Evernote alternative experimentation

I decided to do a bit of experimentation with Evernote alternatives today. I’m not quite done, but I thought I’d take a break to write up some findings, so far.

My first idea was to see how feasible it would be to use Evernote2Onenote to convert from Evernote to OneNote. I exported two notebooks from my Evernote install. One is a fairly small notebook (less than 200 notes) that’s just an archive of some old work notes. The second is my main archive notebook, where I move things that aren’t active anymore, so that’s a pretty big one (more than 1000 notes). The ENEX file for the first one was 17 MB, while the second was a bit over 500 MB.

I imported both of those into OneNote, with no issues. The smaller notebook took less than a minute, and the larger one took just about five minutes. The importer sets the date on the OneNote notes based on the date in the ENEX data, so that’s good. And it does a good job of preserving formatting from the old notes. And as far as I can tell, it kept all of my images intact. There’s no option as to which notebook or section the import goes to, so that’s a bit weird. It just put them all into what I presume is the default notebook/section for me. It’s not hard to move notes, once they’re imported, so that’s not really a problem.

My tags all disappeared. I wasn’t sure what would happen to them, but I was hoping they’d be maintained in some way. There’s a note on the web page that says “Notes are imported to OneNote in a tab that has the same name as the tag the note has.” So that made me think that it would create new tabs for each tag, and sort the notes out that way. But that didn’t happen. Then I thought that maybe I had to create the tabs manually first, so I did that and tried again, but that didn’t work either. I guess that, if I’m going to switch to OneNote, I’m going to have to give up on tags anyway, so maybe I shouldn’t worry about it.

(It’s occurred to me that I could write a little program to parse through the ENEX file and move the tags into the body of the note, so I’d be able to keep them that way. But that seems like too much work.)

Next, I decided to try Yarle to convert the notes to Markdown. That worked reasonably well, and reasonably quickly. There are a bunch of options in Yarle (as compared to Evernote2Onenote, which has almost none). I left them all at the defaults, and selected Obsidian for the Markdown dialect.

Yarle left me with a folder of Markdown docs and a “resources” folder with all the images and other file attachments. One nice thing I noticed is that Yarle sets both the created and modified dates on the files according to the data from the ENEX file, so that’s a nice touch.

From there, I installed Obsidian, created a new vault, and moved all of the Yarle files into it. I found that the end-result here is a bit hairier than I got with the OneNote import. And that makes sense, since Markdown is a text format, and converting rich text to Markdown is always going to be a compromise. On the plus side, all of the metadata I need (tag list, created date, modified date) is all there in the note. But it’s all at the top of the note, and looks kind of weird. I think I could fix that by using a different import template with Yarle, and I might try that later.

While the tags appear in the body of the note, they don’t seem to be recognized as tags in Obsidian. I don’t know enough about Obsidian to know if that’s easily fixable or not. Maybe that’s something else I need to fix in the Yarle template.

And I decided to try one more system, Joplin. Joplin has a built-in Evernote importer, so I used that. It gives you options to import as Markdown, or as HTML. I chose the Markdown option. This was pretty fast, and it brought in the tags and images, no problem. It also kept the created/modified dates (or at least one of those dates. Not sure which one.) The resulting Markdown was usable, but had been pretty much stripped of any formatting. Images were retained.

I then imported the same notebook, but selecting “as HTML” this time. That gave me notes that looked a bit closer to the originals, but the HTML itself was quite messy. So I definitely don’t want to stick with that.

Behind the scenes, Joplin doesn’t store its notes in text files, like Obsidian does. It appears to store them in a SQLite database, in a joplin-desktop folder under your Windows user folder. Any attached images are stored in a “resources” folder under that, with file names that appear to be GUIDs.

So, looking at what I’ve done so far, and trying to summarize it, here’s what I’ve got:

  • The OneNote importer seems to be the easiest and best way to get my notes into a stable system, with minimal loss of formatting or any other issues. But the big issue there is that I’d have to be OK with losing my tags (or figuring out a way to keep them). And it’s a plus that I’ve been using OneNote at work for more than ten years, so I know how it works.
  • The combo of Yarle plus Obsidian can probably get me a workable system, retaining tags, but losing a lot of formatting. I’d need to do some more experimentation with Yarle templates and options to get it to where I want it though.
  • Joplin can likely get me to a working system pretty easily, with tags intact, but a lot of formatting lost. I’d have a learning curve with Joplin, but I suspect it would be much less of a curve than with Obsidian.

(And, by the way, this was all done on my Windows PC. I haven’t tried any of this stuff out on a Mac, or on iOS.)

Having gotten this far, I also decided to play around with sync a bit. OneNote wasn’t a problem, really, since I’m already using OneDrive. But it did choke on the initial sync of my bigger notebook, and gave me a bunch of sync errors. That seems to have smoothed out now.

For Obsidian, I stored the vault under my OneDrive folder, so that will automatically sync up to the cloud. I’m assuming I can just point at it on my Mac, and that should work. I’m not sure how that’ll work on iOS, if it does at all.

And for Joplin, I just ran through the setup to tell it to sync via OneDrive. It appears to have OneDrive specific support built in, as I was asked to authorize it. It then created a folder under Apps/Joplin, and pushed out a bunch of individual Markdown files and other files. I’m a little worried about how reliable that will be, but I’m willing to give it a try.

I’m not greatly impressed by the user interface of either Joplin or Obsidian, though they’re both probably fine. Joplin seems simpler, and closer to Evernote. The default view is a dual-pane view, with the editable Markdown on the left, and a WYSIWYG preview on the right. There’s a rich-text editor, but if you switch to it, you get a warning notice about it, so that’s a little worrying. I’m not sure I’d want to deal with that, long term.

Obsidian defaults to a rich-text editor, which is nice. You can toggle to “source mode” if you want to see the markdown. I think I could get used to Obsidian’s user interface, though I think I’d need to spend a good bit of time tweaking it, messing with plugins, and so on.

Well, that took up a lot of time this morning, and I’m not entirely sure where I want to go next. I still haven’t evaluated macOS or iOS versions of Obsidian or Joplin. And I haven’t looked at how either could handle task management, beyond simple note-taking, which is kinda important to me.

I’ll still thinking that the path of least resistance (aside from sticking with Evernote) would be to switch to OneNote.

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