I used to use Evernote as my primary note-taking app years ago when it was a simple, cloud-based note editor. I appreciated its minimal feature set, but once Evernote started to focus on rich-text editing and image uploads, I switched to plain-text notes synced via Dropbox.
I have grown quite fond of writing in plain text. Though seemingly limited, plain-text notes can be quite robust. I use Markdown syntax to identify basic formatting like headings and lists and I add tags like “@ios” or “@coffee” so I can easily search my notes using nvALT on my Mac and WriteRoom on my iPhone and iPad1.
While plain-text notes have served me well for years, I decided to take another look at Evernote after it released version 5 of its iOS and OS X apps. After working with the latest version of Evernote for a few weeks, I have found it to be an invaluable service even if I cannot use it to store everything.
Where Evernote Excels
Let me start by stating that I still prefer to write simple notes and blog posts in plain-text using nvALT and WriteRoom. I don’t have to apply formatting in Evernote, but a rich-text document without formatting is not the same as true plain text. That said, I have found a few uses for Evernote for which it is particularly well suited.
Meeting Notes: This is one area where I actually prefer Evernote’s rich-text capabilities. I often share my meeting notes with colleagues and very few of them are familiar with Markdown. Additionally, Evernote is invaluable for capturing pictures of whiteboards due to its accurate optical character recognition (OCR) that even recognizes most handwriting2.
Photo Notes: I use Evernote when I’m out to snap pictures of products I want to learn more about or add to my shopping wish list. This is especially useful for books.
Web Articles: Pocket is my preferred read-later service. I delete most articles I save to Pocket immediately after reading them, but I find that Evernote is a better home for those articles I want to keep for future reference. Pocket has an archive feature, but Evernote has a more robust search. This is especially important as my archive of articles continues to grow.
A Question of Longevity
For all the things that Evernote does well, I still have some concerns. I want to feel confident that I can still view my notes 20 years from now. Who knows, Evernote might still be around then, but few Web-based services seem to have that kind of shelf life. In contrast, I feel very confident that computers of the future will still open TXT files. Though I trust Evernote not to lose or comprise my data, it is not particularly easy to extract data from the service should the need arise3.
Along the same lines, I have considered upgrading to Evernote Premium to use it as a full records-management repository. I ultimately decided to stick with PDFs in Dropbox because I like having portable files that are not tied to a specific application or company, especially for critical documentation.
Fortunately, I do not have to choose between Evernote and Dropbox. It would be nice to use a single tool for everything, but with a few clear guidelines governing the content in each tool I can minimize the complexity of a multiple-app system.
I realize that plain-text nerds are the minority, but I still hope that Evernote someday adds the option to store plain-text notes in addition to rich-text notes. If that happens, Evernote just might become my “everything box”. Adding support for plain-text alone will not solve the lock-in aspect of the service, but perhaps more third-party tools will integrate with the ENML export format as the service continues to expand.
Both nvALT and WriteRoom support full-text searching, but searching for tags is often more efficient. ↩
Your mileage might vary. ↩
You can copy and paste of course, but that is clunky and time-consuming at best. You can also export notes to Evernote’s XML format, ENML, but few third-party tools currently work with that format. ↩