Hold That Thought, the Google Way

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In the early days of personal computers, people talked about how great they'd be for managing recipes. Remember?

And then remember how that notion, very soon after, was mocked? How absurd. How sexist. And on the scale of amazing things a PC could do, how pedestrian and unambitious.

Well, don't look now. But Google, the company that tamed the Web, built self-driving cars and put a computer on eyeglasses, has just introduced a note pad.

It's called Google Keep. It's free. It's a Web site and an app for Android phones; the two are automatically synchronized. (Astoundingly, until now, Google didn't supply a note pad app on Android phones.)

Make a note on the phone, it shows up on the site (and any other Android gadgets you own), assuming you're signed in with the same Google ID on each one.

This isn't a fresh idea. In many ways, Google Keep is a fairly shameless imitation of Evernote, the beloved free app for Mac, Windows, Android, iPhone/iPad, BlackBerry and Windows Phone. It, too, keeps your notes automatically duplicated across all your gadgets and computers.

That's not to take away from the power of the idea. Life is full of facts, thoughts and images we'd like to remember. Someone's phone number. A movie or book someone's recommending. Things to do. Brainstorms. Where you parked. Family birthdays, driving directions to the doctor, frequent-flier numbers. You always have a computer with you (your phone); why isn't it the logical place to store these brain bursts?

Especially if it's incredibly easy and fast to do. If there were much "friction" involved in opening your notepad and recording some notion, you wouldn't bother. But Google has put a lot of effort into making things effortless. Keep is not just an app; on Android, it's also a widget -- a small scrolling window floating right there on the Home screen. (Evernote does that, too.)

On recent versions of Android (4.2 and later), Keep even appears on the Lock screen. You can consult it without even turning on the phone.

To record a new item, you can type something; speak and record the audio; say something the phone converts into typing (it saves the audio recording, too); or take a picture. Speech and photos are faster than typing; once again, fewer steps means you're more likely to use the thing. (You have to take the photo; you can't import one that already exists.)

A text note can be either straight-ahead unformatted text or a checklist complete with little checkboxes or a photo.

In Keep, the notes appear as scrolling tiles, like posts on a Facebook page or, in two-column view, like the tiles on the Windows Phone Start screen. Newest ones appear at the top.

The most important thing to grasp about Keep is how simple it is. Fast and simple and limited, especially compared with Evernote.

That, of course, is its best and worst feature, depending on what kind of personality you have. You won't have trouble fumbling to find a feature; there aren't any to find.

You can change a note's color, but you can't group them by color. In fact, you can't group them in any way. There isn't any notion of folders, or sorting, or filtering. The only thing you can do with a note is drag it up or down, delete it or, by swiping horizontally on the phone's screen, archive it (that is, remove it from the list but keep it in storage).

In Evernote, by contrast, you can create separate "notebooks" full of notes; you can even put several notebooks into a folder.

An Evernote item can contain more than one data type -- a text note might contain a checklist and a photo, for example. Notes can have formatting (bold, italic and so on), and can have Web addresses or geographical locations associated with them. You can tag a note with searchable keywords ("kids," "sites," "work," whatever) for quick retrieval later; in Google Keep, all you can do is search for the text in your notes.

You can share an Evernote notebook with designated collaborators. Or, with two clicks, you can publish a note as a Facebook or Twitter post, as an e-mail message or even as a publicly available Web site.

You can use your phone's camera to capture whiteboards, recipes, business cards, driving directions, or even pages of handwritten notes; incredibly, you can even search for the text in these snaps later. (Evernote's built-in character recognition may not be miraculous enough to convert handwritten scrawl into typed text, but it's good enough to let you search it.)

You also get a special e-mail address. Any text, photo or audio clip you send to it, from anywhere, gets added to your Evernote collection automatically. The mind boggles.

Keep also looks bare-bones when compared with its rivals on the iPhone/iPad, where you get both a simple, text-only Notes app and a more elaborate one called Reminders. Both synchronize with Macs and other Apple devices. Reminders is a to-do list with smarts: it can remind you to do something on a certain date and time, or, more impressively, by location. As you drive by the dry cleaner, it can pop up a message on your phone that reminds you to pick up your shirts.

Reminders also leaps over Android in its integration with Siri. You can say to the phone, for example, "Remind me to take the roast out of the oven when I get home" or "Remind me to call Jenkins first thing when I get to work." Sure enough: when you arrive at home or at work, the phone perks up to get your attention. (Google Keep, by contrast, doesn't offer any alarms or reminders.)

You can manage Reminder's lists by voice, too. "Add 'fat-free bottled water' to my Groceries list." "Add 'Titanic 2: The Voyage Home' to my Movies list."

Neither of these Apple apps handles photos or audio recordings. Still, both Evernote and Apple have pushed note-taking technology light-years beyond Google Keep's humble 1.0 version.

But remember, more features are not always better. There's much to be said for fast and simple, too.

Here's something else to remember: This is Google we're talking about. The company says that new features will come to Keep fairly soon.

Google could integrate Keep into its other products and services. Imagine being able to zap driving directions from Google Maps, text from a Gmail message, or a slice of a Web page right into a Keep note. Maybe even YouTube videos. In time, Keep could become a pinboard -- a Pinterest.com -- for your entire life.

Unfortunately, the last thing to remember isn't quite as cheery: Google has a habit not only of creating great things, but also of killing them off. The timing of the Keep announcement was chilling, coming only a few days after the announcement that, in July, Google will shut down its popular Google Reader site. It's a smooth, attractive RSS feed reader -- something like a customizable, constantly updated magazine of articles you might like.

Google has killed off notepad apps before, too. In 2009, it shut down Notebook, its first Evernote-type program. How will you feel if you entrust your life's data to Keep -- and then learn that Google chooses not to keep Keep?

Even if that sad day comes, one thing's for sure: Keep shines new light on the general concept of the synchronized thought-capturing app -- a powerful, useful, life-enhancing concept indeed. If you have a smartphone, you should add "Start using Keep or one of its rivals" to your to-do list.

E-mail: pogue@nytimes.com

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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