Experimenting with Evernote alternatives

Earlier in the summer Evernote limited their free service to only allow syncing between two devices. This severely hampered my Home Mac/Work Mac/iPad/iPhone workflow, and led me to try some other services: Google Keep and SimpleNote.

I don’t begrudge Evernote their decision; I was the sort of user who was costing them money without providing anything but another collection of notes to sync. My use of Evernote was pretty basic — most of what I did was sync text notes between my various devices. I didn’t make use of its myriad bells and whistles, like multimedia syncing and web clipping, because I have other ways of solving those problems.

No, what I needed was a service that let me sync small-ish text files between different computers and mobile devices … and I wasn’t going to pay Evernote for that privilege.

The Inventory

So what am I syncing? There are four kinds of things:

To do lists: Day-specific or ongoing, for work, home, and hobbies campaign.

Shopping lists: I maintain a “Never-ending List of Groceries”, which I refer to whenever my wife asks me what I want from the grocery store for the week. I also have smaller shopping lists for family gifts, my RPG campaigns, and my own geeky pursuits.

Quick-hit notes: Articles, posts, and websites I want to investigate further.

Long-form notes: Some of the quick-hit notes evolve into something more: first drafts of articles for Nuketown, collections of links for work, etc. My junk drawer file for my Summon Webscryer columns at Knights of the Dinner Table is the mother of all long-form notes, sometimes containing dozens of entries.

Ideally, all of these notes would be written using Markdown, but that’s not essential.


Going into this mini project, I was focused on the long-form notes, particularly the Summon Webscryer junk file. That file is an ever-growing list of interesting websites grouped by category/genre/topic/etc; it’s the digital equivelent of my desk’s junk drawer. When I have enough web links related to a particular topic, I write a column. Since I never know where you’ll find a cool story or website, it’s essential that this file gets synced. It needs to be accessible from home or work, but given the large size of the file, access on the go is less important.

I have a number of works-in-progress style posts that fall into this category, and this is where is where Markdown support is most important. I hate writing something in Microsoft Word, only to have to transform all my bold and italic text into HTML — Markdown lets me skip that step, without having to do all the annoying HTML tag management.

This requirement led me to SimpleNote, a plain-text note-taking service with clients for all of the major desktop operating systems plus most of the mobile ones. There’s also a web interface. Some, but not all, of the clients support rendering text as Markdown.

It’s published by Automattic (the same people who produce WordPress) and they recently open sourced the code behind it. It’s a straightforward replacement for Evernote and exactly what I need for my Webscryer and other long-form research notes. The data lives on Automattic’s servers, and is synced to your various devices; there are third-party clients that let you designate a local file directory for the notes, but support varies.

SimpleNote showed a lot of promise … but then I tried Google Keep and figured out that maybe what I thought I needed wasn’t what I actually needed.

Google Keep

A friend recommended Google Keep to me after embarking on his own note-taking odyssey. Though I only just heard about it, Keep has been around for three years. When I was researching suitable Evernote alternatives, it was one of the big three that was frequently mentioned (the other two being SimpleNote and Microsoft’s OneNote).

Keep is pretty cool. It’s basically web-based stickies, and it perfect for dashing off quick notes and generating to do lists. You can tag your notes, color code them, and archive them off when they are no longer needed. There’s no way to make a note “sticky” at the top — new notes will constantly push older ones down the page, but it’s easy enough to drag-and-drop things to keep important to-do lists near the top of the page.

It’s not great for long-form writing because it has no formatting – not rich text, not Markdown. That makes it difficult to use if I’m dashing off a quick draft for Nuketown. It also has a hard limit of 19,999 characters. That might sound like a lot, but my Summon Webscryer column crushed it.

Keep has a Chrome-based app that you can run as a local-like app on your computer. I found that it’s easily confused if you have multiple user profiles in Chrome — I haven’t quite figured out how to get those to play well with the local keep extension. My short-term solution was to delete the extra accounts, but that’s not ideal in the long-term since I do have work and home profiles.

I’ve been experimenting with using SimpleNote and Keep for the last week and quickly realized that most of my long-form notes were really stuff that should be in one of my computer’s writing folders (that is, ultimately, where my junk file arose from; prior to Evernote it had been a Word doc sitting on my home computer.


The fact that Markdown support was unevenly implemented in SimpleNote, and non-existent in Keep, led me to a different syncing option: Dropbox. Dropbox allows you to designate local file folders for syncing to the cloud service and, from there, to all of your other devices.

I decided to move my long-form notes to my “Current Writing” folder, and then moved that folder to Dropbox. It now syncs between my home and work computers, which is really where I need it. The added benefit is that this allows me to use my local Markdown editors of choice (typically Mou and Write.

The New Status Quo

At this point, I’ve got two major note-taking tools: Google Keep for the short stuff and to-do lists, and Dropbox for for longer notes and writing.

I typically have Keep up-and-running on my secondary desktops on my work and home computers, which means I’m only ever a trackpad swipe away from my notes. The stickies-like nature of Keep lets me quickly see all of my to-dos and active notes at a glance and I’ve found it’s much easier to find things in Keep than it was in Evernote’s notebooks. That said, I have a lot less content in Keep than Evernote, so it’s not a completely fair comparison.

It’s working pretty well, but I do have concerns about the long-term viability of Keep — it’s the sort of fringe service that Google’s apt to kill off if it doesn’t gain sufficient traction. Having said, that, most of what I’m using it for is temporary; the big stuff’s in Dropbox and that’s ultimately on my computer.

As for Evernote, I’m using this opportunity to review what’s there, keep what’s needed, and purge the rest. It’s a bit of digital spring cleaning that I should have done years ago, and it’s been useful in its own right.

Additional Reading