Google Keep (for Android) review

Google Keep for Android is an easy, pleasant app for making quick notes on your mobile device, but it's held back by its isolated nature and limited features.
Photo of Google Keep (for Android)

When Google Keep (free) launched earlier this week, some scratched their heads over the clean, simple service and wondered whether it could compete against the likes of Evernote. While the Keep Android app does what it’s supposed to do, and does so stylishly, it has yet to prove its worth in an already crowded space.

Using Google Keep
After you fire up the app, Keep will ask you to select one of your saved Google accounts on your Android device, or enter a new one.

You’ll immediately be taken to Keep’s spare main page with a search bar across the top, a prompt to write a note underneath, and several icons indicating the kind of notes you can make. Simply typing in the text field and pressing Enter will create a text note (as does tapping the document icon). Tapping the check mark starts an itemized list. The microphone button begins recording a speech-to-text voice note, and the camera adds a picture note.

These aren’t hard and fast categories, but more like shortcuts to start you off. Pictures can be added to any type of note, and text and photos added to voice notes. Lists can only be lists, and recordings cannot be added to any other type of note.

It’s noteworthy (pun intended) that voice notes are only available in Keep’s Android app. I found the voice-to-text transcription to be remarkably accurate, much more so than Google Voice. The recording option is probably the fastest way to add a note.

Though there is a settings menu, its primary function is to switch users.

Light on Organization
Notes can be moved to some degree within the app. Rearrange them by tapping and holding notes, and delete notes by dragging them to a trash can icon in the corner. Google Keep makes good use of gestures letting you “archive” a note with a swipe, moving it out of sight but keeping it searchable. The clean app also pops with animations as you move notes around.

There are no tags or notebooks to file notes in Keep, but you can color-code notes from a limited pallet. This is a bit odd, especially considering that Google’s now defunct Notebook application once boasted these features. In her review of the Keep web interface, Jill Duffy noted that the color doesn’t appear on a new note until after you completed it (and even then, it’s just a thin bar of color at the top). In the Android version, as soon as you select a color, it’s applied to the whole note body.

Searching is the best way to find your notes, though the app lacks optical character recognition like Evernote,  meaning it cannot read text in images. Notes appear the moment they have matches against the search term, and drop out as soon as they’re not relevant. Oddly, there is no icon in the app for Google’s voice search.

Wonderful Widgets
Widgets are rarely implemented well, but Google Keep does a good job. The app comes with three, two for the lockscreen and one for the desktop. The desktop widget is virtually identical to the more stripped-down lockscreen widget, which are simply shortcuts to creating different note types in the app.

The larger lockscreen widget lets you scroll through all your notes, as well as create new ones. Notably, creating new notes from any of the lockscreen widgets requires you to unlock your device.

It seems like a missed opportunity that the widgets don’t allow recording voice notes directly from the lockscreen or desktop without going to the app. However, you can add a voice note from the Google Now widget by saying, “make a note for…”

It also would have been useful to assign certain notes to the lockscreen; being able to look at my grocery list and check off the items without opening the app would be a neat little time saver. Google is on the right track with the widgets, but would do well to expand their capabilities.

No App is an Island—Except Google Keep
The other elements of Google Drive—word processing, spreadsheets, etc.—used to be separate products but were seamlessly rolled up with file storage into one neat app. Keep, on the other hand is an appendage. Your Keep notes and images exist only in Keep, though it is somehow connected to Google Drive.

The isolation continues because although you can share your notes from Keep for Android, the recipient cannot collaborate with you on that note. If I share a note via email or Dropbox, the recipient just sees the note’s contents.

The isolation also seems odd because it’s difficult to grow your Keep notes into something larger. Grocery lists might not be useful later on, but the promo for Google Keep shows a musician building the elements of a rock show with the app. Actually pulling this off is difficult because items in Keep only become collaborative once you move them out of Keep. (Weirdly, one of the places to move Keep items is Google Drive.)

Also, though the Keep app makes use of Google’s search technology, you have to be searching in Keep to find your note. That might seem fine, but if you can’t remember where you saved that image (Drive? Keep? Gmail?) tracking it down will be tricky.

Is It a Keeper?
Google seems to have looked at all the other note taking options (and probably its own defunct offering) and decided they were all too complex and too busy—and there’s something to be said for that. But the strength of Evernote is that it provided lots of options to be used however you like. Google’s simplicity, while aesthetically pleasing, limits what you can do. Really, Google Keep is to Google Drive what Microsoft OneNote is to SkyDrive, only Keep isn’t as universally accessible on different platforms.

If you just need a fast, easy way to make lists and add little tidbits to your digital hoard, then Keep can work for you. The app looks great, is easy to use, and Google has a strong track record for reliable data storage. It also means having one less login to remember.

That said, Keep has a lot of unused potential. If Google brings it into the fold, tying it closer to all the other Google products, we could have a real winner on our hands.

Type Business, Personal
Free Yes

Google Keep for Android is an easy, pleasant app for making quick notes on your mobile device, but it's held back by its isolated nature and limited features.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc