An Experiment In Notes

When I originally tried Evernote a long assed time ago, I didn’t really care for it because I was seeking a solution for my non-homogeneous network and disliked the lack of structure. But when the 90% of use cases were an Android tablet, they eventually one the war and displaced my previous solutions. In the end things worked out quite swell and its data model has fit my style of digital brain quite nicely. Twelve years later, I’ve stuck through Evernote’s more lack luster periods and high points, but I’m a little less enthusiastic about the recent transition.

As such, I decided to conduct an experiment that I’ve been thinking of for a while: which is investigate runners up. In this case, Apple Notes. But I’m afraid to say that it appears to be a washout for my use cases.

Much like a younger version of Evernote, I view Apple Notes as a kind of “Meh, good enough” experience. Both offer a more word processor than semantic experience. Level of detail are formatting like headers rather than sections, and the common formatting yada, yada. Outside of differences like Notes offering short cuts like shift+cmd+h and Evernote ‘# and your text’ as alternatives to the GUI, that’s mostly distinctions in taste and finer details. The typical stuff is all there.

I personally dislike that Notes uses inline hash tagging rather than separate metadata given its use of a database oriented storage model, and prefer Evernote’s handling of attachments. But neither is a hill to die on. For a great majority of tasks, I don’t think the differences are enough to moan about beyond preference, so I’d mostly say: use whichever you like, or whichever works best for you.

The parts where the experiment fails for me is performance: Notes is slow.

As an initial test case, I imported most of my Evernote data and used this opportunity to update my local backups with fresh ENEX exports. Notes supports importing Evernote’s native export format of ENEX which made it the first candidate for experiment. And it even performs fairly well importing large numbers of notes. I decided to collect data under an “Evernote Imports” folder to serve as the root of recategorizing my notes, and that’s where the first failure point comes into play. Dragging and dropping lots of notes or a folder with lots of notes to a new destination is SLOW. Performance of folders on the order of 40 to 300 notes is slow. The kind of slow where you see Apple’s spinning rainbow (Mac’s take on Microsoft’s hour glass of yester-year) for 30 seconds and then walk off for a fresh glass of water. Based on the experiment, I believe this has more to do with folders that contain many attachments more so than many notes in general, as it goes executing a rather bulky database transaction. To be fair this isn’t a common occurrence, as I’m more prone to moving handfuls of notes than entire “Notebooks” worth unless I’m reorganizing and cleaning out my notes, which I typically do every few years. Less excusable however is the sync. For comparison, I’m used to initial syncs of Evernote taking some hours. Notes on the other hand was a screw it / going to bed / still not done in the morning, level of sync performance syncing to my tablet. Likewise, opening Notes after a long while equals a “Huh” level of slow and the sync and I’m finding that often folders aren’t in the correct location after it finishes. For me, that’s a deal breaker.

In my case, Evernote represents just over 3700 notes and exports to somewhere between 2.5 and 3 GB of ENEX files. My test subset is more like 2200 notes, so the strain on iCloud should be considerably less give or take the database overhead. Perhaps this is a lot more notes than the typical user, but for me I’m finding the performance enough to preclude Apple Notes as an Evernote replacement — Evernote handles sync just fine while Notes chokes.

BASB Categories of Intention and my digital brain

A while back, I came across Tiago Forte and his Building a Second Brain concept by way of a YouTuber channel that I follow. Watching a related playlist, Pick Your Digital Notes App: Step-by-Step Walkthrough also generated some interesting food for thought.

For the most part, I tend to apply a huge grain of salt or a tune out and keep walking relationship towards productivity, task, and time management systems. In my case, I was both interested in a little more detail in favor of deciding which side of my crap sifter that lands on and the rather lenghly list of notes apps referenced being cataloged by style.

In context, my long-term use of Evernote as my digital brain can be classified as the Librarian architype that Tiago mentions. I was quite amused, actually, how Evernote and that mentality went together in his playlist 😄.

But there’s another concept of BASB stuff I’ve seen that’s kind of curious to me at the higher level. Here’s an excerpt from one of my notes:

Categories of intention

  1. Tasks
    1. Actionable priorities separate from other stuff.
  2. Read/Watch Later
    1. Yeah, right.
  3. Projects
    1. Goals and deadline
    2. Longer term.
  4. Areas
    1. Important to spend and time on but no specific deadline.
  5. Resources
    1. Hang on to stuff.
    2. Collect knowledge, etc.
  6. Archives
Tiago Forte suggests these as notes. I envision them as notebook stacks, or notebooks that require a sea of tags.

Periodically, I try to re-evaluate and “Clean up” how information is stored, or “Filed away”. In thinking about how my notebooks have become laid out, I realized that most of my notebooks are largely one of these architypes categorized by some greater context to narrow the scope to what I am looking for during search.

One of the reasons I came to appreciate Evernote and, in many ways, modern applications in general, is a greater focus on data rather than files. This is why for example, as I’ve grown older the structure of my data has become less like an “Anally organized tree of fine-grained stuff” and more like a flat and wide breath of collections.

Where younger me might have viewed a structure like ~/Documents/Papers/General Knowledge Domain/Refined Knowledge Domain/Some Computer Science” to be useful, contemporary me is just pissed off by the excessive nesting. I don’t want to spend my time organizing or finding, I want to spend my time using and storing information. So, by contrast, contemporary me would simply store such a PostScript file in my “Programming” notebook, attach tags for any relevant languages, and consider creating tags for the knowledge domain if and only if it’s likely key to being able to find the information again. That is to say, if I’m trying to narrow the hundreds of notes in my Programming notebook or searching across my entire Evernote, I might create a tag. In the area where I started to collect lots of digital information, tags were already quite the fad; one in which I have a relatively negative view towards after years of [ab]using tags.

Thus, presently my notebooks are relatively flat making it easy to glance and guess where stuff goes or should be found. Tags are for useful things only. No more debating which notebook is more specific — it’s either a high-level context, or it’s not a notebook! This is why for example, my Programming stack of “XYZ Programming” and “XYZ Software” notebooks were merged into Programming and Software notebooks and all the XYZ became tags or were simply unimportant. Part of why this works really well, is that computers have come a fair way past the old ‘find where | grep pattern‘ way of searching for data, but we still think in those terms whatever our tools for finding and grepping hae become.

My notebooks like Programming, Games, Hardware, Formats & Notations, Mathematics & Science, Linguistics, Food, Photography; are all notebooks in the domain of “Resources”, in terms of the above categories of intention. Whereas notebooks like Clipped Articles and Image Scrapbook would be considered Archives and notebooks such as Travel and Financial, would-be areas. Since I store a whole lot of stuff in Evernote, it really is like a library of resources and areas of focus, as well as other intentions.

I kind of like this notion of categories of intention. I may have to give it some thought both into my next great data cleanup and the relationship between tools that I utilize.

Not sure who writes release notes for Evernote these days, but I like the cut of your jib.

Release Notes for Version 6.22

Note: Versions 6.22 is supported in Windows OS versions 7 and up.

Windows 6.22


– If you opened a note via your shortcuts or after searching for a tag, any links to other notes in your account would be broken. That defeated the whole purpose of having links so we fixed it.
– Editing shared notes with images inside them would sometimes cause the app to crash. That’s now a thing of the past.
– Occasionally the app would crash when you clicked on a note in the note list, which you probably did quite often. But it should be smooth sailing now.
– If you opened an image pasted from Snipping Tools, the app would sometimes freeze, but no longer.
– You can now edit your notes to include hyperlinks with a UNC path (in other words, \host-nameshare-namefile_path).
– Updates to templates
– When you click on a note link in a tagged note, the app will now show you the note you wanted. A big improvement from before.
– We tweaked the text on one screen to make it easier to read.

Behind the Scenes: Improving the Tag Experience for Evernote on Mobile

Kinda like where this is going. With my switch from Android to iOS, tags suddenly become less part of the pie rather than one of the largest pieces.

As a 90% interface, I find that the main win for Evernote is the raw performance the iPad begins to the table. Instead of sighing and waiting, it’s more like waiting for animations to finish than waiting on data to load. But beyond that I’d say it feels a bit lack luster, like it takes the worst of the Android UI and glosses it over with iOS conventions.

On the flip side they make it easier to print or export notes outside the app (yippee ki yay) and you can do some fancy formatting by entering a set of symbols that auto convert to rich text stuff, that I don’t think is supported on Android.

So yes, improvements are welcomed 😊

Behind the Scenes: Redesigning the Note Editor in Evernote.

Rather nice look at things. The fancier concept of a checklist and editing is a positive, since at best some of their clients have had the daisy chain of enter -> newline + checkbox; but mostly that was it. Sometimes related bugs as well–I used to use Evernote for my shopping list and groaned at that.

Table editing in Evernote has been both a sore and a sweet spot over the years, largely based on what client you were using. For me, mostly a sore one because my 90% interface is the mobile apps. Where the PC and Web editors tend to due the best. The current PC client has a simple but pretty complete way of doing tables, and the Android version just has rudimentary editing support.

The kind of drag/drop manipulation of table cells is a UX ballpark that over the years, I just stopped assuming anyone still cares that much about my workflows versus their five o’clock thanks to the effort it takes to pull that off. About the only time I tend to expect such drag and drop niceties to work in document editors is in Microsoft office. A coworker relies on Outlook and it’s got many nifty things like that if you abuse its features, and let’s just say if I was doing the same I’d have a host of other problems than dragging and dropping stuff in a rich text editor 😜.