Note Taking Tools

At the office, we’ve been having a discussion about note-taking tools.

I was a fan of the original Google Notebook.  Networked note taking application!  Pretty cool in 2006.  I never used it heavily, but there was a specific use for it that I came up with, mostly snippets and excerpts of stuff from work, and for that it was useful.

Then, they killed it.  I don’t remember when exactly, but the Wikipedia entry indicates that it was in 2011, though I didn’t wait around to see exactly how it all ended.  And, yes, they reversed themselves, and there’s Google Keep now.

I never kept good notes about things, never really kept a diary.  I do have a ton (probably that order of magnitude, literally) of old paper records and stuff (anyone interested in a System/370 “yellow card”?), but I’ve experienced an enormous change in my field that’s made keeping notes utterly essential to keep my sanity and not lose precious time attempting to wring data out of tired neurons.

We’ve been going back and forth, as I said, so I thought I’d put down the two options I’m using.  (Why two: for things like Notes and Email, I really want two completely different systems, and two completely different clients for work-related – hence, in some nominal way, “company property”, and my own technical memory and development.)

When Google announced Notebook’s termination, I did some amount of research, and ended up adopting Evernote for my personal development/memory needs.  The cool feature that was most attractive was the ability to snap an image of a whiteboard into the app, and get the contents transcribed and made searchable.

What I’ve grown to like about Evernote:

  • yes, that image thing works really well
  • I’ve never gone near the storage limits (upload limit, actually – see below).
  • Folders, stacks of folders, and tags
  • Sharing notes/notebooks with friends
  • Excellent support via email
  • I really love the Skitch app (which I think is now macOS-only); I use it 2-3 times per week to add content to Evernote, but also to share screenshots via a public URL.

But there are inherent negatives that have developed:

  • They are clearly pushing towards teams, and it seems lots of the development effort is in that direction – and that doesn’t match my use case.
  • It’s gotten expensive.  The price has gone from $45/year to $75/year, and I understand those who think this isn’t a good value for them.  And there was sort of a middle-plan that was dropped earlier this year that’s also caused unhappiness.  Limits are set on uploads/month rather than total data stored (and are pretty low for the free plan).
  • I really don’t understand the sharing thing as well as I’d like: it seems opaque to me at times.  My spouse doesn’t have a paid account, and sharing with me doesn’t work the way she’d expect.

The last time I started a new position, I decided that I wanted to keep a “Work” notebook – partly again due to IP issues, but also since we were required to track hours on tasks/customers, and I wanted to be able to easily share that separate from any personal data.  So, the then-new kid was Microsoft OneNote, and I started working with that.

Remember, the use is rather different, but here’s what I’ve found in comparison to Evernote:

  • The image transcription/search functionality is there, and seems to work well, too.
  • Because I’m visually-oriented and want consistent presentation, I make use of OneNote’s named styles a lot.  And the ability to copy a style (the format “paint” function) keeps me from serious jumbling of fonts, sizes, and formats.
  • The arrangement of “Notebooks”, “Folders” and “Pages” seems somewhat more usable for me.
  • Because of how I use OneNote, I haven’t run into issues with space utilization.  However, Microsoft sells storage on a capacity basis, and I believe that there is a 1TB plan that comes with a personal subscription to Microsoft Office that is the location of stored notes.  With the other benefits, this brings into question the value of the Evernote (paid) service.

I’m using both, and there are features about both that I like.  But I haven’t yet (for my use cases) found one feature that would make me choose if I had to.  That doesn’t seem like a good thing for Evernote.

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