Capacities vs Obsidian

TL;DR they're very different

My content will forever be available for free.

If you gain value from my content, please consider supporting my work with a tip 🤩

Table of Contents

It’s very common in the PKM space for people to search for comparisons between two or more apps in order to understand new apps, or to decide which to use.

This Capacities vs Obsidian series offers some comparison of the key differences between Capacities and Obsidian, which are two networked note-taking apps.

Please consider whilst reading:

  • Most of this article refers to the free, core products i.e. not the vast community plug-in market Obsidian has, and not the Believer plan for Capacities.

I talk about the Believer plan in the Questions section, and I don’t use plug-ins. When I was first using Obsidian, the fact you had to turn off “safe mode” put me off entirely, and when I did feel brave enough to download Dataview, I just could not get it to work even following tutorials. I now understand more about how plug-ins work, but in that time I’ve moved on to Capacities.

There are some incredible plug-ins and content about them though. Danny Hatcher’s video is a great overview of some key plug ins, but he also reminds us that you don’t need plug-ins to use Obsidian for notes, so that’s the route I am taking. 

  • Obsidian has been around 2 years longer than Capacities, so a like for like comparison seems unfair without accepting this fact, so I reference this at times.

  • In terms of my Obsidian/Capacities journeys, I used Obsidian in 2021 and on and off in 2022, but it didn’t meet my block referencing/embedding needs at the time so I moved to Logseq which did. I used Logseq and Obsidian in tandem for a while. However, both stopped meeting my long-term note-taking needs due to the manual entry of metadata, so I found Capacities and haven’t moved since. Obsidian has clearly developed since my consistent use of it, so I have researched any gaps to make sure my comments are up to date.

  • I assume the reader has good working knowledge of Obsidian (as context for clicking on this post) so I don’t go as in depth as I do in my discussion of Capacities. 

A note on privacy

Before we begin, if you want an offline only, local app as your note-taking base, Capacities is not for you. No amount of extra Capacities features will make up for this if these factors are high priority for you. However, Capacities’ privacy policy is robust and reassures me. I’m also rarely offline, and even more rarely offline in a situation I’d like to take notes in.

So if you continue reading, I assume you’re ok with this fact, and we will talk about the product features and structures.

Structure

Obsidian is organised by files (mainly markdown, but assets too such as pictures and PDFs) in folders that are stored in a ‘vault’ which is a file location of your choosing. I store mine on my desktop. 

You can open as many vaults as you’d like, but each vault is separate. Each file within the vault is represented by a node in a graph. You can connect files to create links in your graph.

To create a new page, you can click ‘new note’, or you can put a link in square brackets and cmd + click on it to make it into a new note and simultaneously create a link between the current and new pages.

Capacities content (pages) live in objects (databases) within a space (like a vault) which lives in your Capacities account’s home page.

My home page

Whilst exporting your Capacities space will give you markdown files in folders, your in-app interaction is actually based around ‘objects’ (Capacities-speak for databases). Objects can also be called ‘content types’. Objects force you to categorise your content e.g., a page talks about ‘Santa Claus’ so it will go in my ‘People’ object, or a page that talks about ‘King Charles III’s coronation’ will go in the ‘Events’ object. 

You create most objects, but Capacities creates some for you too, such as the PDF/Tag/Image objects. You can add any of these items to a page and then Capacities will store them for you in their individual objects too. This lets you carry on with your work but know you can always find that content again. 

The left-hand sidebar holds all your objects. I colour code mine- see the daily note for an explanation

A key aspect to understand is that content can only live within one of your objects, i.e. there can be nothing uncategorised. 

But, if you don’t know where to put content at first it can go into your daily notes (pictured above) or in the ‘page’ object. The ‘page’ object is automatically created in Capacities, as are the tag/image/PDF objects etc.

Every object has different views (see pics below or view this page of the docs), and they can be filtered and sorted on the properties you give them which you set up in the object settings. No need to learn a query language. 

There are a variety of properties available to add to an object: text, dates, numbers, selects (similar to Notion relations), checkboxes, images, icons etc. The number of properties used is up to you and depends on the need of the content held within it.

So once the object set-up is done, you can start creating. When you want to create a new piece of content, you must define to which object it belongs. This will then give the content the pre-defined properties for you to fill out. You can create content either from the side bar, the command bar or in-line using the forward slash or plus buttons. You can fill in as many properties as you’d like, but the structure is there for you natively through its database (or object) structure.

Here I defined the Great Fog of London as an event and its properties were ready for me to fill out with no extra effort. 

Tags

Tags are another key structural component to Capacities.

Tags in Obsidian are just another way of referring to an existing page so are part of the networked note-taking approach. If you have a page in your vault, you can link to it with the square brackets or the hashtag. This will create a connection between the two linked entities, and will show up in your graph.

That is not how it works in Capacities. Tags are their own content. The Capacities docs refer to them as “keywords to add to your content” that when opened gives you an overview of everything you have tagged. This means they sit above the other objects— they’re used to unite content from various objects under that keyword as opposed to being another way of referring to content that already exists.

Let’s discuss some examples from my own use space.

Tag object, list view

I studied French at undergrad, so I have many notes about it. Under the French Presidents tag, I see everything I have tagged with ‘French Presidents’: the 5th Republic presidents themselves, the topic of Franco-American relations, and a tweet about French leaders. You’ll see there is no page just called French Presidents, which is what a tag would give us in Obsidian. If I want to make specific notes about the French Presidency later I can, and I’d tag it with ‘French Presidents’ in order for it show up under this heading. This demonstrates how we can think of tags like folders.

I take this use case further for my masters studies. I have one tag per module name and I tag every related piece of content with it. I don’t have to double click every piece of content in folders to view the work I’ve done. This wall view literally puts the knowledge in front of me and tells me the type it belongs to (e.g. am I looking at a definition or a piece of writing I’ve created?).

Methodologies tag, wall view

It’s not just for knowledge either. My two loves in life are history and houses and I deal with both in Capacities. I wrote more here, but this use case became clear to me as soon as I realised how powerful tags are and how much I love the wall view.

Dining tag, wall view

Overall Capacities tags are much more useful in my opinion as it’s not just a page reference, and coupled with the database functionality they can have a variety of uses. It also means that whilst content truly only lives in its object, you can make it show up elsewhere in your system by tagging it several times which allows you to put information where you need it and view/filter/sort it how you need it thanks to the database structure.

Summary

Obsidian gives us a vault -> folder -> file -> content structure, and Capacities gives us a space -> object -> entry -> content structure.

Obsidian is comparatively far more simple to set up than Capacities, so the question is why go through the effort?

The important difference for my use case is I find the object structure being held in a database vital for my chaotic brain that can’t remember to use metadata unless there is a field to fill in, and I prefer the flexibility of Capacities’ text editor as I can manually move blocks around to manipulate the layout. If this isn’t relatable for you then you might love the simplicity of Obsidian’s set up and it’s brilliant writing experience.

I also think the use of tags here is innovative and coupled with the wall view, I feel like I can see my knowledge in front of me whilst having all the other benefits of Capacities (for my brain too). 

Questions

What about pages that can’t immediately be categorised?

The default content type is the page, so you can add any content in here but as it’s an object automatically created by Capacities you cannot customise the properties, so I recommend moving the information on. I’ve written more about structuring Capacities here.

Why this and not folders?

Folders give you one main piece of metadata, the folder location, and then you have to add extra metadata in each page. You will also need to learn the query language or use a plug-in.

In Capacities, you pre-define properties when you set up an object. This means when you put a piece of content somewhere, it’s not just the location that’s defined, all those properties are created for you to fill out too. Database functionality also natively brings some really key features: different views, filtering and sorting. It’s a Notion-like look for knowledge work. It’s amazing.

This question highlights the key reason I think people may choose one app over the other. If you struggle to remember to add metadata, or to add specific fields consistently, or don’t understand/want to learn Dataview, Capacities is going to solve those problems. To make the switch, you need to be ok with everything belonging to only one object, meaning you’re probably someone who prefers a structured approach in other parts of your digital systems.

What If I want to move objects?

There is an object switcher in every page. It’s very easy to use, you just need to make sure the content held in the properties has a place to go in the object you’re moving to.

Let’s move on to talk about writing and linking in these apps.

Writing and Linking

In Obsidian each markdown file allows you to write freely on the page. It’s a markdown editor so you can use headings, bold, highlight, italic, quotes, callouts, code, lists, checkboxes and more. It’s great for long-form writing. The core product has word and character count inbuilt which is also helpful, along with spellcheck which for me is essential.

You can take your notes further by adding metadata. I believe the Obsidian community mainly uses YAML to be read by the Dataview plug-in. Adding metadata allows you to query your notes. From what I can tell, the core support for querying isn’t very advanced, which I presume explains the dataview plug-in popularity.

Capacities has a great text editor so you can do everything you can in Obsidian plus more, which is possible due to the Notion-like blocks. It also has word, character, paragraph counts and an automatic table of contents, plus the backlinks within it are bookmarks which is amazing. But it’s not as smooth in other places (e.g., deleting content across blocks). Hopefully that’s because it’s a young app and the polishing will come later.

The table of contents was created automatically, and clicking each heading navigates to that section.

Linking

You can create links between pages in Capacities with @ or [[]], in Obsidian you use [[]] or #. You can create these links in the main body of the content, or in the metadata/properties section.

Links in Obsidian display as simple wiki-links, but Capacities links can be viewed in many ways. I love the small card embed.

Obsidian links (green), Capacities in-line links (blue)There are also wide embeds (top) and small card embeds (bottom right)

Once linked, you can review content through the backlink section or in the graph.

This is where you can view all the times you have referenced the page you are currently in elsewhere.

In Capacities this section is collapsible at the bottom of any page, or elsewhere too if you pay for the Believer plan and use page layouts.

Everyone has the backlink section in the middle on the free plan. If you pay for the Believer plan you can choose different layouts which is visible in the two side-bars here. You can see how much context is included in the free offer.

In Obsidian the backlink section is hidden until you press backlinks on the bottom right of the screen, or if you open the sidebar, or if you use a shortcut. Capacities gives you more of a preview than Obsidian does. Whether or not this is a positive depends on personal preference.

A key difference is Obsidian also offers you unlinked references, but Capacities does not. This is a shame, as they are useful!

Graph view

Both apps have a graph view. Each has their relative strengths.

Capacities is more visual, Obsidian’s is faster. Capacities doesn’t have a global graph view by default, you start on the page graph then zoom out. In Obsidian, however, you do have the global graph and you can also search more. I really like this, but it’s always an “out of interest” tool, rather than actually understanding connections.

Obsidian’s faster global graph, Capacities’ more visual graph with contextualised links

Where Capacities’ graph wins is in its contextualised links, which means the links between the entities are labelled with the detail of their connection. This is not in the core Obsidian product. For this to work, the connection must be created in the properties section, not the body of the page.

In the example above I’m showing that both of my parents have strong feelings towards Lost and Friday Night Lights, but they are very different. To understand this connection in Obsidian I’d need to enter the pages, whereas in Capacities I don’t need to. It’s obviously not a life-saving feature but I really like it!

Summary

Both apps have great text editors. Capacities does more but is comparatively less polished in places, and if your needs are dealt with in Obsidian then you will have a fantastic, fast and distraction free writing experience there.

The way the apps deal with backlinks and the graph are very different though. How we write, think and connect is very personal, so once again I think your favourite here will be down to personal preference.

Daily Notes, Templates and Canvas

Daily notes

Both apps have daily notes. Often people use them as their daily homepage that they link what they’re working on in a day or how they’re thinking or feeling.

Let’s break these example use cases down across the apps:

Daily homepage

Daily notes are the default homepage in Capacities, in Obsidian that’s a core plug-in you have to turn on. Your feelings on this will likely align with how much you use (or like) daily notes.

There’s a nuance here. Capacities will automatically create a timeline view of any content you have created on a day to your daily note. Incredibly useful.

However, if you create something on Monday, and work on it again on Thursday, Capacities doesn’t know that. Therefore, there is still a level of manually linking what you’re working on in Capacities.

In Obsidian’s core product, it’s all manual.

Journal

Many people want a secure offline journal. Obsidian meets both of those needs. Capacities is secure (see Principle 5), but it’s online.

Templates

Templates are another form of repeated structure. Both apps have them.

Obsidian’s are good in the sense they are global. Because the structure is more free flowing, and you don’t have to pre-define the content of the page as you do in Capacities, you can use any template you have created, at any time, in any page.

Conversely in Capacities each content type has its own set of templates. I’m not sure why you’d have multiple copies of the same template across different objects, but just because I’m not sure of the answer doesn’t mean the use case doesn’t exist (if anybody has one — please share it with me!). There would have to be a level of duplication here in order to get the templates everywhere.

I believe this is minor, but again, if someone uses Capacities differently to me, but loves templates, I can see this being a friction point.

Canvas

Obsidian has Canvas, which is an infinite space for visual note-taking. Capacities doesn’t have anything along these lines at this stage in development, but there has been active discussion on it in the Discord. If a Canvas equivalent is a key part of your workflow and you want it integrated in your notes app, Capacities won’t meet that need.

Next for some questions…

Questions from Twitter

Speed

Speed can be measured in lots of ways, but the two factors I’ll mention here are load times and navigation. I’m not the person to talk about anything more technical!

Load Times

Obsidian loads very quickly which is a great experience. Capacities is slower by comparison, but I don’t find it slow, if that makes sense. I have a crazy amount of content in there and it loads pretty quickly.

I find it to be faster than Notion and most definitely faster than Logseq. This was the case on both my 2020 MacBook Pro and the 2023 M2 MacBook Pro.

What I’ve noticed from my tests though is that navigating Obsidian seems to have a bit more friction because it hasn’t got the command bar/search combo that Capacities has. There’s a command bar accessible via Cmd+ P, but to search it’s Cmd+ Shift+ F (on Mac).

Conversely, I can hop around Capacities very quickly via search or commands because both functions are accessed via Cmd+P. However, it’s not surprising that I navigate the app I use faster than the one I no longer use.

Capture and Other Paid Offers

With Capacities being online there are a lot of cool integrations that allow you to send content to your spaces for free: Telegram, WhatsApp, Email.

You can also use the mobile app, but this comes at a cost (for both apps).

Obsidian sync is $8 a month. It gives you end-to-end encrypted files which will benefit many. I used this for a while but found the effort of opening new pages way too much for quick capture, so I just went to Apple notes and sorted from there. I really only used it to look at my notes whilst away from my laptop, but that is not worth $8 a month to me. Therefore, I am not the best voice to listen to hear about the pros and cons of the app but there are lots of youtube videos that could help here.

To access the Capacities mobile app, you need to sign up to the Believer plan with is $10 a month, though you can decide to contribute more. The Believer plan comes with more features than just the app (page layouts, more colours, icons, block references, beta access to more features). I find it very easy to add content to but don’t capture into Capacities as my Capture workflow pre-dates the app.

I really like the object menu.

Accessing notes once created

I can access my Capacities notes anywhere I have the internet and on any device, though it’s reported that the iPad experience isn’t great. Not a problem for me but might be for others.

Obsidian’s ease of access depends on a few factors. If your notes are on your local, un-backed up desktop, you can only access it on the device the files are stored on. If your notes are backed up with a cloud service (iCloud, Dropbox etc) you can access the md files as long as you have something to read them, whether that’s TextEdit or Obsidian itself. Or, if you pay for Sync, you can access your notes from many devices as long as you have set Sync up.

Your opinions on the pros and cons of the relative approaches here will likely depend on how you feel about privacy.

Outliner vs Long Form?

Neither Capacities nor Obsidian are outliners. There is a core outliner plug-in for Obsidian and Capacities has toggles which allows you to pretty quickly and easily get an Outliner experience, particularly if you are a fan of keyboard shortcuts (just use “>” to make one). Whilst they look slightly different, to me they functionally feel the same.

It’s not quite the same as Logseq though which is an outliner. The key difference I notice in my use case is you can’t zoom in on a bullet point/toggle which is possible in Logseq. That helps you “cut out the noise” of the writing around you which I think is useful for all kinds of writing, so it feels like something missing in Capacities and Obsidian.

The arguments for and against outliners are numerous and will always come down to personal preference. My only addition to this discourse is that perhaps it’s time to use apps that work with both because I believe the usage of of outliner (or outlining techniques) vs long form content could be considered context-dependent rather than person-dependent.

Up next: closing thoughts

Closing Thoughts

Obsidian and Capacities are both brilliant, innovative apps but they are entirely different. They both want to help you manage your knowledge, but they diverge at so many points that I think a clear winner for you will emerge based on your personal preferences.

Obsidian lets you decide on a structure you like, Capacities forces the object structure and note categorisation onto you. Obsidian cannot natively match the sorting/filtering/different view options Capacities natively does.

So, we come back to a discussion on needs, showing us the P in PKM is well placed.

Do you need offline notes? If yes, then you don’t want Capacities. If no, you’ll love how easy it is to access your notes in Capacities. Do you avoid plug-ins but like structured data? Capacities might be for you. Do you hate folders but want some organisation? Capacities might be for you. Do you want customisability? Obsidian.

It’s also about the efficiency savings you want to make. For me the fact I have to command+click on page to create it in Obsidian is enough to make me not want to use it, yet I have no problem going through the motions of setting up new objects and properties because then it’ll save me time forever. That will not be a relatable sentence for many, in which case I don’t think Capacities is for you.

I hope this series gives you a useful starting point for evaluation between these two apps. At the end of the day, we’re just looking for the apps that make our lives easier and us users happier. For a huge number of people, that’s Obsidian. For me and a growing community of others, it’s Capacities. The structured data approach tied with the key knowledge management functions of block and page linking brings order to my chaotic brain, and at this busy time of life, that’s almost priceless.

If you have any specific questions, please leave them below. thanks for reading if you’ve got this far!

If reading this has made you interested in Capacities, check out other content, there’s plenty!

Or, if you’d like to get up to speed on Capacities in just a couple of hours, you can buy my course here, or through the Capacities app if you’d like a discount 👀 

Join the conversation

or to participate.