Evernote: an online service that helps you remember everything

Ever since I got my first computer (a late 80s Radio Shack Tandy), I've been completely obsessed with archiving and search. I typed document after document and then lay in bed, eyes wide, terrified that my precious words would somehow vanish, zapped into the ether. I experimented with every archiving and search tool I found. They were primitive, promising very little functionality. Because they seemed so limited I held back from fully committing myself to any digital format. I slowly acquired a number of legal pads and binders stuffed with the products of my creativity.

Eventually, after undergrad and during my graduate work, I transitioned to a primarily digital archive. However I didn't take the necessary precautions to secure my files (see The Saga of the Crashed Flash Drive for more on this). The sheer volume of the losses I encountered led me to a place I'd never been before -- existential angst. A complete unwillingness to write anything anywhere -- even on paper. How can you keyword-search your hardcopy?

At long last, I've found a tool that seems to offer everything I need: Evernote.

Evernote offers a fairly basic service: online storage of your rich text files. Evernote supports tagging and keyword search, and allows the user to set up separate notebooks or folders of notes for strategic organization.

Now, you may think, "I can do this with Google Docs." Or even Google Desktop plus whatever Office-like software you use. Or even your own personal Mediawiki install, or a hosted service like Jotspot. Evernote offers a few advantages.

The key features that make Evernote awesome include:

Optical character recognition of images

Upload an image to Evernote, and an automated OCR service inspects the image for text. Later on, the image's text becomes indexed along with whatever plain text you post. This is a fantastic feature for the graphically-oriented, or those too lazy to type the name of their favorite beer and prefer to snap a photo of the label. The OCR has been robust, in my experience.

Dedicated email address for notes or images

Out in the world? No access to a computer? No problem. Each Evernote account can generate a unique email address. Send a text email or an attached image to your Evernote email address and the text or image is added as a mailed-in note. Super-handy for when you're on the go.

Security and redundancy

Evernote offers a desktop application that allows you to not only interface with your hosted account on your laptop but to export an XML file that includes your entire database of notes. Ideal for those who've been burned in the past!

OCR of PDF documents

I have a love/hate relationship with PDF documents. They're universal and relatively secure. On the other hand, their proprietary format means that they're difficult to export to any 3rd party reader. Keyword searches of PDF documents usually leave me frustrated.

Evernote indexes the content of attached and/or uploaded PDF documents. The desktop app also includes an integrated PDF reader, so you can flip pages without even loading up an Adobe app. To me, this is awesome. I routinely email PDF documents to Evernote and then keyw0rd-search them -- just because I can.

Dedicated apps for smart phone

Yes, there's an app for that. Specifically a very nicely put-together iPhone app that allows graphic browsing of notes (similar to the browser-based interface).

Because I have an old-school BlackBerry, my version of the Evernote app has all the personality of a MS-DOS 3.2 text-only interface. But the iPhone version is lovely. And even my rudimentary BlackBerry app is functional, if ugly, distasteful and cumbersome (everything my BlackBerry is).

Other cool stuff

In addition the Evernote team has some more advanced tricks up their sleeves:

EyeFi is an SD card that stores images but also uploads them to your Evernote account.

Shoeboxed is a receipt-scanning service that scans and organizes your receipts before uploading them to Evernote.

Pixily is a document-scanning service that will upload PDFs of any hardcopy docs to Evernote for you, enabling keyword-search (exciting!!).

So far, the only downsides I've found to Evernote is the desktop interface. I find the PC desktop app to be a little bit clumsy and obnoxious. When I have trouble with it, I simply compose my document in Notepad or Word and paste the results into an Evernote note before titling and tagging it. You may not find this necessary, but sometimes it's easier for me.

In short, I highly recommend Evernote for storage of any information you want to be able to find again. Evernote offers a free level of service. So far I have only used the free service and have found that it more than meets my needs. I plan to use Pixily as well in the near future.

Perhaps soon I'll finally realize my dream of a fully-digitized, searchable archive of all my own work. Then what will my next excuse be?


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