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Obsidian ✍️ A new take on notes
Wonder Tools | An alternative to Evernote and Notion
Obsidian is one of the most popular new notes tools among techies. I’ve experimented with it, but not nearly as much as my friend Jared Newman, who writes the useful Advisorator newsletter. Earlier this year, I shared Jared’s 20 favorite tech tools. To help you discover Obsidian, its strengths and limitations, I’m turning most of the rest of this post over to Jared. If you’re curious about Notion, which Jared references, you can check out my past Notion posts.
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Jared’s take on Obsidian
After singing Notion's praises in newsletters past, I’ve found a better match for notetaking. That would be Obsidian, a free app whose approach to personal notes is geekier, but also more flexible.
Even better, Obsidian is less dependent on the cloud and gives you total control over how and where your notes are stored.
I started writing story drafts in Obsidian around the start of the year, but decided to go all-in for notetaking a few weeks ago after becoming dissatisfied with Notion. It's now my primary way to record story ideas, plan my newsletters, and manage my weekly agenda. I'm even using it to generate and track invoices.
Obsidian has a steeper learning curve than Notion or Evernote. But once you unlock all its powers, you might not want to use anything else.
Rooted in plain text
Obsidian's big hook is that it's based on text files that live in a folder on your computer. You can look them up in Windows File Explorer or MacOS Finder, open them in another program (like, say, Notepad), and make infinite copies to share or store elsewhere.
On top of those files, Obsidian provides some much-needed structure. It supports a language called Markdown for text formatting, so you can have headlines, bold, italics, links, images, bullet points and more. It also offers several ways to visualize and navigate through your notes:
A sidebar menu lets you arrange notes into folders and quickly jump between pages.
Notes can link to other notes, similar to a webpage or Wikipedia article.
The app supports split-screen note views and a top row of tabs.
A nifty "Canvas" view lets you arrange notes, images, and webpages in a card layout, so you can create your own interactive dashboards.
Conceptually, it's similar to Notion, but Obsidian's use of local files makes a huge difference. While it does have trade-offs (which I'll get to shortly), everything feels faster, and you never have to worry about your notes being deleted from a server or locked behind a paywall.
Enhanced by plug-ins
Obsidian's other main draw is its plug-in system, which lets you expand and customize the app in all kinds of ways.
For me, everything clicked after installing a plugin called Make.md, which fills in a lot of the features I was missing from Notion. It adds a pop-up formatting menu when you select text, lets you label notes or folders with emoji, and has a "Folder Note" feature that mimics Notion's system of branching subpages.
I've used plugins to make smaller tweaks as well. I don't need a character count in the status bar, so I used Better Word Count to get rid of it. I wanted generate invoices through Obsidian, and found a plugin that exports pages as Word files. For help staying on task, I installed a Pomodoro timer for the status bar. Obsidian's built-in plugin store makes all these add-ons easy to find and install, but their data lives on your computer just like your notes.
Obsidian also offers dozens of user-made visual themes, from clean and minimal to 80s neon cyberpunk. Swapping themes is a great way to beat writer's block, so I also installed a Theme Picker plugin for quickly switching from Obsidian's status bar.
The sync situation
Unlike cloud-first programs such as Notion or Evernote, Obsidian does not automatically store your notes online or sync them to other devices. That leaves you with a couple of primary options:
Pay for Obsidian's official Sync service, which costs $8 per month or $96 per year.
Back up Obsidian's file folder on your own, for instance with a cloud storage service such as OneDrive or Dropbox.
The second route is basically free—my entire vault consumes less than 60 MB of storage—but it introduces complications.
Obsidian's iOS app, for instance, can only sync via iCloud Drive or Obsidian Sync due to Apple's file system limitations. No such restrictions apply on Android, but you'll need an app called Autosync to sync Obsidian's folder from your cloud storage provider to Android's local file system. (It's a fantastic app, but a mild hassle to set up.)
For a cross-platform obsessive like me—and one who chafes at avoidable subscriptions—setting up a free sync system took a lot of work. I ended up using a free app called Sync Folders on my Mac Mini to mirror my notes between OneDrive and iCloud Drive, thereby letting me use Obsidian on Windows, Mac, iOS, and Android. I'm amazed that it works.
Most folks shouldn't have to go through all that—if you don't use Android, syncing via iCloud Drive should be fine, even with Windows PCs—but the setup does require careful consideration either way.
Syncing isn't the only area in which Obsidian might scare people off.
The use of Markdown syntax can be intimidating if you're not familiar with it. While editing bold text, for instance, you'll see a **pair of asterisks around it**, and link syntax is even funkier.
The plug-in system may also be off-putting for some folks, as it's required for what might qualify as basic functionality in other apps. Nice-looking tables, kanban boards, and freeform drawing all require plugins. Even clipping web content requires you to choose between a slew of third-party extensions.
Beyond al that, Obsidian just has a lot going on, including a "daily note" concept, a customizable side panel, a graph view and more. You can ignore a lot of these features, but they're always on the periphery.
Over time, though, I've become wary enough with Notion to make those trade-offs acceptable. Its sometimes-sluggish load times and growing focus on large companies over individual users, were mild annoyances, but the last straw broke when Notion started larding up its interface with generative AI. Every contextual pop-up now includes a purple AI button, and just pressing space on new line brings up an AI tool, which you apparently can't disable without contacting customer support.
It was a reminder of how things can go awry when a company—particularly a big, VC-backed one—loses focus or its priorities shift. Evernote's recent layoffs and price hikes only reinforced that idea, even if I never used it much myself.
Molding Obsidian into a workable alternative took some work, but in the end everything's set up to suit my workflow, and it's portable across all my devices. Even if Obsidian disappeared tomorrow, I'd still have my entire note collection, and I suspect it wouldn't be long before other apps plugged into its existing file structure. The result is a feeling of pride and ownership that's hard to get with anything else.
Thanks to Jared for sharing his take. To read more, check out his Advisorator newsletter, from which this post was adapted with Jared’s permission.
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