Retiring DEVONthink

    I used DEVONthink for many years to store, organize, and search all of my personal information. Nothing else came close to its wide variety of pro-level data management features when I started with it. However, times change. While DEVONthink continually improves, so do its alternatives. For my needs today it’s a complicated, expensive tool that’s no longer worth the extra effort and expense over other products.

    I recently realized I hadn’t launched DEVONthink in months. When I tried to, I remembered that I was out of licenses for it. DEVONthink is licensed by the number of computers you want to use it on. By a quirk of fate, I own or personally operate 4 Macs:

    • An older Mac Mini I bought several years ago and now mainly use as our home server. For example, our document scanner is tethered to it.
    • A work-issued MacBook Pro that mainly sits next to my desk.
    • The Mac Studio I’m typing this on. A previous job issued it to me as a work computer and let me keep it when I left. My current job manages it for me so that I can use a very fast plugged-in computer with several large monitors when I’m working from my home office.
    • A MacBook Air I bought for myself last year when I needed a newer computer of my own before the Studio was given to me.

    I’m the only person who uses these computers. Because of DEVONthink’s weird licensing scheme, my $199 Pro license makes me pick and choose which 2 I want to be allowed to use. I could pay another $198 to use my other 2, oooorrrr I could switch to another system. That was the kick in the pants I needed to investigate the options.

    I ended up following the Unix philosophy of selecting well-crafted single-purpose tools for each of DEVONthink’s features. If I decide to replace one of them, I can swap something else in while I keep using all the others.

    Storage and sync

    I configured DEVONthink to sync my documents with iCloud, including to DEVONthink’s separate $50 iPhone and iPad app. Therefore iCloud Drive was the easy choice for storing all my information and syncing it across my devices. This cost nothing extra since I was already paying for it.


    I use the Johnny Decimal system to assign each of my documents to the right folder. The closest thing to that collection of folders in DEVONthink is that same collection of folders in iCloud Drive.

    Now I use Hazel instead of DEVONthink’s “classify” feature for automatically sending files to the right place. Cost: $42, or $20 for an upgrade. (New major versions come out about every 4 years, so the upgrade price is about $5 per year.)


    DEVONthink has a fantastic search tool. So does HoudahSpot. I set up a global keyboard shortcut to open its search window no matter which app I’m currently using. HoudahSpot also searches locations like network drives and USB devices without indexing them in advance. Cost: $34, or $19 for an upgrade. (New major versions come out about every 3 years, so the upgrade price is about $6 per year.)


    DEVONthink has limited support for taking Markdown notes. I tried using it as my catch-all notes app but kept coming back to iA Writer. It’s much better for writing, linking between notes, publishing to various online services, and as of recently automating my workflows with Shortcuts. I don’t count Writer’s one-time $50 purchase price in my total because, like iCloud, I was paying for it anyway.

    Aside: If your workflows are centered around Markdown, get Marked 2 while you’re at it. Thank me later.

    Linking everything

    DEVONthink has mechanisms to link related objects together. Hookmark (which I’ve written about before) can make links between just about anything. I used it instead of DEVONthink’s features. Cost: $70 for the 1st year then $35 per year.


    I appreciate DEVONthink’s powerful features. However, other tools caught up with or surpassed it to the point that I had been using it as one part of a broader system:

    • DEVONthink to organize, store, and search my documents
    • …into folders laid out as recommended by Johnny Decimal
    • iCloud to sync them
    • iA Writer to take notes and edit Markdown
    • Hookmark to link between documents, web pages, tasks in OmniFocus, network files, and so on

    Now I’m using:

    • Hazel to organize my documents
    • …into iCloud Drive folders laid out as recommended by Johnny Decimal
    • HoudahSpot to search for them
    • iA Writer to take notes and edit Markdown
    • Hookmark to link between documents, web pages, tasks in OmniFocus, network files, and so on

    DEVONthink is better than any of those individual parts, but each of those individual parts is better at the one thing they do than DEVONthink is. Hazel is a better organizer. HoudahSpot is a better searcher. iA Writer and Hookmark are better for writing and linking. And while the end goal of this wasn’t directly to save money, as I’m not allergic to spending money on things that make my life better, DEVONthink’s sticker shock is what nudged me into action. It’s a happy result to end up with a more powerful, flexible system that’s cheaper to maintain.

    DEVONthink’s been good to me. It helped me collect and organize all the information I use in my personal and professional lives. Still, its alternatives got better and learned to play well with each other. Now it’s an overly expensive tool that’s less good at addressing my needs than the cheaper, better tools that replaced it.

    About the Manifesto for Ubiquitous Linking

    I’ve written before about Hook, a nifty way of linking things you’re working on together so you can seamlessly bounce between them. I’ve thoroughly integrated it into my workflow now and adore how quickly I can jump from one document to another — in a different app, even — without ever looking away from my work. It helps me reach and maintain a state of flow.

    Hook depends on an app’s ability to support deep linking to its contents. Many apps are helpful, like OmniFocus. It supports both a right-click “Copy as Link” action to all sorts of items, and allowing other apps to ask it for a link to its currently selected item. Consequently, Hook’s OmniFocus support is top-tier, and I can make links between a to-do item and the website that documents how to do it. Other apps are less helpful, like Apple’s own Reminders app which supports neither users nor other apps asking for a direct link to an item. It somewhat supports drag-and-drop linking to other apps, but that’s not nearly so convenient and powerful as OmniFocus’s methods.

    Apps should be more like OmniFocus than Reminders. To that end, Hook’s author Luc P. Beaudoin collaborated with an all-star list of Apple software developers to write the Manifesto for Ubiquitous Linking, which says in part:

    We affirm that the ability to copy a link to a resource is as important for cognitive productivity as the ability to copy other types of information. This applies to all persistent digital information.

    We invite software developers to do their part, by

    1. ensuring their users can conveniently obtain a link to the currently open or selected resource via a user interface; and
    2. providing an application programming interface (API) to obtain or construct a link to that resource (i.e., to get its address and name).

    I could not agree with this, or endorse it, more heartily. Anyone can write an app that locks away content behind its own twisty maze of navigation links. The best and most powerful applications open themselves to users. Today I can link from an OmniFocus action to a DEVONthink document, and from there to an Obsidian note, whether on my Mac or my phone or iPad. Tomorrow, I want to go directly into any of my apps. If you’re an Apple developer, please take the time to read and consider this manifesto.

    Migrating off Evernote

    In late 2016, Evernote updated their privacy policy to explicitly grant their employees the right to view your personal information. In their own words:

    And please note that you cannot opt out of employees looking at your content for other reasons stated in our Privacy Policy (under the section, “Does Evernote Share My Personal Information or Content?”).

    This is unacceptable for most of the things you’d want to use a note taking application for, and I believe that makes it wholly unfit for any kind of business or private use. The good news is that there are viable alternatives now. These are the options I particularly like:

    Synology Note Station

    If you have a Synology NAS, you can install Note Station which is basically Evernote but hosted on your own server. It has nice (and free) iOS apps, and an Android app that I haven’t used. There’s no desktop app yet but it does have a nice web interface. This is probably the easiest drop-in replacement for Evernote — if you have a Synology.

    Note Station and its mobile apps are free but might not (yet) be quite as polished as you’re used to.


    If you’re in the Apple ecosystem, I highly recommend DEVONthink Pro Office (DTPO). It’s not so much a note app as a personal knowledge repository. My home ScanSnap scanner deposits docs directly into my DTPO inbox and OCRs them so they’re fulltext searchable. It also has a nice UI for creating your own notes, spreadsheets, etc. directly in the app, and great system integrations to make it easy to save data from almost any app into it. It has an amazing AI classification engine, so it can perform actions like automatically filing documents that look like invoices into my “Invoices” folder.

    DTPO also has a new iOS app1 that syncs to it via options such as:

    • Local Wi-Fi peer-to-peer connections so that your data’s never stored on any server,
    • Dropbox, which is handy if you already use it, or
    • Your own WebDAV server, with end-to-end encryption so you don’t have to trust your storage provider. I use my Synology NAS for this method.

    Finally, DTPO has a web interface so that you can browse your document databases from another system which doesn’t (or can’t) have DEVONthink installed on it.

    DTPO isn’t cheap, but I think it’s absolutely worth the cost.


    Of these, I prefer DEVONthink Pro Office as it’s more mature and already has almost every feature imaginable. Note Station is pretty good today, too, and has a lot of promise. Either one will move your data to being completely under your own control and I like that a lot.

    1. DEVONthink To Go was completely rewritten and released in the summer of 2016. The old version was not well regarded. The new version is amazing and updated frequently. If you had stayed away from it based on reputation, give it another look. ↩︎

    Making Devonthink Sync Between Computers

    Update: 2021-05-27

    This is still getting traffic for unknown reasons. Today, in 2021, the problem is long solved. DEVONthink 3 syncs perfectly with itself and with DEVONthink To Go. Again, this is purely historical and not a reflection of the state of things today.

    Also, I have no idea why this post is suddenly so popular again. Help me out and let me know how you found this page? I’d sure appreciate it!

    Update: 2016-09-17

    In July 2016, DEVONtechnologies released DEVONthink 2.9 with an entirely new sync engine. It’s like a brand new program and synchronization has been flawless. Although I’ve only been using the new version for a couple of months now, it feels better, faster, and deterministic in a way the older ones never did.

    At this point, I’m cautiously optimistic that all of the problems I wrote about below are fixed and obsolete. My fingers are crossed!

    I’m keeping this post up for historical reasons but I don’t think that it’s relevant anymore.

    Q: I have DEVONthink Pro Office and I want to sync my home and work computers so that I can access documents in both locations. How can I do that?

    A: You can’t. Give up. It won’t work reliably.

    Q: No, really. How do I do that?

    Longer A: Seriously, give up. It doesn’t work and you’ll just get angry and frustrated. Trust me.

    I use and love DEVONthink Pro Office as a document manager. Pretty much every piece of information I come across goes into it, whether scans of utilities bills, PDFs of software manuals, Twitter messages I starred, or the complete collection of RFCs. If there’s any chance I might ever want to find something again, DTPO stores it. Its most important feature is the uncanny ability to return exactly the search results I want when I need to find something. Second only to that is its AI-powered “see also” feature: “you seem to be reading up on an obscure technical subject. You might also be interested in the author’s blog posts about it, some guy’s master’s thesis on the main algorithm, and the popular alternative version written by a teen living in a favela in São Paulo.”

    It’s that good. And I’m still desperate to find anything else to replace it.

    The main problem is that DTPO refuses - just flat-out digs its heels in and resists - syncing reliably for more than a few days at a time. The pattern always goes like this:

    • I start off optimistic, determined that this time will be different.
    • At home, I add a sync connection to Dropbox, or to my own WebDAV server which has been syncing OmniFocus and other apps successfully for years.
    • I sync one of my medium-sized (2GB or so) databases to that connection.
    • I select the Synchronize menu option and wait several hours as my data gets pushed up to the server.
    • At work, I set up the same connection and import the database. Then I select Synchronize and wait a few hours as all my data comes back from the cloud.
    • I use it for a couple of weeks until I start getting random sync errors that cause it to stop halfway through without copying across all my new documents.
    • After going through all the troubleshooting tips on their forum (of which there are many because this seems to happen to a lot of people), I give up and resign myself to the dreaded “Clean Location…” button which deletes all documents off the remote server.
    • I walk away from it for a few weeks so that I don’t throw my laptop out the window.

    So I exaggerated a little. It is possible to reliably sync two machines running DTPO:

    • Pick one to be the primary machine.
    • Pick the other to be the secondary.
    • Do all your editing work on the primary. When you’re happy with it, use rsync or some other file copier to nuke what’s on the secondary and make it identical to the primary, losing any changes you might’ve made there.
    • If you’re at work and want to add a document, just email to yourself at home and import it into DTPO there later when you’d rather be playing with your kids, washing the dog, or doing anything else in the entire world.

    That’s how you reliably sync DTPO. Anything else is just a ticking time bomb.