Some thoughts about Obsidian

I have been seeing a number of tweets recently from people trying to understand why others are moving away from Roam Research over to Obsidian and other applications. From my own personal experience with both Roam and Obsidian, I prefer to use Obsidian over Roam. It works better for me.

The things which make Obisidian more suited to me than Roam I think come under the following areas:

  • reliability
  • ways to interact
  • friction
  • command line
  • expandability
  • community
  • pricing

Rather than do a direct comparison of Roam vs Obsidian, I just want to explain why Obsidian ticks the boxes for me. If you want to read quite a detailed comparison of the two tools, I would suggest this great article by Mike Schmitz

Reliability

I have not had any issues of reliability with Obsidian. I have been using it for around a year now, some of which time I was also using Roam. Any issue I have experiences don't relate to reliability, and have always been due to my own foolish self playing around and trying to break things. I have never lost any data from it.

Ways to Interact

Although Obsidian is a desktop app (available for Mac, Windows and Linux) due to the fact it is based off of Markdown files stored on a drive or sloud storage, this opens up a world of possibilities in terms of interacting with the files. To get all of the full feature set which Obsidian provides you would need to have the application installed, however if you just need to search notes, or make an edit or even create new notes, you don't need to have the app running, or even installed on the computer.

Some may view this as bad, not being able to access the full feature set from anywhere in the world on any computer, but the Obisdian team are currently running beta testing program for the mobile applications. I have the application installed on my Phone and iPad to test it, and I was incredibly surprised how much of the feature set is available through the app. Some of the plugins available from third party developers don't work fully but it's expected as some of them using command line tools or other things which are not supported on the mobile platform. Does this make it bad? Nope.

Some other ways to interact (some require some additional setup but are still relatively simple to do):

  • via GitHub if you store your notes on GitHub
  • via Telegram if you store your notes on GitHub
  • via the command line
  • via automation apps
  • via any application which can read/write markdown files (especially including VSCode)

Friction

Due to Obsidian utilising URL schemes and being based off of Markdown files, the amount of friction between thought in brain to idea in system is almost non-existent. For example, the speed at which Obsidian opens, loads, and jumps to the current daily note is so fast. No issues waiting for pages to load, or signing in, or choosing where you want to navigate to if you have multiple vaults (Obsidian's terminology for storage folder for your Markdown files). It just opens and you are away.

If you want to open to a different vault, you can just use a URL scheme to open a specific vault, or even a specific note if you want.

I mentioned above in the Ways to Interact section about not needing the application to be open... let me explain some more. I have set up some Alfred workflows for Obsidian which will append the text I give it into the current daily note. As it's just a Markdown file, all it's really doing is calculating today's date and formatting to the one I use in Obsidian, then appending the text to the Markdown file itself.

For those who are unaware, Alfred is an automation tool, and is kind of like Spotlight for Mac, but on steroids, and with loads of other functionality. When you use the trigger you set up, I use command + spacebar, anywhere in MacOS or any application, a small text box appears on screen for you to type into. This is great because if I am in the middle of something and have an idea I want to note down, instead of opening Obsidian (though it's open a lot of the time anyway), I can call this command with Alfred, type my thought, press return and boom, it's in my daily note. It means I don't have to navigate anywhere else. I don't have to break a train of thought to note something down.

Command Line

I mentioned the command line above in ways you can interact with Obsidian but didn't go into detail about what or why... A lot of the time my computer is switched on, the terminal is open. In fact this here blog post you are reading is being written using the terminal and Vim. While I dont interact with my Obsidian vault too much via the command line, I could very easily. It makes it very easy to be able to write little Python scripts to do different things to the contents of the vault. Whether it be backups, analysing the contents, or literally anything else ... suddenly it's possible because the notes are simply files of text on your drive.

Expandability

Obsidian has a plugin framework, allowing third party developers to expand the functionality of Obsidian. For example there is a plugin called Templater which allows you to create templates for notes, run Javascript inside those templates, and make some very powerful boilerplate for your notes. At the time of writing this there are 210 plugins available through the built in community plugin feature, however I am almost certain there are so many more which developers just haven't submitted for listing just yet.

Alongside plugins there are themes. These change the way you Obsidian app looks. Personally I stick to the official dark mode theme created by the Obsidian team as I found some of the community dark themes I was trying didn't quite look right on my phone and iPad, whereas I have had no issues at all with the one which comes with the app.

Community

The Obsidian community are amazing. SO SO welcoming and helpful. I can't really say anything else other than it's a really great community to be part of.

Pricing

Obsidian is cheap, very cheap. So cheap it's actually free! All the features of Obsidian are available for free, however they do offer a sync and publish service for a small fee each month. These are completely optional. You can sync your notes between devices using iCloud, Google Drive, Dropbox ... or any other sync service you already use and not need to pay the Obsidian team a penny. I don't personally use the sync service as I have had no issues with my current setup, however if things change, I'd have no qualms about paying for the sync service. I've heard good things. The publish service is a way of making your notes publicly available with the themes you set up in Obsidian. Again I don't personally use it, as I currently don't think my vault is one worth sharing, howevever it may be something I look at in the future.

Finally, Obsidian do have a couple of options for supporting the team monetarily, without paying for one of these services I just mentioned. They have a tiered system for support which provides you with some perks. An exmaple is the base level which is $25 you get early access to new features before they are full implemented into the public version, and a badge on the forums/Discord. Going up through the tiers you start to get access to speak directly to the developers in the Discord, and get other badges. With the rollout of the mobile beta, the higher tiers got access to the beta sooner. There is also an Obsidian Unlimited option which enables you to pay what you want to support the development of Obsidian. If you wanted you could pop them some money each month like a subscription (though you would manually need to send each time as this is currently a one off payment feature).

Conclusion

I hope I have gone some way to explain why I choose to use Obsidian. Ultimately it is what works best for me. If it doesn't work for you, great use what does, whether it be Roam, Evernote, or even a pen and paper ... it simply doesn't matter what tool you are using, so long as you are comfortable with it, it works for you, and doesn't get in the way of you doing things.

I drive a Skoda Octavia because I like it and it suits my needs. Could I get by with a little Ford Fiesta? Probably. Do I think people who have huge Land Rovers or Teslas are silly for having those cars? No ... if it's what works for them then great, I just don't want one...