I like love the idea of storing information in the cloud. This way, I can access it whenever and wherever as long as I have access to the Internet. I used to do it by keeping and storing my information in my Gmail account. Write an email, label it as Note, then send it to myself. Whenever I need the information, I just need to browse my emails tagged as Note or just search for it. Well, it’s simple but quite effective. I can access my mail from home, office, and even on my mobile phone, so it means that I can access my notes anytime.
There’s only one issue that I found irritating with this approach. Often I need to edit my notes or stored information in my email. But it’s an email, once sent, you can no longer edit it. With Gmail, I can only reply to the email and append some additional information. If I need to edit it, I have to copy the content and write a new mail, then delete the old one. So it’s very tedious and unintuitive if you do a lot of editing, I do.
So I started to explore some dedicated note-taking apps. There are a lot of them and it’s impossible to try them all. I have been evaluating some of the most popular for quite some time: iOS Notes (iPhone built-in app), Evernote, and Springpad. It will be impractical to use them all, so I want to narrow the choices based on some criteria that matter to me. Kindly note that this criteria may not apply to everyone, so what best for me is not necessarily best for everyone.
1. It has to be in the cloud, not (only) in my local computer or my thumb drive
In the beginning of the article, I have discussed this in the beginning of the article why this is important to me. Evernote and Springpad begin their life in the cloud, so they are native cloud applications.
Since iOS version 4.0, it’s possible to sync Notes over the air using either MobileMe or IMAP email account. If you don’t have a MobileMe account (which is subscription-based), you can use your email account as long as it supports IMAP, for example Gmail. If you decide to use Gmail, it will create a label called Notes in your mail account and it will store your notes there.
- iOS Notes: 20 (+20)
- Evernote: 20 (+20)
- Springpad: 20 (+20)
2. It has to be accessible via Web browser
Often, I only have access to the Internet via Web browser, for example in a public workstation, office, friend’s PC, etc. It’s not possible for me to install software on those machines. So I can only use the Web browser to access my notes.
Since Evernote and Springpad originated from the cloud, naturally they are Web-accessible. But, unlike Springpad, the Evernote Web app is very plain in both presentation and functionality. For example, you can’t even make a check list using the Evernote Web app. The Springpad Web app, on the other hand, is very beautiful. It gives you the possibility to change themes, rearrange your desktop, and of course, it has most (if not all) functionalities of Springpad.
Evernote Web app has a major drawback, though. It won’t allow you to create checklists. You can only create ones in the separately downloadable desktop apps (available for Windows and Mac OS X), or from third-party applications that offer synchronization to Evernote. Very inconvenient. But if you already have some checklists (created by the desktop apps or third-party apps), the Web app allows you to actually check or uncheck the items in the lists.
iOS Notes is limited in this category. You can only create or edit your notes using the iOS app. Of course, if your email account — where your notes are kept — has a Web interface, like Gmail, you can still read the notes there.
- Springpad: 40 (+20)
- Evernote: 35 (+15)
- iOS Notes: 30 (+10)
3. It has to be accessible via iPhone
I have an iPhone, so it has to be accessible on it. All four candidates have an iPhone app. So I’ll evaluate on the functionality of the iPhone app.
Evernote had a very simple and straight-forward UI. After the recent major update (Evernote 4.0 for iOS), it sports a complete UI redesign that is very nice, but still simple to use. Evernote makes use the power of iPhone and allows you to take images and voice notes directly from the app. If you have common files (pdf, word, excel) attached in a note, it will be able to open it in the built-in viewer.
The best thing for me is that it automatically geo-tag your notes. So you can for example, find the notes that you created at home or at work, or take a picture of a cool place that you’d like to revisit later. The notes will be pinned in the built-in map.
The only important thing I find very lacking from Evernote iPhone app is like the Web app, you cannot create checklists. You can only check or uncheck items in the checklists you have created by other means.
Springpad has a very good-looking iPhone app. The UI resembles the Web version. When you change the theme either on your phone or on the Web, it will be reflected on the other, even on the iPad. Functionality wise it has almost everything what the Web app offers. It even has some additional features unique to smartphones, such as the bar code scanning and location-based discovery using the iPhone location service. Like Evernote, you can also take pictures or record voice notes. It also has a built-in viewer for common files (pdf, word, excel) to open your notes’ attachments.
The good news is, unlike Evernote, it allows you to create and manage checklists directly in the iPhone app. And it’s beautiful, too.
The bad news is, unlike Evernote, it won’t geo-tag your notes.
iOS Notes has a very limited features, though. In fact, it was created only to write and read text notes. No more. You cannot keep images, voice, attachments, or even rich text formatting. It’s very plain and simple. It may be enough for some people, but, for my needs, I find it lacking a lot of things offered by the other two.
- Springpad: 55 (+15)
- Evernote: 50 (+15)
- iOS Notes: 30 (+10)
4. It has to allow me categorize or tag my notes
Both Springpad and Evernote allow you to create notebooks to organize your notes. They also allow you to put unlimited number of tags to any note. In turn, you can browse for notes by the notebooks or tags.
iOS Notes simply doesn’t have any feature to categorize your notes.
- Springpad: 75 (+20)
- Evernote: 70 (+20)
- iOS Notes: 30 (+0)
5. It has to be searchable.
When you have thousands of notes, it’s sometimes too hard to browse to find something. Searching is often faster. All three apps offer this feature. You can search notes by typing keywords. But, Evernote takes it a further away. It actually allows you to search for text saved in images. Yes, that’s right. Evernote has OCR capability. It scans images for texts when they are uploaded to the server and make them searchable.
Moreover, Evernote seems to have a better search engine in the app. It allows you to find as you type (read: faster). It also searches for the body of text notes, not only the title or tags like Springpad.
- Evernote: 90 (+20)
- Springpad: 90 (+15)
- iOS Notes: 45 (+15)
Last but not least, it’s about the price you have to pay to use the apps.
iOS Notes comes with any iPhone you buy, so the app its-self is free.
Springpad is free without any limitation in space and features.
Evernote has two editions: free and premium. The free service limits the usage to (currently) 60 MB/month. The premium service ups the limit to 1,000 MB/month, but you have to pay US$ 5 per month or US$ 45 per year. In addition to the more usage limit, the premium service provides faster text recognition in images and searching within PDF files. It’s also important to note that the iPhone app with the free account has limited offline capabilities. You often needs Internet connection when you try to access your notes. The premium account will let you make the entire notebooks offline.
- Springpad: 110(+20)
- Evernote: 100 (+10)
- iOS Notes: 65(+20)
Springpad wins by a small lead over Evernote and is currently the app and service of my choice for note-taking. Still, Evernote has some killer features (geo-tagging, images searching) that make me unable to leave it completely.
The built-in iOS app simply can’t cut it. If you are serious about taking notes, you shouldn’t use this and explore other possibilities.