Digital Note Showdown | Part 2: Evernote

I have been a hot-and-cold user of Evernote for a few years now. By that, I mean I go through phases where I can’t live without it, then don’t touch it for weeks on end. I think the thing that always pulls me back though is the surrounding hype regarding Evernote. Everyone seems to love it. Every time I hear another interesting use for it, I give it a go and inevitably give up because most of the use cases require too much time investment. Is Evernote really that necessary though? I’m now going to explore the possibility of removing it entirely from my workflow.

First, lets consider how I use it now. I am not a big ‘tagger’ because this too, is too much of a time investment for me; to get a harmonious system up and running, and then implement it. I much prefer to have a couple of different notebooks and just text search for the rest.

My 7 Notebooks are:

  • Archive
Used to store articles I find online and ‘Like’ in Instapaper; Software serial keys; Personal numbers; Product warranties and guides; any other note I am not currently working on/ using.
  • Food
Recipes; beers with ratings.
  • Inbox (Default)
Bucket to collect all incoming or otherwise unsortable notes.
  • Programming
Help and links for various languages; tid bits I pick up and often forget.
  • References
Research sources for various projects, with note title being <Author, Date> to help with referencing later.
  • Travel
Contains scans of nick nacks and business cards I’ve collected in my travels, sorted by holiday.
  • Uni
Tracking which subjects I’ve completed/ need to complete.

I’ll be honest: I hardly refer back to notes anywhere other than in my Inbox. Every now and then I get in a ‘Spring Cleaning’ frame of mind and delete notes I haven’t touched since creation and don’t see myself needing in any foreseeable future. But I really get no utilitarian value out of my usage of Evernote. The reason for this is there are better ways to do many of the things I use it for, yet I continue to pursue the idea of Evernote being useful. For example, for storing links (like Archive, Food and Programming), Instapaper does a better job of formatting and making them available offline.

However there are some features that make Evernote incredibly useful. The inbuilt OCR imaging is fantastic and I am yet to find a better (and free) alternative. It isn’t the fact that images can be turned into text. It is the fact that Evernote stores an invisible database of words that appear in the image, which you can then search and locate in the original image. Secondly, the ability to add contextual information to a document such as a PDF, DOC, etc. is also incredibly useful. I can store the original, untouched file in Evernote, then append my own notes above/ below the document. The final thing that stops me from culling Evernote is the ability to create your own notes. I know this sounds kind of anti-climactic and obvious, but I seem to often overlook it. I can create rich text notes if I like, or plain text. Include images, check boxes and bullet points. I can supplement the recipes I find online with my own amendments or originals. If a saved webpage contains too much cruft, I can manually fix it.

Ultimately, it is the unique combination of rich note generation, website clipping, OCR and powerful search features that give Evernote staying power. It isn’t without its flaws, but I am prepared to put up with them because it does so may other things right. Sure, the rich text formatting is worse than most other products, and half the time the font selected isn’t actually the one being used. And sure, it isn’t as pretty or clean as Springpad or Instapaper, but it is powerful and versatile. And yes, I hate having to manage multiple services to do similar things, and yes I want an optimized workflow, but if you use a computer more than once a week, there is probably some way that Evernote can help you. Download it now and give it a go.

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Digital Note Showdown | Part 1: Springpad

I recently saw this video, a first look at the new Springpad features by Robert Scoble. More found here.

This convinced me to sit down and not only give Springpad another chance, but rethink my whole digital note-taking strategy. This in turn inspired me to write this series.

I really like the idea of Springpad. Really like it. However, when I sat down and gave it another go the other day after they released a whole slew of updates I was severely disappointed. I have two main gripes (which cover most aspect of the program); 1. Usability 2. Quick Adding.

Let me address both points. Firstly and foremost, I hate that there is no downloadable app for PC. No proper Chrome extension, no desktop client. Don’t get me wrong, I love web apps, but when my patience is tested by one for no valid reason, I am left thoroughly unimpressed. Sure this recent pivot to a more social experience seems suited to the web, however I am constantly confronted with lag. Lag to load pages, lag to add notes, lag to open a note. Why so much lag? It just results in an unresponsive UI. My internet connection may not be the fastest, but I don’t struggle with any of the Google Apps, that is certain.

Now maybe I am being too harsh, so let us ignore this apparent unresponsiveness. How about the amazing semantic ‘Quick Add’ feature? Now as far as I know, this feature IS the draw card for Springpad. So why is it tucked in the top right corner, barely larger than my email displayed above it? I want it front and centre; supersized. Now, the general functioning of the ‘Quick Add’, in my experience, can be described as mediocre. In most use cases, it has required an initial prompt to add context to my search term. For example, while trying to plan an evening for my 2 year anniversary with my girlfriend, I tried adding the restaurant and movie theatre I decided on. This either returned nothing, or places in foreign countries. When I ‘searched the web’ and looked for ‘places’, it was able to find the venues. Why doesn’t the geolocate work straight from the omnibar? Once these two notes were added to my notebook, I was less than impressed by the metadata provided too. Sure, it was able to show me a Google map of where the places are, but there was no link to their websites, menu or movie times. Phone numbers, foursquare tips and Yelp reviews were all present and welcome, however I expected more from Springpad’s key feature.

I haven’t had a chance to use the new social features much yet, but I’m still optimistic about their implementation. Almost anything will beat Evernote’s (free) collaboration attempt.

Finally, here is a run down of the key points.

Springpad

Pros

  • Quick Add is great when it works and adds useful metadata
  • Lots of social features with proper privacy controls!
  • Universal
Cons
  • Very disappointing user experience
  • Quick Add could still use some fine tuning
  • Notebooks default to Public

Stay tuned for the rest of the series where I will cover Pinterest, Evernote, Plaintext, and my personal preference!