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Evernote: 'A tool for lazy slobs'

Is this the note-taker of the gods?

Now this is a pitch I can relate to. I was talking to Phil Libin, the new CEO of Evernote, and he was selling me on the new Web-based version of the note-taking app his company makes. Libin was giving me the big picture: Evernote is "an extension of memory." It's an "external brain." But, he says, his company realizes that most people don't want to tag, categorize, annotate, or otherwise file their notes. They just want to jam information into a bin and be able to find it later. "I'm happy with the lazy slob market," he said.

The previous version of Evernote (which I used for about two years, before switching to OneNote), was very good at recording a "river of notes." Whatever you typed into the Evernote desktop app you could then easily find again. There was also a Web service, but using it cost extra.

The Web version of Evernote syncs up with the desktop apps for free.

The new Evernote, version 3, is a free suite of tools that let you access one synchronized database of notes from a desktop (PC or Mac), the Evernote Web site, directly off a USB stick, or from a mobile device. You can also dump data into it from e-mail. In other words, there are now more ways to dump your notes into the system, and more places from which you can get them out. (The product can't yet use RSS feeds as input, but this may be added.)

The app is still a great tool for recording text notes, either typed or written (on a tablet PC). Plus, you can clip text and graphics from Web sites or e-mails (there's a clipper tool that makes it easy). Finding what you've entered later is also easy, thanks to search that works as you type and good ways to narrow down your results by date (and eventually location) or by tag. That is, if you bother to use tags; if you don't, you still have the service's strong search tools.

What's really cool, though, is Evernote's affinity for visual notes. The mobile app lets you snap camera phone pictures and send them directly to Evernote. Or you can drag pictures from your computer into the desktop app. On a Mac, there's a fast way to grab snaps from your Webcam. Everything then gets synched up to the server, which then does text extraction on your photos, dumping the keywords into your search index so you can find things later. (Pro tip: When you take pictures of people you want to remember at a conference, be sure to get their name badges in the shot. Instant people find.)

Pictures search: just start typing, and Evernote will find pictures that have that term in it.

I took some camera phone shots of whiteboards and it did a surprisingly good job of indexing the text. (See also: Scanr [review] and Qipit [review].)

The Mac client of Evernote is prettier than the PC client, but according to Libin it doesn't have the same categorizing features of the Windows client. But it has that slick tool for grabbing a picture from your Mac's built-in camera. It's a handy way to record receipts, business cards, and the like.

The mobile client I used (for Windows Smartphone) lets you access your Evernote database via a Web link, or directly enter text notes and upload voice and photo files. Configuring it for automatic uploads is not obvious but once set up it's a pretty cool feature: you could use it to snap pictures of whiteboards, as I said, or business cards, or of wine labels you want to remember.

The Web client has enough of the features from the desktop apps that using it is not punishment. But the really cool thing is that, no matter which app you use, including the mobile and the USB versions, all your notes are always there, and your ability to search for notes is, too. Everything stays in synch.

It's a good note-recording app even if you don't use the visual tools.

Not in the PC version I tested yet, but possibly in the Mac client, is the capability to take any note and publish it on the Web, for easy sharing. However, Evernote is not a collaboration tool or a wiki; viewers can't comment on or modify posted notes.

Evernote doesn't have OneNote's time-synced audio recording feature, nor does it offer speech-to-text transcription like ReQall. And contrary to what I speculated in my recent coverage of ReQall), it doesn't look like a good to-do or reminder service. I'd bet you could hack at it and make it into one if you wanted to, but it doesn't have the clarity of purpose or the reminder features of a to-do service like ReQall, RememberTheMilk, or iWantSandy.

Evernote is free now (it's in private beta) and there will always be a free version, Libin said. Unlike the last version, the freebie accounts get the Web sync functionality. A future paid version (about $5 a month) will have higher (or no) limits on the number of notes a user can create, and priority access to the server-based image processing queue (for text recognition).

Speaking of the recognition engine, Libin told me it will eventually read barcodes as well as text. In the future it will be able to recognize the presence of people in a photo, and some day be able to identify who the people are. As he said, the longer your visual notes stay in Evernote, the more valuable they become, since the server's image processing engine will go back and rescan pictures every time Evernote adds new recognition capabilities.

I'm smitten by Evernote 3.0. It's not just that it's a good note-taking app. It's not just the cool OCR for finding pictures of wine labels you've uploaded to it. It's all that plus the excellent synchronization between platforms that does it for me. It really makes the system feel pervasive, and inviting.