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Review: Evernote - Never Forget

Review: Evernote - Never Forget

October 25, 2010


What is green and has an elephant all over it? The answer to this riddle is no mystery if you're fortunate enough to have discovered Evernote, the ‘remember everything’ app whose icon, a green colored elephant in side-profile, can be installed on both your desktop computer and iOS device. Once there, just like an elephant, Evernote never forgets. By providing a portal to your own personal digital file cabinet in cyberspace, Evernote enables you to manage your information from any computer, anywhere. The best way to quickly add or search for notes when you are on the go is to use the free Evernote app that works on all iOS devices running iOS version 3.0 or later.

Evernote enables you to store just about anything you can copy or cut from your computer or iOS device to a remote location that's accessed through the web. Data stored this way is commonly referred to as being “in the cloud.” The big advantage of using the cloud is that you can find and retrieve information stored there from any computer or iOS device – anywhere. Items like text, pictures, emails, or audio recordings can be stashed into the cloud into entries that Evernote unsurprisingly calls “notes.” On the iPhone and iPod Touch, selecting the “New Note” tool icon located on the far left of the bottom toolbar brings up a list of buttons corresponding to the types of new notes you can quickly create.

The appearance of this screen depends on which iOS device you’re using. For example, although the ability to take snapshots and record voice input are available on all iPhones and the latest iPod touch, previous generations of iPod touches lack one or more of these capabilities.

The process of making a new note on the iPad is a bit different. When the “New Note” tool button is pressed, a new note screen appears that takes advantage of the iPad’s more expansive screen. The window that appears here has icons at its top that enable you to add pictures and audio recordings to the displayed note.

Using this screen you can enter the note’s title, select the notebook in which you want to store the note, and add all the tags you want – all from the same window. You can then proceed to enter your text and, if you want to, any combination of pictures from your photo albums and audio notes by clicking on the camera roll or microphone icons that appear at the top of the note. This ability to edit all the note’s attributes and attach multiple combinations of pictures and audio recordings is a vast improvement over the interface provided on the iPhone and iPod touch. On these iOS devices, notes can only be created containing individual pictures or audio notes. Annoyingly, except for text notes, you then have to return to notes after they’ve been created to add attributes like the note’s title and tags or specify in which notebook you want the note stored. Although creating new notes on the iPhone isn’t as convenient as the iPad, Evernote’s ability to use the iPhone’s on-board camera is a major plus. Taking photos of items like receipts and business cards for later reference is a snap with the iPhone 4.

Once a note is created on your iOS device, it’s easy to assign it identifiers of your choice called “tags.” For example, a note describing your latest culinary masterpiece could be assigned a tag like “recipe” to help you find similar or related notes on the same topic later. In this example, if you find yourself at a friend’s house on the other side of town, searching for notes tagged with “recipe” will provide you plenty of choices should you get hungry and want to cook-in instead of eat-out. Related notes can also be easily organized into collections called “notebooks.” If you forget to add an appropriate tag or if you’re just not very organized, don’t sweat it. You can always search for specific notes based on their contents. You can also search on the basis of several other attributes. For example, notes can also be found based on when they were created or last modified. If a note is created on an iOS device that is "location-aware" (knows where it is), your location is attached to a note when it's created. This makes it possible for you to later search for a note based upon where you were when you made it.

A key advantage of accessing your notes using the Evernote app instead of a web browser is the ability to find stuff when you are on the go and AT&T service is either very slow or unavailable (for example, much of New York or San Francisco). Using either your desktop Evernote application or the app on your iOS device, Premium subscribers (more on that later) can designate which notebooks they would like stored locally on their iOS device by changing the status of those notebooks to "offline." Notes contained in offline notebooks are stored locally and thus they are faster to access, and even more importantly, they are also accessible when the Internet isn't. On the iPhone and iPod Touch, but strangely not on the iPad, you can also tell Evernote to locally store an individual by simply clicking a star icon that’s located above the note and to the left of the note’s title. Once it’s clicked, the star will change from a faded appearance to what you see in the graphic below. The button can be toggled off by clicking it again, telling Evernote that it no longer needs to keep that note in your iOS device’s memory. This is a convenient way to locally store favorite notes even if they aren’t stored in notebooks you’ve previously designated for internal storage (or if you’re not a Premium subscriber and lack that super-power). Favorite notes are stored locally only on the iPhone or iPod Touch from which those notes are starred. While storing a note locally makes it accessible in areas where you can’t connect to the Internet, don’t forget that you need to star the note while you’re still connected. This capability is a good workaround for the possibility that you’re unable or unwilling to devote sufficient space to store all your notes directly on your iOS device.

Yet another way to get information into your Evernote database is to send it email. When you create an account to start using Evernote, you’re automatically assigned an email address that looks like yourname[email protected] Anything sent to this address will automatically be deposited into your default notebook as a note with the email’s subject line as its title. Such emails can contain complex formatting like rich text and HTML in addition to images. This is a powerful feature that makes it easy for friends or coworkers to deposit information directly into your Evernote database. This feature also makes it easy for you to archive email messages into Evernote – just forward messages to your account’s email address. Twitter can also be used to deposit short notes into Evernote.

If you subscribe to Evernote’s Premium service (more on that later), you can also stash entire documents into notes. Files created by just about any application can be attached: Word, Pages, or Photoshop — it doesn’t matter. It’s an easy way to quickly back-up important files and also to make sure you can access them later somewhere else. Besides gaining the ability to store more notes, the ability to attach documents to notes is one of the most persuasive reasons to sign up for Premium service.

Evernote is also a convenient place to stuff information you come across that you want to remember while you’re surfing the web. Photos, charts, sections of text, or any combination of these up to entire web pages can be easily clipped into Evernote’s cloud-based storage for later retrieval. Evernote provides extensions and plug-ins that can be installed into the most popular desktop browsers. These tools enable you to clip stuff from the web to Evernote by simply clicking on an elephant icon that’s installed in your browser’s tool bar. Items clipped from the web into new notes automatically get assigned the appropriate link or URL enabling you to easily track an item back to wherever you found it. If you’re using a browser that currently lacks a built-in clipping tool, like the Safari browser on your idevice, you can install a Java-based bookmarklet that accomplishes much the same thing. The interface provided by this bookmarklet allows you to first log-in to your Evernote account, and then specify most of the attributes for the note that will hold your web clipping: title, notebook destination, and tags.

Clippings can be just parts of web-pages, determined by whatever you selected. When nothing is selected, the entire web page is stored to a new note in Evernote.

I see you (and recognize you too)

Evernote would be pretty cool if all it did was just store stuff you didn’t want to lose. But behind the scene, computers resident in Evernote's cloud-based repository also perform optical character recognition (OCR) on images within your notes. Words appearing within images are recognized by Evernote and then indexed so that you can later find a note that has images in which that text appears. For example, if you take a photo of a label for a bottle of wine you want to recall later, say a Cabernet Sauvignon, and the label on the bottle has the word “Sauvignon” on it, you'll be able to find it later simply by searching for “sauvignon.”

Although the accuracy of the recognition isn’t always flawless, so long as the imaged text is of reasonable size and clarity, this feature usually works pretty well. Sometimes it works astonishingly well, as in this real world example where a word wrapping around a wine bottle was accurately recognized. A photo of a label of 14 Hands wine that I snapped using my iPhone 4 not only could be found by searching on “sauvignon,” but also by searching for words like “hands,” “cabernet,” and “Washington,”  all of which appear in the label's image.

Evernote’s OCR feature provides a useful and powerful way to sift through your stored notebooks to search for notes that might otherwise be hard to find. Incredibly, Evernote even recognizes handwritten notes, so long as they are written legibly (physicians should skip this section). During my testing, I found this example note, containing a snapshot of a handwritten note, simply by searching for the words “interview Jacob.” Evernote found scribbled notes like this one routinely; it's an amazing feature that enables you to stash handwritten notes in the cloud and retrieve them later at a moment's notice. This feature also works well to capture whiteboards containing collaborative notes and figures used during meetings.

Amazingly, the text is recognized even if the photograph is taken sideways or in landscape format. Although the camera on the 4th generation iPod touch can’t capture shots as crisp or as sharp as the iPhone 4’s camera, it's capable of capturing text recognizable by Evernote's OCR feature. The key word here is "capable," because for it to work you have to ensure that the imaged text isn't too small and the image isn’t blurred by movement or too grainy due to poor lighting. Needless to say, your technique and the lighting both need to be optimal. Even when they are, the likelihood that any given section of text in an image taken by the iPod Touch 4 will be accurately recognized by Evernote is a lot lower than if you used a iPhone 3GS or 4. Although the camera in the iPhone 3G has sufficient resolution to capture this sort of stuff, it’s seriously handicapped by being near-sighted. Fortunately, you can correct its vision by using a case equipped with a built-in close-up lens, like the Clarifi® from Griffin Technology. The corrective lens built into this case will enable you to image text sharp enough with a iPhone 3G for it to be reliably recognized by Evernote.

I did discover one drawback of Evernote’s OCR feature. Occasionally when Evernote tries to recognize text that lacks sharpness or is too small, it “sees” words that aren’t really there. The end result is that occasionally when conducting a search you’ll wind up with one or more notes that just don’t seem to match your query. These notes are mistakenly found because they contain incorrectly recognized text that by chance just happens to match your search query. Because Evernote still finds whatever you are looking for, this quirky behavior is more of an annoyance than a flaw. Just keep in mind that if you store lots of images containing marginally recognizable text, some of them will inevitably pop up in unrelated searches for no apparent reason. This perturbing tendency for Evernote to find notes that "don't fit" could easily be curtailed if Evernote would provide users a way to review and edit the text generated by the OCR feature.

Evernote’s OCR service works better if you’re a paid Premium subscriber. Not because it's more accurate, but on account of the fact that Evernote queues up images from Premium users before those uploaded by non-paying users. In practice, I found that as a paid user the OCR process usually occurred in less than a minute or two. If I instead logged in using a non-Premium account, the OCR usually took no more than five minutes. However, the exact duration was less predictable. That’s reasonable since the demand on the computers that perform Evernote’s OCR processing likely varies over time. Paying users also get another bonus OCR feature. Evernote will also recognize and index any imaged text within PDF files attached to their notes. This is a useful feature that can come in handy if you own or receive PDF files generated by optical scanning equipment.

Cash or Not

If you’ve made it this far in the review, you’ll probably agree there’s more than one elephant in the room right now. Although Evernote is without a doubt a pretty capable tool, just how much work does it do for free, and just when do you have to pull out your wallet to get more done?

Although Evernote doesn’t place any limits on how much stuff you can stash in its cloud-based memory, it does control how much new stuff you can stash there any given month. Premium subscribers are allowed to upload as much as 500 MB data every month, while free users are limited to 40 MB. If your notes are largely text-based, 40 MB of additional storage every month may be all that you’ll ever need. However, if you want to store lots of images, you’ll likely find yourself banging into that 40 MB ceiling pretty quickly. I depend on Evernote quite a bit, and when I’m not traveling, I generally upload about 100 MB every month. If you travel much and depend on Evernote to store and organize images of people, receipts and business cards, you’ll almost certainly want to become a paying subscriber.

Premium membership costs either $5 paid from month-to-month or $45 per year. If your need for more storage is sporadic, say something you require only when you're on extended business trips, then you could just pay for the Premium membership whenever you need it – on a month-by-month basis. Premium service for either duration can be purchased directly from within the app or at Evernote's web site.

Premium members get other incentives too. They can attach files of any type to notes, the only limitation being that the total size of any particular note cannot exceed 50 MB. The maximum size of free users’ notes is 25 MB, but given that non-paying users can only upload 40 MB a month, that’s hardly a limitation worth noting. Paid users have text in their images recognized faster (because they are accorded higher priority), and on top of that, any imaged text appearing in their PDF files is also recognized. Paying users also gain the ability to enable other people to both see and edit their notes on the web, making Evernote a powerful collaboration tool for groups to work together (that's another article all by itself). Premium users also get faster support; my queries to support were usually answered almost immediately; the longest time it took for me to receive a response was perhaps 20 minutes. A more complete list of all the differences between a paid and free account can be found in a table on Evernote’s web site.

The Good:

The Evernote app offers native, streamlined access to your Evernote notebooks while you are on the go. The app provides tools to rapidly store text, images, or audio recordings as well as search for specific notes. Evernote's ability to perform searches on text that appears only in images is pretty astounding and it's a feature that can be put to good use, especially if you have an iOS device equipped with a camera.

Evernote makes good use of the iPad's larger screen, providing different user interfaces depending on whether the IPad is held vertically or horizontally. The speed with which you can rapidly browse even thousands of notes by simply flicking the ipad's screen is impressive. It's also a great way to showcase the iPad's power to manage information.

Evernote comes in two tiers of service, free and paid. It's no surprise that paying users can get a lot more value out of the service, but it's remarkable how much of the service’s capabilities can be used for free.

The Bad:

The Evernote app’s Achilles heel is that when it comes to editing notes, it’s nowhere near as capable as the Mac or Windows desktop applications. For that matter, even browsers are better equipped for editing. Although the app let’s you freely make changes to notes that contain only plain or unformatted text, if you want to edit more complex notes, you’re out of luck. By complex notes I mean ones containing formatted text, either alone or in combination with media like pictures or audio. Whenever you attempt to edit these kinds of notes, the app confronts you with two options; unfortunately, both are less than ideal. You can either first convert the entire note into one containing only plain text or keep the note as is, and simply append some plain text onto the end of the note. Select the first option and all of the note’s text is stripped of niceties like bolded or italicized words. The naked or plain text is copied to a new note that can be edited. The original note and any rich media it contained like pictures or audio is deposited in the trash, not just on your iOS device, but upon synchronization, in the cloud and on every other synchronized computer and device. Thankfully, until you delete the contents of Evernote’s trash, you can at a later date pull the original note out of the trash and rework your edits into it using a more capable Evernote client (like the desktop applications or a web browser). The second option does enable you to append comments or other text to complex notes while you’re on the go, but it’s clearly not as useful as being able to change the original content of the note itself.

The Verdict:

If you’re not using Evernote already, go download it right now and at least try it out. You have nothing to lose.

Useful Resources

To learn more about Evernote:

Mentioned apps


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