How and Why I’m Using Evernote

I’m not sure what triggered it, but all of a sudden it seems as though the nerd world has gotten into — or back into — Evernote. Merlin Mann talked about it on his recent visit to Mac Power Users, Brett Terpstra said nice things about it on on Systematic recently, Gabe Weatherhead has been posting about it on MacDrifter and I’ve been obsessed with it the past several days as well. It’s also possible that it’s been that way all along, and I just never noticed. Like I bought a blue Volvo station wagon, and now I’m seeing them everywhere.

There are two reasons that I’ve sort of always shied away from getting too into Evernote in the past:

  1. Afraid of being locked in. Finder and text files have no lock in.
  2. I hated all of the apps.

Lock In

Evernote makes it pretty easy to get my actual files out as attachments (PDFs, images, etc). It’s also got full AppleScript support, so I don’t think getting my text out would be all that difficult either. I’d probably lose any RTF formatting going to something else, but I don’t use a lot of formatting, so I don’t think that’d be a problem for me.

The Apps

The last time I tried Evernote — about a year ago — my experience was basically like this:

  1. Install the Mac version of Evernote.
  2. Drag a PDF onto Evernote.
  3. Watch it crash.
  4. Uninstall the app.

Fast forward to now, and the apps are between good and great in terms of stability and user interface. It seems like version 5 was a big update that fixed a lot. Some of how you get around in the Mac version is a little confusing, but not terrible, and nothing I can’t get used to. As just a way to quickly enter and find text based notes, it can’t really compete with nvALT, but you get a lot for what you give up.

Why Use Evernote

Fiddling is fun, but I’d like to avoid the temptation to switch every time someone comes out with a new app update. There’s a few things Evernote offers that no one else really can.

A Shareable Bucket for Everything

Besides Finder, Evernote is the only app I know of that you can really just throw anything at — PDFs, images, text notes — everything. And it’s not just that you can put everything into it, it’s that it treats most of those things the same way (through OCR), so that doing a text search is going to bring up results from all of the above.

I’ve put this to a lot of use already. For example, every time I buy a new bag of coffee now I take a picture of the label and put into a notebook called “Coffee Beans.” So I can now search for “Guatemala” and have all the bags of Guatemalan coffee I’ve bought show up. Or search “Stumptown” and have every bag of Stumptown beans I’ve bought come up.

Another use might be looking for a new apartment. Create a new notebook called “Apartment Hunting” and share it with your significant other/roommate. You can now both add pictures of “for rent” signs you saw out and about, or web clippings from Craigslist. All of the pictures you took are now automatically tagged with the location, and if you want you can manually add location data to the web clips as well.

Add-On Apps

I noticed when Evernote bought Penultimate and Skitch, but since I wasn’t using either of those apps a lot at the time, I didn’t put much thought into it. Now that I’m looking at them again, the ability of both apps to sync with Evernote has made them both really attractive. Penultimate plus a Cosmonaut stylus is combination I could see actually using for sketching app ideas besides paper. Since Skitch is now available on iPhone, iPad and Mac, it means that if someone sends me an app to test, I can take a screenshot on whatever device I’m on, mark it up with design notes, and send it back to them.

The other add-on apps I’ve been using are Evernote Food and Hello. Food let’s me search recipes from within the app, but also sync against any existing recipes you’ve already got in Evernote. It also lets you make a note of whenever you’ve had a meal somewhere, or search for any restaurant and save a note on it. And of course it saves the location, and often even has the menu for the place you were at. I’ve been using it to back fill places I liked in San Francisco, Montreal, Denver and New York so that the next time I’m in any of those places I don’t have to try and remember where it was I had a great vegan panini.

I’ve played with Hello less — because I haven’t been to any conferences or meet ups this week — but I tried it out at home. What it seems to do is let you take a picture of someones business card when you meet them, it can then pull their data off using OCR, sync it with your address book, and keep a running log of when you’ve met this person. I’m kind of excited about actually trying this out.

How I’m Using It

The biggest thing I’ve learned is that — like butterflies — notebooks are free. It’s usually easier for me to create a new notebook on a topic than to try and fit it into an existing one, so I’ve just been creating as many as I need, as I need them. I add one for every project or area of my life, and then if any seem very closely related, I drag them together to create a “stack” (Evernote’s concept of a folder). I’m doing more or less the same thing with tags, although I’m trying to stick with using tags for items that could potentially be spread across multiple areas, and notebooks for items which probably aren’t. Sometimes there may be overlap, but I’m not too worried about it. The best plan seems to be adding whatever contextual information you think would help in terms of title, tags and notebook, and then using search to find it later.

Another lesson is that Evernote really works best if you put as much as possible into it. For things which are strictly bookmarks, I’m not going to stop using Pinboard, but I’m giving it an earnest shot for text notes. The way I differentiate between things that go in Pinboard vs Evernote vs Instapaper is actually pretty simple. Pinboard is for something where I want to actually visit the site later (knowing it might change), I might make a web clip in Evernote of something if I want to capture it exactly how it is right now (like a recipe), and Instapaper is for things I want to read later.

Because I’m putting as much as possible into it, I now have one place I can look on any device for almost anything via a text search. How cool.

Collin Donnell @collin