Evernote: The Best Note Taking App?
Someone says “it’s an online, synchronized, digital notebook.”
Quick, what do you think of? It’s probably Evernote.
(this is part 2 in a series on What’s the Best Note-Taking App of All?)
In the domain of note-taking software, Evernote is the 800-pound gorilla. It’s a juggernaut with features upon features and the confidence that comes with a smart, capable team and massive funding. It does everything. It’s everywhere. And it’s only getting bigger.
So what is Evernote, exactly?
Honestly, it’s like magic.
Evernote is an online, offline catch-all for every scrap of research, every line from a movie, every idea you have. It’s a repository for web pages: whether you want to remember one passage or the whole article, just click a button to send it to the “vault”. But Evernote is also a digitizer for your “real world” notes, whether they’re handwritten journals, business cards, or signs on the street. For real: snap a photo and within a few minutes, the text on that menu, flyer, or report is searchable and saved forever.
And it’s on your smartphone, iPad, Windows desktop, Mac laptop… or any computer on the Web.
In short, Evernote is a clear winner in principle. It lets you capture as much as you want and view it on any computer and (m)any of your devices.
So where does it fall flat?
In a word… it’s the interface.
Evernote just isn’t not fast enough. It just isn’t sensitive enough. More important: it just isn’t thoughtful enough for the level of work it’s expected to do.
If Evernote were blazing-fast, it would seem confident and graceful. But instead, it feels clunky and overwrought, like Microsoft Word or Acrobat. It’s sluggish and temperamental… especially compared to Notational Velocity, which is UNIMAGINABLY fast.
What’s really wrong here?
Evernote SHOULD be one of the most useful pieces of software out there—but it barely assists in putting the right information in front of you. It offers limited views, limited search, limited organization, and limited “intelligence”. Where it should be helpful, it does nothing. Where it should be quiet, it’s abrasive. For a program intended to serve as the central repository for ALL your data, no matter what form it takes, Evernote fails hard at letting you browse, connect and sift through it all. It’s like a giant filing cabinet: great to have, sure, but there’s a reason you’ve got stacks of paper lying around.
The future of interface design is undoubtedly in tactility, in expressiveness, in simplicity and instant access. Evernote, in contrast, feels a lot like Windows 98: it all seems like a great idea, but you’ll spend a lot more time looking for things than you do making them. In fact, Evernote makes it so difficult to accurately see what’s going on in your collection that almost everyone resorts to using the Search bar—throwing any sense of organization out the window.
Slow. Real slow.
But even search is a slow, dreary affair. It took the app a mindboggling 3.65 seconds to filter a 1200-item list down to 18 entries. (Notational Velocity has never taken more than a quarter-second to find anything…ever.) And on the exact same computer, Spotlight took just 4.48 seconds to actually LOCATE the same items—across THREE TERABYTES of storage space (three external and one internal hard drive). Add to this the 16 seconds it takes to open the app in the first place–the whole of Photoshop loads on my system in just under 20– and you really wonder what’s going on under Evernote’s hood.
Evernote’s mother never made him put anything away.
If Evernote helped sort and categorize your notes like DevonThink, it could be forgiven for all the slowdowns. It’d also be a lot more useful. But the only organization strategy available in Evernote is using Tags— which can only be added to one document at a time and can only be browsed by scrolling, an inch at a time, through a vertical list. You aren’t able to combine tags in order to see a collection of files: when you select multiple tags, Evernote shows you the documents that share both, but won’t show you the contents of the two tags. In other words, it uses AND instead of OR. But why? Isn’t the whole point of tags in their ability to be combined? (And why can’t we change this behavior? Any self-respecting photo software can.) If you thought about making sub-categories as a way around this, beware—once you’ve made something into a child tag, it is literally IMPOSSIBLE to de-parent it. Again, why?
Listen, it’s nice that the menubar is so nice and Zen…
— but it’d be nice to have a little space devoted to actually maneuvering around your gigabytes of files. Check out that Tags panel–note that you can’t resize the Ads or Activity panels, or get rid of the Trash, so a third of this window is useless.
Clipping: what it’s all about
Adding things to Evernote is where all the fun is— just one click, or one key command, and your text, Web page or PDF is saved forever. Awesome.
But there’s a dark side to all this: when your newly-clipped documents come in, they’ll have utterly useless titles, no summary, no group name, and no tags at all—and there’s no way to add them on-the-fly. In order to alter the new notes, you’ll need to:
- - switch to Evernote (abandoning what you were doing)
- find your note (since it isn’t the selected one)
- click on it
- click in the tags field and type.
You’ll have to do this each time, even if you’ve just dragged in 350 items.
I’m all for efficiency, so Evernote’s ability to quickly “grab” what I’m doing is a great idea. I just find that if I’m going to have to go back into the program anyway, all that saved time is wasted again.
Ironically, you CAN add tags and a title if you use the Web-based clipping script, which works inside your browser and bypasses the desktop altogether. Similar inconsistencies abound throughout the program: the URL field looks exactly the same as the Tag field, but when you click on it, you’re given a “sheet” dialog. Why?
Another sterling example: icons shown in the Mixed (icon+text) view can’t get any bigger, which ensures they cannot serve any reasonable function. However, you CAN switch to the Icon view in order to change their size—but this results in a jumbled mess that has no tags and no metadata. It’s also arranged in such a way as to be massively unhelpful: since the list scrolls vertically, does that mean these columns go top-to-bottom… or left-to-right? (Hint: it’s left to right… most of the time.) Things like this make me convinced that Evernote started on Windows.
And then there’s the worst offender…
But here’s the killer—the one “feature” that ensures I’ll never be able to rely on Evernote full-time:
When you try to edit a rich-text note on the iPad or iPhone, you’re allowed only two options: a) strip the formatting entirely, or b) tack on a plain text note to the bottom of your existing note. (You want bulleted lists? Bold? Header styles? ‘Fraid not.) And if you had all those things, well, you can either give ‘em up or (essentially) make a brand-new note down at the bottom. Why is rich text offered at all, if it can’t be synced or edited by Evernote’s own mobile software?
Speaking of mobile apps: you can access all your notes remotely— as long as you have a Web connection. And for notes you know you’ll want to keep, you can use the mobile UI to “mark” them for download… but this change won’t sync across devices. So I have to tag the same file on my iPhone and iPad, every time, if I want it to stick around. Evernote does offer a Premium subscription service which will allow you to carry all your notes around, but the massive size of the “full” database quickly becomes a problem. The “all or nothing” approach really doesn’t make any sense when you consider that most of these file types may not even be usable on a cellphone. So why can’t we simply mark files from the desktop app, or from the Web? Why can’t we easily choose a “smart folder”, a collection of files we want to keep handy across our devices? …Honestly, who knows?
The thing is, all of these problems are fixable. But even after a fair number of revisions (and the appearance of a single, consistent interface), none of it was. It makes me hesitant, to say the least.
So, wait, is it good or bad?
Essentially I find myself forced to use Evernote due to its Web clipper (the button that allows you to instantly save a Web page forever) and the OCR engine (which lets you snap a picture of handwriting or printed text and make it searchable in minutes). No other software has both these features, or makes them so simple to use. Couple that with the unlimited storage (you can upload 40 MB/month for free) and it’s hard to imagine a quicker way to “save” everything.
Basically, I love Evernote for what it can do— but I despise using it for its unhelpful interface and sluggish interface. I always feel like I could do a lot more, faster, with another program. But what can you do with a massive database? At this point, it’s just too hard to migrate all this data somewhere else.
if you don’t need rich-text capability, snapshot notes, or Web clipping, there’s a much, much better app for you…
Its name? Notational Velocity if you’ve got a Mac, Simplenote if you don’t.
More on that in the next installment… stay tuned!