Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Working in the Cloud, Part 3: Evernote

In this third part of the series, I am going to describe how I use Evernote. In earlier posts, I described my use of Dropbox and Google Drive.

Like Google Drive, Evernote has many features beyond data storage. As in my previous two posts, I will describe how I use it, rather than attempt to be comprehensive. 

First and foremost, Evernote is great for typing up notes of all sorts. At this point, I often find that I start drafting up my ideas for lots of things in Evernote. Even if it is eventually going to be an email or a presentation or a blog post, I will usually start with Evernote. I am often taking notes in meetings, or while on the phone. No longer do I have these notes on various papers that I either have to carry around or that I forget at the office when I am somewhere else. I also make notes for my classes, and keep those in a note. Then I pull up the note on any device, and I am ready for class. I use Evernote to save receipts too, particularly if I need to file for reimbursement later. 

Editing notes is the centerpiece of Evernote, so it can be done on any device. Moreover, the interface looks very similar on tablets, laptops, and the desktop, so I don’t have to spend a lot of time finding the features I use on one device when I move to a different one.

Notes are accessible in a few different ways. I can add tags to my notes, and later pull up notes with a particular tag or set of tags. Notes can also be sorted into different notebooks, which are the equivalent of file folders in other storage systems. Notes that have reminders will be listed under reminders. For a note that I return to frequently, I add it to a list of shortcuts. Finally, notes are sorted by date of creation, with the most recent notes at the top within easy reach. This makes organization, and therefore finding the note I want to work on, pretty easy.

One of my favorite ways to use Evernote is in conjunction with its native reminder feature. For instance, if I need to photocopy something at the office, I might type a quick note to myself in Evernote and set up a reminder. The reminder can have a due date or not. If it does have a due date, Evernote sends an email to you on that day as well. 

Have you ever had the experience of having an email you can’t get to right now but want to answer later? This is where Evernote works really well. Evernote accounts come with an email address. Suppose I have an email from Maria that I want to get to later. I will forward Maria's email to my Evernote address. When it arrives, I add a reminder to the email-now-note, and then I do not forget to respond (reminders can also be added by altering the subject line of the email when I forward it). There are also times when I receive an email request that I can respond to, but also requires additional action later. When I respond, I blind-copy my Evernote address, so that I see the email and it reminds me to follow up on it.

In fact, Evernote interacts well with email in other ways. You can type a quick note as an email, and send it to Evernote. You can even set it up so that the email appends to an existing note, gets filed in a particular notebook, is tagged the way you want it, and it can have a reminder added as well.

Another way that I have come to use Evernote is to save items from the web, in a few different ways. Evernote has a web clipper for your task bar that lets you quickly take a screenshot (entire screen or a selected portion) and save it to Evernote. This works well if there is a graph or some data in a table that I want to save. If I am reading a blog post, often through Feedly or Instapaper, and I decide I want to keep the article, then I save it to Evernote. Then I tag it, and in this way I build a collection of ideas to share with colleagues, with students, with teachers, etc.

I also share my notes in one of two ways. Either I email the entire note, or I get a URL for the note, and share that instead. An advantage of using the URL is that I can post it somewhere, like a Lino or Padlet board, or some other public web space, and anyone can follow the link to see the note. Another advantage is that by following the URL, anyone accessing the note will see the most updated version.

Evernote’s storage limit works differently than Dropbox or Google Drive. Rather than a fixed limit, Evernote allows its users to add up to 60 MB (for the free account) per month. So I don’t worry that I have to go back through old notes to delete them; rather, I just have to be careful of how much I add each month (and I have never hit my limit).

Now we come to limitations. Evernote is great for notes. I also add PDF files, scans of documents, and occasional photos to Evernote. But I do not save other sorts of files, like spreadsheets or LaTeX files. I could save a LaTeX file into Evernote, but I am not sure that I could go through my usual cycle of editing, compiling, editing more, etc. Files other than notes are saved by "clipping" them to a note. Evernote doesn't seem made for the purpose of keeping files that are updated a lot. In this sense, Evernote probably could not be my only cloud service.

Syncing with Evernote is reliable, but not constant. Whereas every change is sent to Google Drive every few seconds as I work, and Dropbox is always working in the background to sync my files once saved, Evernote syncs either when prompted, or at other intervals. This has only come up when I make a last-minute addition to a note for my class in Evernote on my desktop, and then proceed to class with Evernote on a different device. If I don’t hit the sync button on Evernote, it may be a while before it syncs, and therefore I am without the latest version of my notes for class.

Basic (read: free) Evernote accounts require internet access in order to access my notes. This makes it the same as Google Drive. However, because Evernote is not syncing my notes every few seconds, if I am on a slow connection, I am not as likely to lose access to my note. However, I will lose the ability to open other notes if I am without internet. Evernote Premium users can access notes offline by designating particular notebooks that will be stored locally on the device.

Evernote Summary:

+Notes can be created and edited on any device.
+Notes can be organized in multiple ways, including notebooks, tags, reminders, and shortcuts.
+Notes can be added via email.
+Notes can have reminders, with or without dates.
+Notes can be created by saving items from the web.
+Evernote has an upload limit per month, rather than a fixed storage limit.

-Evernote is not designed for editing spreadsheets or PDFs or other files besides notes.
-Sync immediately before moving to another device to guarantee notes are up-to-date.
-For Basic users, accessing notes requires an internet connection.

There are certainly a lot more ways to use Dropbox, Google Drive, and Evernote than I have covered here. Still, I hope this has given readers at least an idea of some of the different ways of taking advantage of these three services.  

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Working in the Cloud, Part 2: Google Drive

In my last post, I covered my usage of Dropbox. In this post, I am going to pick up with my usage of Google Drive.

When I only had home and office desktops and a laptop, I was satisfied with Dropbox alone. Two years ago, I got an iPad, and began to explore more apps, including Evernote and Google Drive. Given that I was already a Dropbox user, I have added the other services to fulfill particular needs. If I had come to the others first, my usage of them would probably be different. In this post, I will discuss Google Drive.

Whereas Dropbox is really about file storage, Google Drive is a more expansive system. You can use Google Drive to store files of all types. However, files in Google Drive work especially well with Google’s Documents, Sheets, Forms, Presentations, and Drawings. For me, Google Drive serves to enable collaboration in ways that are difficult with Dropbox. In particular, if I have a document that I am going to co-author, and I want my co-author to be able to view the document with me simultaneously, then I will use Google docs. I also like the feature that allows me to select what people can do with an item I share, where the options are: can view/can comment/can edit. So when I am running a workshop, for instance, my co-facilitators may have editing capability, while participants get viewing capability. And, unlike Dropbox, only files that originate with me count against my file storage limit.

My favorite feature of Google Drive is Google Forms. Google Forms are great for surveys or quizzes. There are several different question formats that you can set up for a question, including multiple choice and short answer. The responses to the form are collected in a Google Sheet. And, with the use of Flubaroo, an add-on to Sheets, I can auto-score a quiz as well, and have the scores emailed to the students.

There are a couple of nice aspects of storage in Google Drive. One is that Google’s native formats (Documents, Sheets, Forms, Presentations, and Drawings) do not count against your storage limit. Another is that items scanned in to Drive get Optical Character Recognition (OCR) applied to them, so that if, for instance, I scan a hard copy of a typed document, I am saved from re-typing it, because OCR converts the scanned content into text.

Google Drive has its own set of limitations. One of the limitations across Google’s native Docs and Forms is that it is difficult to typeset mathematics. (I have a partial work-around, but I’ll save that for another day.) Another issue is that Documents and Sheets are editable on the iPad, but at last check, Drawings and Forms are not. Also, where Dropbox files are stored locally on a laptop or desktop, so that you can work offline, and particular files can be selected for local storage on your tablet, Google Drive files are not generally available offline. I have had the experience of trying to access a file when I have a slow internet connection, and I am stuck unable to access it. (If you use Chrome or Chrome OS, you can set up offline access: https://support.google.com/drive/answer/2375012?hl=en.)

Google Drive Summary:

+Native editor for proprietary file types.
+Native Document and Sheet editors work on the iPad.
+Forms are great for surveys and quizzes. 
+Form results go in a spreadsheet that can be auto-scored with Flubaroo.
+Files in native Google formats do not count against the storage limit.
+Only my own files count against my storage limit, and not those files shared with me but owned by others.
+OCR lets me convert hard copies into electronic text.

-Mathematics is difficult to typeset in Google’s native formats.
-Google Forms, Presentations, and Drawings cannot be edited on an iPad.
-Google files are not available offline except via Chrome or Chrome OS.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Working in the Cloud, Part 1: Dropbox

I use multiple cloud services, primarily Dropbox, Google Drive, and Evernote. This has been my setup for the past year or so, whereas before that, I used Dropbox exclusively. In this series of posts, I’d like to explore what I like and dislike about each service, and how I have divided my work amongst them. Please note that I am not attempting to be comprehensive, but rather to capture what I have found helps or hinders my own workflow.

Part 1: Dropbox

I discovered Dropbox a few years ago. Before that, I transported important files between work and home using a flash drive. However, I occasionally forgot the drive at home and had to improvise, either by having someone at home email me a file, or by re-creating work, or simply not working on a project that day at the office. Dropbox solves this problem by letting me access files from anywhere. Dropbox is, in part, a special file folder on my computer. If I designate a computer to have Dropbox installed, then all of the files that are in my Dropbox folder will be uploaded and synced to Dropbox, so that the files automatically update between, for instance, my desktop computer at home and my desktop at work. I can also access the files on my iPad, iPod, Samsung tablet, etc. On tablets and phones, Dropbox does not store most of the files on the hard drive by default; instead, it downloads whichever one I want to open when I want it. However, I am also able to designate favorites, which means Dropbox stores a copy locally on the tablet/phone drive. In this way, Dropbox has worked well. 

In addition, there are a few ways to collaborate and share files with others. I can share a link to a file or folder, or I can create a shared folder. A link to a file allows someone else with the file link to view and download the file. A shared folder lets me share an entire folder with another person, with shared editing rights. I have used these options often when I am running a workshop, and I want participants to have access to multiple files that will be used during the workshop. 

One difficulty with shared folders is that edits made by one person affect everyone. This is especially noticeable when one person drags a file from the Dropbox folder to another location on their hard drive. The person is effectively deleting the file from the Dropbox shared folder, and as a result, deleting the copy of it from everyone else’s shared folder as well. I have learned that shared folders are difficult to manage for this reason.

Another limitation of Dropbox is that it is not designed for simultaneous editing on multiple devices. If I leave a file open on one computer, and then I edit it on another device, I will get two copies of the file as a result. Edits are not integrated into an open copy on another machine.

Also note that as with all cloud storage systems, there is a storage limit. If you have a shared folder, the entire folder counts against your limit. Thus, last year, when someone wanted to share a very large folder with me, by choosing to share in that folder, I overran my free space. So I either had to un-join the shared folder, or begin a paid Dropbox plan (I chose the latter).

Another limitation for Dropbox is that there is no native editor. This is not a major limitation, but it can be a nuisance to have to open files with particular apps, especially on a tablet. This can lead to formatting errors when files edited in one app on the desktop are edited with a different app on the tablet.

Dropbox Use Summary:

+Files are stored locally on the hard drives of my desktops and laptop.
+Files can be designated for local storage on tablets and phones.
+Files can be shared for download by others.
+Shared work folders enable collaboration and shared editing.

-Files removed from shared folders are removed from all devices.
-A single file cannot be edited by multiple users simultaneously. The file will be split into copies.
-Shared folders count against the storage limit of all participants.
-There is no native ability to edit files of any sort.

Next time, I will describe how I use Google Drive.