11 March 2018

Evernote vs DEVONthink and GTD

One of the things that attracted me to computers is their ability to remember large amounts of information and retrieve it quickly. I was an early adopter of electronic organizers, back when the state of the art was a Psion Organiser. I later upgraded to a Casio Digital Diary, then eventually to various Palm Pilot devices, an Apple Newton, and so on.

The PDA craze brought in desktop sync, and for the first time I could prepare entire databases of information and put them on my device for easy access. Then came smartphones, and mobile Internet, and wireless sync.

When I got an Android smartphone, I quickly adopted Evernote as a place to stuff all the random information I wanted to carry with me. It has served me well for a few years, but it’s not ideal.

The first problem with Evernote is that it doesn’t handle plain text or HTML well. I’m a big believer in storing information as plain text when possible, having seen too many proprietary file formats become unsupported. Evernote stores everything in its own proprietary but somewhat documented rich text format.

For me, rich text gets annoying fast. Information I’d paste into Evernote would drag in random fonts, text sizes and emphasis. There’s a “simplify formatting” button, but it’s not on the mobile app (or if it is, I could never find it). There was also the problem that the rich text formatting was buggy, and not always consistent between mobile app and desktop application; sometimes I’d find a bulleted list had turned into a paragraph.

When you clip web pages to Evernote, they also get converted to ENEX rather than the original HTML. The conversion includes things like tables, which it’s practically impossible to edit sensibly in Evernote. So you lose the original HTML formatting, but at the same time end up with text that doesn’t flow to fit the window because it’s pasted into nested invisible tables — the worst of both worlds.

I also never ended up liking Evernote’s search functions. I don’t know what exactly is wrong with it, but it never quite seemed to give the results I wanted. For instance, if I search for JavaScript and ask it to order results by relevance, the top result is a bookmark to a charting library which happens to be written in JavaScript. Way down the list is the O’Reilly book “JavaScript: The Definitive Guide”, which must mention the term literally hundreds of times more than the bookmark note. Evernote’s comparatively poor OCR also means that a search for “otter” brings up an article on Paul Otlet, one on ontology, one on the Wakefield vaccine scam, and so on.

The big problem, though, is that Evernote has no useful encryption. You can manually encrypt individual notes, but even that only uses AES128. By default, all your data sits on Evernote’s servers in unencrypted form. Because of this, I never felt comfortable dumping everything in Evernote. Things like tax records, medical receipts and the like had to be stored elsewhere.

Evernote have been fully aware of user dissatisfaction in these areas for years, but for a long time they focused on shiny new add-on apps. After investors got leery in 2015 the company started to look at improving the service people actually wanted, but they’re saddled with technical debt at this point and seem unable to fix things quickly enough, so users are abandoning them.

Having switched from Android to iOS after Google abandoned tablets and mid-price phones, I found myself with new options. So over the last few weeks I’ve migrated all my information to DEVONthink.

I’d been a DEVONthink user some years back. I’d given up on it on the Mac when I adopted Evernote; it hadn’t been an option then because of the lack of an Android mobile app. There’s still no Android app now, but I no longer have to care about that, and there is a shiny new iOS app.

Evernote’s mobile app handles search by passing it off to Evernote’s servers, unless you’ve set up the notebook for offline access. That means your phone doesn’t need to download or index the data in order to search it, but it also means your data has to be readable by Evernote, and needs to be on a proprietary Evernote server.

DEVONthink, on the other hand, is based around a really well engineered database engine with high performance full text indexing. They’ve recently added a robust and fast sync algorithm using WebDAV. So with DEVONthink, the phone application downloads the encrypted data from the sync server then indexes it locally. It takes a few seconds the first time, but subsequent syncs only need to transfer and index data you change. In return, you get some key advantages over Evernote:

  • You can use any WebDAV server you like. I had a spare Box account with 50GB of space, so I’m using that.
  • Data is encrypted on the client before transfer to the sync server, so your data is never left unencrypted on someone else’s computer.
  • The index is local, so performance is really fast and you don’t need an Internet connection to search.

The one other advantage Evernote used to have going to it was its ability to keep most of my data on the server, and just download to my phone when needed. Because of DEVONthink’s low storage overheads, my data is only 3.36GB, compared to 4.43GB when it was in Evernote; but still, that’s a lot of space to use up on this year’s phone. (Give it a couple of years and my phone will probably have 64GB, of course.) DEVONthink solved the same problem by adding an option to the mobile app to sync just the metadata, and download the full notes on demand, like Evernote. (You can also pick out individual folders to always download.) As with regular sync, the metadata is encrypted for server storage and transit.

Now that everything’s encrypted at rest and I can use any server I like, I’m happier to dump everything into the computer. Tax documents, bank statements, prescriptions, everything goes through the ScanSnap and into the database. I can search across the whole corpus of knowledge in 0.014 seconds. But DEVONthink’s advantages over Evernote don’t stop there.

As well as plain text, DEVONthink understands MultiMarkdown. Pretty much everything I write starts off as Markdown these days, whether it’s study notes for a course at work or a post for this web site. Now I can keep it all as Markdown, use DEVONthink as my Markdown editor when I’m mobile, and still get to read the result as nicely formatted text notes. Meanwhile, web clippings can be stored as native Web Archive files (MHTML), and optionally passed through a readability filter first. There’s even a spreadsheet-like data table format, though I haven’t used that much yet; any CSV files you import get converted to data tables by default.

I mentioned Evernote’s dodgy OCR earlier. DEVONthink doesn’t have OCR at all, unless you spring for the Pro Office version, but since my scanner came with ABBYY’s OCR engine that wasn’t an issue. I like that DEVONthink clearly distinguishes between PDFs with text, and PDFs which are just scanned images — I was able to go back and OCR a bunch of files, whereas Evernote had always hidden this problem. (Incidentally, ABBYY’s OCR engine is by far the most accurate I’ve found, and is the one used in DEVONthink Pro Office.) DEVONthink also supports manipulating PDFs — annotating them, removing pages, and so on.

DEVONthink also has predictive filing. There’s a side-panel you can open which shows notes which appear to be related to the current one, and folders which seem like they’d be a good place to file the current note. I assume it’s using a Bayesian classifier; it gets really good after you’ve filed a few documents in each folder manually. I found I could go through unfiled notes just by clicking on one of the predicted folders then typing Ctrl-C to file the note.

Related to the filing task, there’s an inbox for each database, and a global inbox. This fits well with the GTD workflow, and lets me tackle filing as a two-stage process. First I dump everything into the global inbox; then I run through that inbox and quickly move things into the appropriate database. Periodically I then tackle the database inboxes which have stuff in them, and tag and file content from those inboxes to its final resting place. While this seems like it breaks the Touch It Once principle, it helps break down filing decisions into smaller, easier decisions, and means that clearing the inbox doesn’t get stalled by the occasional complicated task.

As a final bonus, DEVONthink also lets you index files but leave them where they are in the filesystem. You could use it to catalog your MP3s, or photos, or whatever.

There are just three areas where Evernote wins. The first, of course, is platform support — DEVONthink is only viable if you’re a Mac and iOS user; there’s no Windows or Android support.

Evernote’s second win is its support for e-mailing in information. While I can drag mail messages from Mail into DEVONthink, there’s something to be said for being able to forward them to an e-mail address from web mail or wherever.

The third Evernote win is that it supports checklists. I never personally found Evernote’s checklists useful enough to take the place of a real to-do application; they were too annoying to edit, because of the need to use the Evernote rich text editing tools. But if you actually use checklists in Evernote, be aware that you’ll have to find something else if you switch to DEVONthink.

© mathew 2017