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Notion vs. Obsidian — Your Brain, Your Rules. A Battle of the Second Brain Apps

16 Min Read

“It’s on the tip of my tongue, just give me a minute!” Let’s face it, the human brain is not the most reliable tool for keeping and retrieving information. Luckily, there are dozens of note-taking apps that can double as a powerful backup brain. The question is, which second brain app should you choose? The Notion vs. Obsidian debate is still up in the air, so let’s compare the two tools and see if they’re worth your time.

💡 Before you start… Want to learn more about other similar tools? Check our comparison of the best knowledge base apps (click) when you’re done reading.

📌 6 Essential Features Of Good Second Brain Apps

The market for productivity apps is booming. But not every tool deserves a “second brain” badge. Ok, there’s no such thing. But there are still a few things you should keep in mind.

According to Tiago Forte, the creator of the Building a Second Brain (BASB) system, there are several characteristics of good second brain software. Some like quick capture and search are a must. Others like multiple viewing panes are nice to have, but you can do without them.

Here are six critical features your second brain app must have:

📥 Quick Capture

Building a second brain is a life-long journey, and like any other habit, it requires commitment. But if your second brain app is difficult to use, you’re up for an unpleasant surprise.

The muse comes knocking when you least expect it. You don’t want to scroll through five screens and click ten buttons to add a note. By the time you find the right option, the idea will be gone. 

The same is true for refining notes. You should be able to comfortably edit and organize your second brain entries wherever you are, using a computer, a smartphone, or a web browser.

⚡ Power to Scale

Let’s say your second brain has grown to hundreds (or thousands) of entries. It’s like a lush garden, a thing to care for and admire. Except, weeds are everywhere and maintenance is hell.

A good note-taking app should give you enough headroom to scale without compromises.

Your tool of choice may work ok with a dozen notes in the pool. But building a second brain is a life-long process, so prepare for the long haul. You don’t want to face pesky limitations several years from now.

🎨 Quintessential Formatting

At a minimum, your second brain app should let you bold, highlight, and underline text. It doesn’t hurt to have more advanced formatting options, but you don’t need them to get stuff done.

There are two good reasons why less is better.

First, Forte’s Progressive Summarization—you can learn more about it in our second brain review—involves just three steps: bolding, highlighting, and underlining. And that’s it.

Second, the user interface of the app you’ll end up using shouldn’t distract you from the creative process. The more options you have, the more likely you’ll be to tweak things ad nauseam instead of working.

🔎 Powerful Search

There’s no point creating a second brain if you can’t find and retrieve information quickly and efficiently.

Keeping track of 5, 10, or 20 entries is easy. But if your goal is to aggregate thousands of interconnected notes—that’s not an outlandish expectation for a second brain—you need something better.

Your second brain app should “look” beyond the note title and search in the contents as well as meta-data. Forte also recommends auto-complete, but that’s a bonus rather than a necessity.

📎 Support for Images and Attachments

A picture is worth a thousand words—this adage is surprisingly relevant in the digital age. Your second brain will blend different types of content, so your note-taking app must keep up.

A typical second brain can include:

  • ✅ to-do,
  • 🌄 images,
  • 🎞️ videos,
  • 🌐 bookmarks,
  • ⏺️ voice recordings,
  • 🔢 spreadsheets,

and a few more depending on your endgame. Make sure you can upload images, videos, and attachments from any of your devices. Files tend to be quite large these days so avoid low file size caps.

🔓 Private-First With Sharing Option

Building a second brain happens in two dimensions. 

There’s a “collector’s approach” where you ingest ideas, snippets of conversations, book highlights, and article clippings, and keep all those gems to yourself. They’re private, secure, and for your eyes only.

And then there’s a “creator’s approach” where you use the second brain as a stepping stone to create new value—articles, books, projects—and share the outcomes with the world. Your second brain app should let you do both—keep your notes safe but also give you a creative outlet when you need it.

And now, let’s take a closer look at our contenders.

⚪️ What Is Notion?

Notion user interface.

Notion aspires to be many things—a note-taking app, a project management tool, and a collaboration space, just to name a few. It also happens to be a solid second brain app with a few tricks up its sleeve.

Notion is built around databases, which are essentially collections of nested projects. You can think of a Notion database as a notebook with an unlimited number of blank pages. Each page can store notes, to-dos, images, or videos inside Lego-like blocks.

Notion blocks.
Notion blocks

This multidimensional content hierarchy makes it very easy to capture, organize, and retrieve knowledge—just the thing you need when there are hundreds of assorted notes floating around.

The Good: Key Features Of Notion

Notion includes (almost) everything you need to build a second brain.

The editor is simple but complete. It features quintessential formatting tweaks—bold, italics, underline, and highlights—but also adds a few cherries on top like equations and code blocks.

Content organization happens on several planes.

As you already know, your second brain can be chunked into clusters of pages called databases. But Notion takes it a step further. Each page can have its own subpages, all combined together with bi-directional backlinks that make navigation much easier.

Finally, pages in Notion can have several properties like type, priority, due dates, or owner. The same is true for blocks that can be anything from text or image to a bookmark or checklist.

Top Feature: Notion AI

Notion AI is the most recent update to the platform that adds a writing assistant powered by OpenAI’s GPT-3 algorithm. The new feature lets you generate, proofread, and edit written content using built-in commands. It’s both a thinking tool and a project management aid in one.

The Bad: Notion Cons

While Notion’s no-code pedigree lets you design your second-brain workflow from scratch, the ultimate flexibility comes at a cost. In this case, it’s the time it takes to fully master the system.

The user interface may seem minimalist, but there’s a lot going on under the surface. If you’re new to the second brain space and want to get started quickly, Notion can be intimidating.

If you’re a seasoned note-taker, though, you’ll probably stomach the steeper learning curve and lack of structure, even if it takes you a while to set things up and figure out the best approach.

How Much Does Notion Cost?

Notion offers four pricing tiers: one for personal users, two for teams, and one for enterprise clients. The free plan is limited to 5 guest users. If you want to collaborate or share your second brain, expect to pay anywhere from $5 to $10, depending on your expectations.

🟣 What Is Obsidian?

Obsidian user interface.

Obsidian, a relative newcomer to the note-taking space, is an offline-first note-taking app—this makes it somewhat of an underdog—that stores notes in local Markdown (.md) files.

The centerpiece of Obsidian is a knowledge graph (Obsidian calls it the “Graph view”). The graph is a visual representation of all your notes and the relationships that tie them together. Each note is shown as an interactive node you can click on to open the note in a separate pane.

Obsidian graph view.
Obsidian Graph view

The knowledge graph is a natural evolution of the somewhat stale art of note-taking. Not only does it put notes in a context, but it also simplifies the way we navigate information.

The Good: Key Features of Obsidian

Apart from the knowledge graph, Obsidian stands out in a few other areas.

First, it defaults to Markdown files, which means you’re not stuck with a proprietary format. It’s also keyboard-centric, so you can format notes without taking your hands off the keyboard.

Second, Obsidian doesn’t sync notes to the cloud, at least not by default. Files are stored locally inside what Obsidian calls a “Vault.” You can still sync notes using external cloud storage like Dropbox or subscribe to a paid “Sync” tier to keep your second brain on multiple devices.

While Obsidian lets you use folders and #tags—you need to enable a plugin to get the most out of the latter—the bulk of content organization happens via links. Backlinks are displayed at the bottom of each page and you can jump between entries in a separate pane.

Top Feature: Obsidian Offline Mode

“Can Obsidian be used offline?” Yes. In fact, the local-first philosophy is one of its strongest arguments in the Notion vs. Obsidian debate. A combination of plaintext documents and offline mode means that you don’t need an internet connection to write, edit, or organize your notes inside an Obsidian vault. It also gives you unhindered access to your data 24/7.

The Bad: Obsidian Cons

Using Markdown in Obsidian is fun, if you’re willing to accept a few limitations.

While you can use different heading types, apply bold, italicize text, and even insert code, anything fancier like highlighting text or creating tables will require some workarounds.

Strike two is no co-editing. The privacy-first approach is commendable. But it also throws a wrench in the works of collaboration, making it a no-go for teams and organizations.

Finally, Obsidian isn’t built for task management. While you can add basic checkboxes, you’re going to need additional plugins if you want to track due dates and manage tasks.

How Much Does Obsidian Cost?

Obsidian is free for personal use. You don’t have to create a new account since the app works locally on your device. The free tier gives you access to the API, plugins, and community support. The $25 “Catalyst” plan lets you support developers and access early builds of the app.

Obsidian also includes two add-on services—”Sync” ($10/month) and “Publish” ($20/month). The first add-on unlocks a proprietary cloud sync and version history. The second lets you publish notes online and customize the appearance of live sites.

🥊 Notion vs. Obsidian, Which Is Better?

Let’s make one thing clear. Notion and Obsidian are very different apps targeting different users.

If you’re after an offline-first second brain experience, Obsidian may be a better choice. Local storage and plaintext files make it fast and secure while backlinking and the ever-present knowledge graph should give you enough power for most note-taking scenarios.

⚙️ Feature⚪️ Notion🟣 Obsidian
Quick CaptureMobile widgets and browser extensionsMobile apps (no quick capture)
ScalingPages in databasesLocal .md files
Essential FormattingBasic formatting optionsLimited to Markdown syntax
SearchSearching in notes and databasesSearch inside notes with operators
MultimediaImages, videos, audio, and bookmarksLimited support for attachments
Privacy and PublishingPassword-protected notes with online sharingOffline mode with paid online sharing
Notion vs. Obsidian comparison table

Notion is a better all-rounder, especially when you want to do things your way. There’s no right or wrong way to create a second brain in Notion. With blocks, you can design your workflow from completely scratch, if you’re not afraid of some unavoidable yak shaving along the way.

Finally, let’s talk about collaboration. While both Notion and Obsidian make it relatively easy to publish notes in some shape or form, only the former sports genuine collaboration features. That means you either have to make some sacrifices or look for an alternative.

At the end of the day, the Notion vs. Obsidian debate boils down to a few key questions:

  • 🔐 Do you want to keep your notes private or show them to the world?
  • 👥 Do you want to co-edit documents with friends/team members?
  • 📎 Do you want to store images, videos, and attachments?
  • 🎨 Do you want to customize everything or just write?

Ok, we get it. This can be a tough nut to crack.

But you still CAN get the best of both worlds with Taskade! 🥳

🐑 Why Taskade Is The Best Alternative to Notion and Obsidian

“So, what is Taskade?”

Taskade is a modern outliner, note-taking tool, and project management platform. It’s also a powerful second brain app for capturing 📥, organizing 🗂️, and sharing 🌐 ideas!

You don’t have to choose between a private second brain and collaboration features anymore. With Taskade, you can have both, wrapped in an elegant, secure, and minimalist tool. 🥳

Taking notes in Taskade is super easy. ⚡️

Don’t like small talk? Here why Taskade is the best second brain app around:

And much more!

So, what are you waiting for?

Create a free Taskade account and start building your second brain today! 🐑

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