Since the general transition to mobile computing, in which I was helplessly swept along like everyone else, there’s been a kind of hole in my personal knowledge life.
Notekeeping has disappeared. Plain text files created on the command line are out. The simple, powerful notes applications from the early generations of mobile devices—those found in Newton OS, Palm OS, and Windows CE—seem to have no equivalents these days.
Everyone is hung up on Evernote, which is okay so far as cloud synchronization goes, but which has one of the worst user interfaces for personal knowledge management ever created.
For a while I used DevonThink, which is very powerful and reasonably good, but unfortunately DevonThink is tied to the ’90s. It is hopelessl non-mobile, and its creators and much of its community have an ideological commitment to the avoidance of cloud services and the support of non-Apple platforms. This makes it a non-starter for anyone using Android—not to mention that it’s a pretty heavy wagon to pull just for the same functionality that Palm OS notes used to provide.
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© Aron Hsiao / 2015
Anatomy of a good notes app in 2016:
- Plain-text friendly and highly readable (Evernote fails)
- Ability to elegantly and rapidly attach, view, and search other data formats
- High-density index views showing as many titles as possible on-screen at once; very little white space (Evernote fails)
- Ability to see at all times which category is currently selected, whether at index or at edit (Evernote fails)
- Ability to swtich categories with two gestures max and zero changes to screen layout in the process (Evernote fails)
- Ability to import and export standard plain-text formats both easily and with structure and metadata preserved (Evernote fails)
- Cloud synchronization supporting Mac OS, Windows, Linux, iOS, and Android (DevonThink fails)
- Tagging in addition to categories
- Ability to capture and attach images directly to note as it is created
Every now and then I spend time looking around for an app that’ll do this. Basically Newton OS notes, Palm OS notes, or Windows CE Phatware notes but with cloud sync, multiplatform support, and image support (Newton actually had this, way back in the day, even if it didn’t have a built-in camera).
I never find what I’m looking for. Then I spend several days trying to convince myself either to settle for Evernote (and crap usability that will essentially lead to non-use on my part) or Devonthink (and a heavy anchoring to my Mac OS desktop that will essentially lead to non-use on my part). Then, I realize that I’ve been over all of this before, and I give up.
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Today I realized that the best solution at the moment, and one that comes very, very close in all respects, has been staring me in the face for a while now—only I didn’t realize it because of the way the application is marketed.
It’s Diaro. It’s marketed as a personal diary, rather than as a notes application, but it actually meets or nearly meets every one of the criteria outlined above.
Add to that the fact that it’s a high-quality application with very good visual design and UX and it’s a pretty big winner for such a little product from a little company. What’s it missing? Well, basically, native desktop clients and support for data beyond plain text.
That last omission is almost a deal-breaker, but the fact is that Evernote isn’t even close to hitting the mark; it essentially relies on cloud sync to make up for every one of its other myriad shortcomings. DevonThink is also missing just one thing, but it’s a doozie—multiplatform support—that excludes anyone and everyone that uses non-Apple devices along with Apple computers (i.e. me).
My only worry with Diaro is that it’s developed and supported by a small, private company—meaning that its cloud sync and web application components are being held up by some fairly weak scaffolding and institutional staying power. But the fact that import/export is so incredibly easy and happens in open, industry-standard formats means that if it does go under, a structured data dump can be done in a matter of minutes.
So I’m actually switching my everyday note-taking over to Diaro. It sounds nuts, but that’s only because marketing is a powerful thing.
If the Diaro developer has any sense, they’ll wake up to the fact that they have an Evernote-killer on their hands and will quickly move to implement support for attaching data in other formats. At that point, I’ll happily pay the Evernote subscription fee that I’ve long paid to the developer of Diaro instead—and even be willing to pay two or three times as much.