Obsidian is a free, markdown-based note-taking app that does not have the same outlining capabilities as Tana or Roam Research. Instead, it stores each note as a separate markdown file, allowing users to link related pieces of information with backlinks.
Tana is a relatively new cloud-based outlining application that also comes with references and backlinking features similar to Obsidian and Roam Research. It’s Roam Research 2.0, with superior databasing features, and has the potential to replace Notion.
In Tana, every piece of data is a node. If you love mind maps for jotting down notes, you’ll love Tana. It also has databasing functionalities.
In Tana, any node can be tagged and is a potential database item. When you add a tag in Tana, you can configure fields/properties to it. A tag with fields is called a Supertag (Notion equivalent is a database with properties). If not, it’s just a tag.
It means you can create super tag/database items on the fly by just adding tags to the nodes.
You can view the nodes in various views like list, table, board, and also tabbed views.
In simple words, if apps like Roam Research and Notion had a baby 👶, it would be Tana.
Video files hosted on Notion are unsupported.
In fact, many people are jump-shipping from both of these apps to Tana.
👉 For databasing, with Obsidian, you need to use community plugins like Dataview (which needs coding knowledge).
Outlining, writing, databasing, and connecting
In order to first understand and embrace the differences between these apps, you need to understand the difference between outlining, writing, databasing, and connecting.
Tana is an outlining + connecting + databasing hybrid. Obsidian is mainly a note-taking + connecting app.
It doesn’t mean that with Obsidian, you can’t take outlines (in fact, they have foldable bullet points), but it surely feels clunky and not as natural as Tana.
Why clunky? 😖
Bottomline: Ultimately, the key difference between Tana and Obsidian comes down to what your particular needs are. If you’re looking for a way to quickly store ideas and notes as markdown files that you can access offline, then Obsidian is the better choice. On the other hand, if you need a more visual outlining solution with well-refined databasing functionalities, then Tana could be the better option. Both of these apps come with almost equally powerful backlinking or referencing functionalities.
Other differences to consider
- Offline mode – Tana is an online-only application, meaning all your notes are stored in the cloud. This is different from Obsidian, which is an offline-first app. All of your notes are stored on your local computer, and syncing them to the cloud is optional. For some users, this might be a concern. Obsidian’s approach is especially useful for those who are writing their notes, as not having access to them can be a scary prospect. With Obsidian, users can rest assured that their notes are always available, no matter the circumstances.
- Searchability – Obsidian supports advanced search queries and booleans by default. On the other hand, with Tana, their regular search features are basic, but they have something called “Search Nodes,” with which you can quickly query your data, and the results will appear as subnodes. You can embed these Search nodes inside any other node.
- References and backlinking – Obsidian has backlinking “[[” and block reference features. But in Tana, both of these are called references (it makes more sense). You can use the “@” symbol to refer to any node in the system. The referenced node can also be expanded by “Shift + Click”.
- Graph view – Obsidian comes with global and local graph view features, allowing you to visualize the connections between your notes easily. With Tana, you don’t have graph features yet. But similar to Obsidian, it allows you to view linked and unlinked references. If you feel the graph view of Obsidian is gimmicky, give this post a read.
- Security – Obsidian is an offline application; all the notes are stored on your computer. But, for syncing your notes across devices, you need to use Obsidian Sync or services like Dropbox. There are high chances of sync conflicts, especially when working in shared vaults. In contrast, Tana is a cloud application. They have a fairly transparent security policy, but they don’t have end-to-end encryption; they may not plan to add one (similar to Notion), because implementing an AI layer on the top is the name of the game.
- Interoperability and future-proofing – You have a surprising view here. With both Tana and Obsidian, there’s no lock-in effect. Tana provides an intuitive JSON export format that can be easily parsed and converted into other formats. It offers full fidelity. Whereas Obsidian.md‘s markdown format is not as easy to parse. Tana’s JSON data format and TIF provide multiple options for working with the data outside of Tana, with the potential for additional converters for other formats (say MD) in the future. But needless to say, Obsidian has various converters right now in their community repo.
What’s the workflow?
If you consider me, I use Notion for managing my life (with CoreOS).
For note-taking and PKM, I’m planning to slowly (note-by-note as needed) replace Obsidian with Tana. I treat Notion as a structure or a system for my team and me to operate in ⚙️🎨, and Tana as my idea factory. 💡🏭🧠
Thus for me,
- Outlining – Tana
- Connecting – Tana
- Writing – Notion
- Databasing – Notion
Some random pointers:
- I’m an abstract thinker, and my note-taking app of choice is Outliner + Connector. If I were a concrete thinker and preferred the Writing + Connecting approach, Obsidian would be the best.
- I prefer cloud apps over offline-only apps.
- I have an architectural personality. I’m not a coder, but into NoCode. So, Obsidian feels raw for me.
- If the above 2 points were false, I would have gone with LogSeq (for outlining) and Obsidian (for writing).
So there’s no winner; it’s based on your DNA. For example, almost all my Obsidian notes have bullets inside bullets inside bullets. That’s how I prefer to take literature notes to understand the author’s mental schema and the connections he made.