in Internet, reading tools, tech

Dear Reader,

I’m looking for a suggestion, or a coalescence of suggestions to drive me towards a solution.

I’m looking for a read later solution that doubles as a notes repository. See, I want to not just read longform articles at peace, I want to also take notes and highlight things and (maybe?) search my notes and recall things over time.

Here’s a list of everything I’ve tried to date –

Mainstream

  1. Instapaper – Of course this is first on the list. It ticks off almost all the boxes. It’s reasonably priced, cheaper ($30/year) than its main competitor, and has been around since forever. It’s also everywhere. Why am I even writing this post? Well…
  2. Pocket – This is the alternative. It’s nice. It’s too well integrated into my current browser of choice (Firefox). It handles video etc well, supposedly. (Ah, that’s why I’m pondering this – should I lean towards Pocket because it does things that Instapaper simply is not capable of?) Flip side – Pocket just looks wonky. It’s like they married Material Design and never looked beyond. I hate that their list view doesn’t show snippets of the text of the article (Instapaper does). Heck, I modify my RSS readers to show me that stuff, who is Pocket not to show it to me? When there’s a banner image available, Pocket prefers to show that, which just shows that their style is more images-visual then text-readable. It gives me pause. Also, expensive! Though it’s just $15/annum more than Instapaper.
  3. Wallabag – Yes, this is ‘mainstream’ because AlternativeTo lists it as a leading alternative to Instapaper. It’s also the one most talked about after the top two. Wallabag is nice, and it makes me pause and wonder whether I want vendor lock-in and data dependency over time. Options like wallabag are what make it difficult for people like me to choose closed source over open source. Damn you French people! The problems with wallabag are more like – their iOS apps don’t support note-taking, and neither do their iOS website versions. It’s really painful that I have almost everything I need, including data independence, and then they lack features on the move. Yikes. Free, self-hosted solutions are nice, if they work. Wallabag has a long way to go because it’s ready for this generation of web users.

Others

  1. Polar Bookshelf – This is an interesting alternative. Polar lets you save articles into their app in a custom format, called phz, which is basically where they load the page in a custom browser, let the JS finish it’s magic, then lock it down and freeze the page as such, without any JS. This becomes a very impressive document that’s not PDF (ugh, I hate PDFs), but not a live doc either. I’ve had some hits and misses with Polar though. Sometimes, when it screws up a document’s format (because don’t devs love to write weird CSS?), there’s no way to fix that. Also, due to it’s use of a custom browser, it doesn’t support ad-blocking or element removal as yet. The devs have said that they’re working on a solution so we can use our own browsers and the attached technologies, but no idea when that will come along. Last nail in coffin? Polar has a web app and desktop apps, but no mobile apps. But it’s not all bad. Polar is supported by a vigorous sync solution that’s free (you can pay for Pro if you want some cloud storage (2GB-5GB) and hang out at their members-only lounge). The desktop apps are just great when it comes to actual use and reading. The problem? Their design is that you click on an article in their list and it opens a special view where you read and bookmark/take notes in a sidebar. This view doesn’t open in the mobile version of their sites, specially on the iPad, which is where it would be super useful. Instead of that, they do weird stuff like syncing flashcards to Anki. I guess the dev was a student at one point? Also, pricey if you go for premium ($5-$8 depending on how much cloud storage you need. Seriously, how much cloud storage do we need?)
  2. Hypothes.is – This is, at the same time, not an alternative, and a great alternative. Hypothesis just works. It’s great for when I’m reading something on my desktop, need to quickly highlight, so I hit the bookmarklet and seconds later, the JS has loaded, logged me in, and I’m good to go to highlight and take notes. An amazing thing – hypothesis even works on the move – while they don’t have an app, if you go to their site and paste in a url (this is in mobile Safari), it’ll load up the article with their JS enabled, on their fancy via.hypothes.is domain, and their Annotation and Highlighting features work pretty well there. Problems – lack of app means I end up using the layout of the site, which is something I want to escape at times using pretty read-later fonts and text-extraction. Also, hypothes.is isn’t positioned as read-later+notes. It’s positioned as read-later+notes for scholars, and to promote healthy discussion on the web. This doesn’t mean that your notes are all public. You can choose for them to be private if you want. Also, they have API access for all, but no data export that I could find. Also, also, they don’t add a page to your account till you first annotate it. So it’s not read-later, as much as it’s “we’ll store your highlights and notes from around the web”. Lastly, hypothes.is is free, and a non-profit, and has big media sponsors… I… dunno what to think of that.
  3. Liner – I got a free sub to this when I first created a Samsung account. It’s… ok? It’s got apps across all platforms. It’s got a good set of features. Frankly, I didn’t use it much. Primarily because damn it’s pricey! $5/mo which reduces to $4/mo when paid yearly. Looking at hypothes.is and even Instapaper, that’s a lot! Heck, even Pocket is cheaper!

Strange experiments of the fourth kind

So, after I mucked around with all kinds of cross-platform services, I dipped my toe into some platform specific, or interesting solutions –

  1. FiveFilter’s Push to Kindle – Yes, this is a neat solution. I like reading on my Kindle app, and Kindle’s note taking abilities are epic! Every book I’ve read in there has it’s notes stored away safely (really?) in Amazon’s vault. I have exported said notes when I needed them. The problem with this process is that my Kindle experience gets cluttered. Almost all the problems with this process are at Amazon’s end – their library management is pretty s-h-i-t-e. I can’t sort stuff into folders, and for mobi files I’ve exported, if I mistakenly delete them from a device, all my notes are gone too (I think). Also, if I send a document to one device, it doesn’t go to other devices. There’s no way for me to tell the system to send this document to, like, my iPhone and my iPad. Also, even if I send it to my iOS devices, I can’t open the document on Kindle Cloud Reader, which would be a nice-to-have. On the FiveFilter’s side, the problem is that I don’t want to send single documents any more. They clutter my Kindle library up. I want to send a few at a time. So, I discovered –
  2. Epub Press – Epub Press is this awesome thing that lets you take a bunch of tabs, combine them into one big eBook and ship it away. Well, not quite. Their email function doesn’t work. So I can download the files to my dropbox and sync away. This suits me because I can then import the file to the Kindle app on all my devices. But the text-extraction isn’t very impressive. There was absolutely no formatting applied to the end-product, almost as if it were an archive.org eBook. (I know, I shouldn’t be shitting on a free resource like archive.org, but seriously, they need to learn eBook creation from Gutenberg). Epub Press is a fair solution because they allow you the choice of creating a mobi (for Kindle) or an ePub (for Apple Books), and because they let you compile as many articles as you want into a weekly/monthly/weekend reads. If it weren’t for the problems with Kindle, this could have been an ideal solution for me.
  3. Mobile Safari’s Create PDF/Save PDF in Books – I hate PDFs.
  4. Mobile Safari’s Send to Kindle – This is supposed to be from the Kindle app itself, but it doesn’t seem to work for me. Hit and miss. Sometimes, it’ll tell me that it’s sending the document to my Kindle app, and will then just… forget.
  5. Using a journal app to take notes – I used Day One as my primary thoughtsbox. I have a journal in there called Quotes that I sometimes add a good quote to. It’s a nice way to recall some thought years later. But Day One is staunchly not-cross-platform. They keep promising a web app, but haven’t delivered a fully functioning one yet. Their Chrome extension is nice, but I’ve yet to see a corresponding Firefox one yet. Not that I need it. I hacked my way to make the Chrome extension independent of Chrome, but it’s still a jugaad and there’s no good way for me to make extensive notes and highlights on it. I also don’t want to clutter it with read-later stuff. Just doesn’t feel like the right use of the technology.
  6. Publicly blogging about it – once in a while, I’ll want to talk about an article publicly and so I’ll make a blog post with highlights, my notes, etc. But it’s not a very easy process. I have to constantly go back and forth between my site and theirs, to copy content over (because WP supports a ‘quote’, but only one quote to begin a post with. After that you’re on your own to copy paste and format). This method doesn’t work well on mobile. I’d rather have a dedicated reading space which lets me highlight stuff, and then export it, sort of how the Kindle does it.
  7. Not-publicly blogging about it – The same as above, but I don’t publish it publicly, I just keep the notes in Private mode. I like private mode.

There are solutions that I’ve tried over the years and not bothered pursuing or listing here. Apps like Unmark, which do a great job of letting you know what’s on your plate to read, but don’t let you read in a clean environment, or let you make notes, don’t count here. Similarly, apps like Evernote don’t either, because they’re not a read-later solution.

I know there are hundreds of solutions I’ve not tried or talked about. Most of them are closely related to what I’ve listed above. For example, TheBrain, DevonThink, Refind, Google Keep, OneNote, etc are all nice, but don’t fit into the box I’m trying to fill here.

So, dear reader (first of all, thanks for getting to this point), tell me what should I do? Should I bite the bullet and go with the top most solution, Instapaper, which is well priced, focused specifically on reading text (which is what I primarily want), but which is run by someone else? Or should I go with some form of open source solution that might cause me headaches but at least I’ll keep all of my thoughts with me over the years? Maybe I should go with a solution like Hypothes.is, which is free, non-profit, and an interesting technology. Or maybe I should be looking at it from a different perspective, or looking at a solution I’ve never even heard or thought much of? What’s your opinion?

What do you think?

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55 Comments

  1. @nitinkhanna Tried commenting on the post but hit a 503 so….

    Have you considered pinboard.in? Not fancy, but fast, cheap ($25/year for the full version that also crawls and archives everything you link to). Syncs with both Instapaper and Pocket. I find it to be basic, but good enough for both bookmarking and read-later functions. Notes can go in the Description field but that may be too much of a kludge.

  2. @jack huh. Could you tell me if you were trying anonymous commenting or which login you used? I’ll have to test that 503 out.

    Pinboard… I’ve gazed at it longingly since a long time. Should have bought it way back when it was considerably cheaper. But no, I’d like something that lets me highlight and add notes inline. Pinboard is a bookmarking solution at the end of the day…

  3. @nitinkhanna I was logged in via WordPress before trying to post the comment.

    I’ve never found an annotation tool that I like and/or trust for the long term so I mostly save pages as PDF to DEVONthink and annotate them there.

  4. @sanspoint and I agree! 🙂

    Instapaper is definitely what I’m leaning towards. Like, 99% there. They even have a beta tool which lets you export the text of the articles in a printable format, for whatever reason. So they’re definitely trying! 🙂

  5. @jack hmmmm Strange. You know what’s odd? Your commends and @Sanspoint‘s are showing up on my blog now because micro.blog is pushing them there. But your first comment isn’t showing up.

    Maybe I need to make a throwaway WordPress account to test out posting directly on the site.

  6. @jack I like DevonThink, but my home Mac isn’t my device of choice. I’m on Windows most of the day. DevonThnk is super powerful, but not omnipresent, sadly.

    Also, I hate pdfs! Stupid file format, frankly.

  7. @nitinkhanna PDFs on the Mac feel like lightweight, native documents to me. I also enjoy working with them using LiquidText on iOS. On Windows, I agree, they kind of suck. Having to work on both Mac and Windows really does limit your options.

  8. @jack true. I was pleasantly surprised the first time I pressed the spacebar on a PDF on my brother’s Mac, upon his instruction. I think I’ve looked at LiquidText? Can’t recall.

    True about your comment about Mac/Win, but true cross-platforming is basically being a web service. Polar is so close, and yet so far!

  9. @nitinkhanna Evernote is a read later solution even if you have not used it that way. It also has the note taking anoottion features you seek. Try it. I know Evernote isn’t “sexy” and there are always people looking for cool, sexy solutions to simple problems. But try it.

  10. @canion I’ve not seen it. Perhaps it would be good. The App Store is not letting me in right now. Will check it out (pricing and all) later. It’s Windows friendly, it seems, so that’s nice! But I see that they’re priced as a total solution. Hmm.

  11. @canion Notebooks looks interesting. I’m another in the “what do I do with all this stuff” camp. DevonThink is just too customisable, Evernote is too clunky, and Notes.app doesn’t give me very good search, and it’s PDF and webarchive functions aren’t up to scratch.

  12. @nitinkhanna To throw out a different track, have you looked at the citation manager side? I haven’t used Mendeley but it’s free and has PDF annotation capabilities. Or on another track, the binder part of Scrivener for collecting materials?

  13. @sproutlight I was this close to mentioning Mendeley in my blog. But I thought no one would get the reference. ?

    Mendeley is nice, but Hypothes.is does all that and in a nicer manner. It’s not strictly for citations, but the ideology is similar.

  14. @sproutlight Bah! This is why I hate PDFs. I had a feeling I had tried taking notes in Scrivener before, and sure enough, there was the option called Web Notes in there. The problem is that Scrivener iOS doesn’t support PDF annotation. But you can export, annotate, import. 1/2

  15. @khurtwilliams and @jack thanks for letting me know about my website’s broken comment system. It seems that Bad Behavior was interfering with Jetpack. There’s a setting in Bad Behavior that allows for OpenID based commenting, which I’ve now enabled. Would you plz test it? Thanks!

        • My WordPress blog has been around for over 15 years. It’s a wide attack surface for comment spam.

          I turned off comments for post older than 90 days because it seems the bots were hitting my older posts. Akismet caught all of it.

          I was annoyed at having to empty the hundreds of messages in the spam folder but also concerned that I was also throwing out false-positives (good comments).

  16. @nitinkhanna That sounds maddening. I had a similar experiemce when I played around with using Scrivner for a wiki. Yes, technically it supports linking but it was so broken.
    If you find a solution, I woukd love to hear. I’m Mac/iOS only and have things split scross Notability, Dropbox, Papers3, amd The Brain. It’s a bit of a situation.

  17. @sproutlight wow, that’s a lot of places you’re putting your thoughts. But at least you’re organized. Right now, all my immediate writing is going into my WordPress blog as private posts, while my longer timeframe writing is going into Daedalus on iOS. Ideas go into Apple Notes!

  18. @mexpat I’m so sorry about that! No one usually comments on my blog, so I never noticed anything wrong till this wonderful community of people decided they want to help!

    Hmmmm… Paper huh? You enjoy using it? One can save anything to it, or do you save everything as PDF and then import to Paper?

  19. Nitin, Safari (macOS Mojave) was busy blocking all the wordpress.com so I switched to FIrefox (macOS Mojave) to test. I am posting the comment using WordPress.com login. I’ll post another comment without a login.

  20. One option you didn’t mention is indiepaper.io or emailthis.me. They both look promising, but neither is really there yet. It is frustrating because it is a field that hasn’t had any serious innovation in years. I have some ideas, and would love to share them with anyone who actually uses these services regularly and is as frustrated with them as I am. Just DM me @kerim on Twitter if you’d like to chat…

    • Kerim, I did look at indiepaper but not emailthis. Indiepaper needs too much setup. The point is to make things easier, not difficult. Unless there’s mass adoption or WordPress level of one-clickyness, this is not going to work.

      But other than that, I do want the capability to highlight and make notes too. That’s a big part of reading non-fiction. None of these services address that.