If Knowledge is Power, I May Have Just Gone Nuclear

September 7, 2011 | 4 Comments

As much as I like to dabble with new apps and imagine the possibilities that they might offer me, I tend to stick with the apps that are tried and true, that I know will get the job done for me. They sustain a system that works for me, and it’s not a system I want to mess with. This has especially been true of two backbone apps since the start of this blog: Yojimbo and Omnifocus.

Until last month.

I have long used Yep as a paperless filing system. Scanned bills, statements and other documents were captured via a ScanSnap scanner and stored as PDFs in Yep’s tagging system. It worked pretty well for the needs that I had, but the scanning process was a little cumbersome, enough so that I felt a resistance to deal with the expanding folding in my desk labeled “To Scan”.

This summer, my friend Ryan Irelan wrote a post on the Happy Cog blog about his own Paperless setup using DevonThink. I was familiar with DevonThink and even had a Personal license from some software bundle past, but the extent of my experience with it was befuddlement. I knew it was designed to serve as an all-purpose document and information manager, but I hadn’t put any time in to understanding it. Ryan’s post prompted me to give it another look to see if it might replace Yep and serve me better. It does.

My New Paperless System

I dragged all of my PDFs from my Yep filing system into DevonThink (in this case, DevonThink Pro Office) and they imported with tags intact. Rather than continuing with tags, I took an hour or so to use the tags to sort them all into a folder system. That was a good start, but it was the scanning process that really had me hooked. DevonThink grabbed the incoming documents from the scanner, OCR’d them, and then shuffled them into an inbox to await further sorting. (Or, perhaps, non-sorting since the OCR works so well.) And now my large “To Scan” pile has become a large “To Shred” pile.

And My New Capture Lots of Stuff System

DevonThinkPro

It didn’t take me long to decide that DevonThink Pro was going to be my new paperless filing system, but as I dabbled and explored, I started to see more possibility. DevonThink Pro handles web archives, which means I can grab a full web page and store it away with layout and design elements intact. This has been the most important feature in my usage of Yojimbo as I file away sites for inspiration and reference connected to design and development projects. (And for those of you who are screaming “Just use Evernote!”, it can’t do web archives, and that’s the main reason I don’t use it.) This left me wondering if DevonThink Pro might be an improvement in other ways over Yojimbo, and it turned out to be in four distinct ways:

  1. Search – The search results in DevonThink Pro. The are sorted based on the likelihood of what you are looking for, and by typing a few words, I almost always find what I need in the first few results. You don’t realize how good it is until you start using it. (I do wish the search results would better manage multiple results in a longer file.)
  2. Flexibility – I can drag almost anything into DevonThink and associate it with related files. (Except for an .epub file, which I would love to see support for in the future.) Yojimbo could also handle many file formats, but they never felt quite right to me. While I prefer organizing files through a Finder filing system, I’m seeing more and more the benefits of associating files in a database like DevonThink offers. One great illustration of this is…
  3. DevonThink To GoDevonThink To Go is not DevonThink, but it’s useful and offers two features that Yojimbo’s mobile app did not. It can create new notes and sync them back to the main database, and it can run it on the iPhone as well. The Wifi sync is still cumbersome (though more reliable than Yojimbo’s iPad sync), but there is hope for over the air sync coming soon.
  4. Multiple Databases – It’s nice to have multiple databases so I can limit what I sync, search or have open. I’m still adjusting here, but I’ve found breaking everything down into six unique databases is working well for me:
    • aMS Admin – A collection of mostly scanned documents relating to administration issues for our church community. It usually isn’t open and I don’t sync it.
    • Design Projects – Notes, papers and web archives broken down for all my active, potential and previous client web projects.
    • Design Reference – A collection of mostly web archive with tutorials or inspiration galleries that I’ve captured for later use. It my own mini Google.
    • Personal Files – My scanned document libarary for statements, bills, tax files, and the like.
    • Purgatory – This is a small database of items waiting to go someplace else. I use it as a syncing file of documents that need to be sorted into other databases, or that I only need to keep short-term, like travel reservations.
    • Research and Reference – This is the database where knowledge gets nuclear — a collection of book notes, scanned articles or books, old school papers, conference notes and what have you. I can’t overstate the value of having this for preparing articles or teachings. And it’s all with me on a mobile device for a quick lookup.

There are a few things about DevonThink Pro that leave some room for improvement:

  • Syncing – The databases with less sensitive information that I want to have available on my laptop are stored on Dropbox so I can open them on both desktop and laptop. Dropbox doesn’t offer true syncing for database files, so I have to make sure these databases are only open on one machine at a time. It requires me to be deliberate about closing DevonThink when moving between machines. It also means that the mobile app lives in a bubble that I have to manually penetrate by activating a sync. DevonTech says better sync is on the way and I’m hopeful for iCloud. (To Yojimbo’s credit, their MobileMe sync works great and is an advantage over DevonThink.)
  • DevonThink To Go – While it is an improvement over Yojimbo’s mobile app, DevonThink To Go won’t allow me to edit existing documents, and the search is too simplistic. The most lacking feature is highlighting of the search term. So, while it might be useful to know that a document contains the word “Sabbath”, it’s not as useful if you have to scan anything over 1000 words to find it. (My fix has been to open open a longer document in an app like GoodReader or PDF Expert and perform a search there.)

In the capture everything app discussions, DevonThink is usually mentioned as that other app that everyone knows about but isn’t using. (Case in point, David and Katie). I can see why, because it has a learning curve. But its a learning curve like OmniFocus has a learning curve, and once you get into it, you see all sorts of possibilities. Credit to DevonTechnologies for not having some kind of “me too!” response, but staying the course and making powerful and useful software. I’ve been testing DevonThink for about a month, and I don’t think I’ve needed to resort back to Yojimbo a single time to find something. I’m ready to commit fully to DevonThink after a long and intimate relationship with Yojimbo.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a license for DevonThink from the publisher due to my intentions to write a comparison of paperless apps. (But it developed into something more!) I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

  • As experienced user of DevonThink Pro Office i’m simply horrified. You use this software only as a paperless tool? Really you use a nuclear bomb for kill mosquitos. This software is maybe the best on the market for professionals and creatives. When you realize what you can manage 20.000 books, collect and manage infos about thousands topics maybe you are ready for a review. When you write what “DevonThink won’t allow me to edit existing documents, and the search is too simplistic” I doubt you have really tested the software.

    • John Chandler

      Giovanni,
      You might want to read the post again. The bottom last 2/3 of the post are about how I realized I could use it for much more than a paperless filing system. And the critique about editing and searching was within a bulleted and bolded point about the mobile app.

      And if you read again, you’ll notice that the search functionality was the first point I made when I talked about how it is an improvement over Yojimbo.

      At least I can be glad to see that DevonThink users are as passionate as the Evernote users that normally give me grief.

  • Dan

    Wow! My first night here and I don’t think I have ever seen a blog ripe with as much defensive persnicketiness (if that’s a word). Who knew Devon – and especially Evernote fans were so passionate? They are great apps, but like anything else, and more than most because of their breadth of features, they suit some people and not others.

    Anyways, I am hoping to gather the strength to work through Debon and see if it can do for me what Evernote either couldn’t or didn’t do as I liked. Hoping you will do some more posts on that monster soon.

    Love the blog, btw.

  • I tried DevonThink for about a year and I think it’s actually quite a crap. At least for the document management it has almost no functionality and a really bad user interface. Among all typical things you want to do with the scanned pdfs it fails in every manner: there is no simple way to edit creation date of the document to sort chronologically (you need to call an “alert window” with a special script for that which is deep in folders), editing author of the doc requires calling out floating overlay from another menu (to be able to sort by sources), scanning interface is a nightmare, OCR function bloats file size from 200kb to 3Mb (though my ABBYY Fine Reader Express makes almost no changes to size at all), lots of functions (like import from Evernote) simply do not work. There is no sync, no reliable back up, I don’t mention such things as lists of dynamic suggestions to reduce the mistake probability by typing over and over again same names. I know there is no much similar products at the moment on the market, but that doesn’t make a good app out of this ****.