Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Evernote: Can it be your everything, all the time?

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Yesterday Evernote launched its public beta, finally allowing everyone to access their Web-based service and releasing updated versions of their desktop client for Mac and Windows. Evernote aims to be your one and only electronic notebook no matter where you are (web, desktop, or mobile) or what you’re doing (copying text, taking photos, scanning images, recording voice). It’s an ambitious goal, but I think they’ve done it.  Will they become my primary notebook? The jury, as they say, is out on that one.

Ars Technica has extensively and enthusiastically covered Evernote since the Web-based service launched in private beta. Rather than repeat what Ars has ably done, I’d rather focus on my experience with the service and mention to you a few things Ars skips.

A gazillion features

First, I want to emphasize Evernote’s impressive list of features.

  • Cross platform desktop software for Mac and Windows
  • Robust support for mobile phones, including a free Windows Mobile client and iPhone-optimized interface
  • Quick, seamless synchronization between web and the desktop
  • Sophisticated Web interface that nearly matches desktop client
  • Powerful ink mode that can recognize text and shapes as you draw*
  • Support for multiple notebooks, with the option to publish one or more to the Web (here’s mine).
  • Web clips using either bookmarklet or Firefox add-on (available only with desktop client)
  • Ability to send notes directly to Evernote using a unique email address
  • Instant search that can recognize text within images
  • Sort by either tag or attribute
  • Drag-n-drop both notes and tags
  • Saved searches (a.k.a., smart folders)
  • View notes in side-bar timeline*
  • Encryption for selected text within a note
  • Geo-location tags viewable in Google Earth
  • Long list of keyboard shortcuts*
  • Easy and intuitive to-do lists*
  • Import wizard for Microsoft’s OneNote
  • Embeddable widget

*desktop only

The sheer breadth of what the developers have accomplished here is daunting. Even more impressive is the overall fit and polish. I’ve not spent a lot of time with Evernote, but I have yet to find a single bug or encounter anything that didn’t work as expected.

imageBest mobile notebook ever?

I’m especially impressed with the Windows Mobile app. Evernote has taken features that might form the basis for an entire start-up (e.g., ShoZu), and turned them into a flawless feature. With my Samsung BlackJack II, I can quickly enter text notes, take photos, or record voice notes, and everything is easily uploaded using the hassle-free interface. I can also quickly access and search all my notes. If you’re on a stingy wireless plan, connect with USB and import your notes with the Mobile Import wizard. Sure, OneNote has a mobile app, and Google Notebook is mobile-friendly, but Evernote is unequivocally the best notebook for your mobile phone.

Photo courtesy of O’Reilly Digital Media.

Full-featured basic account

As Ars noted, Evernote offers a pro account, but the free version gives you access to nearly all the features.

The only limit now imposed on free Evernote accounts is a monthly upload quota of 40MB. There is no limit on the total storage space or the amount of information accessed each month; just on how much you upload. This 40MB limit should be plenty of room to snip PDFs from websites, images you e-mail from your iPhone while on the go, and tons of simple text notes.

Evernote Premium accounts, on the other hand, offer a few advantages for either $5 per month or $45 for a year of service. For starters, Libin told us that premium users will have a much higher 500MB monthly quota, which will increase over time. Premium members also get SSL access for all client communication, including web apps, as well as first-in-line access for Evernote's unique image recognition service that can pick out text in images and make it searchable. Last but not least, premium members also get technical support and other planned features down the road.

Not quite ready to be my #1

There are plenty of positives, I’ve got quibbles that might just prevent Evernote from being what it clearly wants to be: my everything / all-the-time notebook.

My problems are mostly with the web-based app. First, unlike every other Web-based notebook I’ve seen, Evernote’s text editing options are pretty limited. No bold or italic text. No bulleted or ordered lists. No colored text or highlighters. None of the keyboard short cuts work on the web, and the web interface forces you to click “edit” before you can start typing. Finally, the Firefox plug-in works only for the desktop, and the bookmarklet is limited in it’s functionality. I don’t expect every feature to be available on the Web. But since most of my notes are text, and I can’t install the desktop app at work, the hobbled web app is a pretty big hang-up for me.

Other problems are present in both the Web and desktop versions. For example, unlike Google Notebook, you can’t simply add a tag by typing next to other tags. You have to drag an existing tag onto the note (or vice-versa). The desktop app does let you add tags via a keyboard short cut (ctrl + shift + T). And one minor complaint: the image search is outstanding, but why can’t I copy text from images the way I can in OneNote?

Not perfect, but still awesome

Truthfully all my complaints are minor and will probably be addressed in future updates. These compromises were probably deliberate, and Evernote’s dev team must have these shortcomings on their to-do list. For now, this beta release is most impressive launch I’ve ever seen.

I had used Evernote’s desktop client in 2006 when I was a legal intern and didn’t have OneNote. I found Evernote to be an adequate replacement, but I missed OneNote’s tabbed interface and keyboard shortcuts. Here’s what Evernote looked like then.

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Here’s what it looks like now (on Mac, via Ars):

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They’ve come an ever long way.

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