Breadcrumbs, or a review of tools that annotate and highlight web pages
I've been making the time to read more these days, mainly thanks to Instapaper and a more stimulating daily routine, so I thought I should increase the returns of all this reading by making notes of what the important bits were.
I was struck by this thought after reading a New York Times profile of the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. The profile referenced characters and plots from quite a few Murakami books that I've read, but, as I tried to think back to the stories, I realised I could hardly remember any of them.
So I did a quick Google and arrived at a few candidates (here's a useful list of tools I found). My goal was to find a tool that highlighted web pages, allowed me to create short notes, and could be used with minimum fuss in Chrome.
Webnotes - Promising, but I was turned off by the tiered pricing schemes. Nevertheless, the Lite version did enough to meet my needs. The sign-up was slightly confusing because it insisted on giving me a two-week free trial of the Pro version, even though I'd clicked on the Lite version.
The Webnotes Chrome extension calls up a little toolbar that floats at the top of a given page. You then highlight text and add 'Sticky Notes' to it. All of this stuff is later accessed at your Web Notes account that resides on its website.
The worst part of Webnotes is the user interface of your account on their website. It uses a Windows-esque nested directory structure as the main navigation tool and the fussiness of the whole experience suggests that it'll be an unpleasant place to frequently return to.
Diigo - Like Webnotes, Diigo relies on a Chrome extension that calls up a floating tool bar. Unlike Webnotes, Diigo is a more focused product that doesn't offer some of the power features of the former like PDF annotation or handling RSS and other media feeds. Also unlike Webnotes, Diigo seems to have a better design team.
Diigo's floating toolbar is small and unobtrusive. It contains four buttons for Highlight, Bookmark, Sticky Note and Share.
The Highlight and Sticky Note features work as expected. Stuff you highlight goes to your Diigo Library. The cool thing about this is that notes and highlights are excerpted in the Library so you see all notes and highlights associated with a page at a glance. You don't have to open the page to see what you highlighted. I can imagine scanning my Diigo Library page for a quick summary of pieces I've read.
The overall user experience and design is clean, simple, and focused. This is the major advantage Diigo has over Webnotes.
Evernote - Evernote is a powerful tool that does lots of things beyond highlighting web pages. So I'll limit this to the Web Clipper function. Like Diigo and Webnotes, you can install a Web Clipper Chrome extension.
You 'clip' bits that you want to highlight through a contextual menu. This stuff gets stored in your Evernote Notebook. Because these are clippings and not highlights, however, every clipping exists as a separate Notebook entry. Since I often highlight more than one thing from a articles (usually long pieces), this isn't ideal because the clippings won't be threaded or associated with the original article; they would be a bunch of separate clippings.
But Evernote's design and user experience is clearly the best of the lot. Of course, the company is also well funded, and this turns out to be its major advantage. I used to use the Firefox extension Scrapbook to save and then annotate, offline, stories that I found interesting. The problem with that was browsing was a huge hassle, and ultimately, exporting all that stuff became something that I never bothered to do. So when I switched to Chrome, all my Scrapbook stuff was left behind. With Evernote, you are reasonably sure that the product will be ubiquitous, will continue to be supported and improved, and will be pleasant to use.
In the final analysis, this tool's longevity is more important to me than other features, because it's what will help me build up a huge trove of information that I've consumed, analysed and processed over time. So it's Evernote for me, for now.