Card-Based Whiteboard PKMS

We are certainly living in the golden age of note managers. Fueled, I suppose, by the explosion of telecommuting due to COVID, it seems there is a new note-taking, planning, task app every week. There are so many apps coming to market that whole new categories are evolving.

One of these I would call Card-Based Whiteboard PKMs. These would be defined by two primary characteristics:

  1. Notes are created in virtual cards
  2. These cards can be moved about and manipulated on a virtual whiteboard

The whiteboard distinguishes this group from apps like Supernotes or Cling, which treat cards as if they are in a card file to be shuffled through.

The apps I want to talk about allow the user to place cards on a whiteboard of some kind and to move them about, allowing the user to create context by the arrangement of the cards.

There are four apps I want to look at:

  • Walling
  • xTiles
  • Heptabase
  • Scrintal

This isn’t a review. I am not setting out to identify the “best” app. Each is different and has its own strengths and weaknesses. Additionally, each of these apps is still evolving and far, I assume, from being as functional as it will be when mature. My goal here is to point out the different approaches to note-taking each of these apps has and to give the reader some sense of whether or not they would like to explore them further.

In all cases, the “cards” are documents in themselves, with many of the elements that have become standard in such note apps. Think of Notion or Coda pages torn from their binders and then arranged on a whiteboard… though these apps do not have the more powerful features of Notion or Coda pages, such as database tables.

I am going to look at them in order of how “mature” I think the app is, from most to least.

Walling

Walling is the first of these apps that I became aware of. It feels to me the most mature — that is that it’s closest to being fully functional. Which is not to say that the developer will not improve it. Walling is still continually developed, with new features added regularly.

Arrange your cards (bricks) on whiteboards (walls) in Walling.

Walling has a host of other features, too many for the purposes of this article, but here is a general overview that I hope will give you a good idea of how the app functions.

Walling calls its whiteboards “walls,” and the cards on the walls are called “bricks.” Of the apps in this article, Walling may provide the most structure. You can think of your walls as pages, which you can organize in folders accessible through a library panel on the left. You create a brick (or card) by double-clicking on a wall. Cards can be arranged on a wall in columns, but very flexibly. Some cards can span more than one column, if you choose.

Walls can be cut into sections for further organization.

You can choose from several different views of the data in the sections on your walls:

  • Visual View keeps the card metaphor and allows you to move them around as on a whiteboard.
  • KanBan View allows you to categorize your bricks into columns.
  • Calendar View makes the columns in your wall represent specific time periods (days, weeks or months).
  • List View shows the bricks in the section as rows.
  • Table View is like List View, but allows you to add more columns, including custom columns to add meta data to your bricks.

So, in the same wall you can have sections displaying information in any or all those views.

There is a Daily Desk wall where you can temporarily park your cards until you categorize them. And a wizard is a search function that can draw bricks from other walls into a new wall/section. And you can add tasks to any of your cards, then the My Tasks wall pulls in cards from across your database with open tasks.

Walling’s “bricks” can be opened in a focus view.

When I’ve used Walling, I’ve thought of it as a simplified version of Notion. That is, it can do a lot of the things Notion can, but it isn’t quite as open-ended. I want to call Walling, Notion with training wheels, but that would short-change the sophistication behind Walling’s development.

Walling is available for standard devices: iOS, MacOS, Windows, Android, and it is available through the web.

Learn more about using Walling through the tutorials on the Walling YouTube channel.

xTiles

xTiles is the newest app on this list, at least to my awareness.

With xTiles, you can add your cards to what the developers call a canvas (but I prefer pages). You can make your cards as large or small as is needed. These cards hold most of the standard elements, though I don’t believe you can expand them to focus mode, as you can with the other apps in this article. (August update: xTiles now supports a focus view for their cards.)

xTile cards are arranged on a canvas. You can have multiple tabs and even subpages in a document.

xTiles allows you to add tabs to a document, and also to create sub-pages. This parsing of notes is an attractive feature to me.

Use the breadcrumb trail to navigate from a subpage back to its parent page.

You build your documents purposefully. That is, you probably wouldn’t use xTiles if you want to just grab information that might be useful to you in the future. It isn’t a Zettlekasten.

At this point, you can’t export your work, but you can share it.

To the best of my knowledge, xTiles is only available through a web browser, though mobile apps are promised.

You can learn more about xtiles (or xTiles — they write it both ways) at their YouTube channel, where they have a number of short tutorials.

Heptabase

Heptabase is a notes management application for Windows and Mac. There is no browser version, but it does use the cloud to sync your notes between devices. You don’t need to be online to use Heptabase.

Heptabase is best for assembling your cards into diagrams.

In it, notes are created as cards with most of the standard elements and features of modern note managers. There are three general views of your cards in Heptabase:

  • Cards can be viewed in decks, called whiteboards.
  • Cards can also be viewed in the timeline with the newest cards on top.
  • Finally, in the card library you can view all your cards, then filter them by tag or whiteboard and search string.

Whiteboards are very free form. You can freely place cards anywhere on the board, you can expand or contract cards. One of my favorite features of the whiteboard is that you can draw links between and among cards, and you can annotate (or label) the links.

Heptabase has a map of your whiteboards.

You can use the timeline view to gather notes. When it comes time to work on a project, you can set up a whiteboard and pull related notes into the whiteboard to brainstorm and refine your ideas.

So, unlike Walling or xtiles, note cards don’t have to live anywhere until you want them to.

I am writing this review in Heptabase. When I am done with it, I can drag all the related cards into one card and export it as a markdown file. Right now, markdown is the only file format supported in export.

Heptabase has a leaner YouTube presence than the other apps in this article, but you can still get a good sense of how it works on their channel.

Scrintal

Scrintal is similar to Heptabase. As I write this, you can only gain access to Scrintal after an onboarding session. It is still in heavy development, so doesn’t match the other apps in this article feature to feature, but Scrintal already has a dedicated following.

This is what a board in Scrintal looks like. When you create a wiki-style link in a note card, Scrintal automatically draws a link on the board.

There are three aspects of Scrintal:

  1. Note cards similar to the apps above.
  2. Where the differences begin to really show is with the highly flexible Desk, where you can collect and organize related note cards in order to manage any knowledge project.
  3. An underlying organizational structure based on tags and saved project groups (called Boards).

The magic happens on the desk, but it is made possible by the easy linking that can occur in the notes, and the structure you give your notes with the tags and boards.

A Scrintal card in focus mode. When you create or click on a link to another note, that note opens in the side panel. Heptabase does this very similarly.

When you open Scrintal, you are presented with the great white space of your desk. If you’re starting it up for the first time, this space will be empty. If you had left cards on the desk from the last time you were in, these cards will still be there. The easiest way to create a new card is to just double-click on an empty space on the desk.

A card editor window will pop up and you can create your notes. Working on a long-form note and want no distractions? Simply select focus mode and the note takes over the whole pane.

Close your note and you’ll find that the new note and any linked notes are displayed on the desk, along with visual links between notes. (At this point you can’t label these links, but I anticipate that they will add this.)

You use the search bar to find existing notes you want associated with your current board and drag them onto the desk. When you’re ready to move on to another project you can save the current board (if it was an existing board you opened, it has been automatically saved), then select all the cards on the desk and delete them… don’t worry, they are only gone from the desk. They are still safely filed in your archive.

Boards are sets of cards saved in the layout in which you last left them. Say you’ve been toiling away and have a dozen cards with links and put in an order you like, you can turn it into a saved board. Then you can return to that board quickly and pick up right where you left off. Any new work you do on a board — changed layout, more cards — is automatically saved.

Learn more about using Scrintal on their YouTube channel.

Conclusion

With the exception of Walling, these apps are still a ways from being mature. I am looking forward to seeing how they evolve.

I admire each, but it is Heptabase and Scrintal that most grab my attention. Walling has a lot of fine features, but so far I have found that it doesn’t seem to work with my way of thinking. xTiles is interesting because of the tabs and sub-pages, but the cards are too static.

Both Heptabase and Scrintal allow for easy wiki-style linking among your notes, as well as opening notes side-by-side in focus mode.

I am partial to Scrintal, perhaps because of my onboarding experience (a kind of Stockholm syndrome, which is coincidental to the fact that Scrintal’s development is based in Stockholm). But I wrote this article in Heptabase, anticipating a convenient way to pull all the pieces together and export as a markdown document. I must note that concatenating the pieces was a lot more awkward than I expected.

If I were looking for project management software from among this group, I’d start with Walling or xtiles. For Zettlekasten note taking and development of written works, I’d look at Heptabase and Scrintal.

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Stephen Zeoli

Stephen Zeoli

Carl Sagan and Edward Abbey are among my heroes.