When Google Keep launched, it never got the fanfare it deserved. The people that did review it compared it to all the wrong apps, like Evernote or Microsoft OneNote. That's a shame, because a surprisingly good note-taking app went under the radar, underrated for coming up short against contenders it wasn't designed to face. It's about time to give Google Keep a fair shake, see where it shines and how it fits in with the competition.
It was a little less than a week after we lost Google Reader that Google Keep launched. Naturally, the first thing everyone said was "Why should I use this if Google's just going to kill it someday?" We're all worried about what Google might kill next, but that doesn't mean you can't trust any Google service ever again, and it's certainly no reason to avoid a perfectly good one that's here now and begging to be used.
What Is Google Keep?
Simply, Google Keep is a syncing notepad that connects to Google Drive. It also supports photo notes, voice notes and checklists. We covered it when it launched, but the short version is that Google Keep lets you quickly take and save those notes, photos, voice memos and checklists to Google Drive and then access them again on any other web-connected device you use. It's ideal for quick note-taking on the go, anyone who appreciates simple, fast note-taking tools or to-do apps, or for saving notes on the desktop that you know you'll need on your Android phone, like shopping lists, addresses, phone numbers, checklists and to-do lists or conference call codes. Keep even supports Google Apps accounts, so you can use it with your own domain.
The interface is colourful and easy to use. Those colours are actually organisation tools that make it easy to tell your personal notes apart from your work-related ones. Google Keep's shallow learning curve, the Android app, the web interface and the the Google Keep Chrome App all make getting it into your regular workflow easy, regardless of whether you prefer taking notes on the desktop or on your Android phone or tablet. Bottom line? If you're not using a syncing note-taking app yet, you love Android and Google Chrome is your default browser, Keep could be the productivity and organisational tool for you. Let's take a look at some of its best features and how to apply them.
The Features that Make Google Keep A Great Note-Taking App
Between voice notes, image notes and text, Google Keep has a number of features to help you stay organised that you may not be aware of (or be using in another app already). Here are a few examples:
- Google Keep is fast. Google Keep is really fast, even on older devices. The app itself requires Android 4.0.3 (Ice Cream Sandwich) or higher, but even older devices that have been upgrades don't have a problem with the app. Adding quick notes is as simple as tapping the text box at the top of the Keep window and typing -- it's best for those times when someone's giving you a phone number or address that you want to remember, but tapping a half-dozen times just to start typing makes you wish you had pen and paper. Just below the quick-note field are the individual buttons for text notes, checklists, voice notes and images, and adding each of them is just as quick. You don't have to tap around or switch views just to add different types of notes, and you don't have to switch views to see different types of notes either.
- Google Keep's voice notes are better than the competition. Adding voice notes in Google Keep is as simple as tapping the microphone and speaking. Once you're finished speaking, the app converts your speech to text, but it also attaches the original voice recording to the note so you can play it back and hear yourself. The last time we saw a feature like this so well integrated with a simple note-taking app (especially one that also supports to-do lists) was in the (now defunct) ReQall, and Keep does it much better. ReQall's banner feature was quickly transcribed voice notes. Since it all but died, no other to-do app has really stepped up (and the ones that have offer terrible transcription). Fans of the also-defunct Jott know what I mean. Making quick recordings to yourself in the car on the commute home saves you from typing while driving, and sometimes it's just easier to talk than it is to type. Google already knows how to do speech-to-text well, so it's no surprise it's implemented well in Keep.
- Google Drive syncing means your data is portable (and you own it). Regardless of whether you think Keep is around to stay (personally, I think it is -- it's likely destined to be a core feature of Android and will probably be more closely integrated when Key Lime Pie arrives), Google Drive definitely is. Since Keep is so closely integrated with Drive, everything you store will be available in Drive within seconds. Plus, it doesn't matter whether you're making your notes on the web or on your Android phone -- it's all there in moments.
- Google Keep's web app is fast, minimal and functional. Most of us, when we get to work or sit down at our desks, want to put our phones down, dock them, charge them and get to work on our computers. Just because you're working on a computer doesn't mean you have to use a different to-do or note-taking app. Keep's Chrome App and even the web interface make it easy to continue using the service from your computer the moment you put your phone down. Plus, Google Keep was actually designed to function well both on Android and the web. Many of our favourite to-do apps work well on your smartphone but suck on the desktop -- if they're available via the web at all.
- Search and archive make organisation crazy simple. Keep brings some of that old Gmail magic to a note-taking app. Instead of just deleting your checklists when you're finished with them, or deleting photos you've saved, archive them instead. They'll be easily searchable if you ever want to find them again. And, yes, Google Keep does have universal search, not just for titles but for note contents as well.
- Google Keep's home screen widget is awesome. Google Keep isn't the first app to feature a home screen widget that works well for to-dos, but since Keep's widget combines your notes and the ability to quickly add new notes without opening the app first, you'll want to make room on a home screen for it.
Google Keep isn't perfect. If you're not an Android user, the web app is good, but it's not as robust as it could be, and it's missing the ability to add voice notes (although colour-coding, photos and checklists are still there). Still, it's a far sight better than the web versions of some other to-do apps we've seen. If you're an iOS user though, you're out in the cold, at least for now. If you don't like Google Drive, you can't move your notes to another service like Dropbox or Box.net. Even though the built-in search is great, tags and categories would be a welcome addition to keep everything neatly organised. Even so, it's seriously fast, completely free and a strong contender... when compared against the right alternatives.
How Google Keep Fits Into the Online Note-Taking Arena
Much of the launch coverage around Google Keep compared it to tools like Evernote or Microsoft OneNote, since they're the juggernauts of the category, but Google Keep isn't really designed to compete with them. Plus, Google isn't trying to lure Evernote, OneNote or Springpad users away from their preferred apps to Google Keep instead -- it won't work. Their goal is to give Android users a simple syncing notepad with their Android phones that they can also use on the desktop.
Google Keep Isn't Evernote
Former Lifehacker editor (and occasional contributor) Kevin Purdy put it nicely in this column at IT World, where he ponders the same question I asked when Keep launched: "Why are people miffed that Google finally added a notepad feature to Android?"
Google Keep is not Evernote. It is not, at least at this point, a robust tool meant to fit into a total Google workflow. It is the equivalent of Notes on the iPhone: a space in which to write quickly, with online backup and access as the only real feature. If you put the Keep widget on your home screen -- or, on phones running the relatively new Android 4.2 or later versions, on your lock screen -- then you can very, very quickly record a voice transcription, snap a photo, or jot out a quick list. It's accessible through Google Drive, and you can read and edit through a full browser, but Keep is mostly a phone tool. It will likely be standard on future Android phones, and it will only grow features at a slow pace.
Comparing Google Keep to those Evernote is a bit like comparing a screwdriver to your favourite cordless drill. One is a generic, basic tool that can be used in multiple ways but has its limits. The latter is a tool that can be used in place of the former, has a broader set of use cases and is admittedly more powerful. Even so, your cordless drill needs to be plugged in, properly stored, and you need to put a little effort into fetching it and using it, while your screwdriver is probably in your desk drawer already.
Similarly, Google Keep is designed to sit quietly on your Android phone and in Chrome, waiting for you to need it and then use it. To the contrary, a tool like Evernote requires you be invested in using it and already know how it works best for you. They can exist side by side, or you can use one over the other depending on the job in question. Regardless of your preference though, they're not playing in the same field.
Google Keep Is a Strong Alternative to the Simple Syncing Note-Taking Apps
If you're looking for services to put Google Keep up against, it's better compared to some of the more basic syncing note-taking apps on the market. For example, our favourite syncing notetaker for Android, Flick Note, and Simplenote, the plain-text note-taking service is connects to, offer a similar (if not pared down) feature set to Google Keep.
Simplenote isn't alone here. Fetchnotes, another service we like, and previously mentioned organisational tool Workflowy are both closer competitors to Google Keep than apps like Evernote or OneNote. In fact, right after Google Keep launched, the developer of Colornote Notepad for Android called Google out for building a note-taking app that looked and worked almost exactly like his long-standing utility (which is still available if you want to check it out).
If you're using one of these syncing note-takers to keep your to-do list organised, keep a running grocery list, or organise your to-dos in simple lists and plain text, Google Keep can offer those features (assuming you're invested in Android and Google Chrome) and then some. Those are the apps Google is gunning for. More importantly, the features that Google Keep offers -- and the ones we'll see added to Keep as it evolves -- are the basic tools Google wants to add to Drive, Android, Chrome and Chrome OS.