Yet another DevonThink topic

I’m becoming convinced, for the 3d or 4th time in as many years, that the hassles of DevonThink are not worth the benefits. At least for me.

Your mileage, as they used to say in car commercials, may vary.

But this seems to be an app I need to try for about a month every year and a half or so.


I’d love to help but I’ve got to finish moving into Things 3 so I can move back into Omnifocus before bed.


Remind me what you want to be doing with it. Using DT is attractive to me, but for what I do, google searches are a good enough alternative. And as someone once put it, DevonThink also has to compete with saying, “I don’t know.” :wink:




I find DEVONthink the most valuable tool in my Mac arsenal.


I’m a tech journalist. And as you say it seems like whenever I run a search in DT, Google is pretty much just as good.

A main reason I use it is to sync with iPhone and iPad. Didn’t need that for the month I’ve been using it this time around. Until Friday — and then when I tried to use it, it wasn’t working.

@ismh what are you using for note taking nowadays? Still on Bear?

I scorned DT2 for its ugliness and redundancy with Finder functionality for a long time, but ended up trying and liking DT3. For very specific scenarios.

85% of my files I’d guess are just fine living in Finder. Another 5% or so are academic publications which are in the Finder and indexed in BibDesk. Next are 5% (bearing in mind these numbers are totally illustrative, not factual) of files which are my research data, all in Finder but indexed in a custom FileMaker database. The remaining 5% are legal documents covering a period of 120 years or so, and some related media coverage. These are all in DT, in a couple of different databases. For these documents, DT is wonderful - search is blazing fast, it’s easy to generate a saved search for a particular case to see how it’s been cited over the years, and to produce a corresponding file of notes etc.

In a nutshell, I think it works for this kind of situation - files where you need to capture more metadata and full-text content searching than you can do easily in the file system, but where’s there’s no fixed data structures at hand that correspond to each file.


You’ve provided a datapoint in favor of a hypothesis of mine: DevonThink is useful when you have a huge volume of documents not accessible via Google. For other uses it’s overkill. Like buying a Mac Pro just to do Google Docs, the web, email and social media.

So for me, background for the articles I’m currently working on can be found in my and other journalists articles, which are indexed by google. And also in my notes, which are written in a typed shorthand that are not accessible to Google, and which DT can’t make sense of. (When taking notes on an interview I type blazing fast in sentence fragments and about 15% typoes.)


Sorry. My own prison.

I use DT as an Evernote replacement for paperless and long term storage. I’ve also started indexing a dropbox folder that gets automated text files Of my Instapaper highlights and my text-file based Zettelkasten. In that way, it becomes the one place I can search for anything that I have.

It is overly complex for what I need, but it’s also rock solid. I don’t worry about it losing anything. I’ve considered moving to Keep It, but I just don’t know if I can trust it as much.


For those who are curious about DEVONthink and haven’t tried it, there is a series of three screencasts about it here:

You may be on to something there. If I look at my DT databases, they are almost all things I created or things that are ephemeral in terms of being on the net. Some I can get to again but most of them vanish within a few years. My 2 largest databases are one that is almost entirely my own notes and ideas and one that is my huge email archive.

Exactly, that is a lot of my use case as well. I have one large database that is an index of my digital reference file cabinet.

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This is exactly it. I use Devonthink for my already curated articles for reference (my original source is usually a closed database) or my own notes. I also like to see what notes Devonthink finds that it thinks are related.


I bit the bullet and purchased DT a few months ago having tried to make nearly every alternative work.

Evernote: Bloated, subscription based, not a great `Mac citizen in terms of design
Keep it: Just did not work for me, seemed buggy with sync and expensive for what it is.
Finder: yes worked, just saving stuff was a pain.

DT copes with everything I throw at it. I have 4 databases, Archive, Resources, Projects and Areas based on the PARA principle which seems to work quite well. It is expensive initially, and not the prettiest, but I came to realise that substance wins over style every time.

I think though you need to commit to using it for nearly everything you want to keep long term such as articles, PDF’s invoices, notes etc.


As bikers say, “Chrome won’t get you home.”


Been using PARA in one database. Thought about using 4 but thought one would be simpler. Why did you settle on four?

Killing features of DT for me:

  • Ability to sync encrypted databases via cloud services such as Dropbox. Enables me to throw sensitive documents in DT.
  • Ability to also encrypt DT databases locally (I do not deed that, already use FileVault)
  • Easy Backup of DT databases: Just move additional copies to other disks or cloud services.
  • Getting documents in or out of DT is as easy as moving documents in Finder. Including folder structures.
  • Splitting, consolidating or archiving whole databases easy as well.
  • Powerful search engine with Boolean operators (I frequently use the NEAR operator)
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Now I need to google PARA.

And I’ve had a change in job circumstances that suddenly makes DT look more attractive to me.


@KevinR, that would be funny if it wasn’t literally why I haven’t replied to this thread yet.* (I went all-in on Things for a day and then switched back. I learned a few lessons though! It wasn’t a waste of time! It wasn’t!)

I have actually fallen more in love with DEVONthink after some extreme frustrations early on. As everyone says about it, it’s too powerful. The “just play with it” approach can make onboarding extremely difficult if you don’t ratchet up your use at the right pace.

I have to write more about my current use-cases, but here are the evolving use cases that have led me to love it in recent months. Messy post ahead:

Scaffolding use-cases for making the most of DEVONthink

1. Reliable, highly searchable files repository

iCloud’s tendency to poorly manage what documents I want to access offline made it untenable for maintaining access to files on iOS. So, the first use-case for DT was to be a dependable place to access anything I’m working on.

As a secondary benefit, I have a variety of Shortcuts that use template files and lists to drive some functionality. I use DEVONthink’s URL scheme to manage these so that I can update those templates from any device while keeping these “resource” files universally accessible.

Finally, I use DEVONthink’s indexed search all the time to find specific references I used years ago.

2. PDF annotation database and study tool.

I wrote my comprehensive exams for my PhD about a year ago. I wrote a script that took PDFs in DT and automatically generated flash cards in Anki from the highlights. Each flashcard had a direct link to the page of the PDF relevant to the question on the flash card. It was highly motivating, fun, and helped me pass.

3. RSS reader and read-it-later service

I had too much noise in my previous RSS approach. I also found it hard to keep up with all the articles coming up. Finally, I wanted to save and use many of the articles in my readings as PDFs.

So, I set up DEVONthink as my RSS reader and read-it-later service. It was quite involved to set up, but now Smart Rules and Smart Groups self-manage my RSS feeds. Each feed has granular rules to dictate how long items can stay for. Every time I check my feeds I have a very manageable amount of reading to do, and I can configure individual feeds or keywords or whatever to save anything really crucial before I even have to review it. (As a bonus, I save $70/year from Feedly subscriptions and $X/year from read-it-later services.)

Everything coming in is automatically converted to a nice, clean PDF and I can mark that up with all the conveniences of the PDF ecosystem.

4. PARA/CODE system

Although I don’t strictly adhere to Tiago Forte’s PARA (Projects, Areas, Resources, Archive) system, his thinking on knowledge workers’ management of their working materials has changed how I approach personal knowledge management and personal project management. In particular, I appreciate the sentiment that we need to be faster and more intentional about Capturing, Organizing, Distilling, and Expressing (hence, CODE) knowledge materials.

So, I have a script that takes in an OmniFocus project and creates a new folder for that project in Finder, indexes that to DEVONthink, and creates a link to both in the OmniFocus project. Likewise I am trying to stick links to files important to a project in a variety of useful places. The idea is to try to make project creation and completion a faster cycle, and to bring project management and material creation closer together by interlinking all of these things.

(@MitchWagner here’s your link on PARA, and see this post for some discussion about buying into Tiago’s stuff.)

5. Notes and annotations database

This is where I am now. Incidentally, one lesson I learned from my recent Things adventure is that I put a lot of non-actionable items in OmniFocus. As a result, probably half of the items in there were just noise. Most of these items were just thinking on potential projects or links to things I wanted to investigate. Instead of putting them in OmniFocus, I aim now to keep my task manager clean and lean. Instead, I’ll rely on PARA/CODE and put those non-actionable items in DEVONthink as a notes database. I plan on working in DT3 on my desktop a lot more to make this happen.

A few generic takeaways

  • DEVONthink To Go (DTTG) is in an awful state. It works, for sure. But the lack of feature parity with DT3 is really ruinous these days. The DEVONtechnologies team say they’re working on big things with DTTG, so I’m really looking forward to whatever that may be.
  • I use indexing, not importing**, for working files. I just find it easier to interact with files this way, and it makes the on-ramping a bit easier as you can continue doing things as you did them before DEVONthink while learning more about the tool.
  • I have recently realized that my use of DEVONthink is a little like when I first learned Photoshop. It was an awful, difficult experience and I constantly produced junk results at first. I kept at it, though, and slowly learned how to use the tool more effectively and efficiently. Then it started to change my mental model of the work I was doing for the better.
  • Some part of all of this might just be attributable to Stockholm syndrome thanks to DEVONthink’s steep purchase price and the amount of time I’ve put into it at this point. :upside_down_face:

* It is still very funny.
** Incidentally the original source for that indexing/importing post is dead, but I had a copy of it in DEVONthink from a few years ago. :wink:


Interesting post on DT!

Your comment on OmniFocus made me remember a casual remark from a person using OF as a Finder replacement, on the theory that documents are things you want to take action on.

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Exactly! Except for me, it’s become the other way around. Actions are things you do to/with some material (documents, notes, contacts, diagrams, etc.).