In a recent post, I made an offhand mention that Obsidian might be a better fit for some people than Roam Research. What was that all about?

Well, for one, I believe both are good tools. If you're looking to use Roam as a Zettelkasten tool, Obsidian offers many of the same benefits. I've been keeping my eye on its development all the months that I've cautiously used Roam. It's super easy to try out with these few steps:

  • Export your Roam content (I did that regularly and added it to a Git repo on my computer)
  • I would open the Zip file of exported content from Roam and move it all to a location where the repo is located
  • I also made that directory the location Obsidian used (it simply requires a folder store markdown files)
  • Then open Obsidian and review your fresh content from Roam

So why might Obsidian be a better option? This comment is largely due to the aversion some people have from using a web-based app for this type of tool. Here are a few concerns I have or have heard from others:

  • You have to trust the folks at Roam a whole lot to put all your most important thoughts into a tool that only works when it's syncing with their servers
  • Just considering usability, waiting for your graph to load can be frustrating in some scenarios (especially on mobile devices)
  • Some folks have also been put off by Roam's approach to security
  • The Roam team also appears to focus a lot on more complex features and eventually, multi-player Roam (sharing your graph with others)
  • And there's idea being future proof — a folder of plain text markdown files can be easily accessed by various tools. Roam has a decent export option, but the formatting is a bit of a pain to deal with in other tools
  • Last, it's a bit to cult-ish for some folks — a lot of Connor's tweets (founder & CEO) strike me as odd. I simply don't have the trust for him and his team that others do

So, if you're like me, you just want a solid tool that performs well to help you write good notes and connect your thinking. I'm not interested in sharing all my thoughts/research/notes (apart from what I put in a newsletter or publish to my blog) so multiplayer Roam is not for me, and I'm not interested in complex features like mermaid charts or tables or pomodoro timers in my Zettelkasten.

I want a tool that supports easy linking and the ability to reference notes or blocks in other places. Both Roam and Obsidian support that, but Obsidian feels a little safer to use to me.

Here are a few other things I like more with Obsidian:

  • Being a desktop app, it feels more responsive and smooth to use. It's not a big deal, but how software feels is pretty important to me
  • Opening multiple notes is more flexible and usable. Roam gives you the sidebar to open pages alongside the one you're working on. But Obsidian also allows you to open multiple notes, plus you can move them around and lay them out however you prefer (see the screenshot above)
  • Obsidian's graph view is a lot nicer to use as well
  • I grew to appreciate Roam's bulleted approach, but it's nice to work in regular markdown in Obsidian. It also makes me feel more confident in the future: if I were to ever stop using Obsidian, my notes are more usable in other places. Many of Roam's functions result in unusable or messy text

Is it all perfect? No. Obsidian has weak spots as well. The biggest one being a less useful block reference system. The syntax is a little clunky and if you embed a block into another note, the content of the embedded block is only visible when you view the preview version of your current note. Thankfully, that's super easy to do with the keyboard (see it in action in this image).

So, it works … but not quite as nicely as Roam.

Anyway, those are a few reasons why I chose Obsidian as my PKM tool. Again, both it and Roam are great. But when it came to making the decision between the two, I simply felt more confident in the future of my notes in Obsidian and less interested (or trusting) in the overall mission and approach of the Roam team.