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Debate: Roam Research vs. Notion

Roam Research calls itself "a note-taking tool for networked thought." It's built on a graph database, which means it's flat: documents don't live inside of other documents, instead everything coexists and is organized via bi-directional linking.

Notion calls itself the "all in one workspace". It's a bit more focused on collaboration and on workplace uses. It's organized in a more traditional hierarchical manner.

Both of these tools have cult followings, and both have been extensively discussed on Capiche. I thought it might be cool to hear from the community on the merits of each.

So...what do you think? If you use one and love it...I'd love to hear why. If you've used one or both and don't like them, I'd love to hear why.

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adam_keesling's avatar
@adam_keesling (via Twitter)
4 months ago

Roam is a notes tool designed for networked thought

It's key feature is bi-directional linking - you can make any word a page instantly and flip between pages with a single click

If you want to edit the new one, you just go over there for a while

Roam is built to both accommodate any structure and also accommodate changing structures

Questions like "should I put my source at the top or bottom?" or "should I write a summary or copy & paste?" don't really matter here

Similar to your brain, just get it close enough

It's incredibly easy to use. Quick load times (instant) and supports multimedia. The result of this is I'm writing ALL THE TIME

The structure also naturally guides you into the ideal thought process

For example, I was reading this book about calculus. In the future, I might remember some ideas by recalling:

  • Name of the book / author
  • Things at the idea level
  • By associating ideas in the book with ideas introduced to me later

Roam is optimized to facilitate these

With Roam I'm not worried about "is this an article or a book?" or "should this go into my math section or my philosophy section?" because that's how our brains work

Tools were made that way, but that's not how we think

A result is that cognition feels like a game. I trust that I'm building something valuable because I'm connecting my own ideas

As mentioned, I'm writing all the time. Basically, if I'm thinking about something at all, I end up writing it in Roam

Like those random articles you read in between doing actual work? Easy to throw them in because there's no 👏 cognitive 👏 friction 👏 to do so

With other software, you have to think too much to start

It can replace a good chunk of the value prop of a personal CRM too

For any meeting, I can just start writing what it was about. Make the name, company, etc. a link so I can return. The date is implicit with the structure and I can connect ideas within the note itself

I'm still working through a few things like article drafting and journaling

Also, having only worked in it a few days, there may be downsides that aren't realized until I've spent more time with it

But first impressions of Roam are off the chart. I spent an incredible amount of time in it the past few days; no other software has had such a profound impact on the way I think and operate on a computer

16 points
itsjackcohen's avatar
4 months ago

Warning: strong opinions may follow.

First of all, I'm very surprised to not see the word 'design' mentioned once yet in this comparison. As someone who values simplicity coupled with beautiful design elements, Notion clearly takes the cake here. I can't put this softly: Roam hurts my eyes... and therefore my head. I don't discount the efficacy of bidirectional linking (as much as I abhor the term 'second brain') and am eager to see how they evolve, but I also think many of us incorrectly assume that the ability to recall and connect every note is an objectively good thing. If Notion enabled bidirectional linking in some capacity (not saying it's easy), that feels like a no-brainer decision at that point.

Second, I can't stress enough the ease & flexibility of Notion for teams. I recently stood up a Notion instance for my org this week (to cure the Google Docs all over the place syndrome) and in less than a day we're all logging our core hours and shared knowledge in the platform. Still testing Roam for a few more weeks, but clearly starting to sway one direction.

Finally, Notion, if organized properly and strategically, can be just as effective (if not more so) than Roam for holding personal knowledge. The cynic in me (and no offense to advocates of the platform) thinks that Roam provides a bit of a crux for brain dumping vs. requiring us to set some set of constraints on what we want to retain and what we choose to forget or sunset.

15 points
mikedariano's avatar
@mikedariano (replying to @itsjackcohen )
4 months ago

I’ve used both as well and the breaking point seems to be the spilt between desktop and mobile.

Roam is great with a full keyboard for formatting posts and tags.

Notion is better for mobile.

2 points
commandodev's avatar
@commandodev (via Twitter)
4 months ago

So I've been using Roam Research for a little while now and I'm also a Notion partner and have used that extensively. Here's where I'm at:

Roam does < 20% of what Notion does. But it does that 20% (knowledge graph/second brain) about 200% better.

13 points
WasiMunam's avatar
@WasiMunam (replying to @commandodev )
4 months ago

That's been my observation so far, but I find Notion far easier to work with simply because many people are over the learning curve already. That matters quite a bit in these discussions. There's a lot of opportunity lost in doing something better, if it's slower and more cognitively unintuitive for people.

3 points
VirtuallyGeeky's avatar
@VirtuallyGeeky (replying to @commandodev )
2 months ago

What are the things that Roam can't do that Notion can? I haven't used Notion, but I am starting to learn about many things Roam can do that aren't obvious (like creating a kanban chart, etc).

1 point
maguay's avatar
@maguay (replying to @VirtuallyGeeky )
2 months ago

Notion has quite a few features that Roam Research doesn't have—it's designed as an all-in-one app, whereas Roam is for the most part focused on linked outline-style notes.

Roam has kanban boards, for instance, to visualized nested outlines. But in Notion, kanban boards are linked to a rich database where you can store detailed data, gather comments, and more. You can view the same data in Notion as a spreadsheet-style database or a kanban board or a calendar, to reuse the data in ways that make most sense for your needs at the time. And you can organize your notes in folders and sub-notes, and embed data from other software. You can also collaborate in Notion with shared notes and note databases, with comments and assigned tasks on any note, and notifications about replies and changes.

Instead of pulling everything together for an all-in-one team collaborate tool, Roam Research focuses on outline-style wiki linked notes. It has other features, including basic kanban boards, but the core focus is on writing outline-style notes, linking them to each other with wiki-style syntax, embedding sections from one note into another, and seeing how your notes connect with the graph view. All of those are things that Notion can't do.

Both apps let you organize notes; that's pretty much where the similarities end.

2 points
siddxxvii's avatar
@siddxxvii (replying to @maguay )
2 months ago

This point exactly summarises that people thinking notion and roam as competitors are wrong. Notion has alot more to offer on the table compared to Roam. Another new following/workaround notion has is making beautiful blog and portfolio websites. And once Notion API is released it will take notion a little more ahead.
Plus I also feel notion and roam usually attract different user base, roam having more academic and research users whereas notion is a little more flexible with types of users.

3 points
maguay's avatar
@maguay (replying to @siddxxvii )
2 months ago

They're absolutely different userbases; I think there's a larger chance of some power users using both Notion and Roam for different tasks, than there is people entirely switching from one to the other.

1 point
GtBob-bluberry's avatar
@GtBob-bluberry (replying to @commandodev )
28d

Extremely well put!

1 point
calhistorian's avatar
3 months ago

Just a few thoughts in combination with those mentioned above. Because I will not fill this void with repetition.

  • these two apps are hardly comparable. Though people’s use of both can be compared.
  • people argue Roam is not designed well - perhaps the word design is inappropriate here. UI, is a bit unrefined - but look at nvAlt, etc. Badically it’s a text first environment. UX, however is designed very well. Notion for personal use (pkm) is a UX headache (wonderful for teams - I use it for teaching). Design is more than aesthetics, it is also function.
  • Notion is mature, Roam is not. Using it as a function of comparison to a prototype/beta and a production service is inappropriate.
  • bi-directional links are often billed as the central feature, but not appropriate. I feel as though Roam’s virtue and value proposition is a little undersold. Backlinks are foundational, yes. But what is just as import, if not more is the sum of its parts. The founder has always expressed this analogy, that he hopes to build an excel for text. I see this as extremely valuable. Yet backlinks are only one piece. It’s block architecture (like Notion) and varieties of transclusion make the bidirectional links far more powerful than a two way navigable street between notes. I can do this easily in Bear with a Siri shortcut. It’s the combination links, blocks, and transclusion that make this a powerful tool. The atomic unit of the app is not a page, but a block. These can be remixed, queried, aggregated, and edited in so many ways it’s absurd. I as a historian, essentially an aggregator of human knowledge through time, find these tools to be FAR more helpful than any other app. Dynalist, Notion, and perhaps tiddlywiki are the only comparable products - but none have the feature set.
  • And while many features are not finished, all are functional. Few mention the graph view (page and database), inline queries, transclusion, Kanban, diagram, pdf, iframe, Task Management, or the many other features built on this foundational trifecta.
10 points
Livenadav's avatar
@Livenadav (replying to @calhistorian )
3 months ago

Spot on!

2 points
pendolino's avatar
@pendolino (replying to @calhistorian )
3 months ago

Nice rundown! I totally agree with Notion's UX headache. Felt the same no matter how many times I tried to like it

1 point
nedwin's avatar
4 months ago

Roam and Notion are superficially similar products, but solve very different problems.

Notion is a workspace and collaboration tool. You can host a wiki, use it for project management, even spin up a personal site in it. While it has a single player mode, it's most powerful with a group.

Roam is more of a single player option and is about your own personal knowledge base, and connecting interconnected thought.

This is not to say that Notion couldn't become better at single player mode, even building the interconnected system that makes Roam more powerful. Or that Roam couldn't build more collaborative features.

The question is - which product will expand to occupy the others mindspace faster? My money is actually on Notion building out more connecting features, and with it's sizeable user base and great desktop + offline modes I think it could eat Roam's lunch.

9 points
enzo3000tar's avatar
@enzo3000tar (replying to @nedwin )
4 months ago

I agree. Roam's advantage would be fairly simple to replicate within Notion.

1 point
calhistorian's avatar
@calhistorian (replying to @enzo3000tar )
3 months ago

Notion is definitely the closest to Roam because both are built on the block structure, but just implementing bidirectional links would not match Roam.

2 points
logangraham's avatar
@logangraham (via Twitter)
4 months ago

Roam is a Graph-based structure for notes. After a few hours of developing my own flow, it turned research from laborious into a fun game.

When bored, I often open Roam and start exploring my brain and what I'm learning.

Knowledge accretion, as @andy_matuschak would say.

I feel FOMO when I use hierarchical notes to explore ideas. Oh no! I'm now in one of the 64 leafs of this subtree! What am I missing!

With Roam: only the pleasure of exploring, and no pressure of anywhere to be or what I'm missing.

Roam's my fav thesis break.

8 points
jordihays's avatar
4 months ago

Notion has become a huge asset in my personal and professional life. Both my companies run on it and I have a pretty built out personal notion account that I use to manage my health, finances, goals, learning, etc.

Spent ~2 hours experimenting with Roam in Q3 of 2019 and it wasn't exciting enough for me to invest more time into it at the time. Tools like this are only as good as the habits I form around them for me and right now Notion meets my needs.

8 points
JeffreyRusso's avatar
@JeffreyRusso (replying to @jordihays )
4 months ago

I've spent a little time in Roam and a ton of time in Notion. I like the idea that Roam pitches of a flat architecture of interlinked notes, but I felt like it had a lot of progress to make to be worth investing more time in.

Notion has a lot of depth and a lot of momentum behind it. It's possible to do an awful lot in Notion, including what Roam claims to do, and they are really on a roll of shipping quickly.

I'm eager to see where Roam goes but it isn't yet mature enough for serious use from my perspective.

5 points
lpfinney's avatar
4 months ago

I feel that while the comparison here may be warranted, particularly for a single user, there is a rapid divergence between Roam and Notion, as their philosophy of founding team and the purpose focus are critically different:

Notion - moving towards source of truth for organizations, with clear database, views, and less 2-way relational interaction.

Roam - based in, and likely will maintain as a note-taking/reasearch tool in a linked, thematic, relational sense (not as much in a open database sense)

Excited to play around with Roam a bit more, as it really requires a shift in writing, or at least thinking about writing.

6 points
prashantwit's avatar
4 months ago

Notion forces you to have a structure for the blocks (which is not entirely true, but it's a notion nevertheless) and to follow that structure all the time. I felt like I was putting a lot of time upfront to set Notion right.

Roam, on the other hand, seems like something that will grow organically. Being a bidirectional graph, it affords to help you learn the system. Seeing your graph grow also is an oddly satisfying feeling.

6 points
Siunesis's avatar
4 months ago

The learning curve for Roam is pretty stiff. The overall accessibility of Roam is just below standards. It is a wonderful piece of software, but I think its actual limits are what created that entrance barrier for which all the hype and cult is about.

Roam has the potential to eat a lot of tools in one bite, as soon as it stops being pretentious at all costs.

6 points
awwstn's avatar
@awwstn (replying to @Siunesis )
4 months ago

Don't you think the pretension/cultiness is part of the draw? I think I've heard them talk about that publicly. They want it to be a cult product.

1 point
bencostantini's avatar
4 months ago

I'm using both of them but Roam is 100% personal, while Notion is a tool we use within our company extensively.

5 points
awwstn's avatar
@awwstn (replying to @bencostantini )
4 months ago

Go on.....!

What do you think of each one?

1 point
Neerupani_smart's avatar
4 months ago

Roam Research is like building your own personal search engine. It’s meant for ‘you’ an individual to get your thoughts in order. Notion on the other hand is like a wiki for team use.

5 points
2387461's avatar
4 months ago

Notion has become my go to for taking personal notes in a way that other note-taking apps (evernote, bear, and others) were never able to do.

At work (team of 8) we switched to Notion from Trello + Evernote for project management and knowledge sharing. It took some time to convince everyone that it was the way to go because we had everything just so, but the most reluctant adopters have become ardent promoters.

I love Notion's simplicity and its design but what really hooked me was its extensibility with relational databases. You get simple, rich notes, basic to intermediate project management tools, and the ability to link them all together the way that you want to.

All that said, I just signed up for Roam. From other comments here, it sounds like it could be great for the personal notes.

5 points
geetkhosla's avatar
3 months ago

Firstly, I am not a power user of Notion or Roam, but from my limited usage of both this is what I see.

Notion:
- a well designed tool
- great for teams
- some amazing features

I started using it, but never really got into it because I can use a few other tools that are not as well designed, and sorta do the same thing, for my limited use cases.

Roam:
- a totally different way of note-taking
- it's slow, only had a very basic designed website, but it makes me a better note-taker

The reason people are so excited about Roam is despite being a much worse designed product is because it's paradigm shifting. It has a completely different foundation of how it has been built. For some people, myself included, that's amazing.

It is the first product in a long time that I want to use, despite it's clear lack of being a polished product.

5 points
Mint_Natchamon's avatar
3 months ago

I have been using both for them for a while and i think notion is for organizing and roam is for developing ideas and connecting thoughts . I am transferring some of my notes from notion to Roam things like idea and research. I still use notion for project management and reading list.

5 points
Mint_Natchamon's avatar
3 months ago

I don’t think these two tools can be compared as they serve different goals and have different function.

1 point
bnfin1111's avatar
4 months ago

Roam has been so much better for mapping my thoughts and knowledge. Whenever I open notion i feel overwhelmed and almost feel bad that I am not using anything and making my notes look "pretty"

4 points
akritidokania's avatar
4 months ago

Roam research is good had good linkage and great social media presence but honestly when it comes to functionality it’s Notion all the way. The meticulous way notion handles notes across various parties can be used to just share big pieces of information properly segregated its just a more advanced thought through usage. Btw I am using roamresearch everyday and the only benefit I love is the linkage behaviour - it’s really good. But one feature that people just think is a nice to have vs must have is not going make or break you

4 points
alantsen's avatar
4 months ago

I'm only new to Roam but it's been interesting to see a different approach to what is essentially a glorified note-taking app.

It really does seem like a tool that you need to invest in. The idea of bidirectional linking really only starts to show value once you have a critical mass of notes/ideas in it. Which does mean you need to be fairly invested in the concept to get the most out of it.

One under-discussed aspect of the app is its snappiness. It really does feel instantaneous when you flip between pages. Having said this, it is probably the ugliest app I've used in a while. In a world where every app feels polished to an inch of its life, this is the antithesis. It feels like it's been built over a weekend at a hackathon. I mean it uses some sort of modified version of Bootstrap - which takes a specific type of attention to detail to implement. Maybe with the money they just raised they can hire a designer 🤷‍♂️

It's clear that these apps are solving distinctly different problems - Notion is a wiki (for the lack of a better word), while Roam is a glorified take on a note-taking app. Both I feel appeal to the same life optimizer who listens to the Farnam Street podcast and writes morning pages. But one is better suited to organising your company while the other is better suited to organising your daily drivel.

4 points
GtBob-bluberry's avatar

I concur with a lot of the theme I've seen below: Notion would make this a much easier debate if it simply added some degree of bi-directional. There are various ways this can be implemented, but I would kill for just a basic reciprocal reference for starters. This is a pillar of tools like Jira, and even Github. And ClickUp has it, too. A simple mention in the Page that gets the @mention, so you can see that you referenced that page in the first place. Otherwise, you have to copy & paste the link.

Since Notion is indeed based on blocks like Roam, they could in theory go to the next level and include the entire block mention as well in these references. Fibery is doing this now.

I am surprised that with all the hype around Roam - and I do believe this is a great deal of crossover of users - that Notion isn't at least giving us a reciprocal reference capability, and potentially building on that to ultimately match Roam. What Roam is doing could easily be done in Notion. But aside from this bi-directional capability, Roam is missing about most of the rest of what Notion has, and I can't see them getting there anytime soon. The Kanban board in Roam is hardly intuitive, or a good looking UI. Notion's is a great, simple solution, although hardly where it needs to be, too, as they could use Swimlanes, ability to group by Relation and not just tag, etc.

Great to see the debate and hope the Notion folks are reading and getting inspired to do something to keep up with Roam!

4 points
sjiang555's avatar
4 months ago

Roam Research has somewhat of a high barrier to entry but it is ultimately more functional

3 points
aaron_stroud's avatar
4 months ago

I've only poked around in Roam although I've used a similar tool for years (Notational Velocity, then nvAlt, & now nvUltra).

I see Roam vs Notion as fundamentally different although they overlap when it comes to note taking. Both promise to be your one true source for certain types of information and that comes with several benefits and tradeoffs.

I could see myself trusting in a work setting but for my personal data, I prefer to maintain control of my data. Roam exports to markdown so I could see myself embracing the tool if I wasn't already very happy with my current note taking app.

3 points
maguay's avatar
@maguay (replying to @aaron_stroud )
3 months ago

I hadn't thought of comparing nvAlt to Roam, but you're right, the fast search does make it compatible since you can easily find whatever you've looking for, and by starting with search you're more likely to add to existing notes instead of creating new ones.

How's nvUltra? Super curious about it but haven't tried it yet. Just noticed its site lists wiki-style links as a feature which could be very interesting in building a personal offline Roam...

2 points
askMeSaaS's avatar
4 months ago

Roam was too slow for me when I tried to load it. Notion is an "ocean" ahead of them, lol

2 points
awwstn's avatar
@awwstn (replying to @askMeSaaS )
4 months ago

Interesting! My biggest complaint about Notion is that it's too slow.

2 points
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