Try to remember: Evernote vs. Springpad

The two best-known data collection apps go head to head.

Sometimes it seems as though technology is making our lives more complicated, not less. There's a vast amount of information out there, much of which we seem determined to save. We collect it from the Web, from our scanners and via our smartphone cameras, and it can range from important data such as tax returns, family pictures and contracts to the photo you took of the wine that your friend served you last Thursday. Where do you put it all, and how do you find it again?

A number of applications promise to help you track that cacophony of information. Currently, the two kings of this particular castle are Evernote and Springpad. They are both Web-based tools designed to serve as bottomless storage repositories; they're built to enable people to deposit almost any type of digital information and then organize it, categorize it and/or retrieve it when needed.

It's a tall order. The idea that you can save almost all digital information and then retrieve it at a moment's notice is a great one -- especially to information magpies who want to hold onto a huge amount of data but don't have the time or the inclination to organize it. But how well do these two programs fulfill that promise?

I worked with Evernote and Springpad for several weeks, using them both as professional tools and for personal information storage. I compared the two based on a variety of factors, from the features of their interfaces to their support for social networking. Interestingly, while both applications handle a wide variety of data and are designed for the same purpose -- to help users track everything -- each has a very different approach. Your choice will probably depend on what type of interface you're comfortable with and the type of data you tend to work with.

Note: Most of my observations are based on experiences working on Windows-based laptops and an Android-based Droid smartphone. You might encounter some differences if you use Evernote or Springpad on OS X- and iOS-based devices, but the main functionality is the same.

How they work

The first major difference between Evernote and Springpad is in the access they provide to your stored data: a hybrid local/cloud approach versus an all-cloud service.

Evernote

Although Evernote syncs everything through the cloud and offers a fairly sophisticated Web-based platform, the application is actually centered on its local clients for Windows and OS X. It also is available in apps for several mobile platforms, including iPhones, iPads, Android devices, BlackBerry phones and the Palm Pre. Your information is synced across these platforms.

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These local clients ensure that users have access to their data whether or not they're online -- something that is useful for those who depend on Wi-Fi for an Internet connection away from home or the office. For example, if I want to take notes at a meeting where I'm not sure I can get online, I bring up Evernote on my netbook (I haven't joined the tablet forces yet) and type away, secure in the knowledge that as soon as I'm able to connect to the Internet again, Evernote will automatically sync the new note with the rest of the database.

Evernote is available in a free ads-included version that allows users to add up to 60MB of additional data per month. (There's no cap on how much aggregate data you can store over time, just a limit on how much new information you can add each month.) A premium ad-free version ($5/month or $45/year) lets you add up to 1GB of new data per month; it also synchronizes any files you attach to your notes, while the free version syncs only images, audio and PDF files in addition to your notes. Premium users enjoy a variety of other advantages as well, such as improved support and access to note history.

Springpad

Unlike Evernote, Springpad is a completely cloud-based service, and it went through a nasty few days during the recent Amazon EC2 cloud service outage. Like other Web services that depended on Amazon's servers (such as Quora and Reddit), Springpad was completely down for about two days -- and its users didn't have local use of their data. Disconcerting, to say the least.

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To its credit, the company was very careful to keep in touch with its users during the downtime, telling them exactly what happened, explaining how to back up their data and describing what it will do to prevent a similar incident in the future.

Springpad is completely free; it currently doesn't offer a premium service.

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