DEVONthink is a unique Mac version app in the research, note-taking, and productivity space because it uses a specialized set of AI (artificial intelligence) information management tools to help you file, search, organize, and make connections between vast amounts of disparate data. It has a good reputation in academia, and quite a few people purchase a Mac and run Mac OS X to use it. However, DEVONthink’s usefulness extends beyond professional academic and research use – this article should help you decide if that might apply to you!
Confessions of a DEVONthink Prodigal Son
I must confess that I have been an on-off user of DEVONthink Pro Office for many years. As an investigative documentary filmmaker, I had to process a huge amount of research material, trying to discover important connections and gaps in the story. My two favorite tools were TheBrain for mind mapping and DEVONthink for text analysis and repository.
In recent years, I became increasingly reluctant to use DEVONthink because I found the user interface clunky and too full of various scripts and routines to work intuitively and quickly. Even using Keyboard Maestro and the context menus.
My professional career shifted to documentary feature directing, where buckets of detailed research were less important, and DEVONthink and TheBrain began to collect dust on my digital shelf.
It’s a big shelf, by the way.
In the last few months, however, I have started a publishing company (Brilliantio) and have a lot of research material to process again. Both for articles I write myself and as background for the areas I publish in. Books, academic papers, and in-depth articles are a mainstay of research because:
- it is relatively easy to tell who is an expert and who is not
- a book represents compressed knowledge in text form that is easily searchable
DEVONthink Pro has again become one of my main research tools for finding connections and gaps within topics.
Here is why:
Excellent Handling of PDFs and Documents
I do not know about you, but I find that keeping track of and searching through PDFs and documents is tedious.
Although I use Bookends for citations (not a major use case for me right now) and Scholarcy for AI Summarization of PDFs, the challenge is how to organize different PDFs across different categories and topics.
For a while, I thought Roam Research might be the solution. The way it works with individual blocks – each corresponding to a paragraph or sentence – and the ability to exclude keywords from searches within a page (transclusion) was attractive. The Daily Notes paradigm is definitely a winner and is now used by me primarily for Roam Research – as a tool for daily journaling. In some ways, it is still the best way to edit small snippets of text.
But when it comes to dozens or hundreds of PDF pages, Roam Research starts to stumble. Cross-document searching only really works if bidirectional links (each with its own page in Roam) are created for each important term in a document – something that has to be done manually when each search term is first created. Otherwise, it’s difficult to search even a PDF chapter, let alone an entire book.
DEVONthink has a number of tools that immediately remedy this:
Easy Ingestion of PDFs and Documents
There’s no point in having a document-based database if you can not easily feed data into it.
In DEVONthink, this is all done intuitively. PDFs, DOCX, rich text, plain text, and so on can be imported into an inbox or directly into a DEVONthink database. Or indexed and left in place (see below). I use DEVONthink as a central silo for all the PDFs I collect.
If you use Apple Mail, you can archive all your emails in DEVONthink periodically, or once a project has finished.
While there’s nothing wrong with having one huge database that holds everything, and thus running a completely “flat hierarchy” database, I prefer to have separate databases for the main categories because it makes quick searches easier (I’ll explain this in more detail below).
Currently, I have large databases for:
- Big Ideas & The Future
- Content & Copywriting
- Human Resources & Finance
- Research & Thought Development
- Writing & Storytelling
The number of databases you can create is unlimited, and you can choose which databases to have open in the app.
I use the Hazel app (one-time cost) to automatically send all PDF files in my downloads folder to DEVONthink, and then delete the PDF files from the downloads folder. I find this is an easy way to keep the folder tidy while making sure the PDFs end up where I want them – in DEVONthink.
File Format Conversion
A very useful feature of DEVONthink is the conversion of an ePub to a searchable PDF.
For me, this, in turn, means that I can further analyze a book using tools like Infranodus or Scholarcy since they read PDF format but not ePubs. It also makes the book searchable in DEVONthink.
Advanced Search, Retrieval and Document Organization
Once I have a bunch of PDFs in a database, I can search them with DEVONthink in a few seconds:
- Understand the content of each PDF through its concordance tool, which can display as a ‘word cloud’ where the most frequent words are larger.
- Perform a simple keyword search across a single PDF file or multiple PDFs in a database.
- Use advanced boolean search to find something: e.g. ‘AI NEAR /25 revolutionary’ finds all instances of ‘AI’ within 25 words of the word ‘revolutionary’ – this can be very useful for expanding the scope of a search, or if you do not have an exact search term.
- Ability to use fuzzy logic when searching – this can be very useful if you do not know the exact spelling or search term; or vice versa, if you know the exact search terms and want to exclude similar sounding suggestions.
- Smart Groups (think smart folders) work similarly to other applications and allow you to set rules for grouping documents. In DEVONthink, Smart Groups has an option for fuzzy logic, which makes it more powerful than other applications that use this paradigm.
The way DEVONthink lists the occurrences it finds in the Inspector panel is very efficient in terms of screen space.
This means that it is easier to quickly get an overview of what the search has revealed.
Although you can tag documents and assign custom metadata in DEVONthink, I personally do not bother. I find that the search and discovery tools within the app allow me to work without tags. For me, this is one of the main advantages of DEVONthink compared to Evernote or apps like Bear – I hate the idea of having to tag my stuff to get the most out of it.
The Magical ‘See Also’ Function
One of the really neat and unique features of DEVONthink is the ” See Also” and “Classify” functions.
When you have a document selected, the ” See Also” feature displays a list of related content based on the content of the selected document. This allows for the random discovery of material that would not otherwise show up in a search.
The “Classify” part suggests groups (which work like folders or directories) into which you can place the document based on the document content; I personally prefer to keep documents in as flat a database structure as possible, but if you are interested in grouping related documents within a database taxonomy, this feature will be useful.
It can also be helpful if you have dozens or hundreds of documents and want to group them automatically in a first pass before perhaps organizing them further manually.
Backups for DEVONthink
Since I only use DEVONthink for text documents – for videos, images, etc., I fall back on other applications – the databases I create with it are relatively small. On the order of a few gigabytes or tens of gigabytes.
This means that my backup is based on a few simple and automated workflows:
1. nightly syncing the entire contents of my Mac to the cloud through Backblaze. This is a long-term, long-term backup that I access as a last resort when other backups can not be accessed.
2. Chronosync creates automatic weekly backups of my DEVONthink databases to a Dropbox folder. In the past, I have created a sparse bundle disk on Dropbox to add an extra layer of security, but these days I prefer to keep things simple and rely on Dropbox’s security.
Using Hook with DEVONthink
My main workflow is to collect research information in DEVONthink and treat it as a searchable and analytical repository, while doing the actual “work” of thought and idea development and production – writing and otherwise – elsewhere.
My main tools for research, thought development, and writing are
- DEVONthink Pro: PDF databases
- Roam Research: text snippets and journaling
- Scholarcy: AI summarization of books and long PDFs
- Infranodus: AI graph analysis of texts to uncover hidden connections
- Readwise: Highlighting through spatial repetition
- TheBrain: mind mapping and note taking on important documents
- Scrivener: Writing and structuring of long texts
- Aeon Timeline: Timelines and plotting
- Craft: formatting and repository for published work
This means that linking sources across different applications becomes important to be able to refer back to the source document from which a text excerpt or idea originated.
In DEVONthink, you can create an item link that can connect to another document inside DEVONthink, but I find you need to be able to link outside also.
The best solution I have found to accomplish this is Hook. Basically, you can use it in almost any application on the Mac. It creates a clickable link (or a text selection and a link) that instantly takes you back to where you created the link. Plus, the link appears in readable form – even Markdown if you want it to.
At DEVONthink, I have found that Hook works very well because it takes me immediately to the PDF source. If the source is a book, I insert the page number immediately after the link, which takes only a moment. Otherwise, it’s a simple matter of searching the text.
For academic use, I would still use something like Bookends to run a full bibliography and citation management system; but for quick and fluid use as an author and editor, Hook is ideal.
Syncing Other Databases and Notes Apps to DEVONthink
A long-time app in the academic and research space, DEVONthink has an engaged and well-informed intelligent community and forum.
This, in turn, means that it’s easier to sync DEVONthink with other apps – Evernote, for example – because there’s a good chance that someone has already solved the problem or even written a script that can be used within DEVONthink to do so.
Integration with DEVONagent
Sometimes, when I need to do an Internet search that goes beyond what Google offers, I launch DEVONthink’s sibling app DEVONagent and do a “deep search” across multiple online sources.
Although DEVONagent makes it easy to find specific results, sometimes it’s useful to save a handful (or even all) of them directly into DEVONthink for archiving and further use. This is quite easy – literally with one click.
Why I Do Not Use DEVONthink for All Documents (And What I Use)
DEVONthink can act as a notes app and handle image and text file formats like HTML, PNG, and so on.
You can take individual notes in the app. Including as a formatted note.
Personally, I do not think it’s ideal for that, as I prefer to use it for quick, cross-PDF work. To find something, I simply perform a search by selecting the appropriate database and then use DEVONthink’s native tools to dive in as deep as necessary.
A large number of web archive HTML files related to online articles clog up DEVONthink for me – not least because of the annoying GDPR popups – so I do not do that. However, many DEVONthink users convert online articles to searchable PDFs.
Instead, I use Instatext and Readwise to handle the first pass of online article processing and then pass any synthesis that might be useful to TheBrain.
The exception to this rule is my use of DEVONthink as a digital paperless office. Everything related to personal administration, including all financial documents, is kept in DEVONthink. I also archive my emails there at regular intervals.
There is an option to use DEVONthink to index all your individual files instead of importing them into the database(s). This creates a set of referenced files in DEVONthink while keeping the original indexed files in place. The advantage is that you do not bloat (and thus slow down) the databases while keeping a central location where the files can be accessed by all your applications.
When I finally get a handwriting recognition device like reMarkable or Supernote, I will use DEVONthink again as a storage location and text analysis tool for the notes I take there; but only if this can be automated in some way.
Where DEVONthink Fits in Thought Development
DEVONthink is not an all-in-one solution for thought development – sometimes referred to as a “second brain”.
The main reason for this is that a series of disparate ideas, combined in search of something new and original, requires a way to map this process.
It’s true that you can do this in the form of a text outline – which can be done in DEVONthink (or any other outlining app – even pen and paper). But things get messy quickly, and it takes a long time to reorganize the order and connections between ideas.
So for me, DEVONthink for PDFs, Roam Research, Readwise, and Instapaper for text snippets and highlighting are precursor apps for the real work of brainstorming – which I do in TheBrain. Now that TheBrain has Markdown and automatic shortcuts built-in, it takes some of Roam Research’s lunch away. But the ease with which ideas can be visually linked and associations mapped is unparalleled. It goes beyond the mind mapping found in most apps because it allows for a large map where you can focus on local context.
Using DEVONthink on Mobile Devices
DEVONtechnologies has developed DEVONthink To Go (DTTG), a standalone app for IOS available on the App Store that can be selectively synced bidirectionally.
Personally, I only use it when I need to have a document available on the go. Those who rely heavily on an IOS device – for example an iPad Pro – will use DTTG much more often. It must be said that DEVONthink is primarily a desktop application and the mobile version is not powerful in the same way.
Cost of DEVONthink
DEVONthink comes in different versions.
There is the Standard version of DEVONthink, which costs $199. Then there is DEVONthink Pro, which includes X and Y and costs $199. This is the version I personally have because I rely on OCR, Concordance, and Grouping features it provides.
Finally, there is a DEVONthink Server version, which is $499 and is primarily used for coworking environments, like legal firms.
Pricing is based on a “seat” model, where you get 2 seats per license, so you can run DEVONthink on an iMac and a Macbook Pro, for example. You can either synchronize over the internet, iCloud sync, or locally via Bonjour.
The IOS app DEVONthink To Go costs $39.99 or can be bought as a subscription.
You can try DEVONthink for 30 days to decide if the functionality and interface are right for you.