Every so often I come across a new computer application that gets me quite exercised and wanting to tell everyone about it. I have a new one to rave about: Evernote. I think it may turn out to be very significant, but at this stage I admit that when I describe it to many people, including my wife, I get a blank look. For them, Evernote answers a need they haven’t noticed.
For me though, it is a step forward in a way of working I’ve had for 20 years, through a program called InfoSelect and its predecessor, Tornado. InfoSelect is essentially a big freeform database that you chuck all sorts of stuff into, as separate notes. Contacts, reminders, research notes, how-to instructions and so on. Even if you only remember a fragment of text that might be in a note, you can enter it in a search box and find it instantly. It’s so fast and easy that it’s practical to do quick look-ups to answer people asking questions on the phone.
The whole thing is pretty random, which seems, to my cluttered mind, to mimic the way brains work. Well most brains anyway – some button-down people simply must have structure and order in everything and won’t be happy without a full-blown structured database like MS Access. Which, to be realistic, you’d never use to find things in a hurry or to answer a casual query.
But InfoSelect hasn’t kept up with the times. You can’t synchronise its database over several computers using the Internet, its user interface is dated and clunky, and searching is not as flexible as people have come to expect in the Google age. Your search term has to be spelled exactly right – you can’t, as in Google-type searching, toss a few words into the search box and have it come up with the most likely answers even if one of your words is misspelt or not actually in the note you’re searching for. It doesn’t handle graphics well. At US$250 it’s horrendously and unjustifiably expensive for what it does.
To get around the problem of making information available on all my computers (and on anyone else’s computer I happen to be sitting at), I was starting to bypass InfoSelect and send information in emails to my own Gmail account, which can be searched in the Google manner.
Enter Evernote. It adds considerably to what InfoSelect has given me for so long. I can toss bits of text at it and easily search for them. But I can also put graphics in it and if those graphics happen to contain text, Evernote makes that text searchable through optical character recognition (OCR). It does a great job of that, even with quite low quality text.
Below is the main Evernote 3.1 screen (click on the graphic to make it bigger). In this case I searched for the term ‘web’ and it listed quite a few notes in the upper right box. When you click on one of the note titles in the list, the full note shows in the bottom window. You can also choose to email it. Double-click on the note title and it opens as a separate window you can more easily edit. This example contains information about my old mobile phone, including an email from the supplier of some software I installed on the phone.
I can scan or photograph important family documents, put them in Evernote and the text is searchable. Evernote is great for research. Put images of book or journal pages into Evernote and dredge them up again later via a standard text search. I’ve also used it with the National Library’s online Papers Past service, copying text from old newspapers with a screen-grabbing utility, then pasting it straight into Evernote. All searchable now.
Needless to say, Evernote is a good place to store selected emails and web pages. You even get a ‘save to Evernote’ button added to the Firefox browser (I don’t know about the other browsers), and to your email program (if it’s Outlook or Thunderbird — I don’t know about the rest).
Evernote stores this information on my computer but it also sends it up to the Internet ‘cloud’ where I get backup storage. But here’s the kicker: if you have Evernote on other computers and are ‘logged-in’, these other computers get updated with the latest information. This only works on computers with the Evernote client program installed, but all is not lost. You can access your database using a browser on any computer, anywhere in the world. This is also helpful if you have a Linux computer – so far there’s no client Evernote program for Linux. But there are clients for Windows, Mac, the iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, Palm, Blackberry, Android and Windows Mobile.
It only took a few days of trialing Evernote before I was sold on it. Then I chose a rainy day and went through my grown-like-topsy InfoSelect database and transferred 500 notes to Evernote. I ignored literally thousands of notes that I was unlikely to need again. But InfoSelect is still on my computer, just in case…
Evernote is free if you can live with a fairly generous monthly data volume allowance, having (pretty unobtrusive) adverts showing, and getting low priority in the OCR queue on the Evernote server. The free version’s monthly data allowance is 30Mb, more than enough for a largely text-based database. I could see myself storing plenty of graphics and web pages, so I paid US$45 for an annual subscription that gives me 500Mb of data a month, no adverts, greater security and a few other niceties that include the ability to store data files such as Word documents, Excel files and PDFs of anything. For me it’s another backup location for important files that I can access anywhere.
Your Evernote account is password protected. You can even further protect words within entries – passwords, for instance.
I have to thank fellow blogger Alan Vallis for alerting me to Evernote in the first place and his own rave review of it is here. His cheatsheet listing the keyboard shortcuts is here. Like me, Alan was a long-time user of InfoSelect, which he accurately calls a “flawed gem.”
Update July 2010: the interface has changed a little in the latest version, 3.5. This new version has been extensively rewritten and makes use of Microsoft’s .NET Framework. There are a number of improvements, but at the expense of the program now being bloated and slow. For this reason, I’m only using it on my fastest computers. I’ve taken it off my netbook and gone back to version 3.1, which is snappier. Fortunately both versions use the same database, and Evernote still makes version 3.1 available on its website. Hopefully the company will sort out version 3.5. Certainly I’m far from the only person complaining about it.
Further update, 18 August: Evernote has released a beta of a new speeded up version of 3.5. It’s faster and it’s back on my netbook. The beta seems to be stable. Get it here.
Yet another update: the August release did speed things up a bit, but nowhere near as much a further update in December.
And another one! Evernote now has an excellent companion program called Evernote Food. I blogged about it here.