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.

tags

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.

menubar

vs

sidebar

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?evernotetags

vs

dropdown

icons

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.

However…

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!

83 Comments

  1. On mac, take a look at Together from reinvent software. After being a premium evernote user for a few years, I have switched to Together. Does not lock your data, works much faster that evernote with any file type. Syncs across devices through Dropbox.

    http://reinventedsoftware.com/together/

    Let me know what you think.

    • DM Cook /

      Together is a great app, Ivan! I think it has some nice features– I particularly like that it uses tabs and that you can have a bunch of things open at any given time. Overall it seems really thought out, and I appreciate that like no one else.

      That said, Together isn’t a “network” app, and because of that, it has the same issue as Yojimbo. It just can’t be as versatile or as omnipresent as even the worst of the cloud-based alternatives.

      I should definitely do a roundup of great Mac-only standalone apps for this sort of thing, but for now, I’m most interested in the app that I can use on my phone, on my computer, and on the Web– anywhere.

      The cloud is coming. Everyone’s gotta get ready… ;)

      • When you say it is not a network app, what do you mean? Do you mean that you cannot access your data cross-platform? I think that Evernote’s best strength comes from its cross platform availability. However, Evernote tries to be everything and failis to be anything good on a specific platform. For example, on mac Evernote app simply looks ugly. It has not mac look to it at all. I remember back in the days of Evernote 1 & 2, it looked good.

        Together can gains network ability via Dropbox. Realistically, I have never had a situation where I needed ALL of my notes on my iPhone. Some essential notes can be accessed via Dropbox favorites or via PlainText for iPhone.

        I am also confused as to why does Evernote condition people to save everything into Evernote only to find out that Evernote becomes slow and unstable over time.

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  2. Sorry for the delay, Ivan! What I mean about Together not being a network app is that its storage is local, and limited to a single location. There isn’t a way to add to or read from this database when you’re away from your computer, and thus, those notes are stuck in your Mac. However, the Dropbox integration is a nice touch– I already do use Dropbox to store many PDFs since they’re too large to carry around on my iPhone all the time.

    While almost no one needs ALL their notes at any one time, I’m often surprised by how often I need the one note I haven’t saved locally. That’s why I always reach for tools like Notational Velocity (simplenote) and Evernote, because they let me access my note LIST, download the note I want, and be on my way in a few seconds.

    Definitely agree with you about the conditioning… I think people are just used to throwing everything into Evernote because it’s so easy to do so!

  3. Doug Lerner /

    It actually isn’t true that you can add unlimited notes. Even though Evernote says so at https://www.evernote.com/about/premium/, Evernote support tells me that is a “typo”.

    All accounts are restricted to an absolute maximum of 100,000 notes. Still a lot. But not by any means “unlimited.”

    I requested they correct it, because it’s false advertising, but they still haven’t taken any action on it.

    The app itself is also wrong, because it tells you approximately how many text notes are remaining this month, and for me it lists like 470,000. But with the absolute cap of 100,000 that’s just plain wrong.

    doug

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    • Wow, did not know that. Thanks for pointing out the “typo”. Wonder why Evernote support is so blasé about it.
      DM Cook recently posted The Raven Browser: Web Apps for Your MacMy Profile

  4. MikeA /

    I just don’t see it. Everything Evernote does can be done better (and without compromising full features and functinality) with a simple word processor, task manager, screen capture, and a cloud account. Dont want to pay for a cloud account? Then just use Google Docs. To me Evernote is nothing but hype.

    • @mikea: I’m far from an Evernote fanboy, but your argument against it seems to be this: everything Evernote does can be done, and done better, using four or five other applications. Are you serious? It should be obvious that a major plus for Evernote is that you don’t have to use four or five apps. This may not be important to everyone, but it obviously is a determining factor for many people. For people like myself, limiting the number of tools in my workflow is critical. That said, I would still rather use a combination of Devonthink and SimpleNote/nvALT instead of Evernote, so adding one tool is acceptable in my opinion, in my situation.

      Regardless, your comment betrays a lack of familiarity with Evernote. Of course, I am not all knowing either, but I am unfamiliar with which one of the aps you mentioned will do OCR, or which one will allow you to take a picture, record an audio note and upload it directly to your account with a couple of button presses from one app. Of course, there is more., but that makes my point. I don’t love Evernote like some people, but I am not so ignorant to suggest that it is nothing but hype. But you did say, “to me…” so, fair enough I suppose.

  5. I like this review because I think it’s a fair assessment. I’ve given feedback to Evernote of both their mobile apps and their Mac app, because I agree that the excellent evernote *service* is crippled with inferior or not-well-thought-out *client software.* I think it’s a shame, because despite the ingenious behind the service, people are faced with inferior client software which, let’s face it, represents the service.

    I think that if they’re unwilling to sink more investment into the client software, they should at least open the service up to open source so that we could have some excellent client software developed by 3rd party companies.
    Darrin recently posted The Raven Browser: Web Apps for Your MacMy Profile

    • Totally agree. If the system itself was open-ended, they could have a subscription base. For example, everyone could pay for the ability to access their account from other software. That way, better alternatives could emerge.

      The service is great. The concept is great. But the apps (still) don’t work well.

      Thanks for your comment, Darrin!
      DM Cook recently posted The Raven Browser: Web Apps for Your MacMy Profile

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  6. To me, evernote is lightyears better than NOTES on iPhone – since you can sync. I have always needed a note taking app that i can sync with my computer(s) for things to do issues like grocery lists, and i can edit between my PC and iPhone.

    Those who hate it, well, you can stick to your NOTES or pay for those apps that are NOT free.

    I think EVERNOTE is best for its status compared to NOTES.

  7. Thank you for opining up this topic.

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    • Might need to pray for me too then harold . And an awful lot of other peolpe! i’d start now if i were you!Good post mate, although i’m not sure if i agree with ipads in church or not! some churches i’ve been to especially have peolpe who seem to use ipads as a means of showing off wealth or for having the latest gadget’.. although i definately can see the benefits of them!And harold, start broadening you’re horizons mate. We’re in the 21st century now bout time you joined us! Jesus is here, you should be too

  8. Julio /

    I’m currently using Beesy. A great note taking app. just want to share it because it helps me a lot during the last months to be very productive and to transform my notes into TodoLists. http://www.beesapps.com/beesy-ipad-to-do/

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  9. John /

    I keep seeking an escape from Evernote. I find myself dumping stuff into it, because of its handy webclipper and my need to sometimes also capture images (something NV doesn’t do, as far as I understand).

    But I then face two concerns with Evernote:

    - the more you put in, the harder it is to find (esp. if you just dumped something you found interesting and you kind of forgot about it but would like it to pop up when you’re working on something);

    - it’s hard to take things out.

    The latter is my main concern. I don’t think Evernote is going to stick around forever and even if they are, I don’t want to be beholden to them. So, their habit of putting my notes into their own format that I can’t easily export is a no-no. I don’t care about that for some files, but for others that are dear to me, I’m slowly emptying Evernote and putting them in places and formats that have a better chance of staying open forever.

    • DM Cook /

      I tend to agree – Evernote is not built for the future, whatever the features it may offer today. It’s a difficult situation, isn’t it?
      At this point, I use Evernote only for snapping websites, signs, pictures, or larger PDF docs: for the rest, I use Simplenote because I have no such concerns. Text is text, and it’s one of the only formats we can depend on reading 100 or 500 years from now (if humans are still around, anyway).

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  10. Directly saying I’m stuck in Evernote because I can’t find a way to relate Metadata to a group of files. Some times I need a way to say something about 3 photos taken and the only way out is Evernote, Dropbox don’t have this ability in iOS version. I try too to use Instagram to take photos and add the URL to my note in SimpleNote but this is slow and error prone. SpringPad, Memonic and even the Apple Note are buggy, slow or incomplete. I really don’t know a better solution. I’m trying too find an alternative to Evernote, I think that Evernote don’t do everything well, the editor is really limited, even resize a picture is not allowed. Some times I can’t find what I want inside it, freak. The future, or the present if you wish, is simple applications and services doing very well just one thing and working together with others applications and services to archive the final solution. I’m open for good alternatives. Finally I just want to point the fact that some problems mentioned here about Evernote no longer exist, they still working to make it better, lets see if they can solve what’s bug me.
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