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We’ve all heard that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But when a tech heavyweight like Google imitates a popular tool like the note-taking app Evernote, it can feel more like a land grab.

At least, that’s what I figured last week when Google announced Keep, a free smartphone app that, like the free version of Evernote, lets you quickly make and organize notes that are automatically stored online and can be accessed on multiple devices. Though Keep may eventually work its way over to the iPhone and other mobile and desktop platforms, as Evernote has already done, it’s currently just available for Android users.

Keep is well-designed, and it’s already snagging fans of its own (in the Google Play store it has nearly 11,000 reviews, averaging four-and-a-half stars). Yet after comparing Keep to Evernote, I doubt that Google’s new arrival is actually a bad thing for the incumbent—it’s not nearly as advanced, and it actually looks to be boosting its predecessor’s popularity.

Keep’s main features closely mirror those of Evernote: you can take notes that include text, audio, and photos, and make checklists. Your notes are synced with an online server—in the case of Keep, they’re stored in your free Google Drive online storage account—and you can edit notes on the Web, too.

On the surface, Keep’s main difference is its “Googley” design, which contrasts with Evernote’s busy, green-accented, multi-screen design for Android (on iPhone, Evernote goes for a more skeumorphic look, complete with little file folders). Keep features a barely gray background punctuated by a narrow bar near the top of the screen that lets you make quick notes or tap one of several gray icons to pull up a blank page where you may create a text note, a list, a note with a photo in it, or an audio note (which Google transcribes, sometimes erroneously).

A simple but smart touch is the ability to give notes different background colors. Marking important ones with bright hues and arranging notes as small squares on Keep’s home screen really does make it easier to keep things organized. Another smart design decision: when checking off an item on a list, Keep strikes through the text and lightens it from black to gray to emphasize its status as “done.”

Other notable features include the ability to unclutter an overflowing notes page by swiping old or unimportant notes left or right to archive them, as well as live search—I only had to type “mon” for Keep to know I wanted a list including such fictional tasks as “Get monkey chow.”

One concern with Google Keep is whether the app, which encourages diverse and consistent usage, will be available for long. Google doesn’t have the best reputation for supporting side projects over the long haul—just ask fans of Google Reader, which the search company is shutting down in July, or visit this helpful Google Graveyard that Slate recently compiled and lay digital flowers on the graves of various departed services. I’m optimistic that my notes’ home in Google Drive, at least, will be around for some time—that service has lasted for years thus far.

You can only do a fraction of the things with Keep that you can with Evernote. You can’t, for instance, sort notes into different “notebooks,” add attachments to notes, or combine checklists with regular text notes or audio notes. Of course, Evernote also has a huge head start. It has been publicly available since 2008.

The free version of the Evernote app, whose Android and Windows Phone versions received light facelifts several days after the arrival of Keep, presents a slew of editing and formatting options. Want a bullet-pointed list? A numbered list? A checklist? No problem. It also offers more flexibility with combining different types of media in a single note, meaning you can do things like take multiple photos at one time and append a few of them to a note, or create a note with voice, text, and photo elements. You can even see where you took each note in Evernote’s map view—a depressing sight for those of us who apparently don’t get out enough.

One of Evernote’s standout features, which is lacking in Keep, is its use of optical character recognition technology, which enables searches of the words in documents you’ve snapped pictures of. It takes a few minutes for Evernote to process the documents, but once it’s done, it works well.

It’s also easy to use Evernote on many different devices. While Keep is only available as an Android app and on the Web, there are Evernote apps for all the major mobile and desktop operating systems, along with Web browser extensions that make it easier to clip and save URLs, articles, and Web pages to your Evernote account. I took a shine to the Evernote Web Clipper for Firefox.

The biggest shortcomings with Evernote are its organization, which can feel cluttered as you start filling up notebooks with numerous notes, and the small monthly upload allowance that freeloaders get (60 megabytes, though Evernote helpfully points out how much you’ve used and about how many notes you can still make until your balance refills). Keep, meanwhile, feels cleaner—even with plenty of notes—and you get five gigabytes of free storage in Google Drive.

So who wins? It pains me to be so diplomatic, but it really depends.

If you need a robust note-taking app for everything from saving recipes to jotting down song lyrics, Evernote is the one. Beyond all the free features within Evernote itself, the company also offers a number of free complementary apps, like Skitch, which lets you draw on top of photos and maps. It’s so good you may even want to join the minority of users who pay a monthly fee to get additional features like increased note-storage space and the ability to view old versions of notes.

If, however, you’re a fan of Google’s apps and just want a clean-looking, low-frills notes app with plenty of free storage, Google Keep will win your heart. It’s likely to get more functions over time, a la Google Now (see “Google Now Gets More Travel-Friendly for the Holidays”).

And if, like me, you see the merits of both, that works, too: thankfully you can share Keep notes with Evernote, and vice versa.

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Credit: MIT Technology Review

Tagged: Computing, Business, Communications, Web, Mobile, Google, Evernote

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