Try to remember: Evernote vs. Springpad

The two best-known data collection apps go head to head.

Sometimes it seems as though technology is making our lives more complicated, not less. There's a vast amount of information out there, much of which we seem determined to save. We collect it from the Web, from our scanners and via our smartphone cameras, and it can range from important data such as tax returns, family pictures and contracts to the photo you took of the wine that your friend served you last Thursday. Where do you put it all, and how do you find it again?

A number of applications promise to help you track that cacophony of information. Currently, the two kings of this particular castle are Evernote and Springpad. They are both Web-based tools designed to serve as bottomless storage repositories; they're built to enable people to deposit almost any type of digital information and then organize it, categorize it and/or retrieve it when needed.

Alternative Applications

There are, of course, a number of other applications designed to help users collect and organize digital information, but most of them are more focused (and, as a result, more limited) than Evernote or Springpad.

Three popular programs are OS-dependent: Windows users can turn to Microsoft Office OneNote 2010 to collect text, photos, videos and clippings from Web sites, and Mac enthusiasts can do similar things with Yojimbo or Soho Notes.

There are also a number of cloud-based applications that are either limited to specific types of data (for example, Simplenote is a text app that works on the Web or with iOS devices) or more suited to people who use specific apps or software suites (Zoho Notebook, for example, is a OneNote-like Web app that works best with other Zoho applications). And a new application called Memonic lets you save Web content; it's available in a Windows client version or as an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch app.

It's a tall order. The idea that you can save almost all digital information and then retrieve it at a moment's notice is a great one -- especially to information magpies who want to hold onto a huge amount of data but don't have the time or the inclination to organize it. But how well do these two programs fulfill that promise?

I worked with Evernote and Springpad for several weeks, using them both as professional tools and for personal information storage. I compared the two based on a variety of factors, from the features of their interfaces to their support for social networking. Interestingly, while both applications handle a wide variety of data and are designed for the same purpose -- to help users track everything -- each has a very different approach. Your choice will probably depend on what type of interface you're comfortable with and the type of data you tend to work with.

Note: Most of my observations are based on experiences working on Windows-based laptops and an Android-based Droid smartphone. You might encounter some differences if you use Evernote or Springpad on OS X- and iOS-based devices, but the main functionality is the same.

How they work

The first major difference between Evernote and Springpad is in the access they provide to your stored data: a hybrid local/cloud approach versus an all-cloud service.

Evernote

Although Evernote syncs everything through the cloud and offers a fairly sophisticated Web-based platform, the application is actually centered on its local clients for Windows and OS X. It also is available in apps for several mobile platforms, including iPhones, iPads, Android devices, BlackBerry phones and the Palm Pre. Your information is synced across these platforms.

These local clients ensure that users have access to their data whether or not they're online -- something that is useful for those who depend on Wi-Fi for an Internet connection away from home or the office. For example, if I want to take notes at a meeting where I'm not sure I can get online, I bring up Evernote on my netbook (I haven't joined the tablet forces yet) and type away, secure in the knowledge that as soon as I'm able to connect to the Internet again, Evernote will automatically sync the new note with the rest of the database.

Evernote is available in a free ad-supported version that allows users to add up to 60MB of additional data per month. (There's no cap on how much aggregate data you can store over time, just a limit on how much new information you can add each month.) A premium ad-free version ($5/month or $45/year) lets you add up to 1GB of new data per month; it also synchronizes any files you attach to your notes, while the free version syncs only images, audio and PDF files in addition to your notes. Premium users enjoy a variety of other advantages as well, such as improved support and access to note history.

Springpad

Unlike Evernote, Springpad is a completely cloud-based service, and it went through a nasty few days during the recent Amazon EC2 cloud service outage. Like other Web services that depended on Amazon's servers (such as Quora and Reddit), Springpad was completely down for about two days -- and its users didn't have local use of their data. Disconcerting, to say the least.

To its credit, the company was very careful to keep in touch with its users during the downtime, telling them exactly what happened, explaining how to back up their data and describing what it will do to prevent a similar incident in the future.

Springpad is completely free; it currently doesn't offer a premium service.

Interface

While Evernote offers a one-interface-fits-all user interface, Springpad's is more specialized, especially when it comes to data about movies, products and other consumer interests.

Evernote

Evernote's desktop client has gone through some fairly radical makeovers since its beginning in June, 2008. The current version offers an interface divided into three parts: a left-hand column that lists your notebooks (the main way to organize your entries) and tags, a center column that lists the entries within the selected notebook, and a right-hand column that shows the contents of the highlighted entry.

You can, if you wish, tweak the interface somewhat. For example, you can choose to hide any of the three columns, you can view your entries either as a list or as a set of thumbnails, and so on. Double-click an entry, and it will break out into a separate window (handy if you want to type a longer note).

If you're using a device that doesn't have the Evernote client installed (say, a netbook), you can use the Web version instead. It looks very much like the computer client: lists of notebooks and tags on the left, your list of notes in the middle, and the content of the currently highlighted note on the right. It works like the client as well; for example, you can break out a note in its own window. However, you don't have as many options for tweaking the interface.

In the free version, the ads are in the lower left-hand corner of the application.

Springpad

Like Evernote, Springpad organizes its notes into notebooks and lets you further classify them using tags. Unlike Evernote, Springpad offers entry types depending on what you're saving, and lets you completely hide everything but the notebook you're working on.

The home page displays icons for each of your notebooks, including a default notebook called, appropriately, "All My Stuff" and another for shared material called "Friends Stuff." If you want to access all your data, click on "All My Stuff" -- otherwise, you can simply go to whatever notebook you want. (Unlike with Evernote, items can belong to more than one notebook.) That notebook then becomes the default; for example, if you're in your "Work" notebook, anything you clip from the Web or enter directly into Springpad will go into the Work notebook unless you specify otherwise.

Once you click on a notebook, you are put into the main interface, where most of the space is taken up by a listing of all your entries; they can be sorted by a number of factors, including date added, name, date modified, etc. On the left side is a panel that lets you filter your listing by type (note, bookmark, movie, task, etc.) or by whatever tags you've created. You can also search using a box in the upper-right corner. The left-hand panel also lets you know if you have any alerts -- for example, if one of your tasks is overdue.

In the listing, you see the item title; you also get a number of icons that let you flag it, add a notebook or tag, toggle its privacy status or delete it. To see the entire item, click on the title -- the single entry will then take up the space where the listing was before.

Ads in Springpad appear mostly in the more formatted, commercial entries (for example, one "product" note listing a printer included a price comparison listing from Pricegrabber), and the company obviously has relationships with a variety of commercial entities, such as Amazon and Netflix. In addition, a recent blog entry mentioned that users will probably be seeing more "relevant" ads in future.

Functionality

Are you an information omnivore who voraciously gathers all types of data from disparate sources and doesn't care about categorization? Or do you precisely classify and organize your data so you can later see at a glance what you're dealing with? Depending on how you answered, you might find yourself more drawn to one of these tools than the other.

Evernote

While Evernote accepts a variety of media, it is less restricted and categorized than Springpad. Whereas the latter will actually change the format of a note depending on what you are entering -- a movie, a product, a check list -- Evernote offers essentially a single freeform entry point, and you decide what you want to do with it.

Whether that works for you depends on your own level of comfort. It certainly offers a freedom that may work well with many users -- you don't have to pre-decide what you want to enter, just create a new note and start typing.

You can use Evernote's browser add-on or a service such as Shareholic to clip data from a Web page (the URL is automatically included in the note). You can also import graphics files from a scanner, camera or your computer. If you plan to regularly import documents from your computer, you can designate a folder on your computer as one where Evernote will automatically import anything put into that folder.

There is a certain amount of formatting you can perform with each note -- the usual stuff, such as changing the font, adding italics or centering text. You can also add checkboxes within a note for to-do lists.

However, because of this lack of specialization, Evernote forgoes some features. For example, you can't add any kind of alert to a note, which limits Evernote's usefulness as a task manager. And because all the notes are essentially treated the same, it is less useful to browse through than to search through.

Springpad

Unlike Evernote, which has a straightforward one-format-fits-all philosophy, Springpad offers a variety of item types. To add a new item, you click on a plus sign in the top-right corner of the screen; a drop-down menu lets you add a Note (if you want to type in text), a Task (to-do items that you'll want to check off later) or "Look it up."

This last lets you do a Web search -- type in your search terms, and you'll get results from a number of categories: product, place, movie or show, recipe, book, album, wine or person. Once you've found the item, it is saved to a format that (if appropriate) pulls in information from various Web sources.

For example, when I searched for the 1999 film Topsy Turvy, I got data on the movie from Netflix, the ability to add it to my Netflix queue, and associated links to Amazon, IMDB, Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. If you mark the item as something you're interested in purchasing, you also get alerts when its price changes, or if it becomes available (and wasn't before).

Springpad also lets you add additional notes to your entries, changing the original note/task/link into the beginning of a topic. For example, if I've created a Task for something I need to do for a meeting, I can add a note to it about a question I need to ask during the meeting. You can also, if you wish, post the note to your Facebook account with one click, or send it out via email.

Finding your data

The test of any storage tool is whether you can retrieve the information you need when you need it.

Evernote

Evernote's method of organization is straightforward. You organize your items by putting them into notebooks (such as "Work," "Favorite Web sites" or "Roof repair estimates"). You can also add tags as a way to filter them down even further.

To find your items, you can click on a notebook and/or one or more tags in the left-hand column. You can also simply start typing into a search box, and Evernote will immediately beginning filtering the items according to your search term(s).

Springpad

Like Evernote, Springpad lets you organize your information by assigning each item to a notebook. In Springpad, you can even assign an item to more than one notebook; however, it's a little more awkward to go from one notebook to another. In Evernote, you just have to click on a new notebook in the ever-present left column, while in Springpad you need to go back to your home page first.

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