DEVONthink: Getting Started デボンシンク:はじめの一歩

DEVONthink is an amazing application that makes me thankful I work on a Mac. It’s a “personal information manager” (PIM) similar to others that I have written about on my blog before such as Evernote, VoodooPad, and Notational Velocity (nvALT). Although DEVONthink has some unique capabilities that make it stand out from these impressive apps, regular readers (probably just me, myself, and I) might wonder why this is my first post devoted to it. That’s because I’ve been casually using the app for a long time now, but I didn’t start seriously incorporating it into my workflow until a couple of years ago, and I still haven’t wrapped my head around all of its features.


Due to my ignorance about the app (how many people have really tried all of the scripts available?), and my inexperience (I’m tweaking my organizational system now), I have decided to start out with this simple post covering the reasons why I like the app and listing links to people far more knowledgable than me. Please take your time reading useful tips from others on how to use it while I work the kinks out of my own system.

What I Like about DEVONthink

  • Security: For confidential information, DEVONthink provides several important features (see these posts for my thoughts on the cloud and security). It doesn’t rely on the cloud (optional), so you don’t need to worry as much about private or state-funded hackers mucking around in your data (you should never completely stop worrying). If you do sync to the cloud through Dropbox, it offers the best consumer-level security option available: zero-knowledge 256-bit encryption (see Eric’s comments). In addition, if you sync to mobile devices (using DEVONthink To Go), it is one of only two PIMs I know of that enable you to move data back and forth without compromising security by going through the cloud. Encrypt your Mac drive using FileVault and your data is about as secure as it can get (your mobile device is automatically encrypted). Perfect.
  • Artificial Intelligence: This is actually the DEVONtechnology’s raison d’être, but the feature is often overlooked, because it isn’t immediately obvious (at least, it wasn’t to me) how one ought to use it. The Artificial Intelligence works really well once you have set up your database to take advantage of it. For details, see some of the links below. I take a minimalist approach to organization, and only focus on categorizing the data that I think will make a difference in my life (my research and a few personal files), so this having the app carry the organizational load for me has been a huge relief.
  • Control: There are a bunch of features that can be used (or not) depending on your particular situation, and there is tremendous flexibility in how you design your workflow. You have complete control over your data and you are not locked into it; in fact, you don’t have to put anything into DEVONthink at all and you can still get a lot out of it (by “indexing” your nvALT folder, for example).

    The following list might not make sense if you are unfamiliar with the app, but I’ll just mention a few wonderful features that make a difference for me: aliases, classifying, duplicating, indexing, groups, replicating, smart groups, tags, and multiple views. It isn’t a simple app, but I don’t need simple. I don’t care if the learning curve (some would call it an “appreciation curve”) is a little steep as long as I know the time I put into familiarizing myself with it will be worth it. These days Apple is the leader among a bunch of companies who are so focused on “simple” and “easy to use” in their apps that they have written power users or people with complex use cases out of their business models. Thankfully, DT has achieved a nice balance of very smart design with a plethora of powerful features.

  • Operating System Integration: Assuming you are OK with living exclusively in the Appleverse, you can take full advantage of the operating system with DEVONthink, and there is no need to worry about being limited by products that need to replicate their functionality across multiple operating systems. DEVONthink is searchable using Spotlight, though I would also recommend giving DEVONsphere Express a spin. There are a bunch of scripts that can help you get stuff done more efficiently. And, using the “index” feature, you can integrate DEVONthink into just about any workflow that involves other apps. This is exactly the kind of elegant functionality I wish more apps would aspire to achieve, and it quickly pays for itself by making sure that you always have everything you need at your fingertips.
  • DEVONagent: This is another product made by DEVONtechnologies. Remember that scene at the beginning of the Matrix when Neo’s computer was scouring the web for articles about Morpheus? Every night, my computer scours the web for research items, clips the pages as PDFs (I prefer this format), and puts the results into my DEVONthink database. When I wake up in the morning. I sync it all over to my iPad and I have the day’s reading. Amazing. This might be one of the biggest changes to my workflow. I’m coming across all kinds of fascinating stuff that I probably never would have bumped into surfing or searching on my own, and it’s relevant to my research because I designed the search parameters myself. Before I go on a trip, I run one of these searches, dump the results into my iPad, and I can familiarize myself with my destination. More on this in a later post!
  • Generous Limits: Every application has limits, and I’ll report on the ones in DEVONthink as I come across them, but so far everything has been smooth sailing — it is quite refreshing to be able to dump several dozen gigabytes of stuff into a database and still have everything run just fine. I think the developers assume you are either a “power user” with a lot of data to manage, or you will be sticking with the app for some time to come, and you’ll need space to work. I don’t know of many other apps that are built to scale up so well. There does seem to be a rather high upper limit for an individual database’s size that I will eventually reach (I have experimented with dumping hundreds of gigabytes of data into a database, and that did not work well), but you can (and probably should) have multiple databases. I wouldn’t expect this to be too much of a problem for most individuals or businesses. With no monthly upload limits or storage space limits like you find on cloud services, you are only limited by the amount of storage space available on your local and external drives, so you can freely move things in and out of the app as you figure out how to best fit it into your workflow.

Links to People More Knowledgable than Me

Official / Semi-Official Information


Use Cases

Helpful Articles, Blog Posts, and Podcasts

Answers to Questions I Had Getting Started