Comparing Omnioutliner and Circus Ponies Notebook

Why write an Outline

I wrote an outline, once, in high school, when computers were big and screens were green. I did not understand the purpose of it and the numbering conventions seemed arcane. I was so confused that, I wrote the outline after I had written the paper, completely defeating its purpose. Writing down a proposed structure seemed a waste of time because a paper outline is not malleable. An outline is an exploration of structure and exploration requires revision.

What I did not understand at the time was the efficiency of writing an outline. Nothing slows down writing than not know where the piece is going. It is easier and faster to create the structure and flow of a document and then write what you think you need.

The use writing as a sole means of a discovery takes a long time and is incomplete. mind mapping is a better tool 1 for discovering the links and in your topic. Outlines are a means to structure those connections.

Outlines are guides but they should not necessarily restrict the writing. The outline is only a means of exploration and clarification; deviation and modification are expected and encouraged.

What Software is available

There are some interesting online outlining applications:

  1. Ginko – a horizontal outliner
  2. Fargo 
  3. Mind Meister

But, since I like the ability to be work offline, my choices for Mac Os X are:

Dr.Drang has given an overview of most of these outliners. It is also worth reading Arno’s Tech Tools  for more analysis.

Folding text a markdown outliner. There some ingenious bit of programming to accomplish outlines in plain text. It is the fastest way of getting from an outline to a markdown document. Unfortunately development seems to have stopped for Folding Text.

The Tree offers some interesting possibilities as a horizontal outliner – but I have a difficult time wrapping my head around the concept. Horizontal outlines provide a view of the structure and content of the document in a compressed format. Not Nursed Ratchetoffers an interesting modification to Tree to compose markdown documents.

Opal is solid, straightforward and handles OPML well – it is just a little limiting and has some obscure shortcuts. Neo is crazy powerful,is incredibly obscure and uses non-standard shortcuts.

Neo is an extremely powerful, advanced and capable outliner. Unfortunately, it is obtuse, and uses non standard keybindings and conventions.

I have been using Circus Ponies Notebook for a few years and it has worked well, but I wanted to give Omnioutliner 4 another try.

Comparing Omnioutliner 4 and Circus Ponies Notebook


Omnioutliner comes in two versions: Standard ($50) and Pro ($100). The biggest difference is the two is AppleScript. The Pro version has row to row linking.

Circus Ponies Notebook cost $49.95.

Advanced Outlining

Omnioutliner 4 Pro allows for hyperlinking within a document. Circus Ponies Notebook allows for linking within an outlines and between outlines within a document.

Both programs support hoisting but not cloning.

Omnioutliner allows for multiple columns. Circus Ponies Notebook allows for keywords to be placed outside of a row.


Text can be styled according to outline level in both programs. However, Omnioutliner makes the process much easier as style choices are readily available in the sidebar. These styles can be transferred from document to document. Different “Themes” can be applied on the fly to a document. Omnioutliner can make an outline look good. Unfortunately, only the Pro version comes with the option of turning off row handles.

Circus Ponies Notebook allows for styling as well but it requires a deep dive into preferences. Styling options are not as complete. Styles can not be transferred to another outline. This means you would have to start with a blank notebook without the styles that you wanted for a given project or recreate them for each new project. However, Circus Ponies Notebook does allow you to turn off row handles if you want without having to pay for the “pro” version.

Features outside of outlining


Circus Ponies Notebook allows:
+ diagramming
+ stickies
+ Flags
+ Due dates/creation dates
+ Highlighting
These annotations with the exception of highlighting and dates occurs at the level of the page and not the cell.


Circus Ponies Notebook allows for keywords to be added in the column for any given cell. Omnioutliner allows for multiple columns – a column could easily hold a keyword. Circus Ponies Notebook can highlight words in cell. Omnioutliner applies styles to selected text. However, Circus Ponies Notebook has the multidex. The multidex is a collection of indexed data :
+ index words
+ keywords
+ highlights
+ dates
+ attachments
+ Superfind – multiple user defined search criteria

For creating multiple connected outlines, Circus Ponies Notebook has far more profound organizing capabilities.


Both programs support attachments, and audio recordings but Circus Ponies Notebook does a better job of tracking what you type with what is being said. This means you can go back to a specific part of the recording by clicking on the appropriate text. Omnioutliner just pastes the recording in one spot, which is really not that useful.

Keyboard Shortcuts

I prefer Omnioutliner keyboard shortcuts for expanding and collapsing a line/outline. Omnioutliner is able to collapse rows and sections without obscure shortcuts. Circus Ponies Notebook has more multiple key keyboard shortcuts which do not work as seamlessly.

This may seem like a trivial difference, but I like to maintain flow when I am writing. I would prefer not having to reach for the mouse if I do not need to or think about what keyboard shortcut I need.


Circus Ponies Notebook allows for multiple outlines in one document. These outlines are easily accessible using the notebook metaphor as well as “Superfind” and an “Multidex”, indexing text, keywords etc…

iPad version

Both Omnioutliner($30) and Circus Ponies Notebook(4.99 – was $30) come with iPad versions. Circus Ponies Notebook’s iPad version works wells as a reader for documents- it is fast and renders attached PDFs well. However, the Omnioutliner iPad version works better for creating or modifying outlines.

Omnioutliner allows for more intuitive editing that does not disrupt the flow of thoughts. Circus Ponies Notebook requires two taps before being able to write. That is one annoying tap too many.

Both iPad version handle attaching media poorly. I managed to crash the iPad while trying to include a PDF in a cell of both Circus Ponies Notebook and Omnioutliner.

Circus Ponies Notebook does a better job of rendering the PDF. Circus Ponies Notebook simply opens the PDF for reading. Omnioutliner requires that the PDF be opened in Goodreader or other PDF reader. I like to use the iOS version of Circus Ponies Notebook as a repository for PDFs and travel notes when I am traveling. Omnioutliner for iOS makes reading PDFs in the outline tedious.


Both programs are excellent for creating outlines. I find Omnioutliner more intuitive because of better keyboard shortcuts for outline navigation and application of styles. Outlines just look better in Omnioutliner.

But, Circus Ponies Notebook has far better tools for organizing and finding information. It is meant as a repository for multiple related outlines of information. The Multidex and Superfind are robust methods of finding information buried in outlines. It is considerably cheaper than Omnioutliner Pro and has many comparable features. But, it is harder for me to create outlines because of the annoying keyboard shortcuts (can be remedied with Keyboard Maestro) and the difficulty of changing styles.

I find that I am using Omnioutliner more for outlines where I need to create the structure and Circus Ponies Notebook for outlines where I want a repository of information that is immediately available or for organizing PDFs for travel.

  1. As an aside, for the exploration of a topic, mind mapping is much more useful than outlining. Without knowing your content, structure is impossible and trying to force structure on while exploring a topic is to push the mind opposite directions.

    David Sparks has talked about how he uses mind mapping to help him write books. 


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