For the past few years, Notion has been my go-to note taking and thought organization app. It’s simple but powerful and works in a way that makes sense to me. Especially coming from tools like Evernote and Simplenote, Notion was a major upgrade with more features than I even know how to use.
But there are a few things I don’t like about it – privacy being one. I’ve looked for a good replacement, but that’s proven to be a bit more of a conundrum than I thought.
So I’ve challenged myself to a bit of an experiment: The entire time I was away at The Gospel Coalition 2023 conference, I would take notes using only Obsidian instead of Notion.
After several days of taking notes in Obsidian and learning the program along the way, I have a few thoughts.
Why I started using Notion in the first place
I’ve never been the most organized person, really. Online or offline. Prior to using Notion, I had a scattered jumble of notes throughout various services, and it was hard to feel like I was really productive with the mess of information scattered around the digital landscape.
I had tried – and liked – tools like Evernote and Simplenote previously, but those weren’t really quite as robust as I would like. Evernote’s pricing structure changed and felt more greedy, and Simplenote was – as the name implies – simple.
Notion made it easy to keep track of my thoughts and important information in a way that made sense. Nesting pages within pages, inline tables and databases, and even fancy styling all made the app a great option for someone like me.
And I loved it.
Concerns about privacy with Notion
But working in IT, it’s part of my job to think about the security of information and how best to protect it from prying eyes. Naturally – like many IT people – I had no problem thinking through such things for clients’ data while being a bit more lax with my own.
Over time, I started to really consider whether or not the data I’ve entrusted to Notion is truly safe. Can someone else see it? What if Notion were to be breached? Where is my data being stored anyway?
All things that started running through my head.
As much as I love Notion, one of the big things that really bothers me about it is the fact that:
- They don’t use end to end encryption, and
- I can’t control where my data is stored.
Those two things together are enough to give me pause, as I’ve written about previously.
These concerns were excellently explained by Harshibar on YouTube:
And so, in an effort to hopefully settle on a replacement for Notion, I’ve challenged myself to try Obsidian – really try it this time.
But why try Obsidian and not something else?
I’ve chosen Obsidian for this experiment largely for two reasons:
- I can store my data anywhere I choose, and
- That data will work with any other program that can read the markdown format so I’m not locked into a single app.
Both of these things is huge, and I’ll expand on them more in a bit.
But as I investigated various apps and services, I found it very difficult to find one that checked these two boxes. Some, like Craft, would allow me to store my notes offline or in a cloud storage location of my choosing (but not on Windows). However, I have no guarantee that another program down the road would be able to read that data if I ever needed it to.
Others, even if they would store data in a format I could export to another program down the road, gave me no option to store my data in a location I could control and encrypt.
What a concept!
Getting set up and initial thoughts about Obsidian.
Downloading and installing Obsidian is pretty straightforward. And there are probably hundreds of tutorials for getting a vault set up and getting started with the program – so I won’t go into that here.
But once I got set up, it took me a few minutes – a few hours really – to really get comfortable with where everything is in the program. Obsidian is certainly less “pretty” in some ways – not that that’s necessarily a bad thing.
Coming from Notion, having to use markdown syntax or a menu command to create headings was a bit of a bump that I didn’t like.
And I had more than a few incidents of clicking on something expecting it to work like Notion only to find myself momentarily confused.
However, once I learned the basics, Obsidian started to feel a bit less foreign to me and started to feel more like a familiar tool that I could actually use to get work done.
The note-taking experience compared to Notion
At the TGC23 conference, I took notes for many of the keynotes and breakout sessions using my Mac. And to my surprise, at no point during those note-taking sessions did I regret my decision to use Obsidian.
When taking notes on a device, speed is important – both typing speed and the speed at which you can work with your program of choice to enter those notes. If you type quickly but are hindered by your chosen tool, you have the wrong tool.
Thankfully, I didn’t feel slowed down or hindered by Obsidan one bit. I appreciate, in Notion, the fact that I can type a forward slash and quick add a heading or other element. While typing a forward slash in Obsidian doesn’t have the same effect, I can quickly add headings with the number sign / pound symbol / hashtag symbol. (It’s actually called an octothorp, interestingly.)
One “#” followed by a space and words will create an H1 tag. Two “##” together create an H2. Three, an H3 – and so on.
Two equals signs followed by text create a highlight.
Brackets create links.
And so on.
All of this took a bit of getting used to, but once I got the hang of it, it honestly felt like second nature. I didn’t feel slowed down at all, and I appreciated the fact that I can format things quickly, right from my keyboard, without having to use a mouse – although you can use a mouse and do the same things if you want to.
Obsidian’s use of markdown syntax was one thing that I hated about it when I first tried it some months ago. But now that I’ve used it in a real world scenario, trying to record information as quickly and as accurately as possible… I like it. I actually like it.
I won’t say it’s better or worse than Notion’s way of doing things for quick formatting. Just different. And “better” here may simply be a matter of preference.
What I love about Obsidian
While it’s not perfect, as I’m using Obsidian, I’m finding more and more things I appreciate about this program – really too much to include here.
But I’ll try to cover a few.
1. First and foremost, I appreciate Obsidian’s approach to privacy. Unlike some programs, Obsidian never sends my data to the cloud unless I tell it to. I can store my data wherever I want – even on a USB drive if I want. Dropbox, iCloud, Google Drive… doesn’t matter. I can store my files online or on a local physical medium that I own and control. For a data privacy conscious person like me, that’s important.
2. Obsidian, like Notion, works on all my devices – Windows, macOS, iOS and iPadOS. There is also an Android app for Android users. And Linux users? You’re in too. There are AppImage, Snap, Deb, and Flatpak downloads of Obisidan for your use.
3. There are plenty of official and community-made editor themes to adjust the appearance of Obsidian to your own preference.
4. A vast ocean of plugins can extend Obsidian’s functionality beyond what’s available in the stock application.
5. Notes can be linked together, making it possible to connect notes that aren’t even in the same folder. Using links, relationships can be built between notes on similar topics, and those relationships can be viewed easily in the graph view.
6. The canvas feature makes it easy to visually arrange notes and media on an art board of sorts. I used this feature to create a home screen for arranging my conference notes. It worked pretty well, I think.
Honestly, if you’re willing to put in the time to learn the program and get used to the syntax, I have to say, Obsidian is pretty nice.
But there are some things I don’t like.
These may or may not be deal breakers for you, but I do want to cover them briefly – lest anyone jump in not knowing what to expect or think that I’ve become an Obsidian fan club member.
1. Obsidian is not – and isn’t mean to be – as pretty as Notion. Notion is designed to be a polished power-but-simple notes tool that anyone can use right out of the box with just a few minutes to get acquainted. If you try Obsidian, expect to spend some time learning its way of doing things. The learning curve – even for the tech savvy – is a bit steep if you’re not used to working with markdown or Obsidian’s folder structure.
2. Certain stylistic preferences – like paragraph and line spacing in the editor – can’t be changed without creating a custom CSS snippet. Those who know CSS may not mind this, but those who don’t will find this a frustrating and unnecessary annoyance. I would personally like to see this change.
3. Obsidian on an iPhone or iPad can only store notes locally on a device, in the paid Obsidian Sync service or in iCloud. You cannot use Dropbox, Google Drive or any other cloud service for Obsidian on those platforms. This is NOT, to be clear, Obsidian’s fault. Rather, this is a limitation imposed by Apple – one which I’m sure we’d all love to see changed.
Notion features I miss when using Obsidian
Thought my experience with Obsidian has, thus far, been positive there are features in Notion that I miss very much. For example:
1. In Obsidian, it’s very difficult – without specialized templates and CSS – to create a color coded, easy to use dashboard like you can in Notion. For example, I have a nice dashboard I’ve created in Notion of all the projects I need to tackle – along with their status and meeting notes and the like. In Obsidian, it’s not so simple.
2. Obsidian has no built-in AI assistant. Notion AI is fantastic, and I found it very helpful and more than worth the price. But Obsidian has no official counterpart. There are community-made plugins that offer AI integration, but your mileage may vary.
3. Notion’s database functionality is second to none. So far, I’ve not found a way to replicate in Obsidian the way Notion handles tables and databases. I love how easy it is to work with rows and columns of data of various types, add tags, and so on. Maybe one day I will either a) find a way to make it work without a crazy plugin setup or b) learn to cope with the lack of databases. (And if someone out there knows how I can set up Notion-like databases, please comment and let me know!)
Comparing the costs of Obsidian and Notion
Both Obsidian and Notion are completely free to download and use – for most things. But there are a few things to be aware of when considering the two.
Software license cost
Notion does offer paid plans for those who need additional workspace features, and Notion AI is an additional charge. Personally I’ve been using the free plan and paying the additional $10 per month for Notion AI.
Obsidian, on the other hand, does ask users to pay for a $50 per year commercial license if the software will be used to do work for a company of two or more employees. You do not need to purchase a license if you’re a solopreneur running your own business and don’t have employees. Freelancers and one-person shops need not pay.
Cloud syncing cost
Because it’s already cloud based, Notion doesn’t charge anything for cross-platform, multi-device sync. Even with a free plan, you can log in to your Notion account and access all of your notes from any device – even the web.
Obsidian is an offline-first program and doesn’t sync to the cloud unless you set up a cloud sync. You may find this an advantage or a disadvantage depending on your needs.
The official, paid option is called Obsidian Sync. For that service you can expect to pay $8 or $10 per month depending on whether you opt for a monthly or an annual plan (as of the time of this writing). However, you do not need to pay for cloud sync if you prefer to use your own cloud storage provider – like iCloud.
Personally I use iCloud to sync my Obsidian vault between my Mac, PC, iPhone and iPad, and it works beautifully. But if you don’t want to set up your own sync, Obsidian’s is compelling with end-to-end encryption, version history, selective sync and even file recovery options.
Thinking long term.
It’s easy, sometimes, to get so caught up in the here and now and not think about the long game. But more and more, I’ve been thinking about my toolset and thinking through whether or not they’re going to be the right tools a year, two years, five years – ten years – down the road.
Clearly I can’t see the future, and I don’t know for sure that Notion or Obsidian will even be around in five years.
I hope they will be. I have a reasonably-grounded expectation that they will be – and that they’ll be thriving. But how can I know that with certainty?
What I do know with certainty is that two things are important to me now with an eye toward the future:
- The security and privacy of my data, and
- The ability to take that data somewhere else if I need or want to do so.
Because of Obsidian’s offline-first design and my ability to store my notes in a location I own and control – even an encrypted storage location – I feel far safer, and I can have a reasonable expectation that prying eyes aren’t looking through my notes.
But more importantly, because of Obsidian’s use of the markdown (.md) file format, I’ll be able to take that data to another app or service in the future if I ever need to or want to. Again, I don’t know if Obsidian will be around in five years. I have no reason to believe it won’t be. But I don’t want to get locked in to a note app only to have to quickly move them and and reformat them in a hurry if an app or service shuts down.
If I relied entirely on Notion and Notion were to shut down, I’d have to hurry to get my data out while I could. But what if my account were compromised or mistakenly terminated? What if I couldn’t get logged in and was locked out? I’d be in trouble.
These are all important considerations – and things that I believe we as content creators need to be thinking about.
Long term, Obsidian offers me better data security and the knowledge that even if Obsidian were to vanish tomorrow, my data is portable and can be taken to another tool very easily and quickly.
That’s something that none of us should brush off as unimportant.
Will I stick with Obsidian and ditch Notion?
It’s no secret that I both love Notion and want to get away from it. I tried before with Craft – in the interest of data security and privacy – but I found that Craft doesn’t allow the use of an external storage location on Windows. Lame.
At the same time, I do love Notion. And I wrote not long after I explained my jump to Craft that I would be sticking with Notion – both loving it and hating it.
But now that I’ve given Obsidian what I think is a fair shot, will I stick with it or go back to Notion?
Right now, I’m leaning toward sticking with Obsidian, honestly.
And I say that will all due respect for and love toward Notion and all that it’s been for my content creation workflow and personal life. But I just can’t ignore the major privacy benefits that Obsidian brings.
I hope one day that Notion will implement real end-to-end encryption and allow us to store our data in a location we choose – like Dropbox, iCloud, etc. And if that day comes, I may venture back to Notion for at least some things.
For now, however, I think I’m going to keep using Obsidian – at least for a while – and see how it goes. I may find after all that it won’t fit my needs forever. And if it doesn’t, that’s okay. I’ve at least enjoyed the experience, and I have to commend the team behind this great app for a job well done.
I wish all the other note taking apps would take a page from your book.