Obsidian Review: Transforming Your Note-Taking Experience

Obsidian is the ultimate note program around, the knowledge-worker's perfect friend.
Odin Odin (15)
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Our rating: 5/5

Note-taking applications have been all the rage for years, with hits like Evernote striking it big enough to enter the public lexicon, becoming commonplace terms. Others, like Roam and TheBrain, go a lot deeper, adding powerful functionality not merely designed to provide a better note-taking experience, but actively promote better note-recall and exploration. That’s where Obsidian comes in, the new kid on the block with some mighty big ideas and the experienced team to make it all happen.

The question that arose for me was: What program best fits my needs?

Zettelkasten note-taking

My own philosophy of note-taking is that of the Zettlekasten(German for “slip-box” or “note-box”). This method works by linking notes forward to similar notes and generating new notes from existing ones during explorations of the note collection. For this, while you can certainly use the classic method that relies on post-cards, I find it far easier to handle with the use of a clever computer program and a dual-monitor workstation. The question that arose for me was “what program best fits my needs?”

How I found Obsidian

During the pandemic, I began looking for ways to better handle my knowledge flow and retention. At a workshop with the science fiction author Tobias Buckell, I learned about Obsidian and the powerful ways it supports note-taking, idea generation, and retrieval of information for later use. As an academic and professional writer, this matters to me; in the age of Deep Work (as author Cal Newport calls it), we need to have the tools at our disposal which streamline the process of our work as much as possible while aiding us in the deep knowledge dive.

What is Obsidian?

The Obsidian team actually only began working on the project during the Covid-19 pandemic, free to spend extra time turning a concept into a reality. While Obsidian is in many ways optimized for knowledge workers who interact heavily with code, its features provide any knowledge worker with a vast array of tools for organization and insight generation. Combined with the Zettelkasten approach to notes, Obsidian allows for a powerful storage and retrieval system for all of my notes, as well as a beautiful space within which to connect the dots in surprising ways between existing notes and therefore generate my own ideas and thoughts from those pre-existing points.

Combined with the Zettelkasten approach to notes, Obsidian allows for a powerful storage and retrieval system for all of my notes

This article is intended as a brief top-down review and introduction to the features of Obsidian, which I will then go into in greater detail in future articles that concentrate on specific “how-to” questions. This is a big and complex program, but the learning curve is wonderfully shallow. It’s possible to jump in straight out of the gate with very little knowledge and expand as you go, but I promise that by following the guides here you’ll be able to make headway all that much quicker.

Obsidian SoftwareObsidian Software ×1

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Obsidian cloud

With cloud note-taking services you often have to fork over some aspect of your private data for the use of the system, or else pay various fees to keep using the software. Worse, if you want to switch from those services, doing so can be a huge hassle that can ultimately break your whole note-taking system, especially if the service you’ve been using handles your notes with some sort of non-standard file type.

Obsidian is free with paid extensions and all the files live directly on your computer (or in your own cloud storage) and therefore you never have to worry about losing access to your work. The file type is plain text with markdown (Obsidian natively supports CommonMark and GitHub Flavored Markdown), too, so if you ever decide that you want to leave Obsidian, you can easily migrate your work elsewhere.

Obsidian links

To create an interconnected network of notes, you need a method to interconnect them, and you need to be able to do so at any point in time, for any note, regardless of when it was created. Through backlinks, Obsidian allows you to do just that, creating internal links between notes being a fundamental feature of the platform. It’s easy, too, with automatic search features built into the software, so all you have to do is type two brackets [[ and Obsidian will automatically help you find the note you want to link to).

Graph View Obsidian

I love graph view in Obsidian, and it’s actually this that finalized my decision to go with it over all the other options. The web method of note-taking exemplified by Zettlekasten is about breadth rather than depth; a deep stack of notes is cumbersome and you’re less likely to find what you’re looking for, especially if you want to encounter it organically rather than through a simple direct search).

Obsidian allows you to graphically experience this process in its map view, which shows all of your notes as little dots on a limitless canvas. Once you start linking notes, lines form on the canvas connecting the linked notes, and a simple physics engine adds an organic feel to your little constellation of notes. Over time, clusters form, and you’ll be able to see where your biggest notes and your biggest collections of notes are; you’ll start to see the patterns in how you think, as well as how you conduct research. As a highly visual person, this was extremely exciting.

Obsidian Slides

There’s something extremely powerful about the old-fashioned method of writing down notes on index cards and then placing those index cards before you on a blank table. Arranging them in different ways, exchanging one card for another, is a process that allows for deep idea generation and the formulation of interesting arguments that might otherwise have been hidden from your conscious mind.

Until Obsidian, I had not found a platform that allowed me to mimic anything like this physical process. But the designers clearly wanted the same thing as I. Obsidian uses panes that can be opened side-by-side for individual notes, allowing you to pin, combine, or sift through your notes at your leisure. I recommend a large screen or a multi-monitor experience to make the most of this, but even on a smaller screen, it provides a powerful connective tool.

Obsidian Themes

Human beings are creatures who adore the shiny thing; we love making our space into a reflection of our personality and style. Obsidian’s ability to use custom CSS to alter the look of the program is great for those who want or need to set their notes up in a certain visual style. Obsidian comes with a light and dark basic style, but advanced work can change every aspect of the program’s face, making it suit your needs.

Obisidan plugins

Customization is a vital part of any program. The more a community can customize and work together to improve something, the better the result will be. This is where Obsidian’s remarkable community of like-minded users and enthusiasts comes into play.

Obsidian is highly customizable and there are already a large number of plugins that enhance the functionality, solve issues that the developers have not yet explored, and add whole new feature sets that expand the usefulness of the program almost indefinitely, making it possible for knowledge workers in any discipline to find the enhancements they need to get the most out of the program.

Obsidian GitHub

This isn’t an official feature, per se, but the ability to sync all of your work to a private GitHub, complete with total version control, is a big win. A lot of major cloud services get blocked by the more serious firewalls people are likely to encounter at work or on high-security networks. Being able to sync with a personal vault means that Obsidian can be used on a fire-walled machine and then saved to the GitHub vault where work can be continued from a personal computer elsewhere.

Obsidian Pricing

I mentioned this earlier, but Obsidian is completely free for personal use, with relatively low monthly costs for advanced features like Obsidian’s own sync service or the ability to publish your database to the web. Their website states that the personal version is free forever, and as of March 2021 the pricing for all other features is marked down by 50% as an “early bird” special for all those who are joining the project while it is still in development.

Obsidian platforms

Obsidian has already released beta versions of its iOS and Android application for testing by the VIP community and is working toward a public release in the not-too-distant future. This will allow for complete synchronization across all devices, ensuring that Obsidian’s powerful note-taking and note-exploration functions are always accessible.

Ratta

There have even been hints by the team from Ratta, the company that designed my favorite e-ink device, the Supernote, that they are aware of Obsidian and are considering methods of integrating it into their list of side-loaded software. That would mean that all those amazing Supernote note-taking features could be applied directly to Obsidian’s incredible platform. You can bet your breeches I’ll be writing about that should it finally come to pass.

Odin's profile pictureOdin
Joined in 2021 15 guides
Odin Hartshorn Halvorson is a writer, geek, and hopeful futurist. A graduate from Stonecoast MFA, his work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He is the founder of Round Table Writers, an organization dedicated to "writers helping writers." Odin's love of Roddenberrian and Straczynskian ideals leads him to contemplate technology's role in our evolving philosophic landscape, a line of inquiry threaded through both his fiction and non-fiction writing. Learn more at OdinHalvorson.com
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