Joplin – The Self-hosted OneNote Alternative

When I made the decision to ditch giant tech companies, the only application I was tempted to preserve was Microsoft’s OneNote. If you’ve never used it before, it works as a digital notebook. You can create multiple notebooks with different sections and subsections and pages, you can embed audio, video, images, and files. You can make tables.

I began using it right after I graduated from college and for years it organized my life. I kept my goals, my reading lists – even the material I was reading – all in different notebooks. I tracked articles, exercise, my hobbies, and my writing through it. I tried Evernote and a few other online alternatives and never found anything that worked as well.

Then I decided I needed to get rid of Microsoft Office. Most of Office is easily replaced by open source alternatives (I use LibreOffice) and you can even open you’re old MS Office files with them. OneNote is different. There’s no replacement in the suites that comes close to functionality. But there is a replacement.



Desktop screenshot courtesy of

According to the official website, “Joplin is an open source note-taking app. Capture your thoughts and securely access them from any device.”

What you get with Joplin depends on what you want. They offer desktop software and phone apps (even a terminal version) that connect up with a Joplin server. The note-taking software is based on Markdown, which I plan to cover in a tutorial post in the future, given that many of the applications I recommend. Markdown is a plain text method of formatting text. You don’t need to know it to use Joplin, and you don’t need to know much to get a lot of mileage.


A look at the desktop version.

Everything in Joplin is either a notebook or a page, and pages come in two flavors: normal (text) and todo list. These are pretty self-explanatory. Notebooks can be stacked inside other notebooks. I’m told you can nest notebooks inside each other up to ten levels deep.

You can pay them to host your files if you’d like, or you can host things yourself. Given the nature of this publication, you already know what I’d recommend.

Hosting a Joplin server will be part of the server series at some point, but you can still play around with the software on a single device if you don’t want to pay for hosting or wait until the tutorial. You can also use a file hosting system like Dropbox or Nextcloud if you’d like to sync files and don’t care if they live on someone else’s server.

The Good

The app and desktop software are free and open source, and once you host a server, you can connect all of your data for free as well.

You can embed multimedia files in notes; adding pictures from my phone was easier than I thought it would be. You can create checklists, clip things from the internet, run search queries, set up alarms for your todo lists, and make tables.

I manage the writing I do here through Joplin as well as a small business I’m building. It has fully replaced OneNote and the features I thought I wouldn’t find on another local notetaking app.

The Bad

The biggest drawback I’ve found so far with Joplin is that the server is still in under heavy development. I’ve had to update the server once already after getting some very cryptic errors about synchronizing files. I suspect sometime this year things will be more stable. Just the nature of open source software.

Joplin lacks the integration with office that OneNote has, and it lacks some of the really sophisticated features OneNote and Evernote have that I never use.

There are some visual changes I’d like to see as well. While I like the tree view of notebooks, I’d prefer color changes and less indentation to make it easier to read, and some condensing when you have a large number of sub-notebooks within a higher level notebook. These are nitpicks, but this is The Bad, and I had to put them somewhere.


If you like OneNote, I recommend giving Joplin a try. If you enjoy it and find that it does everything for you that OneNote does, but you’d like to host your own content, you can wait for the tutorial on setting up a Joplin server.

Joplin feels like a paid product, which is rare with open source, free software. If you want a digital notebook where you control the data, it’s hard to do better.

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