I’ve been an Evernote user since it started its cloud service back in 2008. And, over the years I’ve written a lot about the app. When the company announced some changes to its payment tiers last month (device restrictions and price hikes), I wasn’t surprised to see some tech pundits recommending people abandon it for OneNote. However, I was hoping more of them would throw a little support Evernote’s way after all the years they have been using it and writing glowing reviews about it. And, if they are going to abandon the app and suggest alternatives to it, I wish they would at least cast their nets a bit more widely to do more than just talk about the obvious apps. OneNote isn’t the only viable option out there, after all. tl;dr… if you are a Mac user, have you tried DEVONthink yet?
Let’s begin with the green elephant in the room. Evernote used to lay out an inspiring vision of fun and productive note-taking with talk of creating a “second brain,” an app to “remember everything,” a “100-year startup,” and something to finally integrate digital and analogue note-taking (with Moleskine). My favorite characterization, though, was when the CEO called it the anti-Zynga app (Zynga was equivalent to Pokemon Go back in the day), saying: “If they want to kill time, they can go to Zynga and play games. If they want to accomplish something, they can go to Evernote.” With the ideas of researchers such as Vannevar Bush, Gordon Bell, and Edward Tufte as part of the conversation about how to make the best note-taking app ever, they set out to design something revolutionary.
Vannevar Bush (video)
Gordon Bell (video of an Evernote event)
Edward Tufte (video)
Evernote generally doesn’t talk like this anymore, but it still has exciting, revolutionary possibilities. It’s ideal for people who are looking for an app that works hassle-free on nearly any device. The company’s many years of refinement have produced a wonderfully reliable sync, a beautiful user interface that ensures your notes are easily accessible anywhere you go, and some nifty features (the screenshot below from Evernote’s website shows the “Context” feature in action).
If it is working well for you now, I think that even after the price hike a couple of weeks ago, it is still an amazing service that is well worth a cup of coffee each month. I’m surprised that some people would be so quick to abandon it.
Sure, competitors like Google Keep offer note-taking for “free,” but they do that in exchange for you giving them all of your data so that they can mine it for profit. That’s fine if you are OK with the exchange (many people are, including me with my Gmail account), but Evernote doesn’t mine your data to serve you up better ads, it can’t indirectly profit from your content, and so it has to generate revenue directly from users. They can’t keep the lights on and support their families for “free.” I don’t think the announcement last month was handled terribly well, and the hike feels a little abrupt, but it is still a great deal for what you get (in my opinion). I often recommend it to students and colleagues…with a couple of caveats.
First, while Evernote has some rudimentary encryption features (you can encrypt blocks of text one by one), everything else is stored in plain text. Evernote has been hacked in the past, and you never know if it will be hacked again in the future (can any cloud service promise 100% security?), so you will want to think twice about storing anything unencrypted in it (you can upload PDFs, for example, that are encrypted, but it is a tedious process).
I’ve heard that doctors, lawyers, and teachers store unencrypted notes of a sensitive nature on their patients, clients, and students in Evernote. This sounds like a very risky way to handle personal data that has been entrusted to you. There is a nice third-party app called Saferoom that will help you encrypt individual notes, if you are adamant about putting this kind of data into it. But, what I need from Evernote is a way to encrypt entire notebooks (multiple notes at once, and not just individual notes or plain text passages within them).
Second, you could pay for the “premium” tier (I used to), but if you take advantage of the generous monthly upload allowance (10GB), you will soon find your computer drive is full. There is no way to selectively sync notebooks (leave some on the cloud but don’t download them to your computer), and even if your Evernote account is “unlimited” (actually, there is a theoretical limit of 9.5 TB), your drive isn’t, so you are stuck. I have experimented with some ways to optimize the content of my account, and you could just use the less capable Web interface or mobile apps (iOS and Android have selective sync), but these are clumsy workarounds. What I need from Evernote is a way to selectively sync notebooks on my computer.
Until Evernote gets notebook-level encryption for better security, and selective sync to address scalability issues, I am afraid I won’t be renewing my premium subscription. But, that isn’t to say you should stay away from it. I still get some use out of it — not for my own notes so much, but primarily when working with students on digital zettelkasten (they mainly use Android and iPhones without computers, so Evernote is clearly the best all-around option). I generally avoid subscription services, but if I were not as concerned about the security and scalability issues I mentioned (I didn’t mind so much when I was a graduate student who didn’t deal with so much sensitive material), I would upgrade to the “plus” or “premium” plans.
Even after the kerfuffle over the payment tier changes — it’s still obvious to me that it is one of the best note-taking / personal information management (PIM) apps out there.
What about OneNote? Tech pundits are pushing it now. Certainly, it is an especially promising alternative to Evernote if you work on multiple devices or platforms. Microsoft has refined it over the years so that the sync is reliable, the interface is beautiful, and the features are quite robust. They really put a lot of effort into the apps they rolled out for Apple products a little while ago. My favorite feature is the one-touch encryption of notebook sections on the iPad. It is brilliantly done (similar to how Apple Notes handles it), and it is a great example of how encryption can be made easy.
But, I am afraid OneNote isn’t very useful for me. There are several relatively minor or idiosyncratic issues I have with it (the proprietary OneNote file format, for example), but my main complaint has to do with the poor support for the Mac environment. Features are slow to percolate down to the Mac, or they never come at all. The worst thing is that, as far as I can tell, there is no way to export your data unless you click on each note one at a time to do it (Apple Notes suffers from the same terrible lack of portability). With tens of thousands of notes, this is untenable for my use case, and it means the more you put into it, the more difficult it will be to escape. I have other issues with the app, but this kind of lock-in makes any app a non-starter for me, so there is no point in me talking about any other pros or cons (there are plenty of sites out there that will do that in a much more entertaining way than I can). Of course, if you are not concerned about being locked into the app, you ought to be fine with it. In particular, I think Windows users will enjoy using it a lot.
Why don’t the tech pundits mention alternatives like DEVONthink? Sure, unlike Evernote and OneNote, which are universal apps that work almost everywhere, it is restricted to people who reside in the Apple-verse. It’s frustrating, of course, to be limited to Apple products. But, it’s also understandable, because it takes a lot of resources these days to engineer apps for multiple operating systems that are undergoing constant and often significant changes (compare Windows 7 to Windows 10, for example). The recent price hikes at Evernote make a little more sense when you consider how challenging it is to maintain a top-quality app on the major platforms, especially when going up against heavy hitters such as Microsoft or Apple that have practically unlimited resources to throw at problems.
If you are primarily using OSX (a Mac) or iOS (iPad / iPhone), I recommend taking a serious look at DEVONthink, because it can help you get a little closer to that vision of fun and productive note-taking that Evernote proposed, but in a secure manner with fewer limits. The artificial intelligence, in particular, is what makes this really exciting.
I’ve already written a little about DEVONthink’s strengths and how to get started with it. I don’t want to rehash all of that. I wanted to mention, though, that a new version of DEVONthink to Go for iOS is currently in beta, it is looking really nice, and ought to be available any day now for public release. Keep an eye out for it!
One of my favorite aspects of DEVONthink is that you don’t have to put anything into it if you don’t want to — you “index” folders on your hard drive and work with them that way. This means that you can use just about any app together with DEVONthink. The apps below might be potential replacements for Evernote (depending on your use case), but think of them as complements for DEVONthink.
- nvALT: I use this to work with plain text notes in my zettelkasten on the Mac — the zettelkasten is indexed by DEVONthin.
- ByWord: I use this on my iPad to work with my zettelkasten — it is synced through Dropbox in a folder that is both accessed by nvALT on the Mac and indexed by DEVONthink; brilliant!
- GoodNotes: This is where I am currently doing my handwriting on the iPad — it makes my notes searchable and can be easily put into my zettelkasten in DEVONthink.