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Two Stu.dicio.us Weeks
September 8, 2006, 11:08 am
Filed under: Reviews, Technology

I have a hard time paying attention. It might just be a geek ailment caused by too much stimulation, or I might have A.D.D. Either way, I’m an awful note-taker, and computers have only made my notes worse. When I heard about stu.dicio.us and saw its minimalist interface, I signed up right away. Now, I’ve been using stu.dico.us for two weeks for all my lecture notes and here’s what I think of it so far.

In which I ditch Microsoft Word for a puny web-based text editor

Full disclosure: Despite running beta versions of Windows Vista and Microsoft Office 2007 on a shiny new computer, I’m writing this on notepad.exe. The more techie gadgets and flash interfaces we have thrown at us, the more attractive the low-end simple interface becomes. After all, the idea is to get things done, not to look good doing them. Stu.dicio.us is a web based application that helps you get a specific job done with minimal fuss. It’s all about taking notes for class, and if you want to insert graphics and spreadsheets and pie charts, then you’re missing the point entirely.

Note-taking

I have a tendency to be long-winded and imprecise, and thus would make a terrible computer programmer. I’m also a terrible note-taker, and find myself focusing on making my notes look pretty rather than actually writing them. Lecture notes are supposed to be quick and to the point, and I am not. Fortunately, one of stu.dicio.us’ glaring “limitations” helps teach you to be a better note-taker while you’re working. Unlike full word processors like Writely, stu.dicio.us is essentially a huge bullet list. This means you need to keep lines short and to the point. This is good.

Blank Page

The prospect of staring at a completely blank page with essentially no user interface might seem daunting to some, but in this age of GUI overkill, I find it very refreshing. Yes, the pretty interfaces in OSX and Vista are nice to look at and impress your friends with, but there’s a point where focusing on a nice-looking interface becomes akin to buying an “it” car before you’ve landed a good job. It’s stupid.

Enter stu.dicio.us’ non-interface. Here’s a whole new paradigm in the world of web2.0 overkill: it’s essentially a blank page.

The only “interface” here is a little quick reference card in the upper right-hand corner. For limited formatting, stu.dicio.us uses Textile formatting. Not having to click on buttons comes in very handy when you’re trying to focus on the lecture isntead of your user interface.

After using stu.dicio.us daily for about two weeks, I find thatthis non-interface helps me focus on one thing: taking my notes. Compared to the shiny animated graphics of Microsoft Office 2007, which I was using last semester, stu.dicio.us is downright bland. But, again, are we using software to complete a task, or to stare at pretty graphics on a screen?

Autolinks

Last semester, I found myself looking at Wikipedia for additional information on people or topics mentioned in class nearly every lecture. I eventually started putting links into the document (a long, round-about task in Word, even in 2007 Beta). Using stu.dicio.us, all I need to do is encapsulate the word(s) I want Wikipedia links to in curly brackets, and I’m done. At the end, I’m left with a reference list of Wikipedia (or Google Search or Google Scholar) links below the “cheat sheet” reference card (which I’d like the option to turn off). The “autolink” feature, unveiled just a few days ago, is a very welcome addition, making it much easier to go to Wikipedia for in-depth information.

Save As…

With all the buzz about ditching the desktop for web-based apps, people sometimes forget their biggest drawback: When the internet connection dies, good luck trying to get all those files you saved online or accessing any of the apps you depend on. It’s a lesson each of us must learn eventually (probably the hard way), but fortunately, stu.dicio.us has a few safety mechanisms to protect the user.

First, there’s the straightforward “save as” button. Don’t trust the auto-save, save a copy to your hard drive as often as you would were you typing a document in Word. No, on notepad.exe! Stu.dicio.us lets you choose to save your notes as either an HTML file, or (better), a DOC file. In addition, a recently added “work offline” feature holds back on the auto-save function for a while (let’s say you’ve got to turn off that WiFi to save battery-life), and then immediately save as soon as the “work online” button is pressed.

B is for beta buggy

With all the good stuff stud.icio.us has in store for students, it’s not without its frustrating bugs and problems. The auto-save doesn’t work as well as, say, Gmail’s auto-save, and I’d like to have the option of specifying standard auto-save intervals. The worst problem I had with stu.dicio.us was its propensity to arbitrarily “forget” chunks of notes, even after they’ve been auto-saved. It’s a reason why you should remember to save all your files to your hard drive. I found that an entire lecture’s worth of notes vanished into the ether one day, despite having been there the previous day. In fact, this has happened twice during my two-week test.

Because stud.icio.us doesn’t seem to good at actually saving your documents (come on, even a small failure rate is not acceptible here), and because clicking “save as DOC” everytime I finish typing my notes gets old pretty fast, I would like to see some kind of synchroization ability built in to a later version. For example, while auto-saving to the server, it could also be auto-saving to a specified directory in my hard drive, as a backup.

All in all, if you’re a student and you’re sick of firing up a bloated word processor to take your lecture notes, stu.dicio.us is a worthy note-taking app. I have had very few qualms about stu.dicio.us so far, and I’m going to keep using it throughout this semester. This means you can look forward to a long-haul report at the end of the semester.

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Filed under: Technology

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