September 21, 2021

Talking shop with the encyclopedia of note-taking apps

Hear about keeping features free & how small teams can give big apps a run for their money

by @klapicheza

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Think of NoteApps.info as an “encyclopedia of note-taking apps.” Associated with Amplenote, NoteApps.info has a repository of everything you’d want to know about across hundreds of features on top apps. The site aims to make note-taking apps more discoverable, plus, users can compare apps so everyone has access to first-hand experiences.

We talked to Lucian Ruscanu from the NoteApps.info team to dig into the origins of the site and get his take on the current note-taking app playing field.

About the NoteApps.info

Q: You talk about the impetus of launching NoteApps.info on your site, but tell us about when the team first convened to bring the site to life?

NoteApps.info came about when we realized that, in the note-taking space, small details really matter, and none of the existing Google sources to learn about these apps were good at diving into the tiniest details about note apps.

If you think about it, very few other pieces of software need to cater so impossibly well to your brain - after all, taking notes involves offloading ideas from your brain, and everybody's brain forms thoughts differently. So, it's not surprising that there are a lot of strong opinions about what is the “best note-taking app.” That's why we wanted to provide a Wikipedia-like resource that could provide value outside the scope of whatever people think is the newest and hottest app of the year.

Q: Note-taking enthusiasts can be very particular and, in turn, a tough crowd to please. What was the road to getting the site to its current form/functionality? What are some capabilities that are on the roadmap?

The hardest part of making this site was crafting the terminology we would use to describe features. Our feature descriptions need to be precise and faultless so that users both recognize what we are referring to, as well as understand why some apps don't get the checkbox for that particular feature. For a project such as ours, I have to say that the meticulousness of note-taking enthusiasts has actually been a considerable asset! People mail us all the time about any vague language that slips through. The assistance of our community is an important piece of what makes NoteApps valuable for its users.

Now that we have cataloged almost 300 features across more than 25 apps (including benchmarking the performance of several apps), one of the future improvements we have been discussing internally is how we might create better transparency around "how free" the apps that bill themselves as "free" really are.

We think it should be possible to look at the limits that providers enforce on note/block count and storage space, to estimate how long an app could realistically be used for free before a user would need to start paying. In the more distant future, we're considering expanding NoteApps to cover (traditionally) task management apps as well!

The Evolution of Note-taking Apps

Q: What are some things you’ve learned about the business of note-taking apps in the process of doing research for the site?

It is such an interesting space! If I had to pick one narrative that has most fascinated us, it would be “how quickly consumer tastes change.”

It might be hard for some folks to remember, but just 5 years ago (in 2016), it was a foregone conclusion that most any serious note-taker should use Evernote. If not Evernote, then maybe Microsoft OneNote or Workflowy. But there just weren't many great options at that moment in time (blame the rise of mobile). Two years later, it seemed certain that Notion had ascended to become The One App to Rule Them All. Notion's ability to create powerful tables and templates was so game-changing, that, along with its powerful team integration, it was hard to imagine how any app would be able to unseat Notion as “the future of note-taking.”

But, when we look at which apps are getting the most attention as of 2021, it's none of those apps. Our three most-viewed note apps are Obsidian, Roam, and Amplenote ( Craft is a close fourth). All of those apps launched in just the last two years, and two of the four (Obsidian and Amplenote) seem to be programmed by one or two developers. Of course, the apps that are most viewed on NoteApps.info tend to be apps that people are curious about, not necessarily the apps that people already know and love. But still, how cool is it that we live in a window of time where these one or two developer teams can go toe-to-toe against apps with billion-dollar valuations like Notion? It's pretty bizarre, and we like to think that NoteApps.info is playing a small part in helping people discover apps that would usually be overshadowed by competitors that could spend more on marketing.

Q: What is your team’s take on the waitlisted rollouts that apps have been doing? How has that affected your research?

Let's just say we haven't been lacking for new apps to research! Since our community dictates which apps we index (via the app voting board), it is hard for an app that hasn't fully launched to generate enough interest to make it to the top of the voting board. To date, we haven't had a waitlisted app make it to the top of the leaderboard, but we will see if that changes with a strong crop of new apps like Clover, Reflect, and Mem...

Q: In your research, have you found a “sweet spot” for what features should be offered at a free level and which should be gated by tiers?

As previously mentioned, it's on our roadmap to try to create an apples-to-apples metric that better quantifies how much use each app will allow before the user runs into a paywall. If you're like us, you've probably hit these walls while trying to navigate a supposedly "free" app while trying to get something done.

To more directly answer your question, I'd say that almost all successful apps offer some sort of free version (including Evernote, Notion and Obsidian). Gauging which features need to be included in that free version is challenging, because these apps rarely disclose their adoption numbers, which makes it challenging to evaluate how the choices they make around "which features are free?" connect back to business outcomes.

Q: What is your team’s take on the Slack and Discord communities that many apps have been introducing as a way to get user feedback and answer support questions?

One of the listed features for v1 of NoteApps.info was whether apps offer real-time chat support to their users. Bringing instant messaging as the medium for community support and discussion was undoubtedly a smart move on the part of app developers. Most founders know that building a solid Internet community is indispensable to user growth, so offering people a familiar channel that they use anyway (as is the case with Discord) is bound to draw more users into the discussion as well as keep them there for longer!

The flipside to this practice is that interfacing with your users in this live-chat manner means that your staff needs to play catch-up with the latest messages, which seems to translate into a dip in productivity, possibly due to how stressful it becomes to work while you have new notifications (and Slack makes every message look so imperative, doesn't it?).

The Third Generation of Note-taking Apps

Q: What are some observations you’ve made about how new note-taking apps come to be? Do they tend to be spinoffs of other products or do they tend to arise as solutions to pain points from category leaders?

Having some experience with creating new note-taking apps ourselves, I'd say that (successful) software in this arena usually needs to have a very clear unifying purpose and a recognizable problem that it aims to address. It seems that for the most useful apps out there, development was guided by a necessity not yet fulfilled by other products. Building a product that is solely a derivation of an existing product is unreliable, whereas adding canonical features to your original design is a necessary tool for providing people with a useful experience that they trust and understand.

Q: What are some of your favorite apps or app functionality that have come out in the third generation of note apps?

Whereas in past iterations of note-taking software the point was to collect and organize, newer apps have now shifted the focus to creating and developing ideas (such as via "bidirectional linking" and the resulting features). The really neat part about these apps is how easy it is to also publish all the work you've been doing, for example by creating a publicly accessible URL where your notes are hosted indefinitely and updated instantly. This is a major (and dare I say - underrated) transformation from previous generations of note apps, because now capturing, thinking, writing, and sharing happens in the same place!

Q: As you have dug into the third generation of note-taking apps, what do you see as being the key differentiating factors between them for the general professional/personal user?

That's a great question, and a hard one too! Aside from being launched in 2018 or later, I'd say that "table stakes" for a third-generation note app are backlinking, daily notes, publishing, and some form of content transclusion.

I suppose that arguably the essential differentiator between gen 3 apps is simply the platforms supported. Some of the apps don't support Android, which is a pretty big weakness for those users! Roam still doesn't have a mobile app, which seems to be a sore point among many of its remaining disciples. On the other hand, Craft has made rapid progress proving it has the best-in-class iPad experience, which is a differentiator for many.

Amplenote stands out for its task and calendar integration; it has been earning the most accolades as a GSD/GTD tool that's especially popular among past Evernote and Roam users.

Craft differentiates on the polish level that they've put into all three of their Mac apps. It's a pretty app to look at, but it's also quite powerful, though it ranks slightly below the median app in terms of its overall feature count. For users that primarily use iPad, Craft should probably be their default choice.

Obsidian has been taken as a revelation to many. You could almost say it executed Roam's gameplan better than Roam did since it has almost every user-beloved Roam feature, while being much faster, available on mobile, and optionally free (for limited use cases).

Q: Any points of nostalgia for the first- and second-generation apps?

Haha! They were fun while they lasted, but their mobile experiences tended to be so wretched that it's hard to get too wistful about their demise. I will say that among the first-generation apps, my sentimental favorite remains Workflowy. It started from a unique and clearly defined vision, and it executed that vision really well while keeping the app simple, which is much harder than it looks!

(Editor's note: Would you like the NoteApps.info team to join us for an AMA on Capiche? Let us know in the comments below! -KA)

FORMAT WITH MARKDOWN; DRAG AND DROP IMAGES
AndyDentPerth's avatar
@AndyDentPerth (replying to klapicheza )
a month ago

One thing I was disappointed to see missing is any measure of how notes apps cope with scale. I have over 47K notes in Evernote, the majority from web clippings.

From discussions in Ness Labs' community, I've been tempted by some of the features of products like Obsidian or Roam but warned off that they don't handle those volumes. Indeed, Evernote's own clients have struggled at times and they explicitly warn not to migrate to their "new" web client if you have more than 10K notes.

4 points
lukkes's avatar
@lukkes (replying to @AndyDentPerth )
29d

Hey Andy! Lucian from NoteApps here.

I think you're right; for the power-users among ourselves, it's crucial to know how reliably these apps perform under the stress of thousands of notes.

Here's a performance comparison between Evernote, Obsidian and Roam.

We imported te same set of 2000 notes in each app in order to obtain these results (all details about testing conditions here).

Check out the full article containing graphs of the results we've found. While it's clear that we could've pushed these apps even further, judging by how large some of the gaps between the benchmark times already are, would you agree this is a good start?

Below is a little spoiler, showing how the tested apps' load times compared in our tests.

27bb804f-d054-4fbc-84f9-3c1fb9194184.png

4 points
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