Vesper for iPhone review: Collect your thoughts with one part notes app, one part lists app, shaken, not stirred

Vesper -- Brent Simmons, Dave Wiskus, and John Gruber's Vesper -- is part list-maker and part note-taker, and so strongly opinionated about how it balances both that you'll fall instantly in love... or want to kill it on sight.

This isn't your UIKit convention, your lowest common denominator, or any other concession to the mass-market. Everything about Vesper, every choice about every feature, liberates only through constraint. Because it allows for just a very small set of very deliberate actions, Vesper frees you from the cognitive overhead of managing the management app, and forces you to simply fulfill its purpose -- collecting your thoughts.

Vesper's name draws allusions to the most classic of Bond women, and the drink she inspired. So does the company name behind Vesper - Q Branch. According to the Brent, Dave, and John, they're making a precision tool for you the same way MI6's Q made them for Bond. (And yes, in this case, if they're Q, that makes you Bond.)

Here's what they've made: In Vesper you can create new notes, add text or images to them, tag them, search for them, share them via Mail or Messages, or copy them to the clipboard, archive them or delete them, visit URLs contained within them using a Spartan, built-in browser, and that's about it. No themes. No font selection. No import or export. No sync. Nothing to sync to or with.

Just Vesper, your ideas, and as little as possible to get in the way of their being captured.

The design reflects that feature set. The interface has no rich textures, no shadows nor sheen, and no gradients. It's got one font, though it's a good one. Its palette is beyond minimal, and it's flat enough to slip under a door. It's also informationally dense enough to be useful, which isn't always the case with type-centric design.

Where Vesper delights is in its kinetics

Where Vesper delights is in its kinetics -- to steal Guy English term for it. Its sidebar opens with the tap of a the "hamburger" button, but it also opens any time you put your finger on the screen, anywhere, and slide it aside to reveal the notes layer beneath. To archive a note, you hold it and pull it out of the list. If you change your mind and let go, the note doesn't just slide back, but bounces playfully back into place. To open a note, you tap it. To change the order, you touch it and drag it to its new home.

These aren't abstract gesture commands, but direct manipulation -- as Brent calls it -- and it works so well I find myself missing it when in the note view. There's no obvious place to put it -- no edge of the list view to drag back -- but I find myself instinctively trying all the time anyway.

Vesper's tag- and archive-based system makes it not only possible but also convenient to use it for long-term memory. Still, even with all of its opinions and constraints, Vesper remains flexible enough to suit several different workflows. I find myself seldom using tags and often deleting, using Vesper more as short-term memory -- things I want to keep in cache but not write to disk.

If you want to do more, Vesper loads with an initial set of notes that tells you how. As Dave describes it, it's a Super Mario rather than Zelda style tutorial - fun, informative, but totally unobtrusive.

And to quickly blast through the remaining controversies -- no the icon isn't the most richly designed or visually balanced, it's stark, either a portion of a tag bubble or -- if you've watched as many movies as me -- James Bond walking across the screen, just about to turn and fire through the circular sight. It's also impossible to miss on a Home screen and I like it fine. I'm also ecstatic that Brent, Dave, and John are charging real money for a real app. I hope more developers follow in their footsteps.

I've been using Vesper for a while now in beta, and it saves me enough time to easily be worth such a little amount of money. It's value far exceeds its cost.

Again, it's so focused and opinionated it'll turn off as many potential customers as it turns on. This isn't a note-taking, list-making app for everyone. It's an app for John to collect his thoughts, as framed and realized by Dave and Brent. It's individual and personal in a way that others will either love or hate depending on their feeling towards, and their design and feature alignment with, the opinions expressed from pixel to bit. But that's okay. Maybe that's even how it should be -- Highly specific tools for highly specific jobs with highly specific tastes. A cocktail, not a soda.

If that appeals to you, Vesper is available in the App Store now. If it doesn't, there are plenty of alternatives. If you want to know more before you buy, Brent, Dave, and John were gracious enough to join Guy English and me for Debug this week. I learned a ton. Give it a listen.

Have something to say about this story? Leave a comment! Need help with something else? Ask in our forums!

Rene Ritchie

EiC of iMore, EP of Mobile Nations, Apple analyst, co-host of Debug, Iterate, Vector, Review, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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Reader comments

Vesper for iPhone review: Collect your thoughts with one part notes app, one part lists app, shaken, not stirred


The kinectics and hamburger button are direct rip from the gmail app (which is probably a rip off of others). How unoriginal and a bit appalling that such work is praised on iMore.

There's nothing wrong with using a UI concept used in another application. So I guess according to you no other app developer, including Apple, should implement pull to refresh after it was pioneered in Tweetie by Loren Brichter?

I'm assuming you have difficulties reading and/or understanding English, rather than being dense. I never said there was anything wrong or that nobody should use others work, just that it was unoriginal and not worthy of praise.

First, you need to calm down. Second, use of words like "appalling" is a bit overboard especially when the context of the praise is the overall use of the application, not the uniqueness of the feature.

It looks good to be honest. But what if it were made by an unknown developer? Would it be defended this much for not having enough set of features?

Ding, Ding, Ding. Give that man a cee-gar. You hit the nail on the proverbial head. I think the hype over who did this is overshadowing what it is. I mean when else do you see an interview of the Dev included along with a software review as MacWorld and MacStories has published? With regards to the app, it is pretty bare-bones and limited in features. Worst of all, the data it stores is an island unto itself and the lack of sync or export makes this practically useless for people who need their info to be accessed from multiple devices.

I completely agree with that. The app is good, and the fact that the devs are great people and the price tag is a little bit high convinces user that this app will remain sustainable. However, I personally think that there should be less subjectivity in the reviews. I mean, just be fair with the other apps from those devs who aren't really that well-known. One possible thing that could be done is, emphasizing the weakness of Vesper, which is the lack of data syncing, instead of saying, in my own words, "this app doesn't do syncing, but it is good enough since the core function (taking notes and preventing your ideas from perishing) works perfectly."

It could be a feature that is expected to make simplicity persistent. But my point is that this wouldn't be thought as a feature had the app were made not by these respectable people. Instead, it would just be thought as a negative in my opinion.

I feel the same way. So many of these tech writers are fawning over the app. It seems ok, but its missing key features (like sync) that are almost inexcusable nowadays. For those that "fret" over having too many options like syncing...just don't use it! But I think most people want syncing nowadays.

I like it, and that's got nothing to do with who made it. It could be John Gruber or it could be some unknown developer from the other side of the planet. And here's why I like it.

I'm forever worrying about where my stuff is going to sync to, what I'm going to use to note stuff down, how I'm going to access it later. Kinda goes with the territory working here. But, in that process, I spend more time worrying and less time actually noting down my thoughts. Then I forget things, I miss things. Already because Vesper doesn't allow me to think about any of that stuff (because it isn't there) it's been the best note writing app I've used. Last night I sat down watching TV and had a couple of great ideas, I fleshed them out in Vesper, put my phone down and carried on. I didn't spend 10 minutes thinking about what I need to write it in to sync to iCloud, or maybe Dropbox, what will I want to do with it on my Mac. It's great. Kinda like a personal journal more than a productivity tool.

While I understand you are enjoying the simplicity of jotting down a note and saving it (Which btw can be accomplished by even the simplest apps, including Apple's own Notes app), I don't really understand the thought process of "spending 10 minutes thinking about what to write in it to sync". A sync is not something most folks have to "think about". I'll go as far to say that the most time anyone thinks about a sync is the first time set up and that's when multiple choices are available (iCloud, DropBox, etc). Personally I think it's more time consuming when you realize you want to jot something down or read something you have written prior and the devices that are around you at the current time are devices other than the iPhone (iPad, Mac, PC). I know for myself, when I am home my iPhone goes straight to the charging dock and my iPad and Mac are with or around me most of the time.

You have a point there. The problem that I see is that this kind of point of view wouldn't be exposed had the app were done by someone unknown. It's like we're trying to defend Vesper for any weaknesses it has. It doesn't need us defending it. It is a good app in fact. And that great design ethos could already gain attention from lots of potential buyers.

So, my question is, can this kind of "I don't have to worry about myself figuring out where my data should sync" arise when people are reviewing yet-another-note-taking-app from unknown devs? Can this yet-another-note-taking-app from unknown devs that is shipped without sync but does its core function right get positive reviews? I doubt it can.

Very similar to the hype the Clear app received. A simple checklist app that was hyped for it's swipe interface and didn't allow a sync to any other device or allow integration with Apple's own reminders database.