After Evernote

The news about Evernote had been bad for a while, but when they raised their prices this summer, that was it for me.

I don’t mind paying for services, but $70 a year is too steep. Plus, I’ve always had a problem with having my data scattered among lots of different platforms. Ideally, I’d like to be able to search for docs in a single place. While that’s not quite possible for me yet, I figure that I should be able to find an Evernote alternative among the services I already use: Dropbox, iCloud, or Google Drive.

While the price point was the final nail in the coffin, the feature creep on Evernote had been, well, creeping for quite a while. The result was a bloated, slow app. Often I’d struggle finding notes, and I completely stopped writing them in Evernote a while ago, choosing Drafts instead.

So, once the news broke about the price, I started trying apps, apps, and more apps. In some cases, I repeatedly re-downloaded apps that didn’t work for me, irrationally hoping that maybe I’d missed something, but no. My attempts included:

Apple Notes: in theory a great choice, in practice, blergh. I valiantly tried to deal with the paper texture and weird text embossing, but I had trouble reading it and it the skeumorphism made my eye twitch. Also: can’t control the font. Sad trombone.

Google Keep: no ability to import notes, plus I couldn’t tell where the notes “lived” once I made them. Also, couldn’t control the font. Also also, I couldn’t figure out a way to make the notes quickly, and the interface didn’t appeal to me.

Dropbox Paper: again, super promising, but this one just isn’t ready for prime-time. The integration of graphics is nice, but right now Paper isn’t integrated in the rest of Dropbox, so again the notes would live in limbo. Plus, Dropbox has a tendency to create services that then disappear (see: carousel) so no thanks.

Microsoft OneNote: this seems to be the favorite alternative for most people, so I desperately wanted to like it. I tried. Really I did, but I hated everything about it: it looks horrible, it keeps emailing you and I couldn’t figure out how to turn it off, the folders and tabs and pages didn’t make sense to me.

You’ll notice that the apps I listed above are pretty much the only ones that wouldn’t add another proprietary service beyond those I already use. So… Give up, right? Or compromise? Or be smart and wait for someone to step in where Evernote failed (my membership is good for another few months)?

Have you met me? Cause of course I didn’t do any of that, even though people with common sense did their best to reason with me. (Thanks for trying, Ryan!) Instead I obsessively tried apps, and then even more obsessively WENT THROUGH ALL 1000+ NOTES I had in Evernote.

So yes, I’m a neat freak with poor impulse control. But! I think this was good (OK, I’m justifying this to myself. Shut up.) Let me explain:

I had many many many notes in Evernote. Being an obsessive person, I had tagged most of them, and even formatted quite a few. As I went through them and exported them, I started noticing some patterns. Namely:

  • The vast majority of my notes were useful in the moment but I had not looked at them since first making them. Think: receipts, meeting notes, etc.
  • I had lots of notes that were related things but were in a bunch of disconnected notes. Think: books to read, house measurements, funny quotes.
  • Pretty much all my notes didn’t need to be formatted. They were just text. That’s it. Or just a pic. Or just a scan. Or just a PDF.

Can you feel the Eureka! coming on? Cause eventually it hit me: PLAIN TEXT. Maybe with some emphasis. And a way to save pics/scans like receipts and where I parked my car. That’s all I need.

Less is more. (I used to hate Mies but he’s not wrong. At least not when it comes to note taking.)

Of course, that’s not simple either. I need a way to write and edit those notes effectively, on all the machines I have (Mac, iPhone, iPad). Down the rabbit hole I went searching for the perfect app to do this, except of course there isn’t one.

Luckily, I already had Drafts, which is still the best place to start a document. I now have a “send to Dropbox” action that allows me to export text right into a Notes folder. Best of all, if that file already exists, it just prepends the new text. So my funny Daria quotes went from dozens of single-quote notes to one long text file, with dates for each. New funny quote? No problem. It’s added right at the top of the file.

Old and new note taking interface side by side. Don't you just love that white space? I do.
Old and new note taking interface side by side. Don’t you just love that white space? I do.


The only thing Drafts doesn’t do well is edit an existing file. You have to download and re-upload to Dropbox manually, and it feels really clunky. Plus, it only exists on iOS, not Mac. TextEdit is fine, but it’s not particularly pleasant to use. So…back to the rabbit hole I went.

I ended up getting Byword. Which, incidentally, is the app on which I’m writing this post. Figuring out markdown took about ten minutes, and anyway I’m not using it much so far. It allows me to emphasize what I need without getting in the way. Mostly, it’s just pleasant to write on a clean white screen with no distractions, no horrible Word formatting, no extraneous crap. And it exports beautifully, mostly. The one thing that doesn’t work: any markdown formatting doesn’t translate to Pages or Word. So basically if I use markdown, it’s only going to look right as html or as a PDF (or as an email. That works great). Of all the downsides, I’m willing to live with this. If anything, it’ll force me to keep it simple.

Pic of launcher highlighting the buttons to make it easy to take - or edit - the note I need
Yes, I’m writing this post 20 minutes before my first class of the semester. I gotta distract myself somehow.
Anyway, notice the buttons to make it easy to take – or edit – the note I need.

If you’re paying attention, you’ll start to think: wait a minute! This doesn’t solve the photo problem! And what about all the existing Evernote notes?

For the photos, I had lots of options, but settled on two. First, I already had the Scanner Pro app from way back when. It has all the features I could want, including OCR, and I set it up to send scans directly to the same Dropbox Notes folder where all my new txt files live. I also set up a button in the IFTTT DO camera that takes a pic and sends it straight to the same folder with a single button press. Yes, it’s multiple apps doing the job that Evernote did, but it all goes to the same folder, and is easy to process from there. And a bonus to using dedicated apps for each: no feature creep so all the apps are super speedy. For extra note taking speed, I also set up buttons in notification center with launcher.

And as for my thousand plus existing Evernote notes: I went through all of them, consolidated where it made sense, saved what seemed worthwhile into Dropbox, and left the rest alone. Only time will tell if I missed anything important, but I don’t think so. I still have Evernote until January, but I think I’ll be happier without.

So, end result of my admittedly ridiculous efforts: I’ve gone from $70 a year to $0. And while I did end up purchasing one app (Byword), I could have just as easily gone without. The change of course cost me lots of time, but this kind of cleanup is hopefully a one-time thing. It’s a lot like inbox zero. That took me hours too, but I’ve been going strong for years now, and it feels great everyday to see that (almost) empty inbox.

Now if only I could get rid of other redundant services… Or better yet, never use MS Office again.

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