As a stand-alone version: I would not buy it as a stand-alone version — i.e., without a mac in the background. While you can create Notebooks and edit them, the work experience is not as fluid as you would have on a Mac. It just gets too frustrating.
  • Quickly making notes: It does not react fast enough in my experience and when you need to get things down, this can be a problem. For this I would use a notebook (or if it has to be an iPad, a simple writing app or even the Notes App and in any case an external keyboard).

Personally, I hope for an update that moves away from trying to copy the App 1:1 on the iPad and focuses on speed. While I love the functions it has (especially the outlining pages and this function should remain in any case), I think trying to make it look the same as the Mac version makes the App too slow and hard to use. I wouldn’t mind seeing my notebooks slightly different but much quicker on the iPad, as long as the files itself remain unchanged (so that you can use them on the Mac and on the iPad). Especially switching between notebooks should become easier and faster, same as loading the notebooks, reordering the cells, etc. pp. Perhaps showing some controls when you type on a cell to make it easier to get the desired behavior. Don’t misunderstand me, the developers did an impressive job in replicating the “look” of the application on the iPad — it’s just the “feel” that has suffered.

So — as much as I love CPN on the Mac — my current position on the iPad version is mixed. It has its uses and if you want to have your CPN files available on the iPad, by all means, this is the app for it. But it is not as good as the Mac version and (in my experience) definitely no stand alone app. I use it for special cases like grading papers or having my notebooks available in meetings, but that’s pretty much it. But I am unforgiving when it comes to apps that are not snappy or controls that are hard to use.

So, that was my experience, has anyone else used CPN on the iPad? What are your experiences? What do you use it for?

PS: If you are looking for a ScrapBook (e.g., for a “Diary of Good Things” as a good friend uses one, or a “Moments when it looked dark or got better”, or simple as remembrance aid) I would recommend using Keynote. No kidding.


  1. I did bought the iPad version since I have used the Mac version for a few years. I was disappointed considering the price of the application. I thought Mental Note (iPad version) was much snappier and has as many features for a fraction of the cost. It is on my iPad but I found out that I have been using it less and less. I now do the quick note taking in DevonThink To Go, including meeting notes.

    In fact the combination DevonThink To Go and iAnnotate, pretty much alleviate the need for of CP Notebook (for me).

  2. Thank you for your well thought out review of NoteBook for iPad. I concur with your observations. Using NoteBook on the iPad is helpful only for my Mindfulness practice – indent, breathe, one two, three, – write again. Not too fond of the squiggles used for cells, with no way to see if an outline is collapsed. Also, trying to place the cursor into the middle of an outline is, at best, an exercise in futility.

    On the plus side, I can report that synchronization via Dropbox is flawless, and does not require the Mac version to be shut down. This is not a trivial achievement; look at the difficulties OmniOutliner has had in achieving this. In fact, there are just a handful of programs which sync between a Mac and iOS versions and which provide a RTF-like experience. These include: NoteBook (no iPhone option), Alfons Schmid’s Notebooks (which has a Mac OS app in public beta), Evernote and DEVONthink.

    In the quest for a perfect personal journal that will sync thoughts, web clips and PDFs across my Mac, iPad and iPhone, I have tried many options. In this process I have discovered that, for me, the traditional personal journal model is wanting. Most journals work on the one day per entry model. This inhibits the ability to look across days or weeks to see patterns. I have found making the entire month one entry far more useful in reviewing information across time and have used NoteBook towards this end. NoteBook also excels in looking at my input across time, for example, what have been my thoughts about DEVONthink in the last year. With each paragraph being a separate cell in an outline, a Super-find in NoteBook easily can answer this type of query.

    I have also discovered that the form of journal impacts what I write. For some of the last year, I began each week with a “brain dump” into Curio, decorated with images and articles from web-sites. Comparing my writing in this highly visual environment to what I recorded a more text based app – well, it could almost be the journals of two different individuals. In Curio, much more focus on mediation, mindfulness and creativity. Interesting!

    I am presently experimenting with Evernote. While here too there are quirks (especially the iPad version), the syncing is perhaps the gold standard, and I can pull any of my entries right into Curio. Will see how it goes.



  3. I don’t know, I would have to test CPN on different iPads, and that’s beyond my means.

  4. Hi Daniel, thanks for the good review! I recently bought CPN for iPad and considering buying it for my Mac too but I was quite disappointed by the iPad version and would like to know what do you think as you are a CPN expert. First: it seems that to add attachments in the iPad version is impossible, am I right? And even when I attach a Pdf on the Mac, it seems that the iPad version can’t do much with it. Second: CP seems to have canceled users forum and general impression is that CPN won’t be updated soon, sounds like kind of abandonedware, what do you think? This being the case I wouldn’t pay for the Mac version also to have a product which is not working smoothly with few hopes to have a better version in the near future…suggestions and comments welcome :-)!

  5. Hoi,

    just a short comment, currently a lot to do. In short, the Mac version of CPN is much better. As for abandonware — I’ve heard from another person that they find it suspicious that the forums got removed and there aren’t many changes. Might be a sign that CPN goes down. But from what they have written (when I asked) I doubt it. Sure, they likely wouldn’t say that they go down if it were the case, but I wouldn’t write them off. In any case, the Mac version is really nice (do backups!).

    Sorry, gotta run, much to do at the moment.

    Best regards


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