Spending Some Time with DEVONthink for Mac

Spending Some Time with DEVONthink for Mac

As I’ve mentioned previously, there are emerging classes of note-taking applications, one of which are reference libraries. I’ve always had some sort of a reference library in my workflow, but I never quite figured out how to use it well. Part of the reason is I didn’t have a clear enough use case for it.

Since becoming self-employed and a content creator, the reason for having a solid reference library became ever clearer. I’m finding it important to store and find research for items I’m working on quickly and easily.

The major player in this reference app market is Evernote. As a former Evernote user who didn’t like the feature bloat and direction of the company, I jumped ship a few years back. Still a little skiddish, though, I started searching for alternatives.

There’s one other major reference library app I found: DEVONthink.

What is DEVONthink?

DEVONthink feels like a local Evernote on steroids. Not only does DEVONthink offer web clipping, note taking, and OCR of documents and images, but it also allows you to store and sync your data locally and securely.

DEVONthink offers an extremely generous 150 hour trial, which runs a little differently than other applications. 150 hours comes out to be about six full days, but DEVONthink counts the trial timer while you have the app open. This is especially convenient if you’re going to try it with some light use cases like myself.

A quick note before we dive in any further. I only tried out the Mac version of DEVONthink, as my mobile use cases for reference software are currently limited.

Impressions of DEVONthink


Upon installing and opening DEVONthink, I found myself thinking this is an interesting app. Interesting in multiple senses of the word.

The bootup process reminds me of applications in the early 2000’s with loading screens and the like. The interface definitely feels dated compared to other applications like OmniFocus and even stock apps like Mail.app. It’s clear this application isn’t meant to give you warm fuzzies by its design. Rather, DEVONthink is meant to do some serious heavy lifting for research.

Portability & OCR

Design aspects aside, I loaded my digital file cabinet up in DEVONthink first thing. A great benefit of DEVONthink is the ability to add local folders into a database without actually copying all the information. Doing so means files stay where they are in the file system. This makes porting data in and out of DEVONthink easy, especially if you need to keep files accessible by other apps.

Portability is a huge win for DEVONthink. The software keeps applications in their native file formats whether they are in a database or not. To extract a file, all you need to do is drag and drop it out of the app.

When I dropped my digital file cabinet in, DEVONthink immediately solved a problem for me. I had previously gotten behind on my scanning, filing, and shredding, so there were a numbner of documents I wasn’t sure if I had scanned yet. Instead of trying to manually sort this out by comparing PDFs and papers, I let DEVONthink’s duplication detection figure it out for me.

This is a pretty incredible part of the software. I clicked on the Duplicates folder in the database, and not only did DEVONthink find duplicate file names, but it also found duplicate content using the OCR software bundled with it.

PDF management is ridiculously easy, too. I accidentally scanned two documents into one using Scanbot on my phone. In DEVONthink, all I had to do to separate them is click and drag. This is how these things should work in 2018!

However, that doesn’t mean DEVONthink is without faults.


No doubt there’s a lot of power hidden in this software. For most people I wonder if it’s a little too powerful. For someone like me who needs a moderately useful reference library that’s only going to store web clippings, bookmarks, and miscellaneous items which don’t otherwise have a home, the massive structure of DEVONthink seemed too bulky to have to learn.

The DEVONthink manual was well written and informative regarding the features and capabilities of the software, but beyond the manual, it was difficult to find other options to learn more. DEVONtechnologies has forums on their site, but reading through a few topics, I didn’t get the sense the forums were all that friendly.

Additionally, while using DEVONthink, I felt I had to really think about the process of capturing information to the three small databases I had set up. Web clipping didn’t feel intuitive to understand what it was doing, and the inbox system, while a great idea, didn’t click with the way I normally process information. This is a little nit-picky, but I also didn’t like how newly clipped items were marked as unread until I manually marked them read.

Ultimately, I ended up ending my experiment with DEVONthink intending not to continue. While it’s extremely clear even by some of the discussions on the Community that DEVONthink is the right software for some people, it didn’t turn out to be the right software for me.

You may be wondering what I’m using instead of DEVONthink. Well, I never thought I would say this again, but I’ve started using Evernote.


I am using DEVONthink Pro Office lightly by the moment but I am very happy with most of the things.
From the point of view of a not crazy productivity guy my pros and cons are:


  • Total control of the data and the privacy
  • Reliable sync with all my devices (iOS and Mac)
  • Container for all kind of files and great OCR system.
  • Flexibility to organize big about of data using several databases, saving the documents in the databases or just referencing the original location.
  • Good integration with the others app I use (Airmail, Omnifocus)
  • you can clip everything to DEVONthink. No just webpages, everything from the context menu


  • Really outdated interface (Big con)
  • Lack of customization in UI (Font size in the search is a good example)
  • The support forum is useful but not always very responsive and sometimes I feel that some answers and arrogant and not friendly.
  • you need to buy the Pro Office Version that is quite expensive, but the have sales at least 2 times per year.

I am waiting for the version 3 of the software. I think the v2 is around 10 years old. While in my opinion mayor version update is needed, the upgrade the software quite often with big fixes and some nice improvements.

I tried Evernote and I liked the design and functionalities but not the business model and subscription plan.
I checked Keep it! That looks a promising software but not so complete as Devonthink by the moment.
I used OneNote and I liked a lot. The integration with the pencil in the iPad pro is great but at least when I tried the synchronization was a nightmare.


I’ve used DTPO for quite a few years. I send receipts to it from Safari or Airmail. Anything tax related goes in a folder. I don’t bother with the Sorter/Inbox, and just choose the right folder when I send things it’s way.
Other than that, I have it indexing my Bookends library of PDFs, and my zettelkasten files from The Archive. Using the magic hat shows me everything related to whatever I need at the moment.
My use of it is fairly minimal, but it’s good for what I use it for. Some of the other features might be interesting, like creating sidecar note files fro PDFs that I read, etc. but I’ve never felt the need.
There are definitely a lot of possibilities, and I can see how that could be overwhelming, but there’s also more minimal use cases such as my own.

Edit: the included OCR is excellent, even on creaky old PDFs scanned from journals.

For close to 12 years, DEVONthink Pro Office has been the first app I open in the morning on my desktop, and the last one to close at the day’s end. Most likely I am too familiar with every corner of it to be able to look at it with beginner’s eyes. The DEVONthink interface doesn’t bother me, though I know it troubles some folks to the point that they cannot use the application.

If the wrench is ugly but does the job a pipe fitter needs to do better than any other, then it’s the right tool for job.

For my purposes, the most interesting aspect of DEVONthink is that is is highly scriptable. I’ve contributed several hundred scripts to the community – as have others, such as Rob Trew, Frederiko, and more – most of which are responsive to specific needs of a community member at that time. There was a time when folks wrote lots of scripts for Evernote, too. Those days are over.

I agree that the community in the DEVONthink forum has become somewhat testy in recent years. Up until perhaps four years ago, the community was frequented by academics, researchers, and educators who discussed their use cases in depth and sought ideas from their peers. This has ended for reasons that are not apparent. Maybe the “average Apple user” today is different than 5 or 6 years ago? Twitter? I don’t know. Of course, like any application, the support community is self-selecting. Very few of the writers and researchers who use DEVONthink ever make their presence known in forums.

My main guidance for anyone contemplating DEVONthink or similar software is to first, always, think hard about why they need software to begin with. What are they looking to do. There are several valid ways to look at that question, and I think one useful way is to consider “how much information do I need to handle in my job / personal life”, and “how many projects do I need to juggle at the same time (for a extended period of time)”. I’ve developed a sense of how the DEVONthink aligns with similar software – outlined here. This is just opinion without science:


Really interesting @quorm
I am not using too much DEVONthink yet, but it’s clear that has big potential for manage most of my digital life. I will check it out the different scripts to get some inspiration.

I agree with quorm’s viewpoint.

I have looked at DevonThink at least three different times, and each time decided to go back to Evernote, even though I’m not thrilled with EN.

The DT interface was hard for me to get used to, for some reason. And, I always had the feeling that there were features I just wasn’t using. (Like learning it can be scripted, which I just found out.)

As a journalist, I really need a good way to keep story research organized. But it seemed to me that I was working too hard in DT to do that. The word I think I’m looking for is “friction.”

Of course, EN has its own friction: it’s ridiculously easy to get stuff in, but you’d better go back and do a good job with tags if you want to review everything for a story without getting flooded with other stuff.

Perhaps I’ll take another look at DT. Thanks for the article!

Have you considered Notebooks?
It seems like a nice way to organize artifacts related to some topic, and seems to do so better than Bear, Ulysses, et al.
I typed in some notes using off-the-cuff markdown, and it presented me with a nicely formatted document. I am impressed.

I’ve been researching this the last few days actually. I think I’m going to give it a go! I’m working on increasing the quality of information I consume (and incidentally I want to make sure I have a place I can store thoughts and annotations). Notebooks looks like a promising solution.

A few samples:

### Global Intensity Normalization
The mean intensity levels of subjects can vary due to uninteresting causes such as caffeine levels. Ideally, the same mean signal level will be found across all voxels and timepoints, that is, in 4D. Each 4D dataset is scaled by a single value to obtain an overall 4D mean. This is automatically performed in FEAT.

Technique                      | Effect
Reconstruction | Create image and remove gross artifacts
Motion Correction | Get consistent anatomical coordinates (always do this)
Slice Timing | Get consistent acquisition timing (use temporal derivative instead)
Spatial Smoothing | Improve SNR & validate GRF
Temporal Filtering | Highpass: Remove slow drifts Lowpass:Avoid for autocorr est.
Intensity Normalisation | 4D: Keeps overall signal mean constant across sessions


# Simple Single-Session Stats


[NBI1]: NBImages/20190103-151334.png

## The example experiment
- Three types of events
- 1st type: word generation “jelly fish” -- “catch”
- 2nd type: word shadowing “giggle” -- “giggle”
- 3rd type: null event (fixation cross)
- 6sec ISI, random order
- 24 events of each type

becomes (with the help of an image):


@JohnAtl, OT, if one needs to do a number of markdown tables, TableFlip is useful to have around.


Thanks! Added to the wish list.
That’s one thing I liked about Notebooks, my Markdown was all janky, and it still laid out the table nicely.