Roam Research vs DEVONthink Series


Nat would describe his purpose of working with the system as being about “resurfacing” ideas when it is useful. He adds a series of tags and attributes to each page. When he is later writing, he systematically moves through tags and pages related to his idea, creates a solid list from which to work, makes an outline, and starts to add and improvise on ideas.

I completely agree with his notion of resurfacing ideas when useful. In some ways, I work similarly. In my notes, I am certain to link to relevant pages. Later, when writing, I do various searches based on connected pages and the like. At that point though, I export the notes to Scrivener, play around with the note cards in corkboard mode, come up with my outline that way, and start writing.

There is, however, the massive difference of DEVONthink’s AI which is just magic. Somehow, when I’m writing a note, DEVONthink suggests a group of notes that it thinks might be related. Several are not, but some are spot on, and others yet, are ones I wouldn’t have thought of or had forgotten about.

In this way, discovery is more than about resurfacing ideas. There is also the importance of finding those moments of inspiration. This is where you find odd connections and interesting concepts that spark those… I don’t know, ”knowledge orgasms”? Those moments of excitement with figuring something out, finding something interesting, something that has potential—whatever that sense is—that’s what I’m looking for.

This is not to say that those moments all come from DEVONthink’s AI. Many simply come from comparing old and new ideas or ideas that span specialties or fields of knowledge.

But however they happen I encounter those exciting moments of knowledge with a much greater frequency when using DEVONthink. Now this may be because of the flow I have developed with DEVONthink over a longer period of time. If I had all the key commands of Roam well memorized and practiced, maybe things would be different. If I also had a closer number of notes, (DEVONthink has about 1200, and I had about 300 in Roam when I stopped), then maybe Roam would have had a better chance to present such opportunities.

Verdict: DEVONthink feels like information tends to come to me while Roam feels like I need to go to it. If I am clear in my thinking, in my tagging, and in understanding the key commands as well as the general structure of how it organizes by block, then I imagine I would do well in it. But I am not clear in that thinking.

Key Commands

Key Commands are crucial. If you’ve heard me shout the praises of Keyboard Maestro, you’ll know that key commands are the chords and sinews of my symbiotic relationship with technology.

So, when it comes to key commands in Roam, I am at a loss. Unless I’m missing something, there is no current means of customizing key commands in Roam Research. I have to obey its demands. Being embedded in a browser means I do not have access to those menu items in a way that I can reach or change.

Further, some of the commands are overlaps with some pretty major ones like (Command-,), which is a nearly universal key command for accessing preferences. So sometimes I’d want to zoom into a block. I’d use (Command-.). When done, I’d want to zoom out. Sometimes, it would. Sometimes, it would instead open preferences. Likely this had something to do with where I had the computer’s focus, but this was one of those fingernails on chalkboard moments for me.

Meanwhile, DEVONthink is super-customizable. Its interactions with Keyboard Maestro are nothing but friendly. Not only can I choose a single key command to change, I can create a whole series of steps for it to go through. Commands related to searching, changing windows, going to various pages, merging or splitting documents, view changes, workspace arrangements, window adjustments, and more are all easily called.

For example, one simple workflow is opening a new window to the Inbox with Command-1. It has in the same key binding that I have with OmniFocus. This way I have a familiar method to get to new ideas while, I continue working on what I had been.

Verdict: Maybe Roam Research has customizable key commands in its roadmap, but until then, DEVONthink wins this one, hands down.

Filters & Queries

Filtering and searching for ideas are distinctly different experiences between the programs. Roam research embeds the process within the text. For example, if you want to search for something, you type out a phrase (or Roam autocompletes for you) something like:

{[query]: {and: [ADHD] [Learning How to Learn]}}

In this example, I am searching for pages that have “ADHD” and “Learning How to Learn” both involved. The results are added to the page itself.

DEVONthink’s queries are more akin to the conventional searches one might find elsewhere in the mac application ecosystem. For example:

Search criteria


Search Results

This search shows notes that I am including in a writeup for an ADHD lecture I plan to present. I had written the paper already, then later added a bunch of notes that could be useful, and so I created this search to show me the related notes dated after I completed the paper.

Filtering suggests attributes. In either, you can create custom attributes such as “Author”, “Video”, “URL”, and the like. DEVONthink, however, is a dedicated data management system and has a vastly more robust approach and means of handling them. Columns, views, inspectors, and more are all dedicated to managing your information.

Either the queries of Roam or the smart groups of DEVONthink will take some time to learn. And for either, once you do, you will likely kick your game up several notches.

Verdict: These are so different. If I were in Roam, I’d miss DEVONthink’s smart groups. While I’m in DEVONthink, I miss Roam’s queries.


Well, this writeup went longer than I thought it would. Hopefully, you’ve found it useful.

As I said earlier, I’ve returned to DEVONthink. It was not a simple transition back. After exporting my notes from Roam, and added them to DEVONthink’s Inbox, I had a long road of working my notes into the slip-box ahead of me.

Still, I learned quite a lot, adjusted my note taking format here and there, and built some functionality from the inspiration I took.

I also got a good idea of teaching a course. Nat did a great job presenting ideas, firmly grounded in his own workflows, while able to learn and adjust to comments and questions from the audience.

Roam makes a lot of sense. I get why so many are so into it. Blocks, tasks, its integrations and more are all wow factors. Clearly many accomplished people are using it.

But, for the time being, I’m a happy DEVONthink user. It’s just home for me.