Roam Research vs DEVONthink Series
- Part 1 of 5 – Heavyweight Contenders of Note-taking
- Part 2 of 5 – Local, Online, and Blocks
- Part 3 of 5 – Writing and Pages
- Part 4 of 5 – Links and Workspaces
- Part 5 of 5 – Discovery, Filters, and Queries
In the first post, I went over the biases inherent to any review piece as well as my discovery of Roam Research after having worked with DEVONthink. Today we’ll look at:
– A high level view of major differences between the applications
– How the online vs local nature impacts workflow
– The unique nature of blocks
In some ways, it may not be fair to compare Roam Research and DEVONthink. The former is dedicated to note-taking. That’s all it’s made for. The latter was built to be a database that can work with any application.
But these important distinctions duly influence how one can take and relate to their notes. There are some workarounds one can do to replicate one’s functionality in the other. But there are other things that just don’t seem possible cross program. At least, I haven’t figured out a way.
As a quick example, Roam has what are called “blocks”. Basically, blocks allow you to take any single line in a text and reference it elsewhere. That way, you can have the same piece of information embedded in another note. Combining this with Roam’s ability to integrate tasks and even a way to craft a system for tasks and you could have a information and task system! In fact, Nat does exactly that.
Meanwhile, DEVONthink is a database. It can house all of your references, such as PDFs, video and audio files, outliners, mindmaps, and more. Alongside its powerful built-in AI that can deliver incredibly relevant suggestions as to what might be relate to your current work, DEVONthink is an utter powerhouse for managing information from just about any source.
Local vs Online
A preliminary and major distinction between the programs is in where they call their homes. Roam Research is an entirely online tool worked through a web browser. DEVONthink is local and gives you the option of where you want to house your files. In fact, DEVONthink lets you have a blend of file locations housed in a single database.
There are multiple considerations that arise from this difference.
First, for me at least, is security. The idea about security is the same idea the goes into any system, whether that’s for notes or tasks or even for interpersonal relationships and organizations. Namely, trust is a foundation. When we can trust something to be secure, we can better let the mind wander and play.
Nat has his own trust level and clearly conveyed that he felt that his information and ideas were safe. I, on other hand, likely now qualifying as an aging character only a few years away from earning my honorary cane and sign saying “stay off my lawn”, have a much harder time with online matters. I want my stuff local.
But beyond the safety matters, there are other benefits and detriments to consider.
Roam Research, being entirely online, has an increasingly connected presence. For example, Nat described using Readwise.io, which now directly integrates with Roam. Basically, it is a service that allows you to take notes on the web, on your Kindle, on podcasts, and more, and have them easily imported into Roam.
It’s really neat to be able to take notes on a Kindle, then have those same notes appear in my database complete with an image of the book’s cover. Having a Tweet or even an entire Tweet thread easily embedded in my notes is also super.
There are many things that are easy to get into DEVONthink such as pages, videos, URLs and the like. But, getting something like a thread of tweets into DEVONthink is tedious. In this way, Roam plays nicely with other online programs.
However, DEVONthink plays nicely locally. For example, you can have all your notes easily opened and edited by not only DEVONthink, but by any program that can read and work with plain text. There is something so freeing to be able to use any editor. I can use whatever tools I want! I’ll jump into Typora to create a table. I’ll jump into iA Writer for a pristine writing experience. It’s all about the files.
In terms of syncing, Roam is solid. It lives on the cloud so there is no need to set anything up. So long as you have a name, password, and computer with access, you can get to it, though it does have to load.
DEVONthink, on the other hand, runs quickly, but it does have some work needed to get it connected. Once it does however, it does not require much work to maintain.
There are at least a few other odds and ends that are different because of their local vs online presence:
– Multi-select is a smoother process locally.
– Tabbing and moving between lines is much less likely to trigger odd jumps. Sometimes, while typing in Roam, I’d hit the arrow key up once, and it would move seven or ten lines. But only sometimes.
– Typing Command-z to undo would suddenly undo several steps instead of one.
These and other snags added up to have me on edge.
While I do believe that these are continually being improved, if the typing experience is compromised, that’s a major issue. Now clearly there are others who work well with Roam and feel right at home with Roam. But for me, the resulting “feel” is quite different in that locally, typing somehow feels closer. I have a greater trust that my writing is moving from mind to record unimpeded.
Verdict – I much prefer DEVONthink’s local presence.
Roam Research uses blocks as its atomic unit. Blocks are tiny units of information. In an outline, they are a single line. In a document, they are a single paragraph.
Blocks, in turn, build pages.
A huge benefit to blocks is that they can be referenced and embedded within other pages. Once you wrap your mind around blocks and how they relate to pages, I believe you are at least half way into a foundational understanding of Roam Research.
In addition to other text, one can use blocks to embed Kanban boards, Youtube videos, tasks, and LaTeX units, and more on any page. You can then reference those elsewhere if you wanted. In other words, you can embed a block from one page on another. It’s like having a window into another page.
The amount of gymnastics you can do with blocks is amazing. As mentioned earlier, Nat uses Roam as not only his knowledge database, but also as his entire task system. Using “queries”, Roam can search your database for particular blocks and present them on the page.
Blocks, secondarily, offer a neat organic way to build larger and larger notes. Let’s say you’re working on a paper about ADHD. You could build up each individual concept as its own page and then have a single paper that is just a series of headings and references that point to each page. The end result a nicely laid out set of ideas.
There is a double-edge sword to consider here though. If you are a building a note system that is primarily about atomic notes, you can quickly lose that characteristic. Growing notes are no longer about being able to quickly access the kernel of an idea. Those smaller notes may be surrounded by larger ones which then need some form of filter.
Still, blocks are quite remarkable, and they are what make Roam so unique and powerful.
DEVONthink does not, at least currently, have blocks. Its smallest unit is the file. While you can create replicants and duplicates (effectively aliases and copies) of the various files, you are not able to embed the ideas of one file inside another without a copy and paste.
Still, there are similar, but not quite there, ideas that can be integrated.
One option is to take advantage of Obsidian’s recent inclusion of blocks. Justin at Effective Remote Work did a nice video introducing them. Since one can integrate DEVONthink and Obsidian by having them share files, you can go to Obsidian whenever a block would be useful.
Called “transclusion”, one can embed other files, tables, and more in full with an external text editor, iA Writer. IA Writer, in turn, can be set as a favored application to read files from DEVONthink. These content blocks are only supported, however, if they are in iA Writer’s library. You would have to set the default location of the notes library to iA Writer and then Index them from DEVONthink.
In other words, there are non-intuitive setups required, and neither fully replicates the functionality of Roam Research’s blocks.
At first, I was totally amazed by blocks. Well, I still am.
However, I am also fine with writing in standard paragraphs with simple files. At least currently, I prefer them, but that might be about experience.
Even though there appears to be no technical limitation or pause, I do encounter a mental barrier when writing with blocks. Namely, since I know that each line is now its own block, I become wary of where a line creates a new paragraph.
Much of my writing is about feel. A new paragraph is a new feeling. It is at least nuanced in some way, even if that is only to break the monotony of a wall of text.
Those considerations seem to be squeezed when I worry about how I might reference a line or paragraph in the future. As a result, I pause more often than I’d like while writing. Again, this may be workable and something even with its own advantages, but I found it to add more friction than I wanted.
Because I have to write a note when working with a file, I find myself more inclined to create shorter, more unique, and atomic notes. This is particularly useful when it comes to transferring those ideas for development into a longer paper. There is less likelihood of my having repeated myself. Searching for repeats is a pain particularly as an article turns into a paper or book.
I then do my long form writing elsewhere, often in Scrivener. After completing a project or paper, I then drag and drop the Scrivener file into a References group in the database. So in this way, I have both my long and short form writings in my database, but they are clearly distinct.
Verdict: I don’t know. I like writing without blocks, but my goodness do they seem powerful.
In part 3, we’ll take a look at the use of markdown, outlines, and differences in how the programs handle pages and an inbox.