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.
Over the past year, I’ve spent way more time than I will ever get back looking at Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) options as they continue to evolve. Three options that have received particular attention from me are Roam Research, Obsidian, and Craft. While I could make a case for any of these three, I’m leaning toward Obsidian.
Why I’m Leaning Obsidian
I continue to be impressed with Obsidian’s feature set and release cycle. We get updates weekly, sometimes multiple times a week. Obsidian’s developers have thus far made a stable, fun-to-use Electron app (I didn’t even know that was possible) that gives you all the expected PKM tools: Wiki-style links, backlinks, and graph view. Just take a look at everything already completed on the Obsidian roadmap. Like all of these apps, Obsidian makes contextual computing so easy. I embed links to OmniFocus task lists, DEVONthink libraries, websites, and anything else I can tie to a URL with no problems. Obsidian also supports creating links to files on your file system or just embedding files right in your Obsidian library.
Moreover, they have added the ability to add third-party plugins, which has spawned a rich assortment of interesting additional features from third parties. Simultaneously, the Obsidian developers plow forward with their app. (They are now close to releasing a mobile app.) Best of all, everything is based on a collection of Markdown files, which means you control your data and can easily get it out of Obsidian if you get drawn to something else new and shiny. Of use to me, but not necessarily everyone else, they have already put together their own end-to-end encryption solution with version history. I’m able to sync my data with my own encryption key.
Why I’m Not Leaning Toward Roam
Roam Research is a web-based linked-text system that lets you link ideas between each other with ridiculous simplicity. Roam, of all the options, is the most granular. For Roam, every carriage return represents another block and linkable entity. Obsidian and (to a lesser extent) Craft are more engineered around the document model. That makes Roam perhaps the easiest solution to laser focus on linking one bit of data to another (which is good) and less useful for writing (which is bad). Along that theme, Roam also uses a weird variant of Markdown that makes writing in Roam even harder.
My biggest gripe with Roam is the data model. With Roam, all of your data goes into their cloud. They don’t have end-to-end encryption. They don’t even have two-factor authentication. If you get a user’s login email and password, you get everything.
Craft is the newest entry and, to me, more attractive than Roam. It’s the only native Mac/iOS app in play. It also has a very responsive developer that seems to be iterating fast. Craft is the clear winner if you are primarily working on iPhone and iPad. Roam is a lousy experience on mobile, and Obsidian has yet to release their mobile app. In the end, however, it was the idea of local Markdown files, end-to-end encryption, and the lightning-fast development that pulled me toward Obsidian.
These aren’t the only three apps in this space. I’m getting emails from other developers nearly weekly now that are building similar tools. The PKM gold rush is on.
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.