Obsidian vs. Roam

When I was first exploring notes apps, I spent quite a bit of time in the wild with Roam Research and Obsidian. I wrote about why I’m leaning Obsidian a few months ago. The thing is there isn’t one best answer to which tool is best. Mike Schmitz got me started on this journey with Roam Research and I’d like to think I played a role in getting him to switch to Obsidian. Regardless, Mike has written an opus on the differences between these apps and who should use what.

Looking at Obsidian and the Craft App

I’ve heard from a lot of listeners/readers about the new Craft app and I’ve spent the last few days taking a closer look at it. Craft is one of the growing crop of intelligent notes/thinking apps. It has the ability to make notes both atomic-sized and large. Craft also uses a block text formatting making it easy to move individual blocks around (or even group them). Craft is a competitor in my life with Obsidian. Although the apps are very different.

  • Obsidian is just text. Craft can hold multi-media.

  • Obsidian is just a group of markdown files and entirely in my control. Craft is a closed system (with an export feature) where you must use Craft’s sync back end. (Although Craft has many export features.)

  • Obsidian gives you 100% control over your markdown files and their security. Craft data is stored on Craft servers and not end-to-end encrypted.

  • Craft is a native app. It has the beautiful look of a native app and it runs like a native app. Craft has many additional features that I doubt will ever go to Obsidian. Obsidian is not a native Mac app but instead an electron app. It doesn’t have a lot of the usual Mac niceties and it uses more RAM than a native app would. (That said, Obsidian is the nicest electron app I’ve ever used.)

  • Craft runs on Mac, iPad, and iPhone and your data is available easily on all platforms. Obsidian is a Mac-only app. You can access via iPad using third-party apps, but it is pretty rough.

  • Craft displays in rich text by default while at the same time supporting markdown. Obsidian works in a markdown (but can display rendered rich text easily enough.)

  • Obsidian has a friendly and passionate collection of users and developers behind it. Having spent just a few days in the Craft Slack channel, it appears Craft does too.

My takeaway is that both of these apps are very capable and on the right track. There are real differences between these apps and a good case could be made for either of them. I can see Craft’s appeal, particularly when I want to access and modify data on iPhone or iPad. Another Craft benefit for me would be the ability to embed images without having to link out to an external file. That said, I think Craft’s lack of end-to-end encryption is probably a deal-breaker for me. I say that now, but this is all very much a moving target right now with both apps iterating nearly daily. Fun times for us nerds.

The Coming Research App Revolution

In the last several months, I have been experimenting a lot with  Roam Research and Obsidian. There is a lot to like about these apps and their crazy-powerful internal links. With both Roam and Obsidian, cross-linking is ridiculously easy. In the case of Roam Research, this isn’t just true for note titles, but instead every word in your database. So you can be writing away about subject A, but then easily cross-link to the 37th paragraph of something else you wrote about subject B.

Not only can you cross-link, but you can also even embed that paragraph 37 in your subject A text in a way that lets your reference or modify it right in the middle of your word pile on subject A.

With both Roam and Obisian, any phrase (or word) in your database can become a separate page by merely putting two brackets around it. That newly minted page will include links to every other page in your database that consists of that phrase. It is powerful stuff, and I am not doing it justice, but the cross-linking and dynamic page/note creation is an entirely different way to research and take notes. I am using it now daily for legal research and Field Guide development. Throwing all of my ideas in one big bowl and letting them mix around pays immense dividends.

This, however, is not going unnoticed by the rest of the development community. The Archive has been using a similar linked text system for years.  Bear recently added a new feature that lets you cross-link not only titles but also note subheadings. It does not go as deep as Roam Research, but it is a start. Moreover, my beloved Drafts, which also supports cross-linking note titles, have an ecosystem of mobile apps, and there’s already an entire Drafts action library that lets you cross and backlink to Drafts notes.

This influx of cross-linking, dynamic referencing, and the linkable chaos that these apps create feel, to me, like something entirely new, and that bell is not going to get unrung. Not only do I expect these apps to push further ahead with these tools, but I also anticipate other apps to develop in the same direction. A year from now, we are going to have some fantastic options.

One of the best parts of being enthusiastic about technology is when I witness something fundamentally change. I can’t help but think that is happening right now in the research and notes space.