Evernote, Notion, Roam – Why and How I am using all of them

Photo by Ylanite Koppens on Pexels.com

I have been an Evernote user since 2008. Every time, I need to find a report, a document, receipts I search in my Evernote and it is there. Once I drag anything into Evernote I know that it is going to be there. The optical character reader (OCR) feature makes life so much easier. I can drag a PDF report in Evernote and can easily search the content of this PDF. This is an immensely valuable feature when your job requires going through numerous pdfs scouting for information. So for me Evernote is not a note taking tool but a repositories of my documents.

Evernote excels at what it is supposed to do and you can trust it to be there when you need it: online, offline, on mobile, on web, on Mac, On Windows.. It is everywhere.
But a lot of things changed in last 12 years. We saw a number of apps coming and threatening Evernote and often excelled at one or another thing that Evernote does. Bear gave a brilliant writing interface; NimbusNote got some style and a few more bells and whistle than Evernote and then came Notion: the lego box that can be a note-taking app, a project management tool, a personal wiki.. the list goes on.

Now, the #RoamCult is taking over. RoamResearch is taking the note-taking to the next level. With its bi-directional linking and networked thoughts, this is something that is not Note-Taking but a learning and knowledge management tool that makes you think and collect knowledge bits without any kind of typology and structures. This is immensely helpful for the content creators and researchers. I work extensively on climate change and different development challenges and often putting a files into a particular structure or folder is very difficult. RoamResearch allows me to do that very well. But RoamResearch is not great for dumping all kind of content like we do in Evernote or for creating beautiful structured personal wiki as Notion.

But Evernote, RoamResearch and Notion together create a perfect knowledge management work-flow and system. My three step workflow is the following:
Step 1: Everything goes into Evernote. Online articles, pdfs, my purchase receipts, critical documents. First landing place for any content. It is reliable, safe and available everywhere. And, the mobile app of Evernote is lightyears ahead of Notion and RoamResearch (in fact RoamResearch does not have a mobile app yet.).

Step 2: Synthesis of compiled content happens in RoamResearch. I review notes in Evernote, highlight them and bring the highlights and notes that I want to further use into RoamResearch. Here I process my notes to create a short summary in my own words. This also turns up into my CRM and ToDo list as it is quite intuitive. I can insert ToDo list and reference to different people easily in Roam.

Step 3: All the finalized content that I create goes into Notion in form of a personal wiki.

So far I am quite good with this flow. But I am looking forward to getting rid of one or other applications if they evolve further become one stop solution for my personal knowledge management.

Working from home and the tech I use

My messy desk

The lock-down has forced us to work from home and while some of us have been used to it (I used to work from home from 2015 to 2018 and still I find working from home more productive!) but a number of my friends have been finding it quite challenging. While there is a mental-shift required to be productive from a place that is typically considered to be a space for you and your family’s private time, there is also a lack of support/infrastructure that poses a challenge to be productive while working from home.

Since I have been experimenting with technology and gadgets to find the best productivity system, I always find that my home setup has been far more productive than my work setup. A lot of people have asked me about my home setup (Warning: I love tinkering with my systems and even an incremental value-add often matters to me. Result — I have many redundancies and multiple devices!) so here is a snapshot of what my work from home setup consists of.

The Hardware

I juggle between multiple machines. But the main workhorse is a desktop Chakra (Yes, my machines have got their own names, ) that I assembled myself; and this is quite a powerful machine for my use (Nova Benchmark Score of 2797). This is connected to a 27inch 4k display. It has 9th Gen Intel i7, 32 GB of RAM and Nvidia GTX 1660 Graphics card. The processor and RAM are primarily needed for my occasional Photoshop and Lightroom (I have a massive library of more than 15k photos) work. I have a iMac 27” 5k as backup (I love the Retina display of that machine for colour accuracy) but the fusion drive in that machine sucks. My custom-built desktop has Samsung NVME 770 pro ssd harddrive that makes this whole setup a very zippy. 

I have a couple of (in fact three if I include my office allocated machine) laptops that I use when I am on move. A 13” MacBook Pro Retina (Nandaka, this one quite old but still a great machine and I am waiting for Apple to fix the keyboard on MacBook Pro so that I can upgrade) and MacBook Air 2017 model. Apart from this tow Mac laptops, I have a Dell XPS 13 (Asi) with i7 and QHD touch screen display. While I have multiple machines but I have almost established use (apart from being a backup when one fails) for them.

At home and photo-editing: I need fast processing and a big screen, so it is primarily done on the Desktop.

Professional Travel for a day or two: MacBook Air. There is no better machine than this if you are in Apple ecosystem and crave for a good keyboard.

Personal travel for longer duration or vacations: MacBook Pro as I need a bit more firepower for photo editing needs.

The Dell XPS 13 is a backup in most cases or when I need to extract more juice from Excel, which is always better on a Windows machine.

I have a couple of mobile devices that I use along with these machines. I have the latest iPhone 11 Pro Max and iPad Pro (11 inch, 256Gbs) with Apple Pencil 2 and Keyboard. iPad is very handy for all the meetings and note taking. I am considering using this for my work travels for a day or so but did not find it that conducive when I need to work on reports or word docs. But with the mouse support just launched I am going to try this. These days of lockdown and work from home, I often use iPad for my video calls as it is much easier to carry and I use my laptops and desktops to quickly search information or files if needed for these calls. iPad also is my go to device for media consumption and for reading magazines and PDFs.

Apart from these machines, I use Logitech K850 keyboard and mouse combo. The keyboard allows me to wireless connect to 3 machine and I can use this as input to any of my laptops or desktop with just press of one button. I crave for a mechanical keyboard (I have a TVS Gold somewhere in my storage) but there are not many that can give me the ease that Logitech K850 gives. But, this is going to change. I am waiting for Das Keyboard 5Q. Nobody makes keyboards better than Das guys and this one is just drool-worthy.

For all the video calls, I use my Airpods 2 which have far better range and clarity than any other small wireless earphones. Also they seamlessly integrate in Macbook, Ipad, Iphone without any hassle. But these do not have great battery life; they don’t last more than 3 hours. I also have a couple of headphones (Sony WH1000XM3 and V-moda Crossfade Wireless 2) that I use as backup and for listening music. I have been using V-moda for quite sometime for its sound quality and multi-point Bluetooth connectivity. But Sony is the one I use on flights for its noise cancellation. It would replace my V-moda Crossfade the day it gets multipoint Bluetooth connection so that I can pair with a number of devices simultaneously. Sound quality is now almost at par.

The Software

Windows and MacOS: I am love to work on cross platform so I look for those solutions which integrate with multiple mobile and computing platform. Way back in early 2000, I experimented with Linux (Red Hat was the first distro I used) and Windows and got introduced to MacOS in 2007. Since then I have been a multiOS person. But now, it is mainly MacOS and Windows. Linux apart from being open-source does not add much value to my workflow.

Evernote: I have been a power user of Evernote since 2008. It has more than 4000 notes and I use it for file archiving and storing anything that I might need in future. The OCR feature and multi-platform availability makes it almost the best solutions for personal knowledge management. The one feature which is quite handy is that I can directly scan a business card and it stores the information in text format and sends a linked connection request to the person.

Microsoft 365 — While there are multiple word processing software I used in past but this is the gold standard. I have subscription that gives me 1TB of storage space on OneDrive and all the office suite applications. But I use word processing software ‘as word processing software’ for editing my professional documents and not to write things.

I write in Ulysses or Scrivener for long text.

OmniFocus: This is my preferred ToDo list app. But it might get redundant as I am trying to consolidate my workflow and Notion does allow me to manage my ToDo. The only problem with Notion is its mobile app.

Notion: I use Notion for my personal knowledge wiki and management. While earlier I was primarily dependent on Evernote for all the knowledge management needs but gradually I am using Evernote for note taking (with Penultimate it works great) and a lot of my knowledge management is happening on Notion.

Roam Research: This the note taking and personal knowledge management app of the future. But it is still in very early stage of its development. It has immense potential because of its contextual linking of text and bi-directional relationship of notes.

Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom: I use Lightroom to process my raw files and organize the photos that I have. I have quite a large library of photos and Lightroom’s catalog organizing capabilities are unparalleled. Adobe Photoshop is very rarely used. In fact, for photo retouching especially the portraits I use Luminar 4, and it is quite amazing for basic retouching.

Affinity Publisher: This is my preferred software (since InDesign is subscription based and I am not keen to pay for a subscription that I barely use) for designing anything. Quite cheap and very capable.

CalibreThe opensource and free software to manage the large library of pdfs and ebooks that I have. It also can run in server mode to help one access these files from anywhere.

Woven: This is in beta Calendar application that has some great features. I use this is to sync my Google Calendar.

The Enablers

Two internet connections (one with static IP address): I had learnt my lessons early when I started working from home. You cannot trust on one Internet connection. Airtel, one of the main service providers in my area has good reliability but it speed is yet not there. They are upgrading but not yet fully functional. So I have an Airtel which is only used for video calling and backup when my other connection does not work. The other connection has 300mbps speed. I also got a dedicated IP address which allows me to access my home cam and document library from anywhere. The high speed connection is hooked into Netgear Orbi ( a mesh router with one satellite) that has a lot of capabilities and provides very reliable connectivity in multiple rooms without any dead zones.

Private Internet AccessI have a subscription for a VPN service that allows me to use public wifi (hotels) cafe etc. without any security concerns. Not many people know but you are at great risk of losing your privacy and key data when you access any public wifi.

Apple Time Machine and One Drive: I have Apple Time Machine (Airport Extreme 2TB) and OneDrive configured to sync and backup all my key folders. This also allows me to seamlessly work from any device and not worry about duplication and data loss.

Apart from these online backups I do a regular offline backup almost every month on physical hard drive to ensure that I have a copy of my key files.

Dell XPS 13 – Display driver issues and blank screen fix

Dell XPS 13 is the best windows laptop that you can buy, this is what every review said when it was launched. Still, you google the best laptop and you are bound to see this laptop in almost every list on the net. But the reality is different. Reviews don’t give you the real picture. In fact, most of the reviewers, claiming to be tech guru, just read out the spec sheet and do the comparison.

Dell XPS 13 range is marred with numerous problems right from the first edition to the latest model. I have written about the keyboard problem, the wifi problem, the sound card problem and what not. The sad part is that the solution provided by Dell is to replace the keyboard, or the motherboard if your device is in the warranty. But the warranty is only for a year. Recently, I struggled with my laptop when it display just went blank. The external monitor worked very well but not the inbuilt monitor. The online forums suggested many fixes: update the graphics driver, fresh installation, removing the battery, motherboard replacement.. .

Well, nothing worked perfectly other than the motherboard replacement, and that costs 200-400 USD. Forget about the solution, Dell guys are not able to figure out the problem. I found out a very low cost and effective solution if you are out of warranty and do not want to invest in a new motherboard. Get your motherboard completely cleaned, in fact, washed. You should not try to do it yourself but get a laptop technicians to do that. This solves the problem perfectly.

Google Pixel 3XL – Why You Should Not Buy This Phone

While Google might have pulled off all its magic to design their best possible consumer device, Google Pixel 3 but I would not recommend this phone for any Indian buyer. Their customer service is just pathetic.

I got Pixel 3XL on the day of its launch as my secondary device. Yes, Pixel or any android phone has a long way to go before it makes me switch completely from iPhone. The camera and the joy of using pure Android were two main reasons why I bought the phone. I had some manufacturing issue with my Original Pixel but luckily this was not having any manufacturing problem but I got some other problems.

The glass back panel is super fragile and all it took was one drop to get shattered. It got multiple cracks on its back cover, luckily there was a screen guard on my phone so display was not affected. I reached out to customer care and as I expected the back cover replacement was not part of the warranty; the cost of back cover replacement was approximately INR 4800. And, there was no way to get this done in Delhi. The device was to be sent back to Mumbai (the only repair centre in India) and it was expected to take 7 working days.

I place the order and it forget about 7 days it is more than 2 weeks and I am still waiting for the device. Had it been an iPhone, it would have been a complete different experience. Google has a service partnership with B2X.com which provide customer care support to several brands in much better way than Google has negotiated it for its Pixel phone.

If Google has to really make a dent in premier smart phone market they have to not only make a good product but ensure that overall experience they provide for the customer is a great one.

Amazon Echo vs Google Home – The right smart speaker for you

India’s is often a neglected market for high-end and innovative consumer tech products. But gradually this is changing. Many of the latest consumer tech products are available in India after a few months of global launch. But for one of the hottest and fast-growing consumer product ‘smart speakers’, it is quite a delayed launch in India. Amazon Echo was launched in November 214 and Google Home was launched in US in November 2016. Both of these smart speakers were not available officially in India till 2017.
Now, suddenly things have changed. Both Google Home and Amazon Echo are available in India and soon we may have Apple Homepod making an entry.
Now if you are looking to get your first smart speaker here in India, here are a few things that can help you in making an informed choice.
  • Not for audiophiles: First of all, if you are an audiophile, love your music pristine and high quality, these speakers are not meant for you. But these are good enough for most of the casual listeners and music lovers.
  • Unlimited music streaming: Both the speakers Google Home and Amazon Echo, have their in-house music streaming service: Google Music and Amazon Music. But both of these do not match the music collection of Saavn, which is available for both the speakers. Although for an ad-free music streaming experience you need to shell out 100-150 per month for these services. Amazon Music is available free for Amazon Prime members (Amazon speakers come with one year free Amazon Prime subscription).
  • Google Home is much more conversational and easy to converse with: Google Home beats Amazon Echo in its conversational ease. It leverages Google’s ecosystem and all the data Google has on you to provide you more relevant and accurate responses. You can get traffic details, weather, your google calendar integration etc. Amazon Echo does most of these things but Google Home is way ahead. Both of these are quite good at handling our Indian accent but initially, you may have to struggle a bit. But this should improve as both these companies are focusing on the Indian market.
  • Sound Quality: Out of all the smart speakers launched so far the best sounding smart speakers are Google Max and Apple Homepod. You can toss a coin to select one if you are bothered about which ecosystem (Google Vs Apple) you want to step in. But both of these are not yet launched. Out of all the versions that are available in India, Amazon Echo Plus sounds best. Google Home is decent but both Amazon Echo and Amazon Echo Plus have superior sound quality.
  • Smart Home Capabilities: Both of these have quite advanced capabilities for interacting with our smart home devices (lights, air-conditioners, cctvs, streaming devices, smart tvs etc). But Amazon Echo Plus has an inbuilt hub for connecting many smart devices and Google Home does not have a hub. If you are relying on IFTT (www.iftt.com) for your automation, then you can read this article to know more about how these devices support IFTT.
  • Privacy Concerns: If you are concerned about privacy, my take is to go with Apple Homepod. Google is in data business and thrives on getting as much data as possible. Amazon data practices are not that great either. The only company that has a relatively better policy on privacy and willing to go an extra mile to save your data is Apple. However, you can see these links ( https://www.wired.com/story/amazon-echo-and-google-home-voice-data-delete/, https://fieldguide.gizmodo.com/how-to-lock-down-your-privacy-on-the-amazon-echo-and-go-1794697554,) for more information on how to safeguard your privacy while using these smart speakers.

Kindle Unlimited in India – Value for Money if you love Indian authors.

I subscribed to Kindle Unlimited when it was launched in India. It was a very attractive offer. You pay less than INR 2k for unlimited book reading. Pure joy for any bibliophile with a Kindle. In next 2-3 days, I realized that the books available under Kindle Unlimited are very limited and even those who were available were not worth my time. I did continue my subscription due to my sheer laziness and some bit of hope that I might find a couple of books that were worth trying. I was disappointed in the end.

After that I did not renew my Kindle Unlimited subscription. But in last 2-3 months, Kindle store started stocking a large number of titles in Hindi. The collection is impressive. Amazon India store has really added a great amount of vernacular content. I have always felt that since Kindle became my primary mode of reading, I started reading fewer books in Hindi. Now, I have picked quite some books in Hindi on my Kindle. It seems that Kindle Unlimited is slowing offering better value to its Indian subscribers but it is still nowhere close to what is available to US subscribers. Also, one key feature that Amazon India store does not let us lend/share Kindle books that we have bought to other family members or friend. You can do that by setting a family library if you are buying books from Amazon US store.

For the time being I am sticking to Kindle Unlimited but I expect it to evolve and respect India customers.

The Amazon India bookstore itself needs to pay some attention to its design and features. If I am looking to pick a New York Times bestseller, there is no way to readily explore the titles. Usually, I explore the titles on Amazon US store and then buy them in India store. The bestsellers listed in Amazon India stores.. well do not reflect my taste (see the picture above) and I believe that of a majority bibliophiles.

The biggest Productivity bottleneck for gadget/tech-lovers, and how to overcome it.

We love our gadgets and tinkering with them. We like to use the best of the best and cannot wait to get our hands on the next ‘beta’ or ‘developer version’. We experiments with all the shortcuts, mail-management systems, inbox zero, GTD… But if you are like me, we always feel that our systems are not perfect and spend significant time on improving them. Ironically, the time spent on improving the systems makes our systems inefficient.

I spent a lot of time perfecting my system and religiously improving my system to achieve the next level of productivity. And, I realized that the biggest bottleneck in achieving the next level of efficiency and productivity is ‘my in-flux productivity setup’. I was not letting my ‘system’ to mature.

I decided to correct the system and here are some learnings from that.

  1. Knowing the limitations of your ‘system’ is key to achieving stress-free productivity. It is more important than knowing several fancy features in detail. We need to know the limitations. I messed my backup once as I was not aware of Apple Time-machine’s backup limitations. (Apple Time-machine is not for archiving or long duration backup.)
  2. Stick to one Operating System. I have worked extensively on all the major operating systems and have multiple machines configured with different operating systems. I tried my best to achieve a seamless syncing and uniform work-flow that can work on my MacOS, Windows, Linux, iOS and Android setup. But, it is impossible. Better, stick to one operating system, and a compatible mobile operating system and life becomes blissful. My vote goes for MacOS and iOS setup till google comes up with a better OS for laptops or Microsoft comes up with better mobile OS.
  3. Remove as many decision points as you can. My machines had 3–4 word processing applications, 4 note-taking application and subscription to 4 cloud storage/photo storage services. I was in love with Ulysses interface, Scrivener’s extensive feature list and forced to have Microsoft Word because of professional compulsions. I was using multiple mail clients (Airmail, Outlook, Mailbird, Thunderbird etc.) on my multiple machines. I realized that for every routine work I needed to make a choice which machine and which application to use. I made my life much easier by removing all the decisions and making my next steps automatic.

I am now working on perfecting my system and I am quite excited by the outcomes.

Dell XPS 13, 2015- Keyboard Problem

The compulsion of my professional environment often forces me to resort to Windows operating system. Especially for those spreadsheets and Microsoft Exchange requirements, when MacOS or Linux are still not up there. I use  Macbook Pro as my primary machine but I wanted to get an ultrabook which I could use for travel and for those tasks when I need a Windows based machine. Dell_Desktop

A quick research on the available options and their specs made it clear that Dell XPS 13 with its infinity display and Lenovo Thinkpad Cabon X1 were the two top machines with good computing power, battery life and portability. I went in favor of Dell XPS 13 as it offered a  display with mind-blowing resolution and form factor (smallest 13 inch machine). I chose the top-end version with i7 processor and touch screen display.

It was a costly purchase and I was expecting a great experience with the machine, which is essential for my sanity as my tolerance level with a few things is absolutely pathetic. And, I am really finicky about my gadgets. Unfortunately, there was a horrible experience waiting for me.

No doubt the machine is a gorgeous and powerful piece of technology from DELL but there is a big problem with this machine. The keyboard has a double typing problem. I started spotting double/triple typed characters while typing and sometime a random sequence of intended characters. First, I thought that I might be typing fast or not able to adjust to the keyboard. I changed keyboard settings to make sure that there is enough time between repeat of characters. Nothing worked.

A quick check online highlighted that the double typing is a major problem with this flagship DELL machine. Many people have faced the problem and it seemed that there was no solution from DELL. I made a complaint to DELL support and got really nice after sale-service support from them. They replaced my keyboard but it did not solve my problem. The only thing seems to work was downgrading of the BIOS from Vers 5 to Vers 0. It is strange as Vers 5 was to fix the double typing error but it aggravated it. Once I upgraded to Vers 5, it was impossible to work on the machine. I downgraded the BIOS again and made a complain.

This time, DELL support changed my motherboard, keyboard processing unit and keyboard. I tested the machine and realized that I did not spot double typed characters in my brief test in front of the service engineer. But soon I started spotting the double typing characters. Although, less frequently than earlier. I checked the BIOS it was set to Ver 0. I upgraded the BIOS and realized that it again aggravated the problem. I downgraded the BIOS and gave up on the machine. I can still do work on it but it has taken my confidence out of my typing. I do touch typing and pretty confident of my typing accuracy but with this machine I have to make sure that there are no typos.

Coming back to BIOS ver 0, this version of BIOS gives the better experience with the keyboard but it has other problems such as noisy laptop fan and laptop heating. I am waiting for DELL to upgrade the BIOS or accept that DELL XPS 13 has this problem and takes corrective measures.

Apple India- No options to customize iMacs

I often find laptops not adequate when I am working on multiple applications windows and require a bit of more power for photo editing or any other resource hungry operations. Since I have been pretty impressed by the quality (both in terms of software and hardware) of Apple products, I decided to invest in an iMac. A rather expensive yet the best options considering the compatibility with my other devices and already invested softwares.

A 27 inch iMac with 16 GB of RAM, 1 GB of graphics memory and an 1 TB fusion drive is what I am looking for. And, it is easily available in United States. However, when I approached the local Apple retailer, I found that Apple India does not have the required tech specification for iMac. I can only get normal mechanical hard drive of 1 TB, no option to upgrade to a fusion or SSD drive. There are not many options in terms of system with higher capacity RAM, though I can buy an iMac 8gb ram and upgrade it to 16 gb as the 27 inch iMac comes with 2 empty RAM slots. However, if you are buying the 21.5 inch iMac you can only get 8 gb RAM and you cannot upgrade it.

Sad. Apple India should start providing either customization options like Apple US does or Apple should facilitate upgrade through their service centres.

Asus RT N56u is a big disappointment.

Asus RT N56U received rave reviews when it was launched and almost universally touted as the best N band wireless router for advance home users. It offered 2 usb ports, dual band frequency (2.4 Ghz and 5 Ghz) and beat many other competitors on different test parameters such as signal quality and speed. I bought it going through all the reviews and finer details (not worth mentioning here) but after 6-7 months of use I can say it is a big disappointment.

The biggest annoyance is the frequent drop of connection. The moment I connect 6-7 devices, I get frequent losses of connection. And, the only cure is to restart the router. This router, though has two usb ports for sharing devices over home network, is difficult to configure for most of the devices apart from the usb storage drives and the speed is not unto the mark. I tried streaming media to xbox and television, but the experience was not good.

I also committed a mistake while looking at the specification and I had no idea that it does not support DD-WRT firmware. Moreover, the only reason I bought this, ignoring Airport Extreme or Airport Express was I thought it supports VPN client login. It does not. It has VPN server capabilities but it does not have inbuilt client login to VPN. So anyone who is looking forward to use this router to take all the devices online through a VPN, would be disappointed. However, it does support VPN if you have VPN client configured on each of the individual devices. But that is not the point. I wanted to use my XBOX to connect to US store for streaming movies over Netflix, but this was not possible as XBOX does not support any built in VPN capabilities.

I also experienced even more problematic connection (super slow speed and frequent connection drop) if I start my torrent client. Evidently, this is not a good router for anyone with moderate use of torrent clients.

Out of the two bands, 5 Ghz does not even show in all corners of my house (it is a small house and I do not think it should require two routers to cover all the corners). The list goes on..

I am stuck with this so I tried all the tweaking in the settings, upgrade to numerous official software version but things did not work to my expectations. However, I used a third-party firmware (http://code.google.com/p/rt-n56u/) to upgrade the router firmware and things have changed for a bit better. At least the frequent drop in connection is not there and I can stream my media at a decent speed.