Unleashing the Mind: Heptabase
Exploring the Tools for Thought Universe
From Amplenote to Zettlr - a no-nonsense, in-depth analysis. This post is part of a series of articles digging deep into the current landscape of Tools for Thought.
In the last article of this series, we explored Amplenote. I explained why Amplenote is a good choice for people needing a multi-platform, offline-capable PKM with good search and exporting capabilities. This time, we explore Heptabase, which uses an entirely different approach.
I joined Heptabase's waitlist in early 2021 when it was still called “Project Meta.” It was later renamed when Facebook became Meta. They have chosen Heptabase, which is related to an alien species called Heptapods in the book “Story of Your Life," (I love that book, too), which can speak a unique visual language connecting past, present, and future.
In September 2021, Alan introduced Project Meta to me, and I remember being deeply impressed by its unique visual approach and profound concept, even though the prototype had some rough edges.
Disclaimer: The Links to Heptabase and additional content in this article are referral links. This in no way affects my independence and sincere opinion.
Heptabase is an Electron-based knowledge management tool centered on using visual learning approaches to support researching and learning complex topics. While Amplenote is more of a classical notetaking app, Heptabase's primary purpose is to support acquiring new knowledge by offering features to support atomization, connection, re-arrangement, and synthesis of concepts visually.
It is available for the Web, Windows, macOS, iOS, iPadOS, Linux, and Android and supports light and dark modes.
Heptabase supports different layouts for different tasks, but it has a somewhat classical 3-column layout at its core.
Heptabase comprises six so-called Meta-Apps arranged at the left sidebar: Journal, Map, Card Library, Tag, Task, and Highlight.
All these apps are centered around one global card database. There are seven card types: PDFs, images, audio, video, notes, journals, and highlights. These cards can be modified, re-used, linked, embedded, and arranged as needed across the apps.
The mobile clients
Heptabase offers mobile clients for iOS, iPadOS, and Android. I have tested them thoroughly on iOS and iPadOS. The clients are mature, offline-capable, performant, and very usable but not feature-equal with the web and desktop versions:
There is no task meta-app yet, which means we don't have the task overview showing due and overdue tasks nor the ability to schedule tasks. You also don't get reminders on your device.
You can work with existing maps but can't change them yet (create new cards, move cards on the whiteboard, make arrows). It is still beneficial because you can pan, zoom, and edit existing content. Getting the interface right for small devices with only touch input is challenging, but Obsidian got further with its canvas approach. I'm unsure why the corresponding meta-app is called “Whiteboard" and not “Map" on mobile.
The mobile client does not support table views for cards with properties as columns. The cards will be presented as a flat list. You can see card properties in their info box but can't change them.
You can open PDF cards, browse existing highlights, and add annotations, but you can't create new highlights for PDFs. This would be an excellent addition (especially when using the Apple Pencil on an iPad).
There is almost no support for gestures except pinch & zoom for maps. No long-press on cards in the library to open an action menu, no swipe to quickly delete them.
Versioning isn't fully supported yet. While there is a menu entry for showing them, the corresponding list is always empty (“No snapshots available at the moment.").
You can't share or export content from within the mobile app, nor can you share content from other apps with Heptabase using the iOS share menu.
But let me say it loud and clearly - despite these missing features, you get excellent mobile apps supporting your work while on the go.
The PKM Process with Heptabase
We will dive deep into the PKM process, from collecting information, organizing, and analyzing to reflecting, sharing, and updating.
Heptabase offers various ways to get content into the app:
A block-based card editor supporting linking and embedding other cards as well as videos, images, audio, tables, and a lot more
A journal for date-related content
Tasks with and without due dates
Maps for visually arranging cards and combining them with other elements like arrows, mindmaps, grouping, and stacking them
Uploading PDFs and highlighting as well as annotating them
Tight Readwise integration for all your highlights