In mid-2020 I was introduced to the exciting new note-taking application Roam Research and I transferred my notes and tasks into the database, making use of the powerful backlinking and cross-referencing features of the database. Prior to that I had been using a mix of TheBrain (notes and links), Omnifocus (tasks and projects) and OneNote (mobile and synced notes). TheB

Roam was good, but not perfect, and that wasn’t a particular problem. I’ve used enough Personal knowledge management software to know it rarely meets all needs and Roam went a long way to meet most of them.

Last weekend, in looking up some videos on the Zettelkasten Learning Method, I came across Obsidian as an alternative to Roam. Some research and testing later, and I decided to make the jump and commit to another note-taking/research application just 6 months later from my last jump.

The first jump

To understand why I’ve jumped a second time and landed on Obsidian, it’s worth taking you back to the beginning. The days before Roam.

I was using 3 tools at the time to capture my notes and manage my projects.

  1. TheBrain is graph based software for taking notes and creating relationships between “Thoughts”. Over time it builds a nice graph showing the interlinking between ideas (both Roam and Obsidian do the same to different levels of success). My time using TheBrain covered a period of approx. 15 years.
  2. Omnifocus is to my mind the best implementation of David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology I’ve ever come across and I had been a user for about 10 years. (Aside: When I use project in this document I’m using the GTD definition of anything that requires more than one action (task) to complete.)
  3. OneNote was the newbie in my toolbox with around 18 months use. I came to value it for quickly entering notes and having them automatically sync from device to device.

These apps gave me more control and capability than many people had access to but there were issues. In my experience,

  • TheBrain suffered from:
    • being notoriously slow on a Mac and blindingly fast on Windows. Working cross-platform that was disconcerting.
    • only syncing when the application was running and in a way that you really did have to wait for it to finish - when it worked. On a slow internet connection which I had at home up to March 2019 it would frequently fail and never complete.
    • file attachments which were stored internally were “hidden” in folders with behind user-unfriendly GUID named folders. The idea was that yo would have all files accessible through the interface but due to the problems listed above, that was infeasible.
    • file attachments stored externally for quick access elsewhere had the full path stored. As that differs across Mac and Windows, links would only be available on one OS.
  • OmniFocus suffered from:
    • being a separate application that was Mac/iOS only. This made it difficult to tie everything together and caused cognitive dissonance when having to switch back and forth.
    • notes attached to projects were pretty much unworkable for the same reason.
  • OneNote suffered from:
    • hierarchial structure, poor inter-note linking, and an odd way of embedding files into a note.

Roam solved most of these problems for me.

  • Running in a browser it was truly multi-platform and sync issues went away
  • Text entry was fast
  • Automatic back-linking enabled me to move to a model where I had a page per project and the related tasks and notes on that page. Back-linking whould then show those where I needed them.

The second jump

If Roam solved most of the problems, what didn’t it solve? To answer that, and bring in some other deciding factors, I’ll share my research comparing the two. Most of that came from two articles.

  1. Mark McElroy’s Choosing Between Roam Research and Obsidian.md in which he lands on the side of Roam Research, and
  2. Niles Wyler’s Why I Switched: A deep dive into Roam vs. Obsidian

Both are excellent articles that make more points than I’ll cover here. Each was written some time ago relative to the rapid development of both applications so it’s possible that comments are out of date. As esteemed on-screen lawyer Dennis Denuto says in The Castle, “It’s the vibe of the thing.”

My comments and assessments about Roam will tend towards the negative and Obsidian the positive because one meets my needs more than the other. Your experience and that of others will be different.

  • Roam’s block level linking, where every paragraph is clearly identificable as a block, puts it above Obsidian’s page level linking.
  • Roam switches into Markdown editing mode when you click on an editable paragraph. Obsidian however requires you to be in edit or preview mode.
  • There is no iOS/mobile version of Obsidian whereas Roam has this by default on account of being in the browser. I will add that for Roam I found that great for reading, less great for editing more than a quick change.
  • Roam’s development appears haphazard and often incomplete. Features just seem to turn up via tweets and frequently with videos that don’t explain what’s going on or how you’d use the feature to do anything other than explain, “This is a cool feature. Look how cool it is.”
  • Export from Roam is not round-tripped, ie., what you export does not import in the same way. That is a serious risk for me.
  • Backup of Roam requires a manual export or a convoluted automated backup to GitHub.
  • Pages in Obsidan are not created until a link is clicked. In converting, approx. 90% of my pages from Roam are completely blank. Mistyping a page name in Roam creates one resulting in lots of cleanup when you should be getting on with your content.
  • Obsidian queries are easier to formulate, though not yet as powerful as Roam’s.
  • Roam stores all information in a database that is downloaded/synced with your browser window each time you access it. In contrast Obsidian’s stores all information in files. Sync is easily done and managed via OneDrive, and backups are easily made as part of my standard backup procedures.
  • I haven’t fully got my head around it all yet, but with Obsidian’s file structure I can add PDFs and other documents and link them relatively easily. Roam on the other hand requires uploading the file to a third party server where it reminds you the link is public if you happen to share it. (See my article on How to embed files in Roam Research)
  • Roam is AUD$200+ per year. Obsidian AUD$0.

Landed, but not quite on my feet

It’s early days with Obsidan but with the help of the community I’m making progress fast.

  • I’ve exported all my notes in Markdown format from Roam and easily loaded them into Obsidian. After all, I only had to point Obisdian to the file where they were extracted.
  • I’m getting there with task management and replicating what I was able to do in Roam. Once fully bedded in I’ll share how as another post but it’s already possible to open a page for today and see tasks that I need to complete along with links to the projects they belong to.
  • Not yet sure on the best way to handle tags in Obsidian. It treats them separate from pages where in Roam a page and a tag of the same name are the same.
  • Because each page in Obsidian is a text file, I’ve been able to save a lot of time with the conversion by being able to do global find/replace on files via Sublime Text
  • Sync works perfectly in the background as I have my files stored on OneDrive. I was very happy and even surprised to see the full config sync between machines.
  • I have Drafts set up on iOS to automatically send notes to Obsidian giving me a way to enter notes on my phone or when out walking via my Apple Watch.

Where you get to in your note-taking journey I wish you the best. The great thing about software is that we all have choices and can find whatever suits us the best. For a time at least…

The Steps I Took

  1. Completed my initial research and testing (create a vault, format and import some items, test OneDrive sync)
  2. Speak with my daughter about her needing to transfer out of Roam Research if I stop using it (which I will) and before she starts her next semester.
  3. Export all items from Roam Research into a /import folder
  4. Start checking each one
    1. Delete those with empty pages and nothing but Backlinks are important - which seems to be 90% of them.
    2. Rename date files (before deleting if there are just backlinks as this updates all existing references)
    3. Use Sublime Text’s find/replace across files function to replace TODO/DONE/attributes/highlight
    4. Regex find/replace YouTube and Embed instructions, replacing with iFrame
    5. Find/Replace topics with : to _ before renaming file, as : is not allowed in filenames. For me this is projects and books.
  5. Install plugins
    1. Third-party plugins
      1. Calendar
      2. Advanced Tables
      3. Note Refactor
      4. Natural Language Dates
      5. Review
  6. Created a new structure for things such as Content I watched, Content I listened to, Content I read, Games I played
  7. Added some custom CSS for the tags I want to highlight with “buttons”
    1. Obsidian Publish - Obsidian Help - Obsidian Publish
  8. Set to publish as subdomain of https://quantumgardener.blog
  9. Set my site’s design