Hands on with the Evernote Smart Notebook by Moleskine, a digital compromise for pen-and-paper purists

evernote notes For someone who is on top of app releases, I’ve been slow to the digital productivity game. Not that I haven’t tried them all. I’ve gone hands on with more organization, to-do, and productivity apps than I know what to do with (pun intended, thank you), but I’ve never ever found anything that stuck – the problem is that for all my digital dependence, I’m still a pen-and-paper purist.

Even in college, when I would lug my iBook (remember those?) from class to class, I would still pull out an actual notebook. The simple act of putting pen to paper kept me from getting distracted, and there have been countless studies that suggest people who take physical notes retain more information and are able to brainstorm during the act. It’s certainly not a foolproof method, but it’s always worked for me.

And it’s a big part of why I could never go whole hog with productivity, note-taking apps. My diligent, physical notes couldn’t be accounted for, and in the gap between my smartphone and sheets of paper, things would get lost. I spent more time trying to figure out which list something was on, and if it’d been completed.

All this explains my interest in the Evernote Smart Notebook from Moleskine. The brand name notebook-maker partnered with Evernote to create a tangible way to use the app that integrates with the Evernote iOS app to connect our virtual and physical note-taking. So has it made a convert out of me? Let’s dive in.

Pros

Everyone likes a good Moleskine notebook. Personally, these are the ones I skim over, tell myself I’ll buy someday, and then skip right along to the cheap options. But the Evernote-branded notebook is quality stuff, with an embossed leather face, green brand to keep it closed, and a book-build in favor of those terrible metal rings that ruin every notebook they touch. It’s nicely sized and the pages are thick enough you use them front to back. Basically, you’ve got a nice, professional notebook on your hands here.

evernote smart notebook coverAside from aesthetics, using the notebook with the app is very cool. Evernote upgraded its hand-writing reading technology with its Penultimate acquisition, and the pay off can be seen here. Within the app, there’s an option to capture a document. Hit this, and your camera is ready to record whatever is in your notebook. You might think that your iPhone’s camera on its own would do a comparable job, but you’re wrong: There’s a really big difference in the clarity and contrast added by using Evernote’s dedicated feature. (It comes out a little blurry and pixelated int he screen shots at right, but in reality it reads really nicely on my screen). 

stickers evernoteI’m a little divided on the use of the stickers included with the Smart Notebook. There are a few sheets of stickers that you can use to label your notes that the app can read and then organize  that come with the notebook, and it’s pretty impressive how the app is able to use and diagnose your notes from them. The hurdle here, of course, is training yourself to put tiny stickers next to your copious notes.  

sticker categoriesStill, when you jump into the app and see your sticker-made tags organized by Evernote, the incredibly minimal effort seems well worth it. Thankfully, you can use multiple categorical stickers on one page and Evernote will recognize the different tags.

And if you’ve been eyeing Evernote for awhile and are in the market for a new notebook, it comes with a month free trial of Evernote Premium – a pretty big bonus.

Cons

Really, the only issue I had with the Evernote Smart Notebook is my own damn brain. It’s a mess in there: Receipts overlap with to do lists, to do lists overlap with random notes, random notes overlap with weekend schedules. The way I sort these things out is by scribbling them onto paper – and I can’t blame an app for not being able to totally make sense of it all.

While the stickers actually do help quite a bit, I need about 10 more types of qualifiers and some really refined natural language processing engine in order to digitally organize my notes — what would be really great would be the ability to create your own categories with an in-app option for naming these identifiers. I ended up living within the Tags section of the app because that’s what the stickers were able to fill in; anything I had to do myself I found I grew weary of pretty quickly.

evernote notebook stickersNow when it comes to the Web version of Evernote, I was easier to convince – however, I don’t own a Mac, so I don’t get to use that nice new Mac app the platform released. That’s a bit of a bummer because I’d prefer to see a familiar UI when I open the browser version of Evernote, but it’s quite different than what I see on my iPhone.

I definitely limited myself to a very basic Evernote experience, using the Smart Notebook for documenting things entirely and allowing the stickers to do any and all organizing – meaning there’s a ton of Evernote app features I’m ignoring entirely.

Verdict

Despite the fact that the Smart Notebook hasn’t quite gotten me to up my Evernote game yet, it’s definitely helping me inch that way. And it’s definitely brought me to the point of admitting my current system of half-filled notepads, scraps of paper, and random Google Docs really isn’t going to cut it.

The human brain – at least my human brain – is a messy place, and I know I need to do something about it. I also acknowledge that digitalizing all this is in my interest: I’m constantly on my smartphone, and I spend my day at the computer. But I can’t bring myself to put down the pen – and thankfully, now I don’t have to.

$25 for a notebook might be a little rich for your blood, but there’s a wide market of people this should appeal to: Evernote addicts are quickly becoming a dime a dozen, and while they might be attached to the app like it’s a limb, I’m sure more than a few of them still carry pen and paper. And for anyone out there that needs a little push to get on board with digital productivity, the Smart Notebook is a clean, convenient compromise. 

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