Obsidian is described as “A second brain, for you, forever”. It is a desktop app (available for Windows, Mac and Linux) that acts as a knowledge base working on top of a local folder of plain text Markdown files.
The app is offered as a free download, although sponsoring the devs is possible by upgrading your license through a one-time payment (USD 25+). By upgrading the license, we gain insider builds (early releases) and access to the exclusive dev channel on Discord.
Your notes are saved locally on your machine in plain text markdown format, allowing you to easily transfer your notes to other apps or open them with Notepad, in essence, there is no vendor lock-in. You are in complete control of your notes and files and can use Google Drive, GitHub, Dropbox etc. to sync your notes between different machines.
Having control over my notes gives me peace of mind. I am free to do what I want with them, and even though with the Obsidian app I can use various functions (backlinks, graph view, etc.) I know that should the app disappear, the content is mine and will forever be mine.
The ease of using the app could not be more straightforward. Once downloaded and installed, you are greeted with a welcome screen similar to the one below:
From here you can either create a new vault (notes repository) or open an existing vault. You can also open the “help vault” which includes several help files such as a formatting guide, and appearance customisation guides amongst other how-tos.
Once you have created / opened a vault, you can start taking notes at your heart’s content. You are free to choose to structure your notes the way you wish. You can have folders similar to traditional note-taking tools or go structure free and store all your notes in one main directory.
The beauty of creating links between your notes (with a simple [[“name”]] link) means that you should always be able to find what you are looking for and generate ideas (see Personal Knowledge Management) from your notes.
The app works in markdown format with the possibility of rendering the preview side by side, as shown below. You can also have more than one note open simultaneously by opening additional panes that can be infinitely split and resized. This is great if you want to cross-reference notes or create a work product from multiple notes.
The markdown format may feel a little overwhelming at first, but things get easier after taking a few notes. The other benefit of having notes in markdown or rendered view is that it is easy to copy and paste the text into an online blogging platform or a Word document. For instance, I created this post in Obsidian and copied and pasted the text to WordPress and voila.
Having said the above, the lack of a What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) type interface is a little annoying in my point of view. Sometimes the markdown format is confusing to read, or if you are in preview mode, you need to go back to edit mode to tweak the text. The good news is that this is on the roadmap. Fingers crossed this comes soon.
In addition to the devs being hugely talented and ever-present to answer questions and chat on the Discord, the speed of development is phenomenal. Nearly every other week, we are presented with an update that includes new features and bug fixes.
There are a significant amount of features available in Obsidian, so I thought to include below what I consider to be the main ones:
- Offline – can access whether connected or not. Notes are stored offline and are yours
- Backlinking – easily see which pages link to the page
- Random Note – opens a random note which is useful for discovering old content
- Daily Note – create today’s note at the click of a button
- Starred Notes – can star “favourite” notes for easy access
- To-do list – easily create to-do lists
- Outline – see the structure of your note and easily navigate to other sections by clicking
- Search – easily find what you are looking for
- Graph View – visualise a page or your notes collection in a graph with many different filter / view options
I have included below a brief video I did of the main features available in Obsidian.
In addition to the above main features, there are a couple of additional features which warrant a separate mention. These are:
A useful feature of Obsidian is Obsidian Publish where you can take your notes and convert them into an online digital garden / blog. The simplicity of doing this through “no code” means that there is no prior technical knowledge required. You only need to sign up (USD 8 per month per site (early-bird price)), choose a name, select which notes to publish and there you have it – your own personal online space.
The outcome can look something like this example. Developments are in the pipeline to allow for custom domains and other tweaks to make it more personal and improve the experience.
With the ability to install and use third-party plugins and such a large community of users, many plugins are available to choose from to customise the app to suit your needs. The plugins are easily installed in the app (simply click install on the plugins browser page within Obsidian) and allow you to do things like:
View your note as a mind map. For example, activating the mind map view on this article results in the following diagram:
I find this plugin great as although you can see the note’s outline using the Obsidian outline feature, this allows you to visualise it differently.
Enables a Calendar View to visualise and navigate between daily notes and easily create a daily note for a past, or future date.
Areas of Improvement / Wish List
There are a few areas of improvement which I feel would elevate the app even further. These improvements include:
- A What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) type editor interface,
- Mobile app to view / take notes on mobile,
- Ability to see more information on notes in bulk (like date created, last modified, word count).
With a few tweaks and the addition of a WYSIWYG interface, this app has the potential to become a top note taking app. Notes are stored locally, so are yours and forever yours. The features available in the app allow you to take notes, visualise your notes and generate ideas easily.
For more details be sure to check out:
Thank you for reading, and I hope you found this guide on Obsidian useful.