For years I’ve been keeping my notes in Microsoft’s OneNote app in Office. It’s worked just fine, sync’s across two machines (via SkyDrive) and as of the last few years I could even start accessing my notes via a web interface. It worked fine for me… I only had a few complaints, but it worked fine enough and I had a TON of data in it. Best part, it was essentially free being part of the Office suite.
All the while you’d see others talking about and using Evernote for their note taking solution. I tuned it out as OneNote seemed to be just fine for me, although the mobile clients were never something that thrilled me on the phone or tablets. But last summer I switched my tablet story to an ultrabook, the MacBook Air , and was shocked to learn that OneNote wasn’t in the MacOffice suite or available at all in a native form on OS X. This was going to be a problem… I didn’t want to fire up a VM to run OneNote because the primary use case for getting the air was to use it when I was without power and likely disconnected either by force like when flying or by choice to preserve power (coffee shop, conference, meetings, etc). However Evernote did have a native app… in fact they have a native app on everything… Windows 8, Windows Phone, OS X, iOS, web… there’s even one on my fish tank in my office (ok, got carried away there)!
So I started asking around and heard from some friends who like Evernote more than OneNote. I migrated one of my OneNote notebooks over to Evernote and tried using it… and found i really liked it. There are a few things that I found Evernote sold me on that earlier this week, I migrated all of my notebooks over to Evernote from OneNote and I’ve made the switch. I even signed up as a premium account ($5/mo or $45/yr) as I had a LOT of data in my notebooks and I needed more space to sync which the free account didn’t give me (plus, I don’t mind paying for a good service).
There are two things that OneNote does give me where Evernote is lacking. The first is the ability to free-form my notes… all notes in Evernote are in the long form… sort of like working in Microsoft Word whereas OneNote notes are more like writing on paper, the ability to stuff something in the margin. The other lacking feature is the editor… there are more options for formatting notes and using icons as reminders than you have in Evernote and the keyboard shortcuts in Evernote just stink. But those weren’t enough to hold onto me.
The two biggest things that sold me on Evernote were tags and just the basic structure of notes. In OneNote, notes are grouped like this: Notebook > Section (or section group) > Page > Subpage > Subpage. This is fine and it feels like a real filing cabinet, but what if you want to group all your notes together for meetings on a project? The project will likely be in a section and then you will have a page for all meetings with each meeting acting as a subpage… but that top-level page was just used as an empty container. In addition, the entire notebook is stored in one file in OneNote. This created challenges many times for me as I had lots of attachments and pictures in my notes which ultimately created massive notebook files that would frequently get corrupted on my laptop so I’d blow them away and resync them.
Evernote takes a different approach in that each note is a separate record in a database. There’s zero hierarchy to your notes… they all go in one bucket in a notebook. Sounds like it wouldn’t work except for two things. Like OneNote, Evernote has a killer search capability to easily find your notes. But what Evernote has that OneNote doesn’t have is the ability to tag notes. Tags can be hierarchal but I don’t use them like that. I just tag the heck out of stuff. So when I need something, I can type in the search box something like “tag:sharepoint tag:2013 token” to see all notes tagged with SharePoint, 2013 and then have the word token in them. Boom! Plus, because the notes are just records, sync is pretty quick and clean… no massive things to sync.
All notes are also geotagged so I can see where I was when I took some notes if Evernote can determine it (usually by my IP) so if I’m thinking “I know I was in Boston for a conference.. where is that” I can look on a map, pick my Boston notes and then refine my search from there.
And of course, many things are possible in both OneNote and Evernote like sharing notebooks, presenting, searching, OCR of text and speech recognition, etc.
In the past I’ve done most of my authoring of blog posts and articles either in Word, OneNote or Windows Live Writer. However in recent weeks I’ve jumped on another bandwagon: markdown. Markdown is a very clean and easy way to author content that you want to have some rich formatting on. It allows me to write using just the keyboard to mark content up without using the mouse, a toolbar, the ribbon or some special key combination. Plus, editing content that was written in Markdown is a breeze… so much easier than editing HTML!
The trick is that Evernote doesn’t natively understand Markdown, but if you install the Chrome add-in Markdown Here and view your note in the Evernote web client, clicking the button in Chrome will show you what it looks like when converted to HTML. Plus, many blogging engines understand Markdown, like my engine Orchard CMS, so I could switch form HTML to Markdown as the authoring format.
I’ve yet to try this out because I need to test and see what happens to existing posts when I change the authoring from HTML to Markdown… I’m not interested in editing all those posts! Once the post is done, I use a tool like Markdown to HTML to generate the HTML and go add the post to my blog… that is until I get my blog switched over to Markdown!
One feature I really like is setting reminders on notes. When you do this, the reminders show up at the top of the note pane as you can see here:
Clicking on the reminder takes you to the note… that’s very handy!
OK, now for what might be one of my most favorite capabilities in Evernote. You can email notes directly to Evernote and if you know some special sauce, you can put some extra stuff on the subject line to be a power user. Each user has their own unique email address in Evernote. When you send an email to it, If you add “!YYYY/MM/DD” to the subject, it creates a reminder for that day. If you add @notebook (replacing ‘notebook’ with the name of the notebook) to the subject, it creates the note in the specified notebook. Include #tag (replacing ’tag’ with the name of any tag and the note will get auto tagged. The body of the email is added to the note. If there’s another note with the same name, placing a + at the end of the subject appends the email to the existing note. This is awesome for me. Like everyone else, I get emails that are actionable like “here are the details for an article due by January 27”. Before I had left those in my inbox but after a while they simply turn into clutter and I’d start blocking them out. But now, you forward to Evernote & then file or delete the email away, adding a reminder to address it later. Love it!
Another use case that I find very helpful is using Evernote to bookmark articles for reading later. I picked up the Evernote Web Clipper Chrome plugin and when I see an article I want to read later, I can clip it, assign it to a notebook (I have one called Articles where I keep stuff like this) and tag it. The plugin focuses on the content and adds it as a note to my notebook. Then I can quickly access the article later on my phone, tablet or in one of the many other Evernote clients. Before I was printing them to PDF and saving to Dropbox but then you had paging like printed paper… and that stinks. Here’s the before and after look using the tool of an article from the latest MSDN Magazine :
These are the big things that stand out for me… I’m happy with the switch. Do you use Evernote? What features / add-ins stand out to you?