Aquiles Carattino

Choosing between Zettlr and Obsidian

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When I decided to start my digital garden , I had to look around for tools I felt confident using in the long run. After experimenting for some time, I narrowed down the list of requirements for the software I use to take notes:

  • Files are stored locally
  • In a format that guarantees long-term compatibility (such as Markdown)
  • Interface is not in the way
  • Supports easy linking (such a as wikilinks)
  • No forcing of organizational hierarchy or structure
  • No need for including many figures
  • Some support for equations
  • Some support for references

The first few requirements are based on my own workflow. I don't need to take notes on my phone and have them ready on my computer. I take notes always when I am at my desk. The kind of note I would take on a phone is the kind of note I take on paper. I know this is not for everyone, but I am confident it is the same workflow for most people.

I have explored different programs, and none reaches to the level of either Zettlr or Obsidian . But they are different to each other and that is what I wanted to discuss.

First, Zettlr is open source and I believe in choosing technology based on their incentives . I have actually used parts of the code of Zettlr to understand how to parse markdown and render this website. Obsidian is not open source and probably will never be. Although it is free to use with some premium features. It is worth noting that since files are stored locally with a common format, there's no risk regarding the continuity of my project in case either of them disappears from one day to the other.

They both have a clean interface. Obsidian is more minimalistic than Zettlr. They both support quick links with the wikilink format, although Zettlr offers a bit more of configuration on how they look like (adding text, referencing by title, etc.) Obsidian offers bidirectional links, and a network graph to see how notes are linked to each other. It may sound like a minor feature, but it is great to quickly find orphan notes, put several together and understand our thoughts by proximity.

Up to this point, my favorite to use on a daily basis is Obsidian . I like the simple interface that does not get in the way. On the other hand, Zettlr could fall into the category of an authoring tool for end products, such as a report, a paper or even a book. You can export notes to different formats, and more. That means that a lot of the effort is put into rendering the notes, while for me that is not a feature.

Because I render the notes as a website with my custom script, I am interested in a tool that helps me author notes, find links, organize my thoughts. I find searching through notes easier on Obsidian. Writing overall has a lower barrier thanks to the uncluttered interface. Zettlr calls itself a markdown editor , and that was not what I was after.

But , there is always a but. Zettlr is geared towards academic work. Which means it bundles some very nice features: it renders equations written in LaTeX , and it handles bibliographic databases straight out of Zotero . This is not included in Obsidian and probably it'll never be, since their target customers are elsewhere. These two features are, in my opinion, killer additions to a proper note-taking software.

So in the end, I've reached a compromise: I take most notes using Obsidian. Because it feels quick and unintrusive. But if I need to take literature notes (such as this one ) that require more equations and proper handling of citations, I use Zettlr directly. After a while I got used to referencing citations just by looking at the citation key in Zotero, and I use Zettlr even more sporadically, just for equation-heavy work.

Parsing the notes for rendering as a website is done by my own program, and I must confess that I barely look at it. I trust that the pages are looking OK or that someone will warn me if not. Splitting creation from publishing gave me a new influx of energy to start actively maintaining a website.

Other software I simply didn't like

SInce some people keep asking and suggesting other programs, I must stop you right now: I don't intend to try programs just because they are there, there must be a stringent justification for me to spend time on them.

Many programs are simply not what I am after. For example, I am not looking for cloud solutions such as Roam or Notion. I don't trust either company as to give them my notes. Secondly, I don't care about programs with bloated interfaces, such as Trillium and many others I've tried in the past. It is simply not my style, in the same way that Evernote is an awful choice for long-term storing of notes (just look at their Linux support).

This does not mean that these same tools are not worth your time and money. Not all of us work in the same way, and the most important point is to achieve low friction working . I have achieved that with this particular combination of tools. Perhaps in the future there'll be other that can lower the friction even further.

Tags: #note-taking #software #obsidian #zettlr


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Aquiles Carattino
Aquiles Carattino
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