I have been trying to choose an information collector and organiser for the last few weeks. There are quite a few available for the Mac and I thought I would write about how I came to my final decision.
What exactly is an information organiser? Basically it is an application that can collect and store pieces of information as notes. Little bits of text, web page archives, snippets from a web page, photos, PDFs, all sorts. These applications are enormously versatile with as many uses as there are users.
What do I need it to do?
I have three main uses.
- I want to be able to store little snippets of text, such as a reference number for something I just bought online. The type of things I could write in a notebook but could more quickly add to the computer if I’m already sitting here.
- I buy loads of stuff online. Almost everything except groceries. (And the only reason I don’t do that is because the service isn’t available where I live.) When I’m researching something I want to buy I want to keep track of all the items I’m considering. For example, last week we bought a new TV. (It’s not arrived yet but that’s a whole other story!) I looked at multiple websites comparing plasma and LCD, features and cost. I could have bookmarked each page (or kept multiple tabs open) but I would have ended up with a large number of pages, flipping back and forth all the time. Instead, it is much easier to save relevant snippets of each webpage (or sometimes an archive of the whole page). I want to be able to save web archives, with a link to the original page and have the ability to add my own comments.
- I need to keep track of reading material I use for work. I read a number of online journals and websites and need to record and archive anything I have read – a mixture of web archives, bookmarks and PDFs. They need to be kept well organised – I have an annual appraisal where I have to present evidence of what I have read with comments that I may have added.
Features I consider important
- Add a URL or web clipping with only one mouse click (or an easy keyboard shortcut)
- Preview a web archive or PDF within the application
- Tags for organisation
- iPhone or web access (only necessary to access my reading material at work)
Yojimbo and Together are both fully fledged applications costing $39. Both have a free, fully functional demo. Yojimbo lasts for a generous 30 days, Together for 15 days. Ample time to fully evaluate both.
Evernote is a little different and is currently still in beta. It has a Mac and Windows desktop application that can be synced with a web version. It is free unless you want to add more than 40MB a month in which case it is $5 per month (or $45 a year). Total storage is unlimited.
Here’s how they fared.
All three applications have an iTunes style source list with notes appearing to the right. Together and Evernote both look lovely but in my opinion Evernote is a little cleaner looking. Yojimbo is okay but a little dated looking (and it has a horrible icon!).
There are many ways to create web archives. All three applications have a bookmarklet that can be installed in your browser. Click the bookmarklet and a web archive of the page you are on is downloaded into the application. I found this worked perfectly with Yojimbo and Together.
The Evernote bookmarklet works with the web version which will then sync with your desktop app. At the moment it is a little hit-or-miss. I found with websites with a lot of text and pictures such as Amazon or The Times it would tell me it couldn’t archive the whole page and asked me to select a portion.
Yojimbo and Together also allow you to drag a URL to their dock icon. Yojimbo has a tab at the side of the screen (the Drop Dock) you can drag a URL onto. Together has a very similar tab (the Shelf) that can also be dragged onto. Evernote should allow you to drag items onto its dock icon but I couldn’t get this to work.
It is also possible to save a highlighted selection of a webpage. Together and Evernote save these as web archives and therefore also save the URL and links (although saving of links in Evernote is erratic). Yojimbo saves a highlighted selection as a text note and the URL is not saved along with it although links work. The easiest way to save a highlighted selection is to copy and paste into the applications. Yojimbo does this using a keyboard shortcut. Click F5 to activate the Quick Entry panel and whatever is on the clipboard is already there waiting to be turned into a note. Together works a little differently. Copy to the clipboard, then click and hold the dock icon and select New From Clipboard. Evernote can paste directly into its desktop application by using the Paste to Evernote command from the Evernote Clipper icon in the menu bar.
Evernote has one more method of adding web pages. It can take screenshots, either the whole screen or just a selection via the Clipper icon. A nice idea but it wouldn’t save the URL of the source page for me.
PDFs are added to all three applications by simply dragging to the dock icon.
You can create simple text notes in all three applications. In Yojimbo just click F5. You can create a keyboard shortcut in Together to open the Shelf and add a note. These both work no matter what application you are currently working in. Text notes in Evernote are created directly within the application.
Evernote also allows you to use your iSight camera to create notes. For example, you could take a photo of a receipt, business card or Post It note.
Together is good at creating web archives of whole pages or a selected portion and saves the source URL. Yojimbo is good at whole page archives but fails with selected portions. Evernote is buggy but it is a work in progress and its problems are likely to resolved in time.
Yojimbo saves whole page archives exactly as they appear in a browser. Highlighted selections are unformated. Together saves both whole and partial webpages as they appear in the original. Evernote saves web archives unformatted.
Evernote and Together easily allow you open a saved web archive in a browser. Yojimbo can open a whole page web archive in a browser. It is unable to do this with a partial clip as it has been saved as a text note without a URL.
PDFs can be viewed within all applications. Yojimbo and Together also allow you to open in Preview. To view an Evernote PDF in Preview you first have to click Print and then Preview – not ideal. You can also view PDFs in Preview. (I finally found how to do this in Evernote: double-click the PDF to open it and then control-click.) Together can show you where a file is saved. The other two can’t.
Together and Evernote can display all notes as thumbnails, although with web archives Evernote does this more consistently. Together can also display notes via its Shelf. Pressing spacebar opens a note with Quick Look. Double clicking opens in the appropriate application, e.g. Safari, Preview.
Together shows web archives exactly as they should be. Yojimbo and Evernote don’t do so well. They all work well with PDFs.
Organising with tags
Adding tags is easy and intuitive with Yojimbo and Evernote. You just type into the tags area under the note’s title. In Together you need to click the info button first, followed by the tags button. Not so intuitive but once you know how it’s done it’s easy.
There doesn’t seem to be a way to show all the tags at once in Yojimbo except through Preferences. To view all notes with a particular tag you have to use the search box.
Together has two views – groups (analogous to folders) or tags. The tags view shows all your tags in the source list on the left. You can click on a tag (or command click to select multiple tags) to show the associated notes. Evernote works like Together except both tags and notebooks (or folders) are both visible at all times. Both allow you to drag notes onto tags to add them.
Tags implementation in Evernote can’t be faulted and is undoubtedly better than Yojimbo and Together. Once you know how to do it in Together it works pretty well. Although the initial adding of tags is easy in Yojimbo, actually working with them is clumsy. Tagging comes across as being an afterthought rather than an integral feature of the application.
iPhone or web access
Evernote has a web version that syncs with you desktop application. All your notes are accessible from any computer whether it’s a Mac or PC. The web application looks good and has much the same functionality as the desktop version (although it is a little buggy at present). It also has a mobile web version for using with an iPhone.
Yojimbo can sync with another Mac via .Mac (and will presumably work with MobileMe). It doesn’t come with web access. However, Webjimbo is an application that allows full access to your Yojimbo notes online or from an iPhone or iPod Touch. You can also add notes. It costs $30. (I haven’t actually tried this.)
Together can also sync with .Mac. It has no online or iPhone access and the developer has said it’s not something he’s working on. This is a great shame as it means I am unable to access my notes when at work (where I only have a PC and my iPhone).
Evernote is the ultimate application for easy access to your notes at all times. Yojimbo has web access but at a cost ($69 total). Together is an absolute failure for me in terms of access away from home.
Yojimbo and Together use Spotlight for search which usually works pretty well. Searching with tags is easy in Together and Evernote as all the tags are visible in the source list. With Yojimbo you have to remember what tags you have (unless you look them up in Preferences).
My experience is that Evernote has the most accurate search functionality. It also has a rather cool feature in that it can seach text within images or handwriting. This is done initially on the Evernote servers and then synced back to your Mac. It works well with text in images but struggles with my handwriting unless I’ve written in capitals.
Search isn’t really an issue with any of the three but I felt it worked best in Evernote.
My final decision
Yojimbo was quickly ruled out. It seems dated and is lacking features. The final nail in the coffin was its inability to save the URL of web page snippets.
So it was between Together and Evernote. They both look good and are easy to use. I really can’t fault Together other than its lack of iPhone access. This means I can’t use it to store work reading material as I’m unable to access it at work.
Evernote has a number of small annoyances. However one has to remember it is not yet a completed product and I’m sure my criticisms of it will be dealt with by the time it is finally released. Evernote is my only option if I want online access to notes but it’s not good enough yet to have it as my sole information organiser.
So I’m using both. For short text notes and web research I’m using Together (which at £19 is a bargain). For storing work-related reading material (bookmarks, PDFs and web archives when they work) I’m using Evernote (which incredibly is free). In time I may end up using just one of them if their features improve but for now I’m happy working with both.
(Note: I tested Yojimbo 1.5.1, Together 2.1.4 and Evernote for Mac 1.1.1c Beta)