Evernote 5 (for Windows) review

Pros

  • Improved interface
  • Cleaner design and customisable views
  • Great new shortcuts feature
  • Premium account is well worth the money

Cons

  • Awkward controls for conflicting changes

Skim any must-have-apps list, and you're likely to find Evernote. The note-making and organising application has certainly won praise from smartphone users, productivity experts, and highly organised individuals. And let's not exclude those highly disorganised people who love Evernote for its incredible search engine that helps them find exactly the right note without having to remember where they put it. If you're interested in getting organised, Evernote will knock your socks off.

The freshly released version 5 of Evernote for Windows – which is free for the basic app, or $45 (£28) per year for a Premium account – catches up Windows users to the Mac crowd, who have had some of the new features included in version 5 since their platform got it last year. A flat and less cluttered design is a boon, and a few other notable improvements make the experience of using Evernote on a desktop that much more efficient.

What’s new in Evernote 5?

The visual change is probably the most obvious, with the Windows app now sporting a slightly more minimalistic and flat design. Also, there's now a very handy shortcut area on the left rail, where you can drag and drop your most frequently accessed notes, notebooks, tags, and search terms. The shortcuts section may well be my favourite new feature.

Another design change: You have more choice over your Evernote window layout, with options for list view, card view, and snippet view.

Again, Mac users have had these choices since Evernote 5 for Mac came out late last year.

Other new features are pretty subtle, like new keyboard shortcuts for power users (Shift-Alt-N lets you jump to notebooks, for example).

The basics

If you're unfamiliar with Evernote, here's a summary in a nutshell: Evernote lets you create electronic files, such as text files, images and photos, and audio memos (i.e. voice memos, but really any audio recording).

Everything you create can be sorted and tagged in a number of ways, and everything is searchable, including the text that appears in an image. It's all saved to the cloud, which explains how you can access and edit all your files from a multitude of devices. There's an Evernote app for just about every platform, including an iPhone app, iPad app, Android app, as well as an Evernote web app for accessing your notes when you don't have one of your own devices on hand.

The desktop version is a spacious application in which you can finish up all those ideas you assembled (perhaps sloppily) on the go. If an idea strikes me while I'm away from my home or office, I'll quickly draft it in Evernote, not worrying too much about typos and disorganisation. But back on a full-sized computer, with a comfortable keyboard and monitor, I usually want to further develop what I started, clean it up, and fill in missing ideas. The beauty of doing this all within your Evernote account is that it's saved centrally. The next time I'm remote and have an idea for something I want to change or add, I can access the latest version of my file from whatever device I happen to have – a smartphone, an iPad, or web browser.

For more of my advice on Evernote, see 5 handy tips for using Evernote.

Evernote syncs the latest version of all your notes across all versions of the software. If you forget to download a file in advance, Evernote even gives you the option to work on the most recent stored version or work on a blank canvas and append the changes to the file later. You can always see the activity that has taken place in your account, such as synchronising successes and failures, changes to notes, and so on, in an activity tab in the app. You can also see any changes to a note in a history area if you click the information button at the top of any note.

When syncing goes awry, as it sometimes does if you're working offline a lot from multiple devices, you'll see a "conflicting changes" message. You'll also see a new notebook for "conflicts" appear. Fixing the conflicting changes, however, requires your own effort. You have to manually compare the two notes and figure out what kind of copy-and-paste extravaganza will set the whole thing square again.

The desktop version is one of Evernote's main attractions. While Microsoft OneNote Mobile offers a similar suite, Evernote has played the mobile game longer and worked out syncing kinks. OneNote is a fine option if you're a dedicated Microsoft user and want an app that works tightly with your other Microsoft apps and services (like SkyDrive). However, one of the benefits of Evernote is that its APIs are used by so many other app developers, meaning that there's a huge range of other apps and services that work in tandem with this note-taking app.

The best of Evernote

Evernote is the best note-taking and syncing app you'll find, and for a few key reasons on top of the ones I've already mentioned. The fact that it offers users both notebooks and tags – as well as "stacks" within notebooks (think sub-notebooks or sub-folders, really) and an incredible search tool – makes it appealing to both highly structured people who care where their notes reside, and more unstructured people who don't want to mess with hierarchies and folder structures, so long as they can search.

Fields at the top of each note let you add tags, an author name, a URL, and location data. Location data can be turned on by default – all these fields become rich methods for sorting data. In Evernote for Windows, a pane on the left side shows a list of all the notebooks you've created by name and the number of associated documents in parentheses. Below that is a list of all the tags you've used. Click a tag name and you'll see a thumbnail of every file with that tag.

Another one of my very favourite features in Evernote is its OCR, or optical character recognition. OCR makes text in your images searchable. In my Evernote account, I have a number of hand-written recipes that I photographed with my smartphone and uploaded. All the ingredients and instructions are completely searchable – and the results are impressive. Sure, you can stump the OCR from time to time if you try, but I've only run into a handful of inaccuracies or errors with it.

Previously, I was frustrated at the inability to rotate an image that was uploaded into Evernote incorrectly, and that's now solved with a menu that appears when you right click on an image.

Verdict

While Evernote for Windows, and indeed all the mobile apps, are free, a Premium account costs a little extra – $45 (£28) per year, or $5 (£3) per month. The Premium account applies across all versions of Evernote, and it's actually a pretty good deal if you use the service a lot. Premium gives you a couple of notable improvements over the free account: The ability to allow others to edit files when sharing Notebooks via Evernote Web, and no advertisements. Premium users can also upload a lot more data per month; see the Premium page for more details.

You can honestly do a lot with the free version, and I would only recommend upgrading to Premium if you're so committed to Evernote that it will be your one-and-only note-making app. But that's not a hard commitment to make.

Evernote’s leading feature is centralisation – it keeps all your notes in one place, available at any time – so it becomes more rewarding and more engaging the more you use it. If you want to get organised, Evernote for Windows definitely deserves your attention.

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