Review: Evernote Clearly

New York Times Article: "War of 1812 Bicentennial Disorganized in New York State"

Today, in addition to enjoying Thanksgiving, I have been taking the time to look at Evernote Clearly, a browser plug-in for the Google Chrome browser that competes with ReadabilityInstapaper, ReadItLater, and the Safari Reading List.

As an example, I took a current article from the New York Times, “War of 1812 Bicentennial Disorganized in New York State,” clicked the Evernote clearly icon, and saw it transformed from the cluttered experience with advertisements above and to the right of the content, into a clean, crisp view of the content I was interested in. The display of Clearly is stunning, in fact. Within the same tab that was active when you made the request, the Clearly interface slides over the content. As a reader, you can choose from a sepia toned “Newsprint” view of the text (shown below), a modern black-and-white presentation (called “Notable”), or a “Nightowl” version that is white text on a black background and would display well in the dark. These presentations are similar to what is available in the other offerings in the simplified reading interface space.

Evernote Clearly "Newsprint" Display of "War of 1812 Bicentennial Disorganized in New York State"

But the real attraction, for users of Evernote, is the little Evernote icon, on the right side of the Clearly interface. Click this elephant icon, and the content is sent to Evernote for longer term storage, search, and availability.

As a long time user of Evernote, one of my pet peeves has been the difficulty of getting a readable clipping of a subset of a complex page, such as what the Times presents. Historically, you had to either clip the whole page, and live with the clutter (and the searchable text such as the “First Federal” add above showing up in your search results for Federal records), or to manually try to select the correct subset of content. This was a dodgy proposition, with results that vary every time, and sometimes one has to try a couple of times, or manually edit the Evernote clipping to get it to read well.

One no longer has to do any off that when using Evernote Clearly. A single clip on the Evernote elephant icon on the right hand ribbon, and a clean version of the content is sent to your Evernote content set in the cloud. Syncing your desktop or mobile Evernote client software, brings the content down. The finished product looks like the image below. In typical fashion, Evernote has automatically created a title from the page title, and added timestamps for creation and update. Additionally, it has added the original URL as a clickable field, put it into the catch all folder (in my case, “Evernote”) and done a reasonable job of content presentation. So far so good.

But what else would an Evernote user (who is still using ReadItLater and starting to experiment with Readability) need to ditch the other products, and do all of this in Evernote with Evernote Clearly.

  • Presentation. The competition for this service really own the “reading list” presentation. Evernote touts itself as a “shoebox for the mind” or a “shoebox for the Internet”, and it can feel as cluttered as a shoebox full of clippings. Obviously, the multi-faceted search and organization capabilities mean you can find things. But, if I’m on a cell phone or a tablet, I might want to just see the articles I saved to read later. A simple tag or folder could gather this, and the mobile apps could surface up a button to navigate right to this content.
  • Organization. It would be nice to have an ability to configure a specific foldering or tagging scheme for content coming in from Evernote Clearly. This is separate from the presentation issue above, and is more of an issue for long-term cataloguing and organization of clipped stories.
  • Cross-browser support. Some of us use several browsers. I regularly use Chrome, Safari, and Firefox, and sometimes use Internet Explorer, Flock, and Opera. I need to be able to do this from any browser. Hopefully, the technology involved was standards-based, and will be portable to other browsers as they become more compliant.
If I get some of those features, even the gorgeous Readability product will have a hard time completing with the simplicity of using a single product.
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Reading Apps: Readability. Instapaper. ReadItLater. Evernote.

ReadabilityReadability is a handy tool that takes an article or web post, cleans it up, as the name implies to improve its readability, and displays it for you in your browser. They also gather up articles posted this way for you to read later, or to send to your Kindle. Aside from one-by-one viewing of a cleaned up article, the service has required a $5 monthly fee. In the process, Readability shares revenue with the content-providing publisher.

There are similar services, notably Instapaper and ReadItLater. Back in May, I wrote a blog entry comparing these two. I have still be passing back and forth between these two, liking Instapaper’s integration with Readability, and liking ReadItLater for the cleanliness and usability of its website.

Both Instapaper and ReadItLater have mobile apps. Both were integrated with the incredibly popular iPad app Flipboard. One differentiator for Instapaper was a close integration with Readability.

On November 16th, Readability announced a free option, as well as the impending release of apps for the iOS platforms (iPad and iPhone/iPod Touch). Here is a summary of the new Readability freemium pricing model, with $5 a month getting the premium plan:


Free users are limited to 30 Reading List articles and 30 Favorite articles; Premium users have no limits, and also can Archive articles, receive an automated daily digest to their Kindle (over wi-fi, and thus without additional costs from Amazon), and up to 70% of their monthly fee goes to authors and publishers.

The announcement led to a fairly public discussion between Instapaper founder Marco Arment (The relationship between Readability and Instapaper) and Readability founding partner Richard Ziade (Readability & Instapaper).

The space has gotten quite crowded, in fact, since Apple added a similar “Reading List” feature to its Safari browser. And the day after Readability announced its new pricing model and forthcoming iOS apps, Evernote launched a similar service, Clearly, as a Google Chrome app.

For me, ReadItLater has been the main application I have used for this purpose, because of the crisp, clean, and I would even say, beautiful design of their web site and apps. While I use Evernote almost obsessively, its tendency to grab everything, or inexplicable web page elements, has made it a frustrating experience.

Using ReadItLater, I have missed the Readability integration. Even with ReadItLater, I felt that Readability had a better interface.

With Readability going to the freemium model, I expect to use that more, and move away from Instapaper entirely. I will then be comparing ReadItLater with Readability once the Readability iOS apps are released, and with Evernote Clearly in Google Chrome. Those promise to have a high design aspect, with high-quality fonts. And of course, while I steered clear of Readability when it only had a paid model, freemium (as Evernote can attest) has a quality of drawing people in to get them hooked.

My summary of the scoreboard at this point is:

  • ReadItLater – First to market, in 2007, with a great user interface design sense.Still a major player.
  • Instapaper – Second to market, in 2008. Clean, but not stylish. A little nerdy as far as the design goes. Possibly suffering from a mortal blow from the one-two punch from Readability and Evernote this week.
  • Readability – Has the most beautiful design of the bunch. Set itself apart as with the combination of gorgeous design and a paid model, providing a compensation model for authors and publishers to offset what might be lost advertising revenue.
  • Evernote – Promises much needed cleaner imports of articles into its widely popular “memory” service.
  • Apple Safari – Handy, if you happen to be in Safari on the OS X Lion or iOS 5, but I don’t think anything but diehards Apple fanboys will use this as much as any of the others on the list get used.

[Updated on 13 December 2011 to correct some inaccuracies.]

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