Roam Research vs DEVONthink Series


In the first two installments, we took a look at my biased approach to Roam Research and DEVONthink, a few major differences between the programs, and the use of blocks in Roam.

Today we’ll take a look at the use of markdown, writing in outlines, and how these programs manage pages and an Inbox.

Markdown & Outlines

The experience of writing is highly subjective. Heck, George RR Martin of A Game of Thrones fame uses a DOS running computer and a WordStar 4.0 word processor. And while I’m certainly not George, I do have my preferences.1

Roam Research gives you a single place in which to type and render markdown. As you type, you can enter markdown syntax. When you move away from the line, the syntax renders into markdown formatting. That formatting can be the default option or one that you create in a Roam/CSS page.

Roam defaults to an outlining mode, but you do have the option to change a page to work by ”document format”. I found having to set and reset document mode irritating. I found myself interested in defaulting pages to a document format, but I never found one. Again, I’m hoping to attain my codger status soon.

If you like outlining, Roam does a good job. Outlining is inherent to its structure. You can dive in and out of bullet points, quickly focusing on parts of a write up while keeping the rest hidden.

It took me some getting used to, though. While writing, I would often wonder: If I’m in a bullet point, is this a page? If I link to another page within a bullet point, will I see a return reference? If a block is more fundamental than a page, how does that play into things? If I create a reference to a block in another page, will it include the embedded bullet points? What if I don’t want to include those?

These sorts of questions can be worked through in experimentation. In fact, writing out the questions and systematically answering them for yourself will help you to better understand the Roam method of organizing information. There is a learning curve much like there is to DEVONthink for other matters.

DEVONthink offers several options including RTF or markdown. The RTF format is perfectly suitable, but I tend to use Markdown. With Markdown, DEVONthink gives a plain text editor and an option to see the render in another pane.

Beyond the default text editor, DEVONthink offers a quick key stroke path to whatever text editor you prefer. You can use iA Writer, Folding Text, Typora, among a host of other options thanks to the zillion note writers on the app store.

Interestingly enough, I often find myself using the DEVONthink default markdown editor. I like not having the text change when I place the cursor in it. I’m happy to see the rendered text in the next pane.

A Comparison

And this is where we get into differences of workflow. If you have no issue with using a suite of applications to get your work done, then this difference isn’t much of an issue. For example, you could use OmniOutliner files in DEVONthink. Once an OmniOutliner file is in the database, it can be worked on, given a link, an alias, be replicated, etc. in the midst of the rest of your files.

Alternatively, if you want to stick with text, Folding Text does a very good job of closing and disclosing information in headers.

Still, Roam’s typing environment is very clean and useful. And there is definitely something to be said for uniformity. I can imagine that as you work with it, you’ll grow to know how to work with its idiosyncrasies just as you would with any other program.

Verdict: Probably more than other aspects, this is purely about personal preference. I’m used to DEVONthink and like it just it fine.

Managing Pages & an Inbox

Accessing and creating pages in Roam is quick. Go to the search area and start typing. Roam will start searching for a page or even phrase that matches. Meanwhile, it offers the option to create a new page. It is a very smooth and effortless process.

DEVONthink’s system is considerably different. A page is created in a location. While you could have all of your files in a single group, or even have no group and just have them all in a single line of hierarchy in your database, it is still created in that location. You create the file, title it, and start typing in the window for its text.

Alternatively, you can use the Sorter. Called by key command, you enter your thoughts as you want, and then save. Once you do, you can then put that note anywhere in your database. I often defer it to an Inbox where I’ll later process it.

In this way, you can see a considerable distinction between how Roam and DEVONthink handles its files and pages.

In particular, an Inbox is quite different. An Inbox is vital. In a task manager, it is about deferring decision. In an idea manager, it is a place for development. Having a dedicated area where I can set aside the thoughts I’m forming, giving them a way station before entering the sea of notes, gives me a certain room to think.

You can create an “Inbox” tag/page of sorts within Roam. But it has its own trade offs. It is useful in that one can follow up on specific blocks of text. For example, you might be writing in a note that is in your database and want to add a thought. You could tag it with #[Inbox]. As long as you have a system or habit to return and review that tag, you’d see it again. There is some cut and paste awkwardness to deal with, but you can more surgically create points to follow up later.

Processing a note from the Inbox in DEVONthink is much more straight forward. There is a way to get information in and out with little issue. In fact, while working with a file, DEVONthink’s AI suggests related notes that might help develop ideas. It also suggests groups in which you might want to file it.

Verdict: Creating and accessing a specific page is smoother in Roam Research. Managing an Inbox is smoother in DEVONthink.

Next Post

In our next post, we’ll take a look at how these programs link pages together, how they handle windows and workspaces, and the streamline of a daily workflow.

  1. Fevre Dream is awesome.