Evernote has recently turned 5 years old (Happy Birthday!) and it struck me, as I read their announcement email, that I can’t imagine life without them (although I managed 31 years of just that). They took something quite humble (note-taking and list making) that many of us do regularly, mixed it up with all the wonders of 21st century digital technology and now half my brain is on their servers in note form.
Brain Now Obsolete
Albert Einstein once said “Never memorise something that you can look up”. Of course, he was probably referring to books. Extend that to the internet and I guess it’s possible our brains are now redundant like our appendix. Or body hair. Either way he had a point. It's good to offload that which you don't need all the time.
One of Evernote’s big wins has been keeping out the complexity, but I imagine anyone coming onboard now might still feel initially overwhelmed at how much functionality there is. I’d advise with starting small, focusing on one area of your life and building out from there when you’re nice and familiar. It's really very easy to use and you don't need to learn all the functions in one go.
Taking a Closer Look
After visiting Evernote.com and creating an account (free, although a premium upgrade is available), download and install the software to your computer. Evernote is available across practically every platform, which each application tailored to get the best out of the platform it’s been designed to run on, but the traditional Windows or Mac installation is a good place to start.
On the left hand side, you have your notebooks. You can keep as many as you like. I keep one for each project I’m on, plus one for the day job and another for home. To create a new one, right-click on NoteBooks and click ‘Create Notebook’. Give it a name and you’re good to go.
Within notebooks, you obviously keep your individual notes and the list of notes forms the middle column. You can sort them in all sorts of different ways, like order of when created, or the last time they were updated. Then on the right column, the content of the currently selected note is displayed.
As you can see, if you’ve ever used a simple word processor, note-taking is easy. You can write out your notes assisted by the formatting buttons across the top of the page, copy and paste some text from any other program, or copy and paste in a picture, say from your digital camera. Alongside the text, you can drop in files as attachments, much like email, except they too will be stored in Evernote and indexed ready for searching out again later. Even text picked out in a photo (say a business card) will be 'read' and available to you in search results.
I get many PDF files in my job and it’s been great to build a library of them here and store my annotations alongside them. PDFs will even open within Evernote, or you can double-click to open with Adobe Reader or whatever.
Terms and Conditions Apply
It's worth noting here that if you're tempted to use it for your work, you should check that you have the support of your employer and take at least a passing glance at the terms and conditions, which could be in conflict with your work policy. The data you keep in Evernote is held securely and you can even take things a step further and encrypt text with your own passkeys, but still, don't breach company policy, it's not worth the repurcussions.
Once you’ve finished entering your notes, Evernote will synchronise automatically on a schedule, which you can choose by selecting Tools > Options > Sync. The notes are then held on the Evernote servers, ready for access by you via any of the other gadgets you have at your disposal. Being able to refer to these notes on my mobile phone has proven invaluable on several occasions and always being able to create or amend these notes during the moment they’re relevant has meant I’m losing far less knowledge than before.
Any device, anywhere .. anyone?
Evernote also integrates well into the operating system of the device that you’re using. For example, on Windows it plugs into Microsoft Office, giving you a button to send emails into Evernote in one click and a press of the ‘Windows’ key and ‘Print Screen’ gives you the ability to drag out and snapshot anything that’s happening on your screen! This has proven particularly useful for me.
On mobile, the integration is also well thought out. On your mobile, you’re much more likely to want to record some audio, or scan a document and these are moved to the forefront of the application. On Android, sharing from other apps directly into Evernote is possible without having to go to the app first.
What this illustrates is that Evernote have gone a long way to making their system as easy to get at as a post-it note, except that even when you have a thousand of them, things are very manageable.
Should your office be in support of Evernote, you can even start collaborating with your colleagues. Grant access to a notebook and they can see and edit notes with you, all under your control. The premium version really goes to town on this sort of functionality and is aimed very much at business.
Sounds Like Something Google Would Do
So, Evernote is clearly a very good product and they have millions of users, so there must be some competition, right? Well, Evernote are a pretty big deal now, but they're going to have to face down Google, with Google Keep.
Google Keep runs a similar philosophy to Evernote. See something you want to make a note of, do it quickly and easily and make sure it's easy to pull back out later.
On Android based smartphones, Keep makes a very nice first impression. The free app is incredibly simple and basic in a really pleasing way. Sadly an IOS version for Apple devices doesn't seem to be available although some 3rd party developer apps have stepped in to fill the gap.
Best accessed via the widget, which shows you your most recently taken notes and allows you to scroll through your list without having to open the app, you can take four kinds of notes. These note types are text, checklist, audio and photo.
Notes can be given titles and photos can be attached to the other note types. Each note can also be colour coded, like having a range of different colour digital post-it notes, which makes searching them out again a little easier and that's pretty much all there is to it.
It's a very good looking app with bold colours and quite strikingly nice fonts.
I used Google Keep for a month alongside Evernote and found that it was too basic to compete when it came to notation by the hundred, and probably soon to be thousand that I need to get by. Being able to tag and organise notes is essential to me, especially when trying to keep track of quite random bits of code for example that could have more than one purpose later on.
For lesser demands though, I found the Keep to be quite good fun to use. When my wife mentioned something she liked whilst out on a shopping trip, it was great to be able to snap photos into Keep and closer to her birthday be reminded of those ideas as I scolled through the phone with my credit-card armed and ready, well quivering. It was also very good for to-do lists, which could be checked off easily. Once completed a simple left swipe flings it into the archive for long term storage.
If you like the idea of just collecting interesting things that you see, hear and do as you go through life, I think Keep is a nice place to store and browse through these sorts of notes. More of a pleasure thing than a serious tool. It's good too that if you do want to access them online, they're available via Google Drive, which is an online word processor, spreadsheet and presentation tool with 5GB of included online free storage (on which I've drafting this very article!). I was a bit concerned what would happen to the notes if Google ever decided to close the service down, but they should be quite safe here in one of Google's most popular online web-apps.
If Google want to rival Evernote directly, then they're going to have to add a lot more functionality, so for the moment, Evernote have nothing to fear. Yet Google leave Keep as it is, there is room for both to exist and users can enjoy trying both out and deciding which fits their needs best. For example, if you love to shop for clothes, storing pictures of garments that you really liked along with a note about prices, or colours available - this is perfectly suited to Google Keep. If you're planning a wedding and have lots of different types of notes to manage, like choosing a venue, dealing with suppliers and so on; being able to add context to notes through different notebooks, tagging and so on will make it much easier to keep track of as it grows.
Whatever you're requirements, I strongly recommend you give them a try and ditch the post-it note forever!