Roam Research vs DEVONthink Series


DEVONthink and Roam Research – either of these powerful note taking applications can make a significant difference in your knowledge workflows. We can bend either to numerous whims. Their customizability lends to both their strength and the daunting nature in approaching them.

To make any comparison, we need to consider what we are doing with them. They are vastly different tools originally intended for different purposes. DEVONthink is a database system meant to manage a wide swath of file types, while Roam is dedicated to writing notes specifically.

For this post series, I will focus on using either one to help bring ideas together. Particularly, I want to answer:
– What program do you want when you have many ideas, many notes, many sources and want to make sense of them?
– How do you keep your ideas from getting lost? Or, how can you have your ideas come to you when they’d be most useful?
– How can you piece your ideas together for a project?
– How can you do the above most easily?

Answering these questions is not easy for several reasons.
Each application, by using it as a tool to encompass all notes, demands full attention. It is, therefore, not possible to give both programs a full try simultaneously. In addition, the time investment of pouring thoughts into one or the other is hefty.

Transitioning between them is a pain, to say the least. Tooling and retooling means that even a serial test of one and then the other needs to be carefully planned, weighed against the general work of the day.

Meanwhile, it is difficult to know which might be useful until being with it for a considerable time. More than one having a feature the other does not, it is the actions and paths they inspire in the sum of their parts over time that truly affect one’s workflow.

Lastly, experiences are heavily influenced by circumstance. Using one first or more than the other influences impressions heavily.

So the path forward is not clear.

Meanwhile answering these questions will result in a bias, much as I have one. But so does everyone, and it’s better that I just state mine up front.

Much of the critiques and praise I have of either will be based on this lop-sided experience. I have used DEVONthink for over a decade of file use and somewhere between one and two years of note-taking. Meanwhile, my time with Roam Research has only been a bit over a month, albeit intensely, and mainly through the study of a course.

Maybe this is more of a journey than a comparison piece. So be it.

I’m hoping that this writeup will give you a sense as to what might be useful to you. After all, neither is better than the other. They only suit different workflows better than the other.

Discovering Roam

Sönke Ahrens’ excellent How to Take Smart Notes had really hit a solid note. It inspired me to begin a solid note taking system, and I grew excited looking for a program to help implement its ideas. After a lot of experimentation with different apps, though notably not Roam, I settled on DEVONthink.

Roam Research was clearly out there, but whatever googling methods I used didn’t find it. Rumblings of Roam grew somewhere in the background while I wrote Taking Smart Notes with DEVONthink. But, it really wasn’t until after releasing that book that I discovered Roam.

It seemed that the community was debating between Roam, Obsidian, and Notion, largely not even considering DEVONthink. I played around with Obsidian and described its ready integration with a DEVONthink note system.

But, when it came to Roam, I was a bit stymied. I poked around at it and didn’t see much initially that pulled me in. Though there is a clear method for creating and linking pages, it still hadn’t clicked. So, I left it aside.

Recently, I’ve been more interested in putting together an online course. It’s been something I’ve considered for years but have struggled to get to. Somehow, now it feel more possible.
With some searching, I thought I could find someone else’s course on… something… that would give me a good sense of what makes a good course. Nat Eliason was just about to start Effortless Output in Roam. It was only one day from starting up, so why not? Let’s see what the fuss is about while also seeing an example.

In terms of the course itself, I was duly impressed by Nat’s ability to work through his notes. He has a clearly organized thought process and workflow that reflects it. It is deeply rooted, and makes sense. And while his method flows well with him, he also notes that his way is not the only way. He teaches well and without non-sense.

Nat also has a podcast, a regular newsletter with solid content, and founded a marketing agency. I only learned that afterward. But even looking from the outside in, one can tell he is productive and organized.

But, my goodness! There is certainly a time investment involved in learning! The course was only 5 weeks, and while I understand this from what I ask of students with my own recorded course Being Productive, being on the receiving end is another matter. And as I noted earlier, not only does starting a new system take a large amount of time and attention, but so does switching and switching back.

Still, while taking the course, I found it important to dive in. And so I did. But I realized quickly that I would have to leave DEVONthink behind in the process. Ok, so a few things were sitting in its Inbox.

And so I worked, creating new pages and connections within Roam, leaving DEVONthink further and further in the rear view mirror. I worried about the return or if there would be a return. Would I fall so in love with Roam that I would have to abandon this other wonderful application I’d grown to love? Not only over the last decade, but more so over the maybe 2 years, I have really enjoyed the flow of text and notes that I’ve gardened with it.

Roam is impressive. The blocks system, the online nature affording connections with other services, the integration of tasks, and more are all just lovely.

But, spoiler… I have returned to DEVONthink, more secure in my decision than before. That is not because it is better, only that it is better for me.

Coming Up

In the next post, I plan to go over several major differences, the impact of local vs online, and the unique nature of blocks in Roam Research.

As always, please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments.