Brief Review: Penzu (Electronic Journal)
There are a lot of benefits to keeping a journal: improving writing, allowing experimenting with writing, promoting self reflection, helping to think through difficult thoughts, surfacing worries that may have gone unnoticed, and so on. In a previous post, I went into detail about how keeping a journal can also increase productivity. But finding a good journal to use can be difficult. It's something private, something personal, and something that you want to enjoy using. For those like me who want to use an electronic journal, the options can seem fairly limited. After searching for some time, I came across penzu and have been using it for a while. In this post, I'll give my impressions of penzu as a service for keeping a journal.
Note: This is a review of a service that I actually use, and I was not asked to review this product by anyone, including penzu employees. If I ever review a product because of a request, I will disclose if that request came from someone associated with the product or not.
When it comes to a journal, there isn't much need for a lot of features. But the core features, like security and accessibility, are very important. Penzu does a good job of meeting these basic needs, even with a free account.
Beyond the password for your account, you're able to specify a password for each journal so it can be locked. Upgrading to pro (more on that below) also allows for additional encryption; I'm not sure how this makes things more secure than the free account as it all lives in the cloud and I'd hope they never store things as plain text, but encryption can't hurt when it comes to something as private as a journal.
For accessibility, penzu is available on web and through mobile apps, so it has you pretty well covered. Because everything is stored in the cloud, there's no way to access your journals while offline (at least on a desktop, haven't tried offline on mobile). That's likely fine for most people given the need for constant connectivity most of us have, but it's something to keep in mind.
There are some additional perks, such as custom reminders and searching, but I haven't used those features and can't really speak to how well they work. In my opinion, those are features that most people probably don't need for something like a journal (for searchable notes, I would think something like Evernote is preferable), but maybe you'll find them helpful.
This is an area where penzu shines. I do have to give them kudos for having an attractive minimalist interface by default. After experimenting with the different fonts and font sizes, I always ended up returning to the default settings. Even after unlocking the pro account (when given a discount via a promo), I found most of the additional appearance settings (paper color/texture and background) were best left untouched. Right now I have a different background from the default, but really the backgrounds are basic (in some ways disappointingly so) and they don't add much to the feel anyway, so you can be perfectly happy with the default.
The journals themselves could look a little nicer, but overall the interface is easy to use and looks good. Right now there is an awkward inconsistency with the backgrounds, where the background of the main view (where you see your journals) is always the default, but the background in the journal entry view is whatever you have chosen. To be fair, penzu had a little announcement on their site saying that they will be expanding the customization to include the background of the main journal view, but that hasn't been implemented yet.
When actually writing journal entries, the experience is pleasant. Because the interface looks nice, it's a joy to type in and it actually encourages you to keep writing more. Penzu saves your writing as you type, so you don't need to worry about saving or losing what you've written should you lose your connection. There are some basic formatting options (e.g., italics, bold), so you can use those as desired. Keyboard shortcuts work well, and overall the process of writing an entry is very efficient.
Many of penzu's greatest features are available in the free version of their service. To make money, they offer additional features for pro accounts, and even more features for those with pro+. Along with increasing the encryption strength, the upgrades offer some additional customizing, and a few tools to improve things like search. Penzu tends to give a lot of offers to free account users, so you can get a pro upgrade at a discounted rate pretty easily. That's how I ended up with a pro account, and while the extra encryption is nice I personally don't know that I would pay just for the customization piece. Maybe if I used more journals, but only at the discounted rate. That's just a matter of my opinion though, and I actually think using at least the pro version is a good way to support the developers if you like the service.
Altogether, I would rate penzu as a 4/5. The experience is solid, the interface is nice, and it's something I find myself returning to regularly. The only reason that I take a point off is that there are some small quirks with it, especially if you're using the free version. For example, a banner at the bottom of the screen prompts you to upgrade, and when you're typing the text will sometimes go behind that banner. Also, when starting a new entry it'd be nice if you could simply click "New Entry" and start typing, but you need to click the body of the entry for the cursor to show up. These are definitely minor things, and I hope penzu will improve them over time. They seem to be actively updating the service, so I do think that it will continue to be available and I feel comfortable recommending the service to others.
Hopefully this review has been helpful. Do you have any questions about penzu? Are there other things you would like to see me write a review for? Let me know in the comments!