DEVONthink: Magical Data Management for Mac & iOS

Do you ever get tired of trying to figure out where to put something on your computing devices or how to find something? DEVONthink tackles this problem head-on and does an impressive job of making technology simplify your digital life.

What is DEVONthink?

I could devote an entire article to just this question, but, instead, I will keep it extremely short. DEVONthink is a very powerful and complex suite of software tools that help you capture, organize, edit, and find just about any kind of data you can possibly throw at it. The central part of this suite of software tools is a piece of Mac software called DEVONthink (although it is possible to run DEVONthink as a standalone app from iOS). There are several different versions of DEVONthink available for Mac:

  • DEVONthink Personal
  • DEVONthink Pro
  • DEVONthink Pro Office

I was given a copy of DEVONthink Pro for the purposes of this review and then I opted to purchase an upgrade to DEVONthink Pro Office and purchased the iOS app. I highly recommend opting for the DEVONthink Pro Office version of the app because of two main features: OCR (Optical Character Recognition) and email importing. These two features alone more than justify the additional cost, especially if you are planning to be a heavy user of this application. That being said, the more basic versions of DEVONthink are not crippled in any way and are still extremely powerful so evaluate your needs carefully and choose the version that best fits your specific needs.

DEVONthink To Go for iOS is just the right mix of simplicity and power, so you can take your data anywhere (Image from devontechnologies.com)

There is also a separate application for iOS called DEVONthink To Go. The most common use for the iOS app is to sync it with the Mac version via one of many compatible cloud services, but the iOS app can also be used as a standalone app if you are someone who has gone iOS only. DEVONthink supports many different syncing options. You can either sync via a cloud service (an indirect sync) like Dropbox (the most common) or use your own cloud service (it supports most servers that use WebDAV). You can also choose to sync via your local home or work network (a direct sync). The indirect sync via a cloud service is actually quite ingenious as it is set up with full end-to-end encryption so that the data stored on your cloud service (whether that be Dropbox or a WebDAV server) is completely encrypted. The instance of DEVONthink that is accessing the data over the server then decrypts the data once the data has been synced over locally to your device. This makes it so much easier to get comfortable using DEVONthink to store personal and sensitive data while still using the sync capability. But DEVONthink has even more sync flexibility than that. With the iOS version of DEVONthink (DEVONthink To Go) you can opt (via an additional iOS in-app-purchase) to only sync the metadata from all or specific databases and then only download specific documents locally to your devices as needed. This gives you all the powerful search capabilities but minimizes the storage needs on your iOS device. Syncing could also be its own article, but to summarize, DEVONthink has a ton of options here to suit pretty much anyone’s needs.

Why Might You Need DEVONthink?

Only you can answer this question for yourself, but maybe I can help you by explaining why I needed DEVONthink. I have two very distinct uses for DEVONthink: work and home.

Toss everything at DEVONthink and then let it find it and feed it back to you when you need it (Image from devontechnologies.com)

At work I used DEVONthink to manage pretty much all of my work-related data. Documents, meeting agendas, meeting minutes, notes, and emails (emails is critical because the vast majority of information I deal with flows through email) all gets fed into DEVONthink. The killer feature for DEVONthink at work for me is its search engine. Because everything goes into DEVONthink, I can perform a single search and find every piece of data related to a topic or a work task I am performing whether it be in an email, a note I made during a meeting, or any documents related to that search topic. Before I started using DEVONthink I would have to perform multiple individual searches. One search in my email application and then several other searches within my file system on my computer. In addition to being able to find anything quickly, DEVONthink has also greatly simplified my data organization. DEVONthink uses artificial intelligence to analyze any piece of information you toss at it. After you have set up your databases and data groups within DEVONthink, you can opt to let the artificial intelligence take over the task of deciding where to store a certain piece of data. No more manually moving data into file folders! Between using artificial intelligence to figure out where the data should be stored and its powerful search engine to find that data when I need it, DEVONthink has completely automated management of my data at work.

My use at home is similar but much more basic. I’ll give you a couple of examples…

Web Receipts:

My family has been a heavy online purchasing family for over a decade now, and we have accumulated thousands of receipts and documents from shopping and paying bills online. The Mac makes it really easy to make a purchase online and then save that purchase receipt from the web into a PDF document on your computer (it uses a sub-option from the print command called print to PDF). So all of my family’s computing devices have been savings these receipts into a central location on Dropbox. The only drawback to this has been going back and finding what you need later. This method of “saving to a Web Receipts Folder” on the Mac doesn’t automatically give each PDF a useful file name. So if I bought something online a few years ago and the item broke, I would need to manually go back through thousands of files and hope I could find the receipt. DEVONthink has made these thousands of web receipts so much more useful now. Because DEVONthink has such a powerful search engine, I don’t have to rely on remembering approximately when I made a purchase to find a receipt (remember, the file names of all of these documents are pretty much useless). DEVONthink will search within each PDF and allow me to find exactly what I need without needing to remember when I made the purchase or from where. I use this not only for online purchases but also for all my household bills, whether they start out as electronic or as paper. I use a ScanSnap scanner and turn all my paper bills into electronic documents. I use to have to spend a couple of hours each week organizing my scanned bills, and now DEVONthink’s artificial intelligence sorts all of these files for me automatically.

Archiving Web Articles From Pocket:

Here is an example of where I get a service out of DEVONthink that I would normally have to pay someone else for. I read a lot of articles from the web and most of these articles I save to a service called Pocket. Pocket is a free service, but if you want some of the more advanced features (like being able to search through your history of articles) you have to pay ($4.99 a month or $44.99 a year). Since I have DEVONthink I can replicate this service automatically. I use a free service called If This Then That (IFTTT) that continuously watches connected services like Pocket and can perform certain actions automatically for me when a “trigger” I have set up on the service occurs. IFTTT does not currently have the ability for me to publish my applet, but here is a screen grab of it and below is the code you need for the IFTTT applet for the web API to convert a URL into a PDF:

 

http://FreeHTMLtoPDF.com/?convert={Url}

My IFTTT applet for converting saved Pocket articles to PDF in Dropbox

In this case, when I save a new article to Pocket, IFTTT takes that article and uses a web API to convert that web article into a PDF and saves the PDF to a specific Dropbox folder. This is where DEVONthink comes in. On my Mac at home I have a DEVONthink service (a free plugin that comes with DEVONthink) attached to this folder on Dropbox such that each time a new document is added to that folder DEVONthink performs OCR (Optical Character Recognition, which makes the PDF searchable) and imports the PDF into DEVONthink. So now I have a complete and searchable history of everything I have read online within DEVONthink… all for no additional fees. I no longer have to remember which website I saw a great article about matching kids cosplay outfits for Batman and Batgirl (come on, it had to be GeekDad right?), I just search my history of Pocket articles and there it is.

Letting DEVONthink make data connections for you means you can focus more on what you needed the data for in the first place (Image from devontechnologies.com)

These are not the only two uses I have for DEVONthink at home. I use DEVONthink to store all of the information I use to publish content on my personal tech blog and here at GeekDad (this includes any press kits, draft articles, and photos). I even subscribe to my personal blog’s RSS feed so that I have a complete history of every article I have ever published (yes, DEVONthink can subscribe to RSS feeds as a totally automatic way to get content into it). This is very handy when you are writing an article and you know you have written about something before and just need a quick link to that article.

The last little gem I will leave you with for home use is just how easy it is to save information from anywhere to DEVONthink. I do most of my consumption at home on an iOS device (either my iPhone or my iPad Pro), and DEVONthink has an extension you can invoke from any “share” action within iOS. So if I am reading an email about my home mortgage being paid, I can press the little “share” icon in iOS and the DEVONthink extension will save that email (either the entire email or just the attachment, depending on what you were viewing when you pressed the share icon) directly into DEVONthink with a single push of a button. This extension can be used from pretty much any application within iOS on things like highlighted text, full web pages, or even files from other applications. There are so many use cases for this action extension that I couldn’t possibly cover them all. Suffice it to say, you can get just about any type of information from any app in iOS into DEVONthink with a single press of the DEVONthink action extension.

Trying Out & Getting Started With DEVONthink

I’ve written way too much at this point, so now its your turn. If you think you have a use for DEVONthink (most likely you have many) then the best thing to do is to try out a free demo for yourself. DEVONthink offers a nearly full featured (it has a limit on the number of emails you can archive) free demo for 150 hours (and by 150 hours I mean 150 hours of actually using the app, which could take you many weeks or even months to use). This is one of the most generous demo versions of a piece of software I have ever encountered. The reason DEVON Technologies does this is because their software is so effective that once you spend enough time with it to completely realize what it can do specifically for you, it will be a must-have for you. This is also a very complex piece of software, so you really need a nice long demo in order to truly get a feel for what it can do. So here is what I recommend. If you think you have a need for DEVONthink, download the free trial here.

Then use any or all of the resources I list below to help you get started with the application. With an application this powerful, it is not something you can just start using without any help. So here is a variety of both free and paid for resources to consider:

I am a big proponent of utilizing technology to make your life more simple. DEVONthink has allowed me to stop having to spend a lot of time or significant amount of thought on managing data… it now does this for me. If that isn’t a good use of technology I don’t know what is.

A rocket-scientist, father of 3, amateur astronomer, piano/keyboard player and soon to be sci-fi author who wears his geek badge with pride.