Evernote? NOW?

Back story

For longer than I can remember I have adopted the position that 1) notes should be in ASCII: universal, future-proof, small files and 2) markdown syntax should provide more than enough formatting for notes. I managed my ASCII, markdown notes through a variable set of multi-platform apps (notational velocity, simplenotes, drafts, textmate, vesper, etc.), sometimes tied through Dropbox. Most of these notes, once taken, were never modified again. Or even looked at.

In more recent years, I have felt the increasing need to intermingle words with pictures (research figures mostly). I’ve found I need this for work and thinking, iterating on projects, meeting notes, research notes, travel notes, etc. The point was to get something like a Lab Notebook. For this I have tried dropbox Paper (opaque organization), google docs (a big mess), MindMeister, Apple Notes (not so bad), Curio, Omnioutliner (etc.), and dedicated “Lab Notebook” apps like Findings. None really stuck.

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Sure, I could do this in Markdown. But I could also do it in Google sheets, insert a screenshot in a word file, and use the two hours I’ve just saved to do something else.

Onenote sideline

The app that stuck most was Onenote. The free-form aspect promised by Onenote was so conceptually seducing that I agreed to put up with its worse aspects:

  1. Onenote’s UX is very laggy (Mac/iOS). Every interaction has a huge transaction cost. Writing notes. Moving stuff around on the canvas. Moving around on the canvas. Switching notes.
  2. Sync is so slow that it discourages device-switching on the fly. Forget starting a note on the iPhone and picking it up on the Mac. At some point I had to re-authenticate every time I opened the app. Slow sync made things even worse, especially given that…
  3. Onenote’s Notebooks have to be opened and closed, like files. Because of this, there is no ‘master list’ of notes. Because of the lag, notebook switching is by itself a whole operation with several steps that I need to think through. Sometimes notebooks auto-close behind my back, and I have to hunt for them in Onedrive (which is confusing by itself).
  4. I’ve never liked Onenote’s note structure and organisation. Newest notes go down, which I find confusing. For this reason every time I create a note I feel like I need to review and revise the whole notebook organization – meaning I immerse myself in lots of information that might not be relevant to what I’m trying to do at that point. There’s very little context to notes: no easy way to find creation/update dates for notes, or sort them by dates. Everything feels very heavy and immutable.
  5. Free form is a great concept, but does not translate well to small phone screens. You end up zooming and panning around, trying to make sense of big blocks of text. Eventually you give up Onenote on iPhone, except when you have to use it reluctantly because the info you want is in there.
  6. Do you want to share something from Onenote? Well, it’s the whole notebook (sections and all) or nothing. This might be fine for sharing classroom material, not so much for meeting notes. Shared notes open in the web version of Onenote, which gets points for existing, but not for much else.
  7. It feels to me like Onenote has its own text rendering engine or something similar — text just looks different from any other app on iOS, which bothers me. I have tried lots of fonts to fix this.

Anyway, I have issues with Onenote, apparently, but I still used it because I just needed something to store text mixed with images and other stuff (PPT or docs).

Changing position

A few months ago, while thinking about this I realized what I could actually work with would be an app that let me edit word files (i.e. Formatted text+images+other) with a note app interface (master list view with, maybe, tags). But I needed to see formatted text so I could  think through it, not markdown syntax. Once I got over the shock (Word files? What have I become !?), I then found myself going back to apps I had been using years ago and since then discarded: Macjournal, Day OneDevonThink, Yojimbo, Together, etc. I had been a fervent adept of such ‘Everything buckets’ apps in the past, but only as containers of PDF, never for text I would write *myself*, because (remember) notes should be ASCII only… I was now coming back to them with fresh eyes from a revised position. Testing those apps proved the approach was what I needed. But most of these apps did not provide sync or iOS apps and were not really fun.

I ended up going all the way back to one of the first apps I’ve ever tried, i.e. Evernote. Apparently I created an Evernote account in December 2008 (6 months after it came out of private beta), but I never really used it. I had always put Evernote in the same “Everything buckets” group*, but I had always found the app weird and alien.

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Most of the links still work

Evernote

After using it for a few days it quickly transpired that Evernote is just fucking great. I moved my Onenote archives to Evernote, slowly at first as I was trying to avoid going over the upload quota, then in bigger batches as I realized how great the thing was and it dawned on me I would end up getting a paid account. (My experiment happened just after the launch of the iOS v8 app, so I don’t really know how things were before that. V7 sure looked confusing though.)

I’ve found that in Evernote:

  • Note-taking is fast. Note-switching is fast (esp. with cmd-J). Note organization feels very fluid and light.
  • syncing is fast (so far) and happens without me noticing it,
  • moving notes around is fast, easy (lots of ways to do it) and low-cost,
  • search is fast and powerful, the search grammar is even better than I thought.
  • it scales well with screen size.
  • I can mix formatted text and images and whatever else.
  • Notes are OCR’ed, and very well, so your handwritten notes surprise you in search results.
  • I have a master list of all my notes front and center, and I can browse it up and down
  • without thinking about it.
  • I can add tags to notes and use the tags, which is not possible in Onenote Mac/iOS.
  • The web clipper, that until now I had considered below my contempt, impressed me: you can select areas of a webpage to save, and it shows results from your own notes when you search on Google.
  • The Evernote menu bar thingie lets you add several screenshots in the same note in succession, something I need very often. I can also right-click within a note, and select “Capture selection from screen”. Seriously, just that capability saves me tons of time.
  • You can share an individual note, a notebook or a stack of notebooks. All can get their own public web link.
  • The notes view does a good job at presenting each note as an individual object that can be acted upon, instead of a item in a list. On the Mac the card view is particularly effective. I clearly remember finding this view extremely weird in the past, things change.

Evernote has also been around for quite a while and 8-years-old notes of mine are still around. That counts for something, even if the tech world has clearly fallen out of love with Evernote.

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The contents of my oldest note. I wonder what’s on the other screens…

Last but not least: for some weird, mysterious reasons, I actually want to write in Evernote. I find this very strange — much better-looking apps for would-be writers never had this effect. I suspect it might be due to the text reflow, which somehow respects my expectation of how text should look and behave on every platform and screen size (not a small feat). Things in Evernote also feel very fluid to me, and I feel encouraged to move stuff around from note to note, playing with formatting to provide visual cues to myself (warning: long but good article), etc. But I don’t really know for sure why I really enjoy opening the app to write up stuff. Proof of the pudding: I have outlined, drafted, and organized this post in Evernote (with images, links and all). Maybe even more damning is the fact that I felt the impulse to write all this stuff and post it on my blog, ending a 6-years long silence.

Parting words

If you look at how the tech community reviews apps and services, it often feels like a zero-sum game in which there should be only one of each: the objective best (of course). Different approaches to reach the same goal apparently aren’t allowed to co-exist. This is not what I want to do here. Above I have focused on what I don’t like about Onenote and what I like about Evernote, but I don’t mean that Evernote is the best choice for everyone. There are a lot of strong negative opinions on Evernote on the web, often from long-time users who just might have finished a cycle when that app was appropriate for their needs and is not anymore**. Those users often mention switching to Onenote, which is the right fit for them today. The things I don’t like about Onenote might not be problems for you today, and Onenote surely has lots to recommend – multi-platform sync, elegant looks, colored tabs, paper selection, free form, 25Gb on Onedrive for free. It handles handwritten PDF annotations way better than Evernote (unfortunately), although neither can touch PDF Expert. The other apps I mentioned are good too (DevonThink nowadays has a very nice iOS companion). All have their idiosyncrasies and personality, none is perfect for everyone. Maybe one app is good for you today, and a few years down the road it’ll be another one. YMMV. It’s not a contest. We do not need to carve our choice in stone. Being able to switch between lots of apps is a good thing. Today, I use Evernote.

* Evernote is slightly different – while in most apps notes and other files (PDF, PPT, images, etc.) co-exist at the same level inside folders, in Evernote everything is a note. Other files live within notes. This is conceptually a little less clean, but has some advantages: you can use text and images to provide useful context around the files.
** lots of people also complain about syncing and slowness issues. I have not seen those so far, maybe things get worse with 1000’s of notes. We’ll see.
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